(Podium Publishing is offering a TWI-embossed frying pan giveaway for people pre-ordering Book 3 on Audible! Sign up for the competition here!)
Among other things happening that week, Grand Magus Eldavin formally led the censure of the Revivalist party in Wistram, in the process co-opting the loyalties of nearly two-dozen powerful [Mages] in Wistram Academy with the lure of forgotten magical spells and theories.
Palt and Imani had sex, which was no one’s concern except all of the Gnolls who couldn’t avoid smelling it.
Kevin was nearly assassinated by an angry agent of one of his clients, saved only by Master Hedault.
Erin was still dead.
…And the King of Destruction laid waste to another Nerrhavian army with Takhatres, the Lord of the Skies’ forces providing the overwhelming edge in the engagement.
Of all these events, major and trivial, only the last of which was even ‘news’. A footnote at that; until something major happened, in the arbitrary and sometimes contradictory view of the ‘world’, or rather, the media organizations, none of this was news. A battle far bloodier than the war between Jecrass and Reim would not even get five seconds on Wistram News Network.
Indeed, Fetohep of Khelt’s far less bloody march into Medain, demanding the King of Duel’s freedom, garnered far more attention worldwide. The army of the undead was both fascinating and disturbing to many sensibilities, despite Fetohep taking Medain’s surrendering army prisoner, ensuring far fewer were slaughtered, and actually releasing said prisoners rather than ransoming them to a [Slaver] of Roshal.
News was not always a reflection of real life. Despite seeing her friend, the young man, lying sick, as Hedault stood watch with his wand raised over the smoking corpse of the [Assassin], calling for a [Healer], Drassi did not report that on the news because it was, in Sir Relz’s words, ‘not important or germane to worldly affairs’.
Of course, that just meant the Drake wrote about it in the Liscorian Gazette, reflecting that they really needed a local channel for the news.
If a single young man’s life or death was news that might spread around a city at best, what hope did someone have of being important enough to merit the attention of a nation?
For that matter, each nation had countless concerns at any moment that the news would never touch. Food shortages, crime, local monsters, rebellious individuals, treachery, discoveries…
In each nation, someone had to handle the crises and opportunities. For better or worse, in many nations, it was only a small body of people, or one person, albeit aided by advisors. They cared about their subjects, if they were good rulers.
Of course, ‘good rulers’ might only care because a murder was destabilizing, or indicated a monster or crime, not for the people themselves. Harsh, logical yet reasonable [Tyrants] sometimes made better rulers than [Good Kings].
…Or so people liked to argue. In truth, and in one ruler’s experience, the life of a single person still mattered. It was just that some lives had a larger effect. Some did not.
For instance, one lost life had had a great effect on her kingdom. Because the lost life was connected to a powerful individual highly placed within her kingdom.
Like pebbles adding up to deflect a river’s course. She reflected on this as she held court. Her advisors attended to her, in a regal antechamber, not the throne room. In fact, she seldom held court in the throne room. Right now, she lounged, relaxing, heedless of the dozen or so top officials of her realm.
“Is the Knight-Marshal of Rains still not willing to prevail upon our royal majesty in…here?”
She demanded of her people. One of her top [Generals] bowed.
“He has refused your summons, your Majesty.”
“Ah. Did he say that? What was his wording?”
“A polite refusal, Your Majesty. It may have come from the Knight-Marshal; the reply came from his estates through all official channels—”
The [Queen]’s eyes opened and she replied with a snap in her voice.
“Then Earl Altestiel did not make the reply. He is sulking. Someone tell him to present himself, here, now, within…three hours. Or I will strip him of his titles.”
The advisors looked at each other. That was not an idle threat. The Queen of Desonis had, in wrath, done just that. The [General] nodded and a [Messenger] ran to deliver the summons.
“Your Majesty, is it wise to make it an ultimatum? Depending on the Earl’s mood, he might…”
The [Court Mage] shut herself up as the [Queen] glowered her way. Geilouna of Desonis did not have the fiery red hair of many of Terandria’s monarchs. Rather, hers mimicked the common folk’s penchant; mud brown laced with green, much like the very marshes of Desonis in which the coastal kingdom had been founded.
Desonis by the sea. Desonis of Marshes. She had a few strands of glorious red mixed into the distinctive pattern, but one would hardly notice because of the messy hair. Bed hair was an apt term, but it did not even begin to describe the tangle. She rolled over from her lounging position, hardly the regal posture of many monarchs.
Then again, since she was the [Queen], it was regal by default. That was also her attitude towards many things.
“We are the Queen of Desonis. Desonis is me. Desonis are us.”
Geilouna rolled over again.
“If we summon the Earl, he must obey! For it is not I, but Desonis that summons him! When he offends us, he offends Desonis. I am Desonis’ wrath, its justice, its law.”
She lifted a hand and the advisors tensed. Queen Geilouna held the hand up…then let her head fall back onto a pillow.
“Observe. Desonis rests. How long have we been at the affairs of the day, my council?”
“…Twenty minutes, your Majesty.”
The [Queen] didn’t bestir her head. Nor had she actually bothered to dress herself as resplendently as other rulers might for her day.
“Too long! Bring me my gelato! Bring me more fluffy animals from the menagerie!”
She clapped her hands. It was done. Servants entered the room. Geilouna delicately tasted some of the ‘ice cream’, which Altestiel had brought back in recipe-form, thus saving her nation quite a bit of money.
In fairness, she hadn’t even eaten it regularly until it had become as cheap as the cost of creating it. As for the fluffy animals? A Slyphcat twined about her on the bed. The water-faring cat species nuzzled the [Queen], who affectionately pet it—then the cute little sheep, a miniature fluff ball purchased from a [Merchant] who sold such adorable animals.
Her advisors waited. Geilouna went on, waving a spoon.
“Altestiel is an emotional brat. We are responsible for the fates of thousands of lives. You desire his council on the Ailendamus conflict, do you not, General Irsh?”
The General nodded. Of course, he was one of Desonis’ best [Generals]…but Altestiel was the [Knight-Marshal of the Rains]. Essentially the best leader in times of war. Certainly the most high-level.
“Yes, your Majesty. Your war council has made preparations in the unlikely event Ailendamus attempts to draw us into the war, or the Dawn Concordat likewise. However, the Knight-Marshal’s extraordinary instincts would be…”
“Reassuring. Well, he will come and do just that. Poofball, do not eat that ice cream. This is for the [Queen], not you.”
The Sariant Lamb, renowned as one of the cutest animals in the world, baahed, and the [General] bowed as Queen Geilouna nodded. She paused, then spoke around the silver spoon in her mouth.
“…However, that is only if the situation changes. We have seen how the war progresses. Ailendamus continues its march into Kaliv. Now, it sends armies around the mountains, through other nations. None of which are Desonis, although some share borders.”
That was the situation. The Dawn Concordat was fighting fairly well, but Ailendamus was a war machine and it was beginning to roll. Her advisors were grateful Geilouna listened. In fact—she was nodding impatiently at them.
“Therefore, since we are not a fool, Desonis has made its decision!”
She lifted a hand and once again, their hearts palpitated. Geilouna waited—then shrugged.
“…Let’s just stay out of it. Crops are more important. Removing monsters from the marshes? More important. If we live to a hundred years and never fight another war, we will be remembered as a ‘good [Queen]’. Court dismissed. We will reconvene when Altestiel arrives.”
She rolled over again and pulled the sheets over both cat and sheep, who joined her. Geilouna lay as her advisors shuffled out of the room.
Of course, she knew Ailendamus’ designs on empire. She saw the danger—and she also saw how Desonis was not going to be the first nation to jump up and get hammered flat by Ailendamus. If she kept her kingdom safe, prosperous, and well for another forty years or something—and had proper heirs, not bad marriages and divorces—she would be known as a successful [Queen], by Terandrian reckonings. If not by her fellow rulers, certainly her people.
Her royal court left, and the Queen lay there. Incidentally, as she had given her grand pronouncements, her royal orders, she had not done so from couch, palanquin, or throne. Rather, she remained, as she had since they had woke her in her bed.
Her regal bed sheets moved as Poofball squirmed across them. Queen Geilouna was surrounded by pillows, blankets, and her bed was not King-sized, or Queen-sized, but about three times larger than any regular bed.
This, then, was Geilouna Desoyvel. Monarch of the moderately prosperous, marshy, coastal kingdom of Desonis, known for its unique landscape, most of which was watery. Known for the Earl of the Rains as much as its [Queen], its [Marsh Knights], known derisively as ‘Swamp Knights’ by those who liked to mock them.
…Which was anyone who had never been ambushed by the aquatic [Knights] and dragged into the swamp to be happily beaten to death while drowning. Another reason why Desonis was famously hard to invade.
Its [Queen] lay there, her fame not quite overshadowed by the [Knight Marshal of the Rains] as the old tale of King Redoris and Archmage Chandler—which she had watched, of course, with a bowl of the ‘popped corn’, a very apt name—yesterday. She too had a fame that was more than her crown.
Geilouna. The Queen of the Marshes, the Bearer of the Crown of Waters, and, a nickname for this individual rather than the position—
The Bedtime Queen.
If you knew nothing else of Desonis, you knew of the [Knight-Marshal of the Rains]…and the Bedtime Queen. Nothing about her personality, ruling abilities, or anything else. Just the name and the reputation of the sleepy ruler of the marsh kingdom.
The name had come to her unfairly as a child, because she’d contracted a disease that had made her sleep for days, weeks on end with only an hour or two of waking. For four years. She had gone from twelve to sixteen in this state of slumber, the [Healers] unable to help.
The Slumbering Princess. The Sleepy Queen. The Bedtime Queen. The Sovereign of Softness. The Ruler of Pillows and Sheets.
She rather liked the titles, incidentally. That was Geilouna. Was she a good [Queen], though? Well…
The Earl Altestiel was one of the most eligible bachelors in Desonis. A contrast to his [Queen], who had been divorced twice and was not one of the most eligible bachelorettes among Terandrian monarchs for a number of reasons.
He was in his early forties, but looked far younger, having light purple-and-silver hair, hawkish nose, piercing bright yellow eyes, and he dressed in magical cloth armor, such that his nature and charm meant he swept Desonis’ courts whenever he arrived.
…Usually. This time, Geilouna woke from her slumber to hear the patter of rain overhead. That was not unusual; Desonis had rain more than sun. However, it soon became a roar. And since her [Weather Mages] had not predicted this…
She sighed and went back to sleep until he stormed in. Incidentally, a fact few knew about Geilouna was that she had suffered from the sleeping sickness as a girl, but she did not still have it. She could drop off to sleep in two seconds whenever she wished, but that was a Skill.
[Sleep Storage] and [Quick Slumber] had evolved with her, such that in an hour of need…or weeks…Geilouna could tend to the affairs of her nation without need of sleep, for a month straight if need be. She had done that once.
In practice though, she was just lazy and liked lying in bed.
Anyways, here came the Earl. The court saw him drip into the royal palace, hair sopping wet, disheveled, a small raincloud still pouring over his head despite the best efforts of his [Strategist], Kiish, and the small retinue to stop it.
“What a child.”
Queen Geilouna remarked as the Earl was brought to her bedchambers and sometimes ruling seat of office. The Earl glared at her.
“Your Majesty wanted to see me? You’ve already helped kill the one woman I could have married. The greatest chess player in the world! You—you jealous hag! Won’t you leave me alone? Take out your bad marriages on someone else!”
The dozing [Queen], who had not deigned to sit up as the Earl was escorted in, opened one eye. Her cat and sheep clambered off the bed. The air was humid, thundery and rainy, filled with Altestiel’s powerful aura. Now? The advisors, who had returned, servants, and Altestiel’s retinue all flinched.
“You little brat. First you run off when Ailendamus is at war, you ignore our royal command for weeks, and now you have the gall to lecture us on love? So sayeth the boy who enjoys sulking about love lost more than cherishing it!”
A finger pointed. Nothing happened. Geilouna waved it—then reached for her crown, hung on a banister on the bed. She slapped it on her head; pointed.
A gout of water blasted at Altestiel. He didn’t even bother dodging; he let it lay him out. The soaked Earl glowered at his Queen as his people picked him up from the floor.
“Child? At least I can get out of bed in the morning! I don’t care about Ailendamus. You want to stay out of war? Fine. I’m going back to my estates.”
He turned to march out of the room. Geilouna sat up, propping pillows for a backrest.
“No, you will not. I have more need of you here, and you have sulked for over a month, now. My [Admiral] complained of storms the entire way back. You will stop mourning this [Innkeeper]. Her death was regrettable. But we do not allow you to return and starve yourself silly.”
Altestiel glared at her, and the court held their breaths. It was known that the two were, in fact, good friends and drinking buddies at times. However, their fights were also legendary.
“Go ahead and strip my lands. Exile me. I don’t care!”
The Earl dared the [Queen]. Every head flicked back to Geilouna as her eyes narrowed. Would she dare? Then the Bedtime Queen proved why she had managed to keep Altestiel’s loyalty and rule the famously temperamental Earl of Rains.
As the cloud of despondency over his head grew, soaking his retinue and the court, Geilouna pointed at him warningly.
“Altestiel. Stop sulking. If you rain on my sheets, I will marry you to Kiish and have done with it.”
The cloud stopped growing. Altestiel’s head rose, and his dripping hair was pushed back to fix his [Queen] with a scowl. But an uncertain one.
“By right of the Crown of Waters, as [Queen] of this land, I now pronounce Earl Altestiel and Miss Kiish of Desonis as husband and…”
Geilouna uttered the phrase so fast that Altestiel was halfway across the room before he stopped, quivering. Kiish looked ready to faint—or cheer. The longtime aide and deep admirer of the Earl of Rains saw him slowly, slowly, bow, a huge glare on his face.
“By your gracious Slumbering Majesty’s will, I will stop sulking.”
However, the rain had stopped. Geilouna waved an indulgent hand.
“This pleases us, Altestiel. You are hereby granted clemency and poor Kiish the solitude of…not-marriage unless you sulk. In which case I will marry you two. Now, consult my [Generals]. Court, I have made many great strides in Desonis’ welfare today. I shall watch television and have brunch now. Dismissed!”
The court stirred. Altestiel glared at Geilouna.
“Am I to make myself helpful, then?”
Geilouna poked her head out from under the pillow fort she was making for herself and her animals.
“What? No. Go, do strategic things, Altestiel. I did not make you stop sulking for that. Rather, you have a guest. A quite charming one, which I would not see wait about fruitlessly. Go unto him. And…put in a good word for me.”
She gave Altestiel a meaningful stare as the Earl of Rains blinked in surprise.
“I would grant you an estate if you managed a date. Hint, hint.”
The reason Desonis’ court—which was, actually, one of the eighteen most populous, if not the most impressive due to the marshy and often rainy weather and climate leading to a very strong desire for indoor socialization by the nobility who often attended the capital—had not descended on Altestiel, rain or not, was because someone else had eclipsed even the fame of the Earl of Rains.
Which was hard to do! However, the amazing, the unparalleled, the extraordinary [Lord] who stood at a center of attention had no equals.
Not in war. Not in fashion sense. Certainly not on the dance floor.
Lord Belchaus Meron, named the #1 currently-living [Lord] in the world, was no stranger to Desonis. Nadel to the east was his Kingdom, even smaller, but made famous because of his famous presence, which kept the entire region free of piracy. Another example of where subject eclipsed ruler.
Then again, it wasn’t the same as the story of Az’kerash either because the ruling family were huge fans of Lord Belchaus, or ‘Bel’ to his friends.
The Lord of the Dance was not dancing right now as his reputation might indicate. However, he was certainly conversing, flirting, talking animatedly with the huge crowd around him. He never seemed to stop moving, having that restless energy of some people. Indeed, he was so graceful that he seemed to flow from gesture to step.
To look at Lord Bel was to see different things. For some, it was to see an object of desire, in many different forms. For others, he was a target of envy or jealousy, although he was charming.
Some, however, saw other aspects the casual observer took for granted. Such as how Lord Belchaus had no wasted movements, like a [Duelist] or [Fencer]. Footwork on the dance floor equated to skill in battle, and Lord Belchaus was also famous for his strategic genius.
In short, perfect at everything. Which was what reputation did for you. Belchaus had his flaws.
Lots of flaws. Like showing up on ‘friends’ unannounced! The Earl made his way to the gathering, and Lord Bel spotted him.
“Altestiel! My friend!”
He spread his arms and clapped the Earl on the back after giving him a gentle hug, conscious of the wet clothing. His escort was, like Altestiel’s, small, having travelled here for the visit.
Unlike Altestiel’s mix of [Strategists] and [Marsh Knights] however, Lord Bel’s group were all [Dancers] or [Warriors]…or both. Lightly armored, if at all, as graceful as him.
“Bel. Why are you here?”
Lord Bel’s sparkling smile faded a bit. He glanced at Altestiel, then, conscious of the listeners, smiled.
“Can two friends not prevail on one another? I heard you were in a gloom and came to visit; although her Majesty seems to have snapped you out of it.”
“She managed to make enough petty threats to ‘snap me out of it’. Petty is what she’s good at, though. Come on, then. Unless she’s offered you a banquet, let’s go to my estates. Kiish.”
The gloomy [Earl] nodded to his [Strategist], who bowed, blushing slightly as Lord Bel kissed her hand. He turned to the disappointed crowd.
“I’m afraid that’s my cue. Where are my people? No, don’t object, please. I will of course return…”
For the disappointed court had begun protesting Altestiel, or perhaps his remarks, which caused Geilouna to throw a fit of pique when she heard them for about fifteen seconds. Earl Altestiel didn’t wait up for Lord Bel; the man had to catch up as the Earl stomped out of the court, into the rain, and the waiting carriage—wheels enchanted to run on mud or even shallow water.
They headed to his estates, and the rather fine mansion. It was built like much of Desonis architecture; raised buildings, sometimes on ‘stilts’, which let floods pass comfortably underneath. No one had root cellars in Desonis.
It took Altestiel a moment to remember why Lord Bel had really come. Then, of course, he just got more despondent still.
It was easier to be told Lord Bel’s flaws than to see them at first glance. One of them was this: the Lord of the Dance took nearly thirty minutes to join Altestiel in the carriage. He had to say goodbye to everyone he knew by name, gently flirt with two [Ladies], accept a [Lord]’s invitation, share two jests…
When he reached the carriage and entered, he seemed…tired. Altestiel had rudely departed Desonis’ palace, but it had not all been pique. Mostly, but he knew Lord Bel.
The Lord of the Dance looked tired, as he sometimes did if he was at a court too long. His energetic personality, his social mingling was not an act. However, one of his faults was that he could not turn it off.
It was entirely possible to lay the Lord of the Dance low by making him stay for eight hours in a court setting, where he could dance for eight hours straight on the battlefield or on the ballroom floor with no problem. He nodded to his friend in appreciation of this fact.
“I confess, I might have stayed the entire day at court if you hadn’t shown up. Your [Queen] is rather gracious, Altestiel. I forgot how they mob me. Oh, thank you, Kiish.”
She offered him a restorative draught mixed with a savory drink, a specialty of Desonis. Bel took a gulp and brightened.
“Desonis’ court is just bored. So, how can I help you?”
“You surely know. However, let’s keep that for your estates. Some things should be done over dinner, Altestiel! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten all your graces in Izril. I admit, Drakes are sometimes that rude, but the Flowers of the North were just as hospitable as any Terandrian nobility when I visited.”
Lord Bel tapped an ear and Altestiel stirred. He gave the other [Lord] a frown; Bel just smiled politely.
“And Kiish, you are as lovely as ever. I heard—and rumor does swim in Desonis—that Her Majesty of Desonis nearly married you off. Would that be so terrible? And would you consider anyone else other than Altestiel, because I know several of Nadel’s young men would court you if they had a chance…”
Gratified and flattered, Kiish tried to keep up with Bel’s light teasing. More interested now, Altestiel sat up, breaking out of his funk a second time.
Just what did Bel think they needed that much privacy for? Perhaps…but he didn’t know what Altestiel had found. So he had something of his own.
Altestiel’s estates were, of course, warded, staffed well, and he had the right to house and train his own [Marsh Knights], the Knights of Desonis, by right of the crown. In fact, his vigilant bodyguards who had fought in Invrisil against the [Assassins] only now fully removed their armor, or walked about…uncovered…as it were.
Indeed, Altestiel had a larger population of Drowned Folk than most. Desonis, of course, had a population of Humans, Drowned Folk, Lizardfolk, and half-Elves in that order, Drowned Folk being in remarkable number for a minority, much less on land.
“Earl Altestiel! You’re back! Have you lost all your estates? Is that the Lord of the Dance?”
Some chattering children raced up, ignoring the rain, seeing his carriage return. Lizardfolk mingled with an amused [Marsh Knight], whose half-Shrimp body wore custom-adjusted armor. Lord Bel signed the waved autographs, although rain smudged them, and one of his people did a little jig of fancy footwork for the delighted children and people.
“Lord Altestiel, will you stop this rain?”
The aggrieved voice came from a Naga, who had come out of her hut. Altestiel sighed, but the rain began to disperse.
“Hello, everyone. Lord Bel is prevailing upon me, so he cannot stay—”
The chorus of sadness made The Lord of the Dance, predictably, turn.
“However, my people will show you the latest dances from Nadel! And I will try to make an appearance t—”
Altestiel dragged him off before he could promise anything.
“Lord Altestiel, is that really the Lord of the Dance?”
Some wide-eyed servants, [Squires], and more of his people greeted Altestiel at his mansion. He nodded.
“Make his people welcome. I counted sixteen with Lord Belchaus. They’re staying here.”
“Not at the palace, Earl? I’d have thought…Lord Belchaus being of Nadel and a welcome guest…”
That came from a young [Lordling], barely fifteen, who was being trained and tutored in Altestiel’s care. He’d been too young to go to Izril, but Altestiel, who wanted nothing more than to sit and talk in private, grudgingly turned.
“It would tire him too much. Her Majesty will understand. Probably. And if she doesn’t, she can take away my estates. You may speak to Lord Bel if he meets you, but none of you are to take up his time! He won’t mind, but you should.”
The assembled group nodded, catching Altestiel’s will. One Lizardfolk [Maid] couldn’t help but wave a claw.
“I—I have to know! Is it true though that Lord Belchaus is the best [Dancer] in the world? Someone said he was, not just the best dancing [Lord]! Did he once participate in a dance competition so exciting and difficult that he exploded his opponent’s legs?”
The others looked skeptical. Altestiel sighed.
“That’s myths for you. He didn’t explode his opponent’s legs. That’s silly.”
“Oh, of c—”
“They just fell off. That’s all.”
Stitchfolk. However, Altestiel was amused enough by the furor until he and Lord Bel retreated to his study.
Unlike a certain dead [Innkeeper]’s fantasies, Lord Altestiel’s private rooms were not some huge, carpeted vista with a roaring fire and couches and such with huge glass windows overlooking Desonis.
It was close. There were big glass windows since nothing beat watching the rain pour down over the landscape. However, Altestiel followed Desonis styles. Which was to say, a style of peoples used to the pervasive humidity, and two species who outright welcomed it.
“Come on in, Lord Bel.”
“Ah, how I forget the luxuries of Desonis.”
Lord Bel paused, his towel fluttering about him—then he tossed it aside and joined Altestiel in the pool of water. Heated wonderfully by magic.
Perhaps only Desonis’ people considered that you should have an indoor hot tub inside your homes instead of a couch for socialization. Also, that clothing was an outdoors conceit.
Thus, Earl Altestiel offered Lord Belchaus a drink and snacks, both of which were on cork, floating trays, bobbing in the steaming hot tub as they sat, comfortably naked in the scented waters with expensive perfumes and alchemical oils, watching the rain stop falling from the windows.
If they got bored of this, they could retreat to drier settings, including the heated floor upon which one relaxed with nary more than a cushion or blanket; a favorite among Lizardfolk, hated by Drowned People.
However, they were unlikely to. Lord Belchaus’ eyes closed as he relaxed in the enchanted waters, which one could sit in for six hours without developing a single wrinkle, and Altestiel leaned back, luxuriating in the heat.
The two traded glance with each other. Altestiel sipped from a strong drink; Lord Bel had something far less stiff. The Lord of the Dance eyed the Earl of Rains.
They were friends. Not the closest, but certainly they respected each other as daring strategists and [Lords] of nearby nations might. Also, because both played chess.
At times though, they might be enemies. Nadel fought with Desonis, so their relationship was based upon such facts.
However, chess had made a distant respect closer to actual friendship. Altestiel knew why Bel had come.
“I found them.”
“I was going to ask! But when you returned and I heard you were shut up with rain falling, I assumed—well, I assumed it was a ‘she’, and she dumped you.”
Altestiel scowled, and a miniature thundercloud threatened to strike Lord Bel, who held up hands and a ready smile. Almost nervous, actually. Lord Bel’s friends understood that he did not like letting his friends down, or upsetting them.
“You’re almost right. It was a she. And she was as good as we thought. Better. I even proposed—”
Bel lifted a pleading hand. He reached out, snagging one of the breaded shrimp—no relation to the Drowned Knight, who positively enjoyed the things herself—and took a bite along with some dip.
“You must tell me from the beginning, Altestiel. It’s old news to you, however it ended, but I am agog to hear about it. Do me the favor? Please?”
His look was so pleading, like a puppy paddling around the hot tub, that Altestiel hadn’t the heart to refuse. Bad-naturedly, he took a handful of the shrimp and ate as he talked.
“Oh—very well. Our guess was right on. The player that this ‘Tactician Olesm’ was writing in his chess magazines about, was in Liscor. I met him too, by the way. A talented young Drake. It took me a long time to get all the way there, but there’s a magic door in Invrisil…”
Lord Bel leaned in, excitedly listening as the two men talked. Occasionally a servant would enter to see if they wanted anything, but aside from that, they were confidential, warded by the best spells Altestiel could acquire.
The two chess partners were among the best in the region, Lord Bel having won their unofficial tournament. Of course, they had learned the game from the Titan and avidly searched for new strategies.
So naturally they’d read Chess Weekly, back when it was ‘Chess Monthly’, and before even that, when copies of an amazing game had begun spreading about. Along with the theories of chess notation, elegant openings…
To the two gifted chess players, it had been the realization that they were talented amateurs, nothing more. It had been like the first Humans to discover fire, glancing over and seeing a lighthouse in the distance. The sharpness of the chess, the change in style!
They’d looked into it, and concluded that the ‘mysterious chess player’, who might be the same as the Titan’s mysterious opponent, could be the same person and in Liscor! After all, it wasn’t Lord Bel, who was the guess most people made.
To cut a long story short, after many back-and-forths, delightful evenings and time spent at this guessing game, the hunt turned into an obsession. They had to know if they were right! So Altestiel had gone, as Lord Belchaus could not leave his post so easily with war afoot.
“And she was there? The chess player? Wait—wait. Let me guess. It was the Watch Captain, wasn’t it?”
Altestiel smirked behind his drink. Lord Bel’s clear, light blue eyes, almost like glass, were shining with excitement. He had postulated that it was the Watch Captain of Liscor; how else would the city have survived so many monster attacks?
“Wrong. It was an [Innkeeper], in an inn just outside the city. She owns the magical door. She’s also only…twenty years old. However, everything we thought was correct. She showed Strategist Olesm all those games. And she’s the Titan’s chess partner. I’ll bet every gold piece I have.”
Bel’s eyes widened. He sat back, whistling.
“Twenty—? Is she a [Strategist] or something? No, it’s just talent, isn’t it?”
Altestiel swirled his glass.
“…Talent? Hard work, she said. Practice. She lived and breathed the game. For years.”
Years, she had said. Implying that she had spent longer than…but Bel was watching him, knowingly.
“I see. Two questions. First? How good is she?”
“I lost. I never even made it to her. ‘Someone’ was playing via a magical chessboard. Sound familiar? And—”
As Lord Bel nearly choked on his shrimp, Altestiel went on, savoring the bitter pain of watching the other [Lord]’s reactions.
“And Chaldion of Pallass decided to show up, just to play in a little tournament. Antinium too.”
“You’re telling me the Cyclops, the Titan, Antinium, and the Earl of Rains all played in the same tourney?”
“Yep. She and the Titan were the final players. I only got to play in other settings. Bel. Even with Skills, she beat me. I used all my Skills one game and she beat me with ability alone.”
The Lord of the Dance sat there, quivering with excitement.
“Well, I have to play her now. Are you in contact? If you have a magical chessboard and you’ve been hiding it—”
He couldn’t hide it any longer. Altestiel tossed his empty glass to one side, sank up to his chin in the water.
“She’s dead, Bel. I left her for a day and she died. If I’d stayed…”
The Lord of the Dance looked at Altestiel. He did not exclaim, or doubt. After a moment, he sank into the waters too.
The enchanted tub had many functions. No wrinkling, no need to clean it; it was an enchanted tub. If you were going to have a magic hot tub, it had better be worth everything.
Another function was cycling liquid. The steaming waters turned to a viscous mud. Not muck, but hot, thick sludge that was actually quite pure and clean. Another thing Lizardfolk loved. It fit Altestiel’s mood.
“I left her.”
He told Bel the story simply. The Lord of the Dance sat, his head back, resting on a towel. Kiish had joined them, albeit with a towel, to recollect since Altestiel hadn’t the will to tell it all.
The frozen bier. The grieving city. Six worthless crossbow bolts, shot by petty Drakes. An accident…
“The world’s greatest chess player. Dead. All because of an inter-city feud. The Titan’s opponent, an [Innkeeper] who led the Black Tide to war…do you think his absence ties into this?”
The Earl half-shook his head. It was possible. Even likely. However—he would not find what he was hoping for. He thought of Erin.
“She could beat him in chess. I think she did, before my very eyes. She was smiling. Keep talking. You still can’t imagine her. Erin Solstice.”
Altestiel whispered. He was drinking more, and Kiish was giving him a look of concern. Yet no rain poured from over his head. He was past the grieving—at least, directly. Now…
“I’m surprised you didn’t raze Hectval.”
“I would have. But her Majesty threatened to imprison me if I didn’t return. That Drake, Olesm, swore to do so. I’m…”
Altestiel dabbed at his face with a towel. More than perspiration had glimmered there. Lord Bel didn’t even hide his tears.
“What a waste. You actually tried to marry her?”
“I should have pressed my suit. I should have stayed. One day. I could have married her and…”
Visions of Erin Solstice meeting Geilouna, of finding a way to take her inn here filled Altestiel’s mind. The Queen was right in that it was a childish fantasy, of course. A romance with no bones of reality to it.
Now though, he regretted it. The two [Lords] sank in the deep mud-bath, until the waters cleared. They rose, neither mud nor oil sticking to them, and sat, Bel reclining with a towel for modesty, Altestiel, similar, but cross-legged in the heated room.
“So. Erin Solstice.”
Lord Bel raised a cup and Altestiel echoed it.
“To this sodding world and worthless people who make it worse!”
They drank. Altestiel gasped as the liquid burned.
“They’re trying to save her, you know. There’s some—some assertion that freezing her didn’t kill her.”
“I don’t understand that. Everyone would know about it, if so. You said they were a strange lot of young men and women?”
“The one who made ‘bicycles’ was one of her people. All extraordinary.”
Altestiel recalled. Lord Belchaus glanced at him, and then shifted his position. Careful as any [Dancer], he relented from the subject that had wounded Altestiel so.
“Speaking of what everyone knows…I came for a second reason, Altestiel. I admit, curiosity and concern for you was the greater, but I thought you should know that Nadel received some interesting messages of late. [Messages] from Wistram.”
Altestiel opened one eye.
“What about? Desonis has had none.”
Geilouna would mention it if so. Lord Bel nodded.
“I don’t doubt it. This comes to me by way of His Majesty…I am sharing it because it is a concern as much as it is helpful. Between us.”
His serious tone made Altestiel sit straighter and nod. Kiish, who had left to clothe herself, rose.
“I will see myself out, my lords.”
“Thank you, Kiish.”
Bel smiled gratefully, and then turned to the Earl. He did not beat about the bush.
“In the last two weeks—two weeks for the first, yesterday for the second, his Majesty of Nadel received two [Messages]. First, from Archmage Viltach, second, from a Grand Magus Eldavin, of whom I think you know.”
Altestiel nodded slowly.
“What did they want?”
“Nothing. Rather, Archmage Viltach first hinted and then the Grand Magus that there was…something…Nadel should know. Or perhaps, ‘certain Kingdoms of auspicious influence’. It was suggested, rather strongly, that it was my presence that allowed Nadel to fit on this list. An insult to his Majesty, of course.”
Bel waved a hand away, as if not aware of how his presence alone had changed shipping routes, made Nadel a major sea-faring power.
“So, what was the thing Nadel should know?”
The fact that Desonis was not on this list did not surprise Altestiel. He was the Earl of Rains, but the Lord of the Dance was a greater presence, he had to admit. He did not like that, but there it was. An Archmage of Wistram would court the [Lord] who could stop trade or secure safe passage far more than the ‘Bedtime Queen’.
“That’s just it. We weren’t told what it was we should know. Both [Mages] only said that there was something. In fact, they intimated that just us knowing that there was something to know was a favor in itself.”
“[Mages]. They wonder why people hate them.”
Altestiel sighed. However, his mind was racing. Belchaus leaned on his elbows.
“…You know something, Altestiel.”
“I don’t know anything, Bel.”
“You suspect something, then. Out with it. Fair is fair.”
The [Earl] nodded slowly.
“Erin Solstice. She told me, when I asked, that she wasn’t talented. I believed her; she was probably as talented as you are, but she said she’d been ‘playing since she was a girl’.”
Bel’s eyes rose.
“Is she the Titan’s protégé, when he was developing the game, then?”
“No. I don’t think so, or else why would he…I think he didn’t know who she was either. Bel, her friends were interesting too. Those plays you’ve heard of in Invrisil?”
Bel slapped the floor.
“I was going to ask you for a copy of their scripts, or whatever they use! Autographs too! Ah, but—”
“They came from her. She taught the Players of Celum. And she knew the recipe for ice cream. Also, mayonnaise, and a dozen other foods I’d never heard of before. The bicycle came from a young man staying in her inn. Oh—and you know the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? A friend of Erin Solstice. Whatever contraption she used? Erin Solstice knew about it.”
Bel’s eyes narrowed slightly. He did not speak for a good two minutes, then, in a contemplative voice, murmured.
“You don’t need to be a dancer to see a pattern in that. Strategist either. What does it mean?”
Altestiel didn’t know. A secret nation? A pocket dimension? …Time travel? He and Bel speculated with wild theories into the night, but they were too far from their mark.
That night, at least. Altestiel talked with his friend, Bel. He drank until he wept. He wept until he slept.
The last tears for Erin Solstice, the last of grieving.
He woke, and found he was not alone. Altestiel was clinging tightly to someone. Not Bel, but Kiish. She was watching him, and had been stroking his hair.
Of course, she didn’t talk about it, practically vaulting out of bed. Altestiel reflected that Geilouna was too intelligent sometimes. Or too lucky.
If Lord Bel had spent the night in company, he did not show it. He and Altestiel played a game of chess with breakfast, the first Altestiel had played since leaving Izril.
Tactful as always, he said nothing, but his other nature made him murmur as the two men rose to walk Altestiel’s estates and talk further.
“You might consider marrying her, you know. It would be unfair to let it go on like this.”
The Earl of the Rains kept a vigilant watch over his lands, because Desonis demanded it. Marshes and swamps abounded with life, even compared to forests, and the predators here were varied and nasty.
Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that when trouble called, both [Lords] were able to respond at once. The Earl of Rains and Lord Belchaus were walking with their people, talking candidly about the Ailendamus war.
“Nadel and Desonis might be next, but if we involve ourselves, Ailendamus will go after us. So, I don’t see us making the first step, which of course means an empty dance floor and a shy audience, waiting for—”
Belchaus’ head rose, and Altestiel held up a hand as he heard the same thing. A distant scream.
“Pinpointing, Lord Altestiel…five friendlies, zero attack value! One hostile—large, high attack value! Hydra, most-likely, full-grown.”
“Is someone in the marshes? Idiots—Knights of Desonis, to arms! Kiish, summon reinforcements from the mansion. Bel—”
Of course, the Lord of the Dance was already gone. Earl Altestiel charged after him. Where Lord Bel ran across the water, his feet barely casting ripples as his troupe of escorts surged after him, a touch less gracefully, Altestiel just raced upwards on a [Water Bridge], for height and vantage.
He saw the five terrified children and the two corpses a moment later. It was a Hydra, large as a house! They had walked right into its lair. A Hydra this close to his lands would have already necessitated a hunting party, yet this one was fierce.
“Poison type. Not as magical as some variants.”
“Take aim! Bel! Distract it!”
Altestiel saw the Lord of the Dance swing up his sword as he shouted. Altestiel looked down at the five children. Humans. Young, wearing bright clothing—paralyzed in fear. Grouped up so the multi-headed Hydra, this one with nine heads, could tear them apart in seconds.
“Hydra, to me!”
Bel shouted, and the Hydra turned. A targeting Skill on himself, of course. Altestiel seized that moment. He leapt off the water-bridge, fifty feet in the air. The young people gawked upwards and pointed in astonishment as a second bridge appeared under Altestiel.
He shot down a slide of water, balancing, used to the dramatic entry to a battlefield and the unparalleled speed it offered. His [Marsh Knights] and Kiish were a second behind.
“Follow me! Keep them covered!”
The group landed, and the [Marsh Knights] grabbed the stunned group. They began ushering them to safety, on the lookout for Hydra young or more threats.
Altestiel’s sword was drawn. He looked at the young people, watching as the Hydra surged after Lord Bel. He heard a strangled voice, a sob, screams—
“Oh my god, what is—”
Altestiel’s head turned slightly. However, then the Hydra leapt at the Lord of the Dance.
The Hydra was as fast as a striking snake—as large as a house. Some could get larger, with heads that could swallow an armored man in a single gulp. This one was bad enough.
Nine heads, all with venom dripping from their fangs. A scaly body like armor, which regenerated with unnatural speed.
Altestiel had heard comparisons between Terandrian Griffins, Wyverns of Izril, Manticores of Chandrar…Hydras were worse. This one was focused on Lord Bel as the man stopped in the muddy, wet ground. All he had was a sword and his dress clothing, both enchanted, but the [Marsh Knights] surging at him, his own people—both were too far away as the Hydra struck.
A head shot forwards and struck the mud. The [Lord] side-stepped before it struck him, so close the wind rippled his clothing. A second head shot forwards like a lance and Lord Bel leaned under the biting serpent’s head.
Altestiel slowly lowered his sword. He saw Lord Bel’s eyes flick up. The Lord of the Dance grinned. Then—spun.
Three more of the Hydra’s heads struck the water, missing the Lord of the Dance by inches. The Hydra recoiled, confused, then seemed to think the man had only gotten lucky. It struck, all nine heads twining to form a wall of scaled flesh that wouldn’t miss—
Lord Bel stepped on an open mouth, between the teeth, leapt up, landed on a crest, swung himself up—and landed behind the Hydra.
Altestiel shook his head. The charging [Marsh Knights] halted. They looked at Altestiel, and even the young people stopped screaming.
“Hold. Let him handle it. Get me bows.”
The Hydra turned, searching for the man. Again, it struck, this time with its tail before spitting venom, striking, biting—
It never touched him, Lord Bel swayed under striking mouths, walking around the Hydra’s increasingly-frenzied blows. The Hydra never had a chance.
Altestiel did not know all of Bel’s Skills, but he knew these two. The Lord of the Dance had actually closed his eyes, and was stepping before the Hydra moved.
[Feel the Rhythm]. The animal’s instinctual attacks were like any song or beat to him. As Altestiel saw Kiish appear with [Longbow Archers], he raised a hand.
“Take aim! Ignore the Lord of the Dance! Volley!”
The [Marsh Knights] hesitated. But they too had bows and dozens of shafts clouded the air, flickering towards the [Lord] and the Hydra.
Lord Bel pivoted, side-stepping the arrows. They struck the Hydra full-on. It screamed, and Altestiel counted.
What was the rhythm? One, two, three, four—
This time, somehow, the angry Hydra charged into the second flight of arrows so it turned itself into a pincushion. The young people, the [Marsh Knights], all stared.
[Change the Flow]. The Lord of the Dance walked back, having manipulated the dance he’d started. Altestiel called for five more volleys, then an enchanted arrow to finish the job.
When it was done, the Hydra lay dead, and the two [Lords] could attend to the frightened people. And the two unlucky casualties.
Later that day, the court of Desonis was graced by some surprising visitors. Firstly, Earl Altestiel and the Lord of the Dance.
Also, her Majesty, Geilouna and the recently-rescued group who had been spared from death via Hydra, and were now given the opportunity to visit the court.
Of course, the nobles and such considered it an act of kindness. It was not. As Earl Altestiel bowed to the bemused Bedtime Queen, who had roused herself for Lord Bel—and his urgent [Message]—he couldn’t help but think of Erin Solstice.
Ah. It all made sense now. He kept glancing at the terrified group of five, who were alternating between wonder, grief, and sheer shock.
The Lord of the Dance could not keep his eyes off them either. He kept staring at them.
Sometimes, the great confluence of events was discernible by the greatest minds in this world, if they were given the right hints and followed logical conclusions to their inevitable center—even if they got a bit off-track with theories about time travel.
However, sometimes you asked a group of young people who’d been wandering in the marshes for two days, ‘where are you from?’
And they told you.
“Altestiel. What is this about? It’s not like you to show off.”
For once, Altestiel didn’t spar with Geilouna as she blinked at him, sleepily irritated at being woken up before midday. He simply bowed.
“I have something rather interesting to show you, your Majesty. Privately, I hope? I should hate to make a fuss about it.”
Her eyes flickered once, then she yawned.
“In my chambers, then, if one must.”
They left as quickly and unobtrusively as they could. Naturally, ‘not make a fuss’ was their code phrase. If one of them said that, the other reached for the Crown of Waters—or a sword.
This was the mark of the Queen of Desonis’ value. When Altestiel spoke, having invoked the code phrase, she listened. She sat on her bed, pets and fluffy blankets forgotten, head propped on her hands, but attentive. The inner council, the advisors beyond reproach or question, listened too, mouths agape. Twice someone said something like ‘that’s impossible’, or ‘are you sure?’
The second time, Geilouna ordered the person removed and tossed out into the hallway. Altestiel concluded his brief summary.
“Another world. You’re sure?”
“It fits the puzzle, your Majesty. I do not think they are lying. That is what they are. I would stake my aura on it.”
Queen Geilouna sat back, on her pillows. It would be later she processed it, with Altestiel and as much alcohol as she could consume, in her bedroom, with the private thoughts she did not ever utter aloud. Over the next week and months too, which would define her reign, she now knew. It was her story, and not the world’s story, so only she would know it and it did not need to be the center of other tales.
For now, the Bedtime Queen simply nodded. Then she began shouting invectives at the top of her lungs. When Kiish, Altestiel, and the council had uncovered their ears, Geilouna was calm.
“So much for my peaceful rule and death! What do we do, Altestiel?”
The Earl didn’t blink.
“Some of them may go with Lord Bel.”
“Do we allow that? Or kill him? At least, refuse, imprison?”
The advisors stirred as Geilouna gave Altestiel a flat-lidded look. Reassuring, despite the cold remark.
“We allow that, your Majesty. Nadel is an ally. Lord Bel would be one beyond reproach.”
“Good. What else?”
Altestiel had many thoughts, including going back and placing everyone in The Wandering Inn under Desonis’ protection. And screaming at Erin Solstice’s grave. For now?
“Your Majesty. The young people say they are from…Den’s Mark.”
Kiish whispered. Altestiel nodded.
“Denmark. They were far from alone. If whatever teleportation effect missed them—I suggest we comb the swamps. All of Desonis!”
“All of it?”
The Bedtime Queen raised a hand. She looked at Altestiel. She nodded.
“It will be done.”
That day, the normally sleepy-but-sociable court and government of Desonis turned upside down. Every [Mayor], ruling body, or [Headman] of every village, town, and city, got a summons to report certain criteria to the palace.
[Scriveners], [Record-Keepers], and so on were mobilized to find unusual immigrants. [Harbormasters] were called to give an accounting of strange young people bound to Wistram, with dates and places.
Anyone—no, any Human—had to be reported. Especially with certain clothing, phrases. Devices?
Normally, that kind of thing would be something slowly put into motion by bureaucracy, with a local official carrying it out to the levels of diligence they possessed.
Not this time. The Knights of Desonis marched into the swamp, with [Hunters], and the bewildered lower-ranking leadership realized they couldn’t answer the [Message] spell after tea. They answered it now or they lost their jobs.
The [Chamberlain] was breathing down the necks of the royal [Knights], as well as the Minister of the Treasury, the Diplomat of Desonis, Earl Altestiel—
The Bedtime Queen marched about, inspiring people to action by her presence, as much as anything else. She would not rest until she was sure no other child of Earth was in her kingdom, and if she wasn’t resting, no one else damn well would!
Results appeared, if only because the authority present demanded results and competence—or heads.
They found one more, bound for Wistram. Altestiel and Kiish were preparing to head for that harbor, to intercept the young woman waiting there, who apparently didn’t even speak the common tongue; the [Harbormaster] reported her as being ‘Drathian’, but not seeming at all like a native of Drath.
Geilouna flopped back in her bed when she decided they’d found all they could, dead from the unaccustomed exertion. However, she accompanied Altestiel to court. He was going with Kiish and a squad of Knights of Desonis; no overconfidence here.
If the Wistram [Mage] who’d found this young woman wanted to play games, she’d find out whether a tidal wave beat a [Fireball]. In Altestiel’s experience? It did.
Before they left, though, a crying voice interrupted them. The five Earthers, safely in the court, were nonetheless in tears—at least, two of the five.
One of the courtiers or nobles had, with goodwill and all the subtlety of a knife to the gut, inquired after the dead, or made some insensitive-but-well-meaning comment. Someone was in hysterics.
“Go. I’ll deal with this.”
Geilouna whispered to Altestiel. He nodded—and then heard a familiar whine of sound.
One of Nadel’s [Dancers] struck out on a fiddle, or a stringed instrument. No—a Chandrarian one, so, a wailing sound. Another pulled out a drum. The rest were clapping.
There he was. The Lord of the Dance stepped back, looking around. The screaming weeping halted—Lord Bel glanced at the young man he’d been talking to.
Another Earther. Far darker skin than one got in Desonis, where sun was rarer than rain. Lord Bel smiled at the crying Earther gently—then turned back to the young man.
He stepped back, and his escort raised their hands as they began to stomp their feet, setting up a beat. Some of the court joined them, enthusiastically. Lord Bel gestured.
Altestiel hesitated. It was…so like Belchaus Meron. Faced with the knowledge that would shake this world, revelations and the knowledge they were behind Wistram and other organizations, the first thing he asked was this.
The [Lord] was gesturing. The young man was lifting his hands, but you could tell what he was saying. The young man was demurring, but Lord Bel was gently insistent.
The music took on an insistent tone. Faced with the clapping court, the music, and the Lord of the Dance, the young man threw caution to the wind. Embarrassed, he did a quick-step of some kind.
Altestiel knew court dances, but he’d never seen the complex footwork—outside of Nadel. Lord Bel laughed. Then—he copied the little trick.
The tears of the other Earthers stopped. Lord Bel called something at them, clearly trying to cheer them up. He gestured, and, encouraged by the Lord of the Dance’s people, the young man performed a move clearly meant to be done alone.
It looked so silly that Geilouna laughed. Altestiel glanced at Kiish. The young man was speaking in front of the embarrassed court.
The laughter broke off as Lord Bel copied it. Move for move, shaking his body in the absurd little gesture, perfectly copying the young man. And what was on his face was nothing but enjoyment.
“I knew the Singer of Terandria had been taught that from somewhere! Show me more, show me more!”
Two of his people tried to copy the move, and they did so on the first try. The Earthers looked astonished, but they were realizing—they were in the presence of the world’s best [Dancers]. Anything they could do…
After some conference, a young woman tried a moonwalk and failed. Lord Bel promptly demonstrated the technique, moving in a circle as if his feet were sliding on ice to applause. Of course—then, it became a competition.
Could they show him anything that he couldn’t copy? Dances from Fortnite became attempts at capoeira, or breakdancing moves; at least one of the Earthers could dance.
Lord Bel went step for step with the young man trying to surprise him. Then—they began doing the break-dancing moves that Altestiel would have paid ten thousand gold coins to see a [Lady] do in a dress on a ballroom floor at the same time. Lord Bel didn’t just copy, he and the young man began moving in sync.
Astonished, the Earther stopped. Lord Bel just clapped him on the shoulder. Then, his head turned and looked at Altestiel. The Earl of Rains nodded, and gestured at Kiish, who was waiting with the carriage.
The Lord of the Dance kept dancing. Where other nations would greet the strange young people in their borders with hostility, fear, wonder, curiosity…Lord Bel greeted them with a dance.
More were coming. Most arrived there, in that room where he had torn a hole.
The rest elsewhere. They were coming.
Altestiel was just among the first to know it.
Ironic. Purely ironic, although only a few…beings…would be in a position to find it such.
Ironic, that Desonis and now Nadel, at least the upper echelons, might learn something that far more powerful nations and individuals had yet to even get a whiff of. Az’kerash was blissfully ignorant, consumed with finding the last of Silvaria’s tomes in his library, reading through them.
So too was Queen Yisame ignorant of whatever it was she should know, despite the Grand Magus’ warning. She was, of course, aware that she was unaware, and had roused her court to fury, not least because she now owed the half-Elf a debt.
However, realization would be a long time in coming, even for those blessed with a ‘hint’ from Wistram.
Entire species knew now, like the Drowned Folk, whereas great kingdoms lay unawares.
Not that they were concerned because if you didn’t know what you were supposed to know, or didn’t even know that you were supposed to know what you didn’t know….
Ailendamus was not concerned with little hints, even from Archmages. Six times Viltach had tried, but King Itorin II was too important to bother directly with an Archmage’s concerns. Lesser officials, yes, but Viltach had insisted on speaking to Itorin II directly—and failed.
Grand Magus Eldavin too. Not that Itorin II didn’t have concerns. He had tons of them.
War with the Dawn Concordat, which he wanted done, uncomfortable with the eyes of the new ‘television’ on his designs for conquest. It made what he was doing a little too obvious. He wasn’t an [Emperor]—yet—for the very reason of optics. Television was making his job harder. He had a lot to do in any case.
Diplomacy, at home and abroad, to keep Ailendamus’ allies together and his enemies from working together. Jumped-up little [Lords] on Izril, foreign powers…
Not to mention the Demon’s ritual and whatever weapon had slain his [Knight] abroad. Of course, he attributed that to Demons. Not anything else.
Itorin Zessoprical, the Second, King of the Empire of Ailendamus—as it had swallowed smaller kingdoms over its meteoric rise—sat on his throne.
In his palace. Doing kingly things.
In another place in the palace of Ailendamus, someone almost as important was shouting at [Knights]. To be specific, the Order of the Thirsting Veil, one of three that Ailendamus boasted.
“This is not a small concern! Your petty excuses do not bear weight with me! Your Order will find out or—”
“Sir. Sir, we have no leads to go on!”
“That is not good enough!”
A man howled in the face of one of Ailendamus’ [Knight-Generals], which was astonishing given the other man’s rank. The man, clean-shaven, wearing expensive dark-purple silk robes ostentatiously augmented by Truegold, was gaudy as could be. He had numerous magical rings, and though he carried no weapon, he made up for it with all the other artifacts on his person.
Dame Hevcla of the Order of the Thirsting Veil, who had once met the Knight-Commander Calirn of the Order of Seasons, couldn’t believe this man’s audacity. Her leader was not a patient man, and he had challenged Ailendamus’ nobility to duels for less.
Especially because King Itorin II was well aware of the value of his [Knights]. However—it seemed this man was too important for even a [Knight-General] to reprimand for spraying spit in his face.
The Duke shouted again. Given Ailendamus’ sprawling nobility and royal family and relatives, that wasn’t as impressive as another nation—but it was still just below the royal family. However, that was complicated by the fact that this man was, in fact, the uncle of King Itorin II, albeit separated from the direct line of the monarchy. So then again, it was as impressive as it should be.
Duke Rhisveri Zessoprical drew breath to scream again, and Dame Hevcla interrupted with a crisp salute.
“Your Grace Rhisveri, perhaps you could illuminate us on what was lost? We are aware of the break-in, of course.”
The hugest lapse in security since Ailendamus itself was founded. A massive embarrassment as someone had apparently entered, nearly stolen a treasure, and fled without a trace when the alarms went off and the guard rushed in.
Every great [Thief] of this age was being scrutinized for motive, but what had nearly been lost was…the Duke turned on Dame Hevcla. She saw sneering contempt replace fury in a moment.
“You are all not privy to the true value of the royal family’s treasures, [Knight]. I demand only that you find the assailant! Are you Ailendamus’ finest or not? Employ [Trackers]! Employ magic! Must I do it for you?”
“No, your Grace. However, the trail really is—”
“Silence, you incompetent!”
The [Knight-General]’s face turned redder. He slowly wiped away some spit, but he said nothing in reply. This was the same man who had once drawn his sword in the presence of a foreign [King] for impugning Ailendamus’ honor.
Duke Rhisveri looked at the [Knights]. He was breathing hard.
“I will furnish you with the details if I must. You will find this thief. And you will bring them to me. Alive. All limbs intact. I want to know how they got past the protections. My protections!”
His fingers sparked with magic. He stalked back the way he’d come, to the royal wing, beyond which even [Knights] were not allowed passage. An entire wing for King Itorin’s family. Dame Hevcla watched him go, wondering just what had been so close to being stolen as to enrage the Duke so much. King Itorin II had not mentioned it—but perhaps it was something he had entrusted the Duke with.
The point was, whomever it was, be it the Lightning Thief, the Thief of Clouds, or anyone else—the full wrath of Ailendamus had been roused against them. They were in a lot of trouble.
…Shame their name was so damn confusing to scry. The Duke had been getting headaches all week long, and he’d used [Greater Scry] in his desperation. The wards returned precise weight, gender, species, and all kinds of other measurements—some of which were confusing—but the name kept blanking out because it was impossible to translate to the spell’s parameters. He didn’t even know what the second thing had been. But he was going to find out. Oh yes.
On the subject of scrying, Wistram had now given up on monitoring the Antinium Queens. They’d kept recording—until it became clear beyond all shadow of a doubt that the Antinium now knew they were being watched.
Some oddities had been put down to the Antinium peculiarities, but after the failure of the Antinium to actually go to war and the huge embarrassment to Wistram after the Invrisil event—it had been clear.
The final clue though, had been the ‘discussion’ between the Flying Queen and her Prognugators on war tactics, in which she turned to the scrying mirror every five seconds and said something along the lines of:
“I wonder what I should do? How puzzling.”
“I do hope no one is listening to my grand plans.”
“It would be so inconvenient if someone learned of our secret weapons buried here.”
…With a map.
Back to traditional scrying attempts. However, if Wistram had kept monitoring the now-compromised scrying devices, they would have seen someone wander past the disused scrying devices replaced by more secure connections.
“Life is suffering.”
Anand walked into a wall. He fell down, and curled up. After a while, a few other Free Antinium found him and helped him up. They replaced the cover on the scrying mirror in the empty room and tried to bring him back to their base.
They were still guests of the Grand Queen, although they travelled to every Hive in the Hivelands—save for the Twisted Hive. Anand shook off the kind hands.
“Life is worthless. Erin is dead. I—I am drunk! I will now eject the contents of my stomach!”
He gave it a try, like he’d seen some guests doing. Eventually, he gave up and lay down.
Erin was dead. No one was here to help Anand. Not Belgrade. Not Pawn, not Bird or Garry or—Anand got up after a moment.
“Klbkch! Klbkch, Erin is dead. I am sad. What do we do?”
He entered the room and eight Custodium, and six Queens stared at him.
Klbkch himself stared at Anand. His head, slowly growing a mass of tendrils being connected to a body-in-progress, was suspended in a custom vat. A Birther. Anand looked at the Silent Queen, who was performing the most complex creation of a new body in the history of the Antinium of Izril.
“Anand. Get. Out.”
The [Strategist] slowly backed out of the room. He wandered out of the Silent Antinium’s Hive, knowing he had made a mistake. Angered Klbkch.
No longer caring. Erin was dead. Anand knew this was not factually true, but it felt like it. He…
…Tried to drown himself in the underground lake. At least until Goat and Archer A11 pulled him out. Anand had only stuck his head under the water.
“Let go! I am a failure! I should have been there!”
He thrashed as they dragged him away. The teams of Antinium working on Iteration #227 of the ships stared after him. Anand cared not for the ship. It would fail.
The longest any ship had ‘floated’ was one minute and thirty eight seconds. If you counted mainly sinking as floating, anyways.
Ships were hard. Anand would have tried to study the books on ship-building he’d asked to be sent via Liscor, but he didn’t care.
Erin was dead.
He was wandering the Hivelands, on the surface, half-hoping an adventurer popped out and stabbed him when someone found him. Not Goat, or the other anxious Free Antinium, who were also grieving, but something far larger.
Far older. Anand peeked up, then lowered his head.
“Oh. It’s you.”
Wrymvr agreed. The voice was bubbling, coming out of Wrymvr’s mouth…or multiple of them. Wrymvr the Deathless, most fearsome of the Centenium in close combat, able to fight multiple Named Adventurers at once and survive, looked down at Anand.
Once, Anand had feared the Twisted Hive. Even now, he feared what he had seen, a kind of death beyond death.
Today though, he would have charged the Twisted Hive with a bare fist.
“What do you want? I am grieving. If you’re going to eat me…”
His voice quivered. If he died, would he see Erin? He was afraid the answer was no, even if Heaven existed.
“No. I. Do not eat other Antinium.”
Wrymvr might have been amused. Talking came to him with difficulty, it seemed. Anand knew Klbkch and the Queens could talk differently.
“You kill us. We are not True Antinium. Is that why you’re here? Because I am a failure, a distraction?”
He touched his antennae. Again, though, Wrymvr demurred.
The vast Centenium studied Anand. It—he—had sought Anand out. The Worker swayed on his feet; he had been imbibing alcohol on the assumption it might help. It had not, only made him dizzy. Nevertheless, Wrymvr appeared…different from the [Strategist]’s memories.
His body had evolved again, changing to some other role. He still had massive wings, and was squat, quadrupedal…sextupedal…many-pedal, rather than upright like most Antinium.
Many mouths, many legs, openings to project acid or other dangerous substances; Wrymvr was the epitome of death. Anand stared at him.
“If you are not going to kill me, may I go? I wish to try expelling matter from my body again.”
Wrymvr blocked his path with one leg as Anand tottered around him.
“Ships. You must build. Duty. You—Anand. Strategist. Build them. Float. Improvement.”
He communicated in staccato bursts of noise. Anand frowned at Wrymvr. He shook his head after a moment.
“I am too sad. I do not want to. Erin is dead. Not dead. Bring her back like Klbkch. Then…then I will do things. Can you do that? Please?”
“Irrelevant. You are necessary. Anand will not endanger self. Obey. Work. Build ship.”
A prod of a leg, but very gentle for Wrymvr’s strength. Anand looked at him. He opened his mandibles and found Antinium could vomit. He did so onto Wrymvr now.
The Centenium stared at Anand as the Worker wiped at his mandibles.
“Klbkch. Klbkch, I do not believe I am able to communicate with your Worker, Anand, properly.”
Klbkch the Slayer listened to Wrymvr’s mental thoughts reaching his. He felt little, suspended in the vat of creation as the Silent Queen worked. Occasionally—well—often, he communicated with her, indulging her desire to speak about him, his life, his exploits…him.
Sometimes with the other Queens, although the liquid meant the Silent Queen had to interpret his words for them, which she did with a variable degree of accuracy. However, Wrymvr was close enough for the two to talk, which was a relief compared to Queens.
“You are attempting to speak to Anand, Wrymvr? Why? He was here just an hour ago.”
“He is wandering the surface. I am attempting to persuade him to return to his work of constructing prototype ships. I do not comprehend the Free Antinium’s new Individuals. They do not appear to obey orders.”
Klbkch’s response to that wasn’t words so much as sour schadenfreude. Wrymvr’s reply was amused, but insistent.
“You must help me.”
“Would you believe Anand is the most obedient of the Individuals?”
“They are like you, then. Deeply disturbing.”
In his vat, Klbkch’s mandibles opened and closed in a surprisingly non-Antinium gesture.
“I cannot aid you, Wrymvr. Employ direct speech and explanations.”
“Hm. Very well. Also: curious. I was not aware the Free Queen had experimented into acid projectiles as the Flying Queen and Twisted Queen have. It is ineffective so far, however. Limited range and accuracy. Noticeable volume however.”
Anand found that Wrymvr was not going to kill him. He did, however, pick Anand up with his mandibles and carry Anand screaming into the air before depositing him near the entrance to the underground lake project.
“I am going to expel again. Please do not pick me up.”
Anand announced to Wrymvr right before it happened. He did feel more sober, though. The Centenium regarded him.
“Strategist Anand. Work.”
“No. I am sad.”
A wing nudged him.
“Work. For good of Hives.”
Silence. Anand met the Centenium’s eyes…well, a few of them, with great effort. Wrymvr appeared to be considering what to do next.
“Will you kill me if I refuse?”
“No. Strategist Anand is too valuable. All agree. Queen. Klbkch. This Centenium agrees.”
Anand’s mandibles parted. He looked at Wrymvr.
“Thank you. I have been acknowledged! Klbkch does not do so often!”
The [Strategist] actually began to feel a bit better after hearing that Wrymvr thought he was valuable. He hadn’t known that! It was really flattering, actually. Anand tilted his head at Wrymvr and had a thought.
“…May I call you Uncle?”
The Centenium considered this.
“If Anand works, yes.”
The [Strategist] sighed. He sat on a rock outside the tunnel as the Grand Queen’s Soldiers eyed Wrymvr, seeming as…nervous…as regular Antinium could.
“I do not want to. It seems pointless. Ships are hard. To build.”
He confided to Wrymvr. The Centenium fanned its wings.
“Yes. Sink easily too. Anand must build better.”
“I can’t. Klbkch has told me to work, and all the Queens! If I could, don’t you think I would have? It is too hard! I am a [Strategist], not a [Shipbuilder]! [Shipwright]? I do not even know what I am not!”
Anand’s voice raised plaintively. Perhaps this was a bad idea, but he finally had someone to complain to, and he was not afraid of dying at this moment. Wrymvr listened as Anand went on.
“Everything sinks when you put weight on it! Wood sinks! Stone sinks! Cotton sinks! It is so frustrating! Keeping something upright is so hard! Keeping it together is hard! It is too hard! I give up! I would not do so if Erin is alive. She is dead, though. So it is meaningless. Goodbye.”
He curled up. After a moment, a ‘foot’ nudged him. Anand rolled slightly on the ground.
“Strategist Anand is the only Antinium capable of design besides Queen. Try again. Encouragement words here.”
“You are bad at encouragement. Erin is better. She would give me a hug and kisses and food.”
“Can kill Wyvern for Anand. This Antinium does not understand hugs or kisses.”
There was silence now. Wrymvr stared at Anand. After a while, Anand…decided to do nothing. He hoped, wondered, if Wrymvr would leave.
Twenty five minutes later, Anand looked up.
“Don’t you have better things to do?”
“Possibility of ship construction is paramount. Anand realizes its own value and will work?”
Anand’s antennae waved at the vast Antinium dismally.
“…Anand does not.”
He went back to lying on the ground.
“Klbkch. Klbkch. Your Anand is starting to irritate me.”
The Silent Queen paused in her ministrations.
“What was that, Klbkchhezeim?”
“Nothing, Silent Queen. Merely recollecting thoughts.”
She nodded. Klbkch continued with Wrymvr.
“Anand is not the only method by which we might advance the Antinium’s cause, Wrymvr.”
“He is the most direct to reach other continents. Birthers cannot be easily transported overland; not possible under the ocean. Impossible/too much time. Boats are essential.”
That was true, Klbkch had to admit. Birthers, the growing vats in which new Soldiers or Workers or other types could be made, had long been the replacement to Queens—they had been recreated in Izril, and they were what the original Antinium used on Rhir.
However, those Birthers had been far more advanced. Able to create Soldiers with the correct supplies in a fraction of the time, and far more powerful varieties. Even Queens.
The Twisted Queen had upgraded the ones here, though. A bit. Rather, she had solved an issue plaguing the Antinium: the need for a Queen to directly monitor them, their inability to be transported—or clone themselves.
She had solved it all, but only up to a point. Now, in theory, the Antinium could continue if every Queen died, albeit without minds to lead or create new forms. However, a few problems remained.
The Birther vats were as fragile as glass, even with the Twisted Queen’s improvements. Mind you, thick glass, and it was decidedly better than what they had been; if you shouted in their presence, they would become injured and lose whatever Antinium they were working on.
However, transport remained an issue for all Antinium aside from Wrymvr and maybe Xrn. To get to Rhir…
“Ships. Wrymvr, I do not know how to encourage Anand. You tried positive affirmations?”
“I do not know, then. Threats? My modality of options has been exhausted.”
After a pause, when Klbkch thought Wrymvr had given up or gone out of range, the Centenium replied.
“You are a poor leader, Klbkch.”
“I was not meant to be. I lead armies, not…nurture…other things.”
Somewhat stung, Klbkch retorted. Wrymvr replied.
“Neither do you change.”
After a while, Wrymvr squatted down.
“Strategist Anand. Talk.”
“Go away. I am sad.”
“Strategist Anand. I am Wrymvr. Centenium. Do you acknowledge?”
“Yes, go away.”
“No. Strategist Anand—Wrymvr, I, will do anything for Antinium to survive. Anything. To save Antinium—anything. What will Strategist Anand require for similar resolve?”
Slowly, Anand’s head rose. He looked into Wrymvr’s vast eyes.
“…I will help. Later. It’s just so…hard. It’s too hard. I am frustrated. It is too hard and I am too sad, understand?”
“Sadness cannot be mitigated. Difficulty? Perhaps. What is issue?”
Anand sat, trying to explain. Glad, really; Goat and the others had tried, but Klbkch was incapacitated and even the other Prognugators weren’t that…smart. Well, smart, but not proactive, not creative, and the Queens were busy. The Armored Queen was super-busy, so all she had time to do was hold Anand and let him talk about Erin sometimes at night.
He liked that. So Anand told Wrymvr.
“It’s more than materials. I have every kind—including monster parts.”
The Queens had opened all the material stores aside from the most precious things to Anand. He had tried all kinds of combinations, so he shook his head.
“It is not that. It is…technique. Experience! I have books from Liscor—I need manuals. Blueprints! I need an expert. Perhaps…”
“Perhaps if I went back to Liscor, I could find an expert. Seborn.”
“What is. Seborn?”
“He’s a Drowned Man. If he could talk to me, I could understand what I am doing wrong. Or I could buy a book from Invrisil. The problem, Wrymvr, is that I don’t have an example, I don’t have the understanding…”
Anand trailed off. Or the motivation. He began to try to explain that. Explain what Erin had been, why her absence, even if the others claimed she could be cured, had left a hole in him. In more than just her presence, but his confidence in her. His belief she couldn’t really die, that she would outlive him, that…
Wrymvr flew off. Anand was left sitting there, staring at the giant Centenium.
“Wait. But—wait. I was speaking.”
The Soldiers at the entrance stared at Anand as he sat back down. Then curled up again.
Anand decided Wrymvr was a jerk after all. He did not see Wrymvr, then, in the distance, dive and snatch the silently-screaming Antinium.
Goat, the Soldier, stopped thrashing when Wrymvr put him down. The Centenium spoke to the trembling Soldier.
“You. Will assist me. First, retrieve artifact from Twisted Hive. Then—follow.”
Goat looked around for somewhere to run. Wrymvr just picked him up and flew towards the Twisted Hive. Goat screamed. He really, really didn’t see what Bird desired in flight.
The thing Anand, even Klbkch had forgotten or failed to appreciate about Wrymvr was that he was unlike Xrn, or the Queens. He was a literal Antinium. When he saw a problem—he fixed it. He did not wait or make excuses.
Most of the shocking events in Tkrn’s life had happened last year or this one. Monster attacks, Erin’s death…good surprises too, like cake. Baseball.
So, on the whole of it, waking up next to Inkar and seeing her sleeping there wasn’t a bad surprise at all. Still sleeping there, that was. Sometimes they left which hurt your feelings because you got the distinct impression they thought there had been a mistake in their night.
Such lewdness. Such debauched acts. Tkrn smiled when he thought about last night. That had been amazing.
Then—his brow furrowed. Wait a second. He slowly turned his head to the other side and saw Lehra Ruinstrider noisily snoring away.
That was up there on shocks of his life. Tkrn left the bed, and disturbed the other Gnolls. Three of whom were male.
He wasn’t the one they’d all come here for.
Lehra Ruinstrider stretched.
“It’s like…they call it a harem. It’s a Human-thing.”
Suxhel, the Gazer, had not spent the night in company, nor had she wanted to. She eyed Lehra, who had somehow managed to pull off a very strange night; Tkrn had fled the tent and woken them all up.
“Absolutely. Humans have them. They have sex all the time. That’s why I feel like a Human.”
“More than Gnolls or Drakes?”
Lehra hesitated. The Named-rank adventurer lifted a furry paw.
“They have more kids, that’s the difference. Like—you know, Humans have as many as eight children. Who does that? Not Gnolls or Drakes. Imagine having them on the move. That’s why they’re everywhere. They’re sexual fiends. I heard that somewhere.”
She puffed out her chest at displaying so much Human-knowledge. Suxhel, who had met Inkar and other Humans, would have raised her eyebrows if she had any.
It was true though that Gnolls had smaller families than Humans, and a family of eight or more was largely a Human or Lizardfolk thing.
“You seem to have a lot of attention, however.”
“Pssh, yeah, well…I guess I’m popular.”
Lehra preened a bit. She gestured at the tent. Male and female Gnolls—plus Inkar, were waking up.
“Who are the tall, more appealing Gnolls inside? For your kind?”
Suxhel didn’t need to peer in between the tent flaps to spot them. Her eye saw all. Lehra shrugged.
“Ekhtouch. They’re a special tribe. Breeding Skills. Normally you wouldn’t be able to get near one since they’re so strict. It’s like—what they trade.”
“Yup. But they’re all over me. I think because—”
“They would like to have children with you. Congratulations.”
“Thanks! Let me know if you want to meet a nice Ekhtouch Gnoll. I’m sure they’d be obliging.”
Lehra winked. She slapped Suxhel on the shoulder. The short Gazer sidled away and reached for her handkerchief and water bottle.
“Don’t touch me with that paw. I’ve seen where it’s been.”
Contrary to expectations Lehra might have held, Inkar herself was not a sex-crazed primate. If anything, the Gnolls of Ekhtouch were the only ‘experts’ in that field.
…And they were experts. However, Inkar saw no need to tell Orreh anything, no matter how hard her friend badgered her. It was more surprising that she’d found herself in that situation to begin with. Lehra had a magnetic personality. However, Tkrn had also helped.
At any rate, the teasing was just one part of living with Gnolls. In another way, it was better: if there were no secrets to be held, then it didn’t matter as much.
The point was that Lehra Ruinstrider, the Stargnoll, was never alone unless she wished to be. Indeed, she was the first real celebrity that Inkar had ever met in this world. Every Gnoll knew her name. Children and adults wanted autographs; [Warriors] and such tried to apply for her team. Chieftains courted her council.
That was because Lehra was more than her name. She was a Named-rank adventurer and could, by her intervention, turn the tables in a battle. Or war. Even the Walled Cities, Inkar had been told by Deskie and Eska, had only five Named Adventurers they could call on at most in Manus’ case—and only one or two might ever be in the city at any given time.
Five Named Adventurers was more than any one kingdom could hope to field. On the other hand, that didn’t include [Champions], [Generals], and such who might match them. Lehra was twice as valuable for her age, though; she had already reached Named-rank in her twenties! What might she accomplish by the time she had lived twice as long?
The fact that she threw an arm around Inkar—and Tkrn’s shoulders—and called them friends, inviting them to eat with Suxhel, was not lost on observers. The Gazer adventurer made Lehra wash her paws first, though.
“Ah, to be young again.”
Honored Krshia snorted, noting her nephew’s embarrassment as the group took breakfast in the Silverfang camp along with some of the participants from last night. Akrisa, her older sister, raised her brows.
“What does age have to do with it, Krshia? Honored Deskie herself shouldn’t lack for company—if she wished it.”
The scandalized Gnoll was not Krshia, but rather, Satar, Akrisa’s oldest daughter, who had come from an Ekhtouch union herself. The older Gnolls snorted as Satar escaped, with little Cers Silverfang, who decided the adults were disgusting too.
“Another day dawns in the glorious Meeting of Tribes. So, sister. What will we do today?”
Krshia yawned as she rose. Akrisa shook her head, her smile lessening.
“You, sister, have the chance to go about. Perhaps with Cers or Satar? They would like to visit the other tribes. I, however, must meet with the Plain’s Eye tribe.”
“Before the gathering of Chieftains?”
Krshia’s ears perked up. Akrisa gave her a frown, mindful of the listening Gnolls.
“It would be impolite not to.”
Once again, Krshia was struck by the Plain’s Eye tribe’s growing influence, and it had been strong in the last Meeting of Tribes she had been in. She nodded, slowly.
“I may walk with Cers and Satar. Not least because I have business with the other tribes.”
“Then you must go visit the Gaarh Marsh tribe. Cers! Your Aunt Krshia, she will take you to the blooming sights today, yes? Be polite! Perhaps Honored Lehra and company would be interested?”
“Blooming sights? What are they?”
Lehra’s head bobbed up, along with Tkrn and Inkar. Akrisa was amused.
“Perhaps you were too young to recall it last time? It is for children and adults. Go visit. You may pass some hours quite pleasantly, and understand one of our oldest tribes who keeps to all the old ways. Along with Plain’s Eye, of course. What else have you to do, Krshia?”
The [Royal Shopkeeper]-[Councilwoman] sighed. She looked at Akrisa, unable to conceal a tiny frown on her face.
“Merely a personal favor. Whilst our guests from Liscor are still on the way, and safe, I am assured—it seems another Gnoll I had hoped to introduce you to has…gone missing. Magus Grimalkin of Pallass has prevailed on me to find his apprentice.”
Akrisa’s ears perked up. She set down her silkap and glanced at her [Shaman] and partner, Cetrule.
“In that case, we will send some to ask for her and see if she was seen.”
“Thank you, Chieftain.”
Lehra ran off to find the rest of her team. Tkrn and Inkar found themselves walking with Orreh and Oor as usual. Well, the change was that Tkrn and Inkar had linked arms.
“I wish I could do that. All I have is my brother, no?”
Orreh sniffed jealously; it seemed her relationships had not lasted beyond a night. Oor stuck an arm out, grinning. Orreh kicked him into a stall. She looked at the two she was escorting.
“Are we going to Gaarh Marsh’s display today?”
“Why not? Unless you don’t want to?”
Tkrn saw Inkar glance up at him and found himself nodding.
They were joined by Krshia, Cers, Satar, two Silverfang minders, a group of six children and some more younger Gnolls…and then Venaz, Peki, Merrik, and three new guests who had just arrived from Oteslia.
“Do I have the honor of greeting Honored Feshi? And you two must surely be…”
Krshia blinked, and Tkrn’s eyes widened. Inkar was less agog, but everyone else stared at the young man—and the gingerly-walking Selphid.
Yerranola and Wil Kallinad looked around, new to the Meeting of Tribes but smiling. They had made the relatively short trip from Oteslia here.
“Wil Kallinad, Honored Krshia. Thank you for showing my friends hospitality.”
Wil made a very courtly Terandrian bow, having already picked up on Gnollish honorifics. Yerranola smiled; she was being half-supported by Wil.
“Hi, I’m Yerra. Everyone seems to know my name around here.”
“How not? You were on television! I thought you were poisoned! You got better already?”
Orreh burst out, and then turned red under her fur. Yerranola laughed though.
“I’m getting better! Thanks to Oteslia and weird flowers…now, I want to explore! We came to the Meeting of Tribes because there’s a time limit, but I want to see Oteslia instead of being carried about in a jar! Other cities too. Pallass and…”
“Other cities to the north.”
Venaz was not smiling, for all his friend was up on her feet and able to use a Drake body. Merrik, Peki, Wil, Yerra, and even Feshi, who was greeting Krshia, hesitated for a moment.
Tkrn had no idea why. Krshia, who kept her ears to the wind, had an inkling of what was making the students edgy. However, she only smiled.
“We are honored if you would care to join us. Lehra Ruinstrider may join us—although it is likely she was just dragged off.”
“I would be delighted to meet her, Honored Krshia. I too thank Silverfang for its hospitality. Is Chieftain Akrisa here? My tribe of Weatherfur would like to meet with yours.”
Krshia blinked at Feshi.
“…That would be most gratifying. Akrisa is with Plain’s Eye. However, when she returns I will of course introduce you.”
“Perhaps Honored Krshia might take her place, as sister to the Chieftain?”
Feshi’s voice was tactful. Krshia grew more interested. She nodded, but the group was impatient to go, so they began walking, now in a gaggle of attention of their own.
Lehra never caught up, but Yerranola herself drew enough attention in her Drake body to have people interrupt their progress three times. However, Venaz carried them through the crowds—mainly by walking with no intention of stopping to shake hands or paws with everyone he met. Soon, they reached their destination; one of the largest, most powerful tribes of the Gnolls.
Gaarh Marsh. Above their waterproof huts, the more solid construction from the swampy terrain they liked to occupy, much like Desonis in fact, was their guardian. Even Venaz stared up, lost for words for a second as the vast Earth Elemental sat, filling the air with the scent of muck, rot, and growth, a giant even those on Oteslia’s walls might respect.
The old world sat, staring at nothing until it was needed.
The Gaarh Marsh tribe’s display was called the blooming sights. What it was, Tkrn discovered, was a display of their [Shaman]’s craft and their unique abilities.
Of all the tribes, the Gaarh Marsh was, like the Wild Wastes tribe, the easiest to assign the most common Gnollish pejoratives to.
‘Barbarian’. ‘Savage’. You heard it sometimes to describe the Gnollish people. The comparison was always between Humanity or Gnollkind, or Drakes in their civilized cities compared to the wild nomads.
It was not fair even for those tribes. It was what people said. However, it was true that the Gaarh Marsh tribe had a bit more space from some other tribes…due to the smell.
Nature, to be blunt. The Earth Elemental had tracked wide swaths of rich soil and mud, and parts of it were continually decomposing. Growing as well. It was not a smell Tkrn enjoyed, so he wrinkled his nose along with some of the adults.
The children like Cers didn’t care. Satar bowed deeply to one of the [Shamans] sprinkling something on the ground. Peki kept staring at the Earth Elemental as the chief [Shaman] talked, explaining the Gaarh Marsh tribe’s specialty, and where they lived to the other Gnolls here for the event.
Merrik nudged his friend, knowing what she was thinking. The Garuda [Martial Artist] glanced at him. The Dwarf whispered.
“You are not challenging the Earth Elemental.”
The two began arguing. Meanwhile, the [Shaman] was speaking.
“…we grow many rare plants, and make all we need from the marshes. Our power comes from there, and we do not reject living so close to nature. I do know some think it is odd, as some nature is uncomfortable! That is our way, however.”
She gestured to herself and Wil shuddered a bit despite himself. Mostly because when the [Shaman] said they lived with nature, she meant it. A bug crawled across one arm, under her fur, but seemed content just to shelter; it did not bite her. However, the proximity of insects made Wil decidedly uncomfortable.
“This place smells.”
Cers broke in, unrepentantly talkative, and some of the other Gnolls chuckled, a touch scandalized. Satar looked horrified and embarrassed. On the other hand, the [Shaman] of Gaarh Marsh just laughed. So did Krshia. It would take more than Cers’ comments to bother them, she knew.
“It does! Not everything in nature is fine. However, there are wonders. Come—I think that is enough talk. You are here to see the blooming. This is our tribe’s strength. Our magic—and our knowledge.”
So saying, she tapped the mud with her staff where she had been sprinkling small objects. As she did, the tiny seeds she had tossed down bloomed.
Vivid orchids sprouted in seconds, blooming huge petals. A twisting vine shot up and nearly hit Cers in the nose. He recoiled, and then laughed, as a tall, upright plant rose, then sprouted leaves, and a sunflower-esque head, albeit red.
“That’s amazing! Do it again! Again!”
The others were just as impressed.
Venaz murmured, eying a resplendent plant, which seemed to have been comprised of straight angles and corners, no curves at all to it. It was sturdy where the other plants moved as the watchers reached out.
“Ah, do not touch that one, young Cers. Nor that.”
The [Shaman] stopped the little Gnoll from touching the tall flower, or another one. She cautioned the guests.
“Not all plants are good to touch, either. This one will prick you with invisible needles. This one will send little spores into your fur, which you will not enjoy.”
“Is it safe to have the children near them, then?”
A Gnoll was concerned. The Gaarh Marsh [Shamans] snorted. One retorted.
“Safe? In the short term—no. In the long term, how else would they learn not to touch when warned?”
He glanced meaningfully at Cers. The little Gnoll was reaching for the spore plant, which was more like a flower coming out of a mushroom. He hesitated, realized no one was going to stop him, even his big sister, and slowly edged back.
The display was wonderful, and the [Shamans] began showing the guests how each flower was useful. They even harvested one, mixing it up, and turning it into a dye; plucking another’s seeds and giving them to the adults. They were, apparently, quite good to taste and had effects adjacent to Dreamleaf, which the Gaarh Marsh tribe was familiar with.
Definitely worth coming to see. However, it did remind Tkrn uncomfortably of the Bloodfields. When he commented that to Inkar, having to explain what that was, one of the Gaarh Marsh [Shamans] overheard.
“Ah. You are from Liscor, yes? You have seen that place.”
Tkrn ducked his head.
“I didn’t mean to offend, [Shaman].”
“One does not offend so simply, young Gnoll. Nor are you wrong. Long have our [Shamans] maintained that the Bloodfields sprouted from ancestor-seeds similar to our people’s. If only they were easier to harvest, we might create new medicine or potions. Alas—we know the Bloodfields to be too dangerous.”
“Has anyone tried?”
Yerranola looked interested as she leaned on Venaz. The Minotaur was checking the diamond greatsword on his back.
“We should visit there too. Cautiously.”
Peki nodded; Feshi and Merrik rolled their eyes. Wil was just resigned. The [Shaman] grinned.
“Several times, Miss Yerranola. However, we do not try anymore. It is too risky for what we gained. Indeed, the last time we attempted to learn much was…four hundred years back. Four hundred and sixty. The Bloodfields have only grown more dangerous since then.”
He glanced at the other [Shamans] and they nodded. Yerranola was impressed.
“You remember that accurately?”
The [Shaman] nodded gravely.
“We must. Which brings us to our next portion. Come! Those who wish to admire the flowers or learn more may stay, but we have good drink and snacks. We shall enjoy it—here.”
He led them to a small hill. However, to the visitors’ surprise or dismay, it was equally muddy. The Earth elemental sat next to it, and they realized they were to sit there too, albeit on straw mats.
It did not prevent one from getting dirty. Nor, as it turned out, was that the point. As food and drink of the Gaarh Marsh was brought out, the visitors realized they weren’t eating in nature; they were eating with it.
A pale moth with white wings landed on Tkrn’s drinking cup and dipped a proboscis into his drink. He stared at it—then at the huge animal from the swamps who’d rolled over. The ‘pet’ began stealing some of the nuts from his bowl. Inkar just laughed, more at home with this than he was.
Krshia gently flicked off a roach from her fur, but she tried to be amiable as could be. Some couldn’t handle it, like Wil, who stood a bit shamefaced, drinking and talking with some of the others, but the others took the experience at face-value.
Venaz refused to leave, with classic Venaz-stubbornness, although his clenched jaw twitched every time a centipede or something ran over his legs. The Gnolls of the Gaarh Marsh tribe found this very amusing. However, as time went on, Tkrn and Inkar did enjoy themselves. None of the bugs bit, and the larger animals were quite welcome. Even a cow, with actual horns, who looked just as able to defend herself as any other animal who sat down next to them to Inkar’s delight.
As they sat, though, the chief [Shaman] had children and adults sit around him. The second part of this event was this:
They told stories.
A bird landed on Cers’ head and he was wide-eyed, staring up at it with crossed eyes and at the [Shaman] as she spoke.
“Long ago, when the first Gnolls emerged from the earth, after the Time of Hiding, we saw the great cities that Drake and Dragon had built. Some of us decided we should learn from them. They became City Gnolls, and live there to this day. However, most Gnolls decided safety lay in the open ground, the plains. There was more space back then, you see, and north and south were open to us. We remember the first Gnolls who made the Gaarh Marsh tribe decided to live in the very same swamps and marshes we travel—although they were bigger in those days. Eight times bigger; they have shrunk as Drakes dredged the land.”
“You remember it so clearly? How long ago was that?”
Yerranola was impressed. The [Shaman] nodded.
“We remember this detail, Honored Yerranola. However, how long? Thousands of years. Tens of thousands? Some details escape. That is the problem with history. However, we remember all the stories we can, and tell them.”
She gestured at their audiences.
“Drakes have similar stories. Humans, likewise. I will tell you the story of Feis if you wish it, children, guests. Feis Firescale, greatest of the Oldblood Drakes, who was said to have learned from a Dragonlord in the days when they still flew Izril’s skies. That is a story even Drakes have forgotten! Ah, but first, stories of Gaarh Marsh.”
She told them one to begin with, how the first Gnolls had wandered into the swamps, many suffering, but eventually, one had struck a bargain with the heart of nature and the first guardians—the Earth Elementals—became their mentors and defenders.
“We remember it. Alas, but we do not remember how the bargain was worded, or where it was struck.”
The [Shaman] looked sad. It was Venaz who lifted a hand, as if they were in class.
“There is a fallacy in your statement, [Shaman]. If your tribe can remember as far back as the first days of your people, why have you not collated or written down this information? Is this myth or fact?”
Feshi kicked him in the back, but Venaz did not relent. The [Shaman] met his challenging gaze.
“You did not seek to preserve your knowledge, though? There are memory Skills and books; none of this was employed?”
“Minotaur. Do your people remember every event in your history? Even ten thousand years ago?”
He shifted as everyone stared at him.
“Our records are exact up till about six thousand years and we keep records in multiple locations.”
“However, that is a short amount of time. Gaarh Marsh does the same, by the way. We did not always keep written notes, although we do now—but we have great [Storytellers] and [Shamans] who remember. We took pains to do so. Why do you think we lost it, despite knowing the value of the past? Hm…little Gnoll?”
She pointed to a girl from another tribe. The Gnoll rolled up her eyes, squinting as she tried to figure it out.
“…Because you lost the books?”
Everyone laughed. The Gnoll’s ears flattened, but the [Shaman] smiled approvingly.
“Not a bad answer! The truth is, we did lose them. Or they were destroyed.”
“Venaz, shut up.”
Wil whispered to him. The Minotaur looked affronted. The [Shaman] from Gaarh Marsh met his eyes.
“Every record, Honored Guest. Every record. Every [Shaman]. Every [Storyteller]. Sometimes, almost every Gnoll. We remember that we forget. And the reason we lost our history, despite our attempts to preserve it was because of calamity. I am sure you know of what I speak.”
The audience went silent. Now, the [Shaman] closed her eyes. She scooped some mud up with her paw, and tossed it up. Rather than coming down like a shower—the audience saw something fall.
It hurtled out of the clouds to the earth. Not falling like a meteor; collapsing. It had been taller than the clouds. Now—the Earth Elemental’s head slowly turned, moving for the first time since it had sat.
Watching a Giant fall.
“We called this age Skyfall’s Memory. It was one of the times we lost too much. One of the times entire species vanished, and the world was plunged into a time when even steel was rare, the art of it forgotten by many. Skyfall’s Memory. The last war of the Giants.”
The [Shaman] spoke as the image vanished. She tapped the ground, and spoke, using some magic to augment her tale.
“It was those times when history was lost. We remember other events; the Creler Wars destroyed so many records, entire tribes. The Faded Times, when magic died. Skyfall’s Memory was a great war, not a cataclysm like some times, though. Each event was terrible, regardless. Archmages’ citadels fell to ruin. Continents turned to dust…or sank. Minotaurs lost their history too. Every people did. You ask why we forget? It is because in those days, when we fled for our lives, we carried only our young, food, a weapon—we left anything to run faster, to survive. Books were not important, then.”
The stories Gaarh Marsh did remember were impressive nonetheless. Indeed, the group left the entire event feeling rather solemn, even Venaz.
Krshia lingered, along with Feshi. It was a bit of a surprise, as the two Gnolls were not alike at all. Feshi was younger, half Krshia’s age, a [Strategist] in the Titan’s School.
Krshia was a Silverfang City Gnoll. However, both were highly-placed in their tribes, enough to speak to their Chieftains. Which was why the Gaarh Marsh [Chief Shaman], Perbne, asked them to join her in her hut.
“I hope you can bear our message to your Chieftains. My Chieftain will no doubt speak to yours, but Plain’s Eye demands much time of late, and the longer other tribes have to weigh our request, the better.”
“Your Chieftain is not attending the Plain’s Eye tribe’s meeting?”
“We were not invited. If we had been, we would have refused.”
Perbne said simply. Feshi and Krshia exchanged a glance.
“What is the Gaarh Marsh’s will? If it is something truly secret, Chieftain Akrisa would surely come by evening…”
The [Shaman] shook her head, smiling.
“We do not keep secrets. Not among kin. We do not shout this; but it is fine to tell you two. Gaarh Marsh hopes our great plan will be supported, and we are willing to offer much. What we offer—well, that is a smaller secret. What we desire is simple: we would wish for your tribes, every tribe willing, to send your young and old to ours.”
Feshi’s ears perked up. Exchanges of Gnolls to learn at other tribes weren’t rare. The [Shaman] shook her head again.
“No. They would become a new tribe. Not ours. Not any. Perhaps they would split once more. However, we would hope to send this new tribe, split from half of ours—and send it over the sea. To Chandrar.”
Krshia’s jaw dropped. She had expected something big, but this?
“To fight for the King of Destruction?”
“Hm…no. Although it is fine if others think that. No, to settle. To live, as we do on Izril. Live, that Gnolls might be widespread on two continents. We have done it before.”
“We were wiped out.”
“Then we must try again. You both know the last will of the Meeting of Tribes.”
To revitalize the Gnoll population. Both Gnolls scrutinized each other as Perbne nodded.
“The tribes prepared for war—ironically before the Antinium came. Now? Our numbers swell, but there is less land for Gnolls. Better not to fight each other or Drakes. Better to use the King of Destruction’s war. Some of our tribes may ally, some fight against. If they could live in Chandrar, we would call it success no matter how it happens.”
Feshi took a breath. Krshia nodded. Her plans of teaching Gnolls magic almost seemed small compared to this. She was about to point out the logistics of getting so many Gnolls over the sea when Feshi spoke.
“I—wished to talk to Honored Krshia about this, but since you are here, Shaman Perbne, it seems only fitting. The Weatherfur tribe has a similar plan, if not one so ambitious.”
Perbne’s eyes opened. Krshia studied Feshi. The [Strategist] glanced at both, looking at Krshia longer.
“We plan to put forwards a movement smaller in scope. More…tactical. We had hoped to send a tribe north. Into Human lands. Multiple tribes, if it is even possible to negotiate for rights. I will be returning to Oteslia to attempt to meet with Magnolia Reinhart soon.”
Krshia sat there, mouth open. Perbne just smiled.
“A fine idea. Why not do both? Let our Chieftains meet, then. I hope Silverfang will listen to our plans and consider supporting them.”
“Of—of course we will. I have no doubt my sister, Chieftain Akrisa, will take it into consideration.”
The two Gnolls nodded. Krshia gaped at them.
Grand plans were being born at this Meeting of Tribes. They didn’t even know about the Earthers!
Or…perhaps that was why. They sensed it. The Gaarh Marsh [Shaman] looked restless, as if she sensed it again. A story repeating itself.
Times of change.
Krshia wanted to find Akrisa and tell her about the big plans—she was even supportive of Weatherfur’s, a bit more dubious about the scope of Gaarh Marsh’s. However, Silverfang would surely ally with both powerful tribes.
Akrisa was not back yet, however. There was huge news, though. Cetrule, who had stayed to organize a search for Ferkr, reached Krshia as she returned to camp alone, looking agitated.
“Krshia! There is a massive problem!”
“The convoy from Liscor?”
“No! We must deal with this—I need your help! All the Gnolls of authority in the Silverfang tribe must stop this!”
Krshia was uncertain about her taking a position of command, despite being Honored, as a City Gnoll. However, Cetrule dragged her off, and she realized he was trying to grab every young Silverfang and confiscate…
What? Confiscate something? Krshia reached for a Gnoll trying to conceal something behind her back.
“What is it you have?”
“Everyone has one, Honored Krshia! Don’t take mine.”
The Gnoll had a jade bracelet on her wrist, a pretty thing she was trying to hide. Had she stolen it? That didn’t seem to be the issue, though.
“No one is taking anything! Put it back! Return it—now!”
Cetrule shouted. The Gnolls protested. One waved a magical wand—albeit one that merely removed stains.
“They were gifts, Cetrule! All the tribes have them!”
“We will not! Give them back! Now!”
Krshia eyed the bracelet. It was expensive, not some cheap fake jade replica. The real stuff was worth gold. She frowned at the young Gnoll.
“Who gave you this?”
Tkrn ran up, dragging Inkar behind him, Oor and Orreh. Krshia turned to him. The [Guardsman] panted.
“Aunt! There are stolen goods everywhere around me! Beilmark and I sensed it—all these goods are—”
“Return them now! I do not care what the Woven Bladegrass tribe is giving out! They are not yours to take!”
Cetrule howled. Krshia’s eyes widened. The copper penny dropped.
“Five. The Woven Bladegrass hit Drake caravans on the trade roads. Worse—they passed out most of what they took. A ‘gift to the Meeting of Tribes’.”
Cetrule had confiscated everything he could find, but there were countless trinkets he’d missed. Krshia stared at the pile of goods and felt sick.
“Why would Woven Bladegrass do this? Much less give it out?”
Beilmark seemed agitated, and no wonder. As a Senior Guardsman, this was like finding a criminal gang under her nose and she was itching to do something.
The second part was easy.
“It spreads the guilt around. If young Gnolls take it—older Gnolls too—then the other tribes cannot object.”
“Chieftain Akrisa will. The other tribes—the responsible ones—will not allow this provocation.”
Cetrule promised grimly. Beilmark looked at him, then at Krshia.
“Why attack caravans, though?”
“Because they were Drake caravans. Woven Bladegrass does not see Drake cities as neutral, but hostile. They’ve always been in conflict with other Drake cities, since they were founded. They would like other tribes to join them.”
The [Shaman] growled, exasperated. Krshia stirred.
“They’ll start a war.”
She glanced at the others for confirmation. Cetrule nodded, angry, worried.
“That is what they want. We must press them to stop. Force them to stop! Chieftain Akrisa’s meeting with Plains Eye will be interrupted for this. Before more can happen—Krshia, will you come with me?”
She nodded and the Gnolls rose. They went to find the other Chieftains to make a mass-decision. More were hunting for the Chieftain of the Woven Bladegrass tribe, Chieftain Werri.
Of course, they were too slow. By the time the other Chieftains were demanding to know where she was, news of what she’d done hit them.
Paworkers. They were a phenomenon in some Drake cities.
Even if they did not exist, many cities had far more acrimonious relationships between species. Mostly Gnoll and Drake.
It was a phenomenon that Senior Guardsman Relc was getting to know. However, this was not the city he had been sent to. This one was closer to the Gnoll Plains. For all that—or perhaps because of that—it had a bad reputation for inter-species conflicts.
Of course, they went one way in the City of Selpysh. It was Drake-held, and had strong links to the City of War, Manus.
It was just another day in one of the bars with a higher-than-average Gnoll presence. However, the Watch was cracking down on a fight.
A Drake had taken objection to a few Gnolls and decided to sort the matter out himself. Well—many such incidents occurred, between Drake and Drake, Gnoll and Gnoll.
But if you looked for it, you could find it. A bloody-mouthed Gnoll was being shielded by a female Gnoll smaller than he was, and the Watch didn’t care.
“You’re under arrest. What happened, sir?”
One of the [Guardsmen] went to grab the Gnoll, while the Drake gave an angry accounting.
“You’re just going to arrest him? Stop!”
The female Gnoll tried to block one of the temporary workers, the Gnoll. He was trying to tell her to shut up before she made it worse. The Watch just grabbed her too, for interfering with their job. She began to struggle.
“…And that’s when they break her teeth, fine her, and throw her in jail. What am I supposed to see, hm?”
One of the Gnolls sitting at the table observed at the scene tiredly. He did not like it, of course. However, he studied the two sitting across from him.
No City Gnolls, these. The Woven Bladegrass [Siege Juggernaut] was massive. He was attracting attention from the Watch just by sitting here, despite not having been part of the altercation. However, they were clearly thinking their squad was not the one who should tackle this.
“This is what happens in cities like these. The other tribes would have peace—let this sort of thing continue. You know of Paworkers.”
The first Gnoll nodded. He was far smaller than the Woven Bladegrass’ representative. Two other Gnolls shifted uncomfortably.
Nearly sixteen tribes’ warriors were in the city of Selpysh. Not all in the same bar. However, they were presumably watching similar scenes. It spoke to the city, perhaps, that Woven Bladegrass had been confident they would find such examples at any given moment.
“I do not like this. I do not at all. However, these are Drake cities. We know this is how it happens.”
The [Master Slinger] of the Loofrel tribe glanced at the Gnolls, her brow deeply troubled. The Woven Bladegrass [Warrior] nodded. So did a Steelfur Gnoll. Despite his differences with Woven Bladegrass, he seemed ready to stand up.
“This does not change the fact that war between tribe and city is dangerous.”
The Steelfur Gnoll pointed out, half-reaching for his weapon. The gate guards hadn’t allowed Gnolls to carry noticeable weapons into the city, though, so the [Mace Gnoll] didn’t have his weapon, only a belt-knife.
“Do you think this is acceptable?”
Both Gnolls were on the ground now, being kicked. The first Gnoll took a drink of something as the other Gnolls looked uncomfortable. He calmly glanced up at the younger, taller Gnolls.
“Honored Berr, what do you think?”
The old [Berserker] saw the other Gnolls turn to him. He eyed the young Gnoll and temporary worker as they were dragged up. He drained his cup, less moved by the Woven Bladegrass’ persuasion than the others. He had seen this before.
However, he was here. He shrugged at the [Juggernaut].
“I don’t think it matters what I think right now. Warrior Devl, did your Chieftain come here to persuade us with words and sight? I do not think so, no. Tell me—does she do this often?”
He turned. Uncomprehending, the other two non-Woven Bladegrass Gnolls turned in their seats. They had been told they’d meet Chieftain Werri. But she wasn’t…
Berr stared at the shorter, female Gnoll who’d been dragged into the arrest. The angry Drake who’d started it all was talking to the bored Senior Guardsman. The patrol leader heard more shouting.
“Shut up that damned Gnoll alr—”
He turned just in time to see the shorter female Gnoll press her wrists against the manacles on her arms. The [Guard] raised a club.
The Gnoll snapped the iron manacles. The Gnoll worker under arrest with the bloody mouth, the squad of [Guards], and the angry Drake all stopped. They stared at the manacles.
One of the Drakes licked her lips. She looked at the female Gnoll. Who…seemed a bit taller now. A bit more muscular. She rubbed at her wrists; one of the [Guards] had given her a bloody nostril.
“Um. Did someone’s [Dangersense] just go off?”
One of the [Guards] turned her head slowly. The one with a club swung it.
“Don’t you d—”
Honored Berr took some satisfaction from watching the Drake hit the wall. Chieftain Werri, taller now, inspected the Gnoll next to her. His mouth was wide open.
“High-level criminal! Call for—”
The Senior Guardsman backed up, fumbling for his whistle. The other [Guards] tried to go for Werri.
They never had a chance, of course. However, Werri let the Senior Guardsman blow the whistle. She walked over to the table of other Gnolls. The [Master Slinger] and [Mace Gnoll] looked horrified.
“Chieftain! We’re going to be arrested.”
“No we aren’t.”
Berr said it at the same time as Werri. He met her eyes. She was grinning wildly, fury and excitement in her eyes. He just sighed and massaged one shoulder. Then he got up. And he was already a foot taller.
“What’s going on? You’re not going to fight the Watch?”
Werri looked at the nervous Steelfur Gnoll. Berr just shook his head. He pushed back his mug.
“Young Gnoll. Don’t be silly. Fight the Watch?”
The Steelfur Gnoll relaxed too soon. Chieftain Werri was standing on the tabletop. She surveyed the other shocked Gnolls in the pub.
“I am Chieftain Werri of the Woven Bladegrass tribe! Tell me, do you want to live like this? Do you want to live every day letting these Drakes, this city insult you, arrest you and beat you down?”
The Gnolls in the bar stared up at her. The Woven Bladegrass [Juggernaut] slowly stood up behind his Chieftain. The Steelfur Gnoll and the Loofrel Gnoll turned to Berr. The old [Berserker] shook his head. He was growing, and his own internal fury was slowly…building.
“Young Gnoll. Fight the Watch? Don’t be silly. Haven’t you ever seen the start to a city sacking? We’re not fighting the Watch. We’re fighting—everything.”
He grinned. The Steelfur Gnoll’s jaw dropped in horror.
Chieftain Werri raised her arm and she was joined by a roar from angry, fed-up Gnolls. Berr saw the first ones storm from the bar as the Watch reinforcements came down the street.
They were a good Watch. Led by former Manus soldiers. Indeed, they had a [Captain] who had served with distinction in Manus’ army who was also the [Mayor].
The Gnolls in the city weren’t warriors by and large. However, Chieftain Werri and the hundred or so Woven Bladegrass Gnolls were. She raced out of the tavern at the squads of Drakes.
Berr and the [Juggernaut] walked onto the walls. The City Watch tried to stop them of course. However, it was Honored Berr and…he tossed a screaming Drake onto a rooftop and pointed.
“You honor us. Will you fight with Chieftain Werri?”
Berr glanced over his shoulder. She was storming towards the city hall, intent on taking on the ex-[Captain] herself. She hadn’t even needed a sword.
A Manus-allied city. Berr wondered how much trouble they were going to be in. He shrugged amicably, and watched as the now Gnoll-held wall waited for reinforcements.
Eight thousand Gnolls were racing across the open ground from cover. They were running for ropes being tossed down the walls, or the gates which had been seized. Berr heard the howling, growing louder, striking fear into the hearts of the Drake citizens. He sat on the battlements, feet dangling there.
“It’s not as fun as it used to be. I’m growing old.”
He complained as he watched.
The Woven Bladegrass tribe’s raids of the caravans were all but forgotten. Krshia, Cetrule, Akrisa, and dozens of other Gnolls and [Chieftains] all stared into the distance.
It appeared Chieftain Werri’s method of dealing with blame or trouble was simple. Cause more trouble, until the first incident was forgotten.
…No. No one was going to forget this. It was a thin trail of smoke from here. The news though, hit the Meeting of Tribes.
The Woven Bladegrass had sacked a city. They were taking their spoils into the Gnoll Plains, to donate it to the Meeting of Tribes as part of their gift. Worse—high-level warriors in all the major tribes had participated, willingly or not.
Including a member of Az’muzarre.
The Meeting of Tribes was getting more exciting every second. Chieftain Orelighn hated it.
All he wanted was for his small Greenpaw tribe to do better. He did not like talk of war; his tribe was a rare settlement-tribe, not a nomadic one that could flee enemy armies.
Nor was his tribe large enough to like thinking of fighting any Drake city. So he was doubly unhappy with the news, especially since he had really liked the gold bracelet he’d been given until he realized it was purloined goods.
Well, all that meant he was restless, but he composed his face because the other Chieftain was important. More important than Greenpaw; perhaps an up and coming tribe. It hurt a bit, but that was new tribes with momentum for you.
Yet the young Gnoll was very, very respectful. Which was so gratifying to Orelighn, who was often at the bottom of such pecking orders.
“Chieftain Mrell, thank you for your time. Apologies if I find the news of the Woven Bladegrass’ actions…disturbing.”
“Not at all, Chieftain Orelighn. Our tribes are both stationary tribes. Mine smelts, yours farms. We should be more cautious of antagonism with other tribes.”
The Chieftain of the Demas Metal tribe had a covered object in front of him. Orelighn nodded gratefully. The younger Gnoll was a former [Warrior], perhaps, but his new tribe had taken to smithing.
“Indeed. I am ah, curious, as all are in your new, wondrous metal. Demas.”
“A mix of Orichalcum and other alloys. Not as impressive as adamantine—but as good as mithril, if a bit heavier. However—durable beyond steel, even Dwarfsteel! I hope it will change the fortunes of all Gnoll tribes.”
Mrell did not lack for ambition. However, he had asked to meet Orelighn for some reason, when he could be talking to Steelfur. Orelighn nodded.
“An ambition I share, of course. How can Greenpaw aid your Demas Metal tribe then, Chieftain Mrell? Have some more snacks, I encourage you.”
The younger Chieftain brightened and he ate some of the snacks from the Silverfangs and Liscor. Orelighn hadn’t eaten them, despite being sorely tempted, and was using them to impress visitors.
“You are too kind, Chieftain Orelighn. These come from the north?”
“Yes, Liscor. Delightful, aren’t they?”
The Gnoll nodded.
“I have been north and south, but never encountered such dishes—wonderful.”
“You are widely travelled. A Plains Gnoll all your life?”
“All my life. I learned how to spot new ores, so discovering Demas Metal…well, my tribe is small, new, and I am the first Chieftain, but it may be large one day. However, we are [Smiths], [Smelters], [Miners]…not [Growers]. I came to you, Chieftain Orelighn, because your tribe is known to grow food best of all tribes.”
“Hardly as well as Oteslia. A poor choice in some ways for a tribe.”
Orelighn was still flattered. Mrell had a way with words. The young Chieftain shook his head.
“As we now see, Drake cities and Gnoll tribes are not always allies. Chieftain Orelighn, your fields could feed my tribe. If we could come to a trade arrangement, both tribes could grow richer.”
That made Orelighn excited. A steady partner tribe, especially one like this? He nodded, sitting back and having some of the sweet, flavored popcorn himself.
“This is an idea I would…certainly love to explore.”
“I as well. I hope this gift may convince you that Demas Metal would offer more than mere gold. Please; when I knew I would meet with you, I had my [Smiths] commission it.”
Orelighn’s heart beat faster. Surely not—? He tugged the cloth aside and saw a…hoe…made out of the blue Demas Metal. Sky-blue, delicate, with a ribbon pattern…
Fit for a blade. But a hoe? Orelighn blinked.
“So much Demas in this! This hoe…it is a wonderfully forged piece, Chieftain Mrell. But a hoe?”
“I know it may seem an odd gift, but I encourage you to have your people attempt to use it. I considered a scythe, but a hoe would strike rocks, and soil constantly. Even the strongest steel dulls.”
True enough. Orelighn hated the costs of replacing them. Normally, hoes were durable, but if you were chopping magical plants with their stupid, edge-dulling roots for instance…
Mrell gestured to the gleaming farming tool.
“This is lighter than steel. And—I wish you to test this—I do not think it will dull! If it does, it will be at a twentieth, a thirtieth the rate of steel. Perhaps even a hundred times slower. Consider that for your workers.”
Orelighn did. He began to like this gift more and more.
“Chieftain Mrell, I will give it to my best [Farmers]. This—this is a generous gift. You have my thanks.”
The other Chieftain nodded, modestly. He took another bite of the popcorn and then went on.
“It is my only regret that the Demas metal is not finished. It could be improved. It is a new alloy, and another insight into new metallurgy would benefit my tribe greatly.”
Orelighn paused, in inspecting the tool. He glanced up. Mrell met his eyes.
“I have heard, Chieftain Orelighn, that the Greenpaw tribe has an object of fine metallurgy. It is my hope I could obtain a sample. Just a sample, that our tribes might work together.”
The other Chieftain licked his lips. Who had told him? How did he know? Well, every Gnoll had a mouth…he hesitated.
“This is a complex issue, Chieftain Mrell. It is a gift to the tribes, and I am already…allied…with other tribes. It is not something that belongs to me alone.”
“I understand, Chieftain Orelighn. Nor would I interfere with any of that. However, just a piece might allow me to level or my tribe to improve. Time is of the essence, after all.”
Especially if he wanted to make a breakthrough to improve his tribe’s worth. Orelighn’s eyes flickered. He was still inclined to say ‘no’. Right up until Chieftain Mrell presented him with a second bundle.
“I would consider it a deep debt between our tribes, Chieftain Orelighn.”
It was a bag of holding. And inside…Orelighn gulped at the gold coins glittering there. He looked up and Chieftain Mrell was poised. Polite, confident—rich from his new metal.
“Perhaps…I could part with a small piece or two. If it was kept extremely secret.”
Both Gnolls smiled. Orelighn gestured.
“A sample is in a safe place. If you will follow me?”
They rose. Orelighn hurried Mrell out of the tent, looking around. There weren’t many Silverfangs or Longstalker’s Fang Gnolls in his poorer camp, but they were close by.
It wasn’t a betrayal! Well—it was just him using every connection he could. Orelighn told himself that Mrell was a Gnoll it was good to make connections with. Just a piece…
He was searching for Krshia, Inkarr, Deskie, Eska—anyone who might see them when a loud commotion made him flinch. Mrell turned, head sharp, and the two Chieftains saw an event taking place.
Only—not one aimed at them. Orelighn slipped into the guarded storehouse and handed Mrell a covered object the Gnoll took, inspected, smiled at, and slipped into his bag of holding. He bowed to Orelighn and then the two went to see what the issue was.
“Make way! This Gnoll is a criminal! Make way!”
A group of Gnolls charged with keeping order were forcing the crowd apart, for all they’d summoned them with a banging of a gong. Orelighn and Mrell both appeared to see one of the traditionalist tribes, Sofang, escorting a Gnoll between them.
Sofang…what was that? Orelighn recalled they were a loyal tribe to the old ways.
“Sofang? They’re charged with making sure order occurs in the Meeting of Tribes.”
Mrell was surprised. Orelighn blinked.
“You know them?”
“Trap specialists. Good fighters; they often work for Plain’s Eye. Traditionalists.”
Which meant he and his Demas Metal were the exact opposite of theirs—although Demas Metal had been carefully neutral. All that was fine and the two Chieftains stood at the front of the crowd, having done nothing wrong, only perhaps a trifle underhanded and that was on Orelighn’s conscience.
So why did one of the Gnolls with a bow spot the two and spit at their feet? Orelighn was shocked! Mrell though, just appeared resigned.
“What was that about? Is Demas Metal at odds with Sofang?”
“No. Not at all, Chieftain Orelighn.”
Mrell watched the [Archer] walk past, one of the security detail. She never looked at him again. He shook his head.
“My…partner. That is all. I was part of Sofang, for a while. I left to start Demas Metal.”
“Ah. I understand.”
Love and loss. Orelighn was used to that sort of thing as a Chieftain. He felt that young Inkarr might have the same relationship with Tkrn in time—then again, perhaps not. Human and Gnoll? It could work.
It was just a backdrop to the moment. The real event was when the Sofang’s leader—not the [Archer]—shouted.
“This Gnoll has been discovered to be tricking other Gnolls and falsely claiming abilities she does not have! She will now admit such for all to hear and apologize to the tribes!”
He yanked the hood off the Gnoll’s face. And there she was. Orelighn stared up at the young female Gnoll, who stammered her confession of guilt before the booing and shouting drowned her out. He looked up at Ferkr.
…He had no idea who she was.
Krshia Silverfang did, though. The Gnoll [Mage]’s admission of guilt rocked her. Especially because Ferkr was confessing to not being a [Mage] at all. To have been lying to her master, Grimalkin, and pretending to use mage-magic when she was just a [Shaman].
She was lying, of course. Krshia stared at Ferkr as the Gnoll was summarily expelled from the Meeting of Tribes by the guards. She was lying.
But…why? All Krshia knew was that she had found Grimalkin’s apprentice. The Sinew Magus was not going to like this, though.
Not one bit.
Torture sucked. It didn’t have to be physical…mental torture was a terrible thing. Yet physical torture…it was bad too.
On the whole of it, magical spells blasting your mind or changing you, erasing parts of yourself was perhaps the greater threat as a whole and every smart military body trained their people to resist that kind of thing as best they could.
However—physical torture came in many forms. Horrible forms. Mutilation, rape, physical pain…
It was hard not to run through the list of ways she knew she could be tortured. Especially the most obvious one. She knew—she knew it was not likely. She hoped it was not.
Yet Captain Bevussa of the Wings of Pallass still thought of it. She was a prisoner of Goblins. She thought these were…not the same Goblins who might do that.
However, every adventurer knew the danger. Especially female adventurers. Kin and Issa were female. Bevussa was female.
“Captain. If there’s a chance—”
“Shut. Up. Kin. If it comes to that—we deal with it.”
Bevussa sat in her cell. No manacles; Kin and Issa were in other cells. Which was interesting, because the cells seemed new. As in—someone had built them just for right now.
The three Wings of Pallass looked at each other. Three. It should have been four. Zassil was dead. Killed in the battle with Hectval. She still missed him.
If she had led her team into the worst nightmare for a female adventurer…Bevussa closed her eyes.
“I have a pill in my ankle-bracelet.”
Issa spoke grimly. Bevussa opened her eyes.
“It’s not going to come to that, you two.”
“But if it does…”
“…It would have happened already. You know what happens with [Bandits] or—other groups.”
The two Drakes hesitated. That was true. They’d been tossed in here for a day, but none of them had been assaulted or tortured. In fact, they’d been fed a quite nice meal by a Goblin who just grunted when they asked questions. The only torture had been the spices.
The worry in Bevussa’s mind, even if these were the Goblins she thought they were, was the battle. It had been chaos and they’d been fighting for their lives, but she knew her team had killed or wounded some Goblins. Fair was fair; the Goblins had hit both their teams as they went for the Titan and fought monsters, but would they see it that way?
The Titan of Baleros, and those idiots had to be greedy. He had literally called down the mountains on their heads. Thunderstorms, monster attacks and the Goblins. Dead gods. Bevussa didn’t know what to expect next, but she was prepared for the worst.
A door opened. A Goblin walked down the steps, slowly. Kin and Issa tensed. Bevussa’s beak opened wide. She reached for the iron bars.
“Listen. We know Erin Solstice. The Wandering Inn. We didn’t know Goblins were here, but we know Erin Solstice.”
The Hobgoblin looked at her. Bevussa stopped speaking and stared. Badarrow regarded Bevussa through red-rimmed eyes.
The fortress was called Goblinhome. It was home to the last major Goblin tribe in this region of Izril. The Flooded Waters tribe. Or that was what they had been.
Now, they were Redfangs, Mountain City Goblins, Cave Goblins, Goldstone Goblins, and many more. They were her Goblins, and this was their last, their first, their only home.
Goblinhome. Built into the trapped valley, a fortress of stone and wood. It had repelled Frost Wyverns, other monsters, and even taken out adventurers.
However, its greatest strength had been secrecy; that no one knew it was here. Now, they did.
Rags did not like that. Then again, she did not like many things that happened to her. They happened anyways. Adventurers had escaped the impromptu battle in the High Passes that had started due to some kind of…Skill that made Sharpstick attack.
He was doing penance, as he saw it. Dangerous patrols, shoveling poo-pits…Rags had told him it was not his fault. Sometimes, though, a Goblin had to do what they felt was right.
Adventurers were going to come and attack. She knew it was an inevitability. She just wished she had longer to prepare.
Then again, they were always coming. Goblinhome was far more than the primitive fortifications it had been. Miners had dug into the rock, constructed very lovely inner tunnels, choke points, and the layers of traps had been reinforced again and again. With as much cunning as Rags’ brain could come up with.
However, she had also faced the problems of a growing tribe, even one depleted by the battle at Liscor where so many had died. Goblins made babies quick, and little Goblin bands had found her.
Plus, she had Ogres to feed. That was why…she closed her eyes.
She had done what had to be done. Even before the incident with adventurers, she knew reprisals would occur. She checked her new, shiny boots.
Leather, in her size no less. Very well-made.
…Not made for Goblins, but they’d been adjusted. Rags stared at them for a moment, then checked her armor, the enchanted chainmail and leather, Carn Wolf fur neck, the huge crossbow that was now more comfortable on her growing back, her shortsword, also enchanted, and the two magical rings she’d added.
Then and only then, she went to meet Bevussa. Rags marched down tunnels in Goblinhome, past shorter Goblins. She had always been small, even for a regular Goblin, but she was growing. Slowly; not as fast as Hobs. She was very young to be a Hob, hence why they thought she was growing slower.
Maybe it was a Chieftain thing. For here walked the [Great Chieftain] of the High Passes. Rags. She was met by a Goblin waiting, also shorter than average for a Hob, but taller than her as of yet.
He nodded at her. Redscar had his twin swords; no Thunderfur since the Carn Wolf hated the narrower corridors deeper in the fortress.
“Just for while. Gold-ranks all walking about.”
His voice was…cautious. Rags caught the implicit language in the way he stood, the way he didn’t reach for his swords. Of course she trusted him and he trusted her judgment. Just in case, then.
She didn’t argue. Rags marched into one of the great rooms in Goblinhome and found the three adventurers staring at the manufacturing halls. For a second she felt a flash of irritation. Did Badarrow have to take them here?
The [Sniper] had confirmed them, but there was such a thing as caution! The Wings of Pallass were now front-row to seeing a Thunderbow being constructed from Wyvern parts. The massive bone chassis of the bow flexed as Goblins tested its strength, arming the oversized crossbow that had to be mounted on the ground, not carried. It could take down a Wyvern in time and it was one of Rags’ new projects.
Thunderbows for her archers. Anyone climbing to attack Goblinhome would be met with crisscrossing fire from hidden nests, that would equalize artifact advantages. Meanwhile, Redscar would ride down on them with his Redfang riders on Carn Wolves. If that wasn’t enough?
Rags looked down and saw another of her commanders watching the Wings of Pallass, a lot less sanguinely than Redscar. She pointed, and the Hob flipping the dagger right next to Issa scowled, but relented.
Poisonbite slunk back to her group of Goblins. Cave Goblins, regular Goblins, and Hobs, all who wore grey and faded into the landscape. Unlike Redfangs, they never attacked from the front. They were ambushers, all of them armed with poison. They’d happily tag you with a poison arrow, or slash your leg and run off while you tried to heal that.
Specialist forces. Everything Rags had lacked in previous battles. With time, with effort, she was creating an army based on what she thought could take on any foe. Now—she might have to put it to the test.
The last group of her dedicated forces present was manifest in the Ogre napping, ignoring the manufacturing going on.
The Ogre had 0% of the discipline of even the most basic Goblins in Goblinhome. He was one of eighteen warriors from the Tormek Al clan along with non-fighter Ogres who’d joined them. Rags sighed.
Somo would have to deal with discipline in her ranks. She was the female Ogre who had first volunteered to join Rags’ tribe. A ‘weak’ warrior among her clan, she’d greatly enjoyed the food in Goblinhome, but added to the need for more, as well as mana potions, which the Ogres took in payment for their services as happily as gold or jewels.
In return, they formed the shock troopers of Goblinhome. If Redscar’s or Poisonbite’s forces weren’t enough, or if it was a stand-up fight, in went the Ogres—as well as Calescent’s feared spicy-brigade, who laced their weapons with pepper dust. If you laughed at that, you’d never had him blow a handful of his secret blend into your eyes. Rags would rather have been stabbed in the stomach than face that after she’d asked for a demonstration.
Well, the Ogres might be ‘weak’ in Invek’s eyes, but Rags had quickly turned the Ogres into warriors the rest of their tribe would walk wide around. Not only had she asked Redscar to put some actual training and physical conditioning into the somewhat lazy Ogre warriors, she’d made use of their abilities.
They had thick skin like armor. So she gave them more armor. Each one was covered in iron or steel armor, even Wyvern bone or hide in places to make up for the need to adjust smaller sets to them.
When they went into combat, woe to the adventurers who faced them, because the Ogres would have the same gear as [Knights]—if not enchanted. Yet.
How many will I have to kill? Rags sighed. She leaned on the balcony as Bevussa spotted her. Had they ever met? She vaguely recalled…never meeting a Garuda in her life.
Badarrow was here, the leader of her archer squads, but Snapjaw was not. She was the head of [Wyvern Riders] now, having struck a connection with the huge, hungry beasts. Thanks to them, Goblinhome had mobility.
All of this meant that when Rags walked down into the manufacturing hall, the Gold-ranks stared at her like they’d seen Tremborag in war-form. Small she might be, but they saw what she had built.
“Dead gods, Captain. This—this is—”
“Shut up. Let me talk.”
Rags heard the Garuda whisper to one of the two Oldblood Drakes. She turned and after a second, bowed slightly.
“Chieftain Rags, is it?”
Rags grunted. Badarrow eyed her, although Redscar’s face was carefully impassive. Bevussa looked at Rags.
“We’re friends of Erin Solstice. From…The Wandering Inn? You know her?”
“Mm. Tell them I know Erin.”
Rags turned to Badarrow, and the Goblin translated. She’d said that in Goblin tongue, not the common one. Bevussa eyed Rags. She nodded again.
“We are…sorry that we attacked your people. It was a mistake. We do not want to fight.”
She spoke more slowly. Rags grunted again. She nodded after a moment.
Stupid mistake. What had made Sharpstick think I told him to fight? She turned to Badarrow. He explained after a moment.
“Bevussa says it was accident. Not Sharpstick’s fault either. They said small [Strategist] did it. Titan.”
Rags’ brow wrinkled. A small Titan? She saw Bevussa exchange glances with her team.
In this way, Rags realized there was a lot about the world she still didn’t know. She might have, if she had remained at the inn.
The inn. She thought of Erin. Dead? She still couldn’t…Bevussa was looking at her. Rags schooled her features.
“You. Bevussa. What do if let go?”
She grunted, in passable common, but barely. Bevussa hesitated. Now, Rags eyed her, keeping her face mildly aggrieved.
“We would…leave. And not tell anyone about what you’re doing.”
Rags saw Bevussa glance at Issa—or Kin—she didn’t know which, warningly. Rags made herself smile.
“Not tell? Promise?”
“We would promise. So long as Goblins don’t attack other people—we would promise. On truth spells.”
Bevussa nodded seriously at Rags. The little Chieftain thought about this. She glanced past Bevussa.
“Taganchiel. Were they telling the truth, or was that a lie?”
She called past Bevussa. The Garuda’s eyes widened as Rags spoke, far more fluently than before. She turned—and the [Shaman] sitting on the balcony opened his eyes.
He was from the Mountain City tribe, and was the best [Shaman] in Goblinhome.
Rags saw Bevussa turn to look at her, the Oldblood Drakes patently shocked. Everyone thought someone who spoke poorly was stupid. She had learned that from Pyrite. So many lessons she had learned he hadn’t even needed to outright tell her. So many more she wished she’d had time to learn.
“If I let you go, you might bring an army back to attack Goblinhome. That would be a sad thing. I do not wish to have to kill an army of Drakes.”
She met Bevussa’s eyes. Rags gestured around Goblinhome.
“This is where Goblins live. You killed us one time.”
“We did not.”
Bevussa countered. Rags sighed.
“You? You are from Liscor, yes?”
The Gold-rank Captain nodded.
“We came after the battle, the siege. It was Humans who attacked your army.”
“Yes, I know. I was there. Humans attacked us. Drakes closed the gates in our faces. I saw both. Pallass tried to kill the Goblin Lord. You are Pallass’ adventurers, loyal Drakes and Garuda. I do not trust you. So—make me trust you. Or you will stay here.”
Rags met Bevussa’s eyes. Shaken, the Garuda stared at the little [Great Chieftain] of Goblinhome. Rags smiled.
“Do not worry. I am the nicest Goblin you will meet. I only wonder: are you honorable Gold-rank adventurers? Questions, questions.”
Then she walked off, rather pleased with one of her first conversations with a non-Goblin. Especially the goggle-eyed expressions. She had been practicing.
…But the person she had wanted to talk to was dead.
She was probably going to let them go. Probably. Rags had considered her options.
She was not Tremborag. She would not torture the Gold-ranks. Keeping them prisoner? They’d just try to break out, and the odds were that someone would come to rescue them.
Prey on their notions of honor, make them sweat and swear, and hope. That was all Rags could do. She was already thinking of what to do if Pallass or someone else sent an army up here.
Part of her wanted to see them run up against the High Passes’ innumerable threats. However, Rags would never forget Tyrion Veltras’ army destroying three tribes in a single stroke.
The enemy could be terribly unfair. Which was why you cheated even harder.
Rags let Bevussa stew and talk to Badarrow. She, correspondingly, listened to news of Liscor that he relayed to her.
Nothing new with the dungeon. No new armies…Gnolls in some meeting of tribes? The inn was quiet.
Erin was dead. Rags nodded. She had known as much from when he returned. Right now, she had few goals in life.
Make sure her tribe was safe. Find out what Velan had hid, and the second key, which could be anywhere in Izril, or the world.
Grow stronger. Find out the secret of Goblin Kings. Kick Greydath in between the legs.
…See if Erin could live again.
Bold goals, big goals. Impossible to quantify or easily make progress towards, except in steps. The one immediate thing Rags was thinking of as the [Sniper] stood in front of her was….
“Numbtongue. And Ulvama. Both in inn. Which one do you want, if either?”
She examined Badarrow. The [Sniper] sat there, in a chair, also not of Goblin make. Rather plush. Rags had put the best items in her rooms. Luxuries of a Chieftain.
“Numbtongue. Ulvama is…odd. If Chieftain wants, Chieftain gets.”
“Would Numbtongue come?”
“No. He stays there. With Erin.”
Badarrow looked at Rags. She nodded heavily. The five Redfangs who had saved the Cave Goblins, who had met Erin and protected her…were no more. There was only Badarrow, Rabbiteater, and Numbtongue left.
Rabbiteater had gone far away. Badarrow was here, and Numbtongue? She had never met him, but he seemed to be Erin’s guardian.
For all the good it did. Rags put the bitter thought aside. What had shocked her was the knowledge that Ulvama was alive. She remembered the [Shaman] and their brief encounter—but she was dubious on Ulvama.
The [Shaman] had tried to persuade Badarrow to take her, but he’d been understandably wary. Rags shared his judgment. Ulvama had been intelligent, but cunning, a fit for Tremborag. Not Goblinhome, not necessarily. Still, a [Shaman] of her caliber would be greatly useful.
More important to Rags was the knowledge that there were Goblins being held in a land to the north! A land she knew. Her fist clenched.
“Riverfarm matters more than Ulvama. Dangerous [Emperor] has them.”
“Safe though, says Ulvama.”
Rags shrugged. A little Cave Goblin she had known was apparently among their number, if Badarrow’s news from Ulvama was to be trusted. Rags would have already set out to rescue them, but the logistics of saving Goblins from that [Emperor] were dangerous. Still, she had [Wyvern Riders].
If only she had Gold-rank Adventurers of her own she’d rest easy. Redscar was arguably that good—Rags herself might qualify to some degree, and Badarrow and Snapjaw, but they were few compared to the monsters out there.
Like Elia Arcsinger.
Well, Rags could have debated the consequences of all these actions all day. This was a familiar tangle of thoughts, a paralysis of command she’d grown used to. She looked at Badarrow.
“You go rest. Have sad sex with Snapjaw or something. I will let Wings of Pallass go free soon.”
He almost smiled at her joke. Rags watched him go. Then she sat back. Numbtongue and Ulvama.
“…Fine. [Emperor] is treating Goblins okay? We’ll see. If not…”
First things first. Rags sat back up, and as Badarrow left her office, went to meet her second appointment of the day. She walked into the room and Calescent, Redscar, and Poisonbite all turned to her. Her [Shaman], Taganchiel, looked at her as the second prisoner-visitor to Goblinhome in as many days raised his head.
Rags pursed her lips as she stared at the Human [Rogue] who’d climbed all the way up to their mountain fortress and surrendered to the Goblins.
“Why are all of you coming now?”
The man grinned.
“As it happens, I’m not so much with that inn. Although I am by way of Ullsinoi and we do business with the Brothers now and then. My gang’s not all smash or even flash, though.”
Rags listened to the street cant as the [Rogue] spoke. He’d been divested of his gear, but he was high-level. And he’d dodged two Goblin ambush volleys before surrendering.
They might have killed him even so, but he’d gotten the Cave Goblins in the first trap-zone to hesitate. Because he’d spoken in Goblin.
She had no idea what he meant by Ullsinoi or the Brothers—he seemed to think she was more tied to The Wandering Inn than she was. So Rags dissembled.
“None mentioned your gang. How do you know Goblin?”
His eyes crossed and he replied slowly, with effort.
“Goblin taught me, obviously.”
Rags glanced at Redscar. The Goblin scowled.
“Impossible. How would Goblins and Humans work together?”
Redscar nodded as Rags turned to the [Rogue], whose name was Whet. Probably an alias.
“Y’know, it’s always been funny to me, Chieftain Rags. A fellow hears that from Humans when they hear about Goblins in gangs. Yet Goblins say the same thing when they hear we do business.”
Whet leaned back in his chair, looking calm. Rags wasn’t fooled. He was nervous. He was a good liar, but she’d upgraded herself far past being a little Goblin taught by a [Necromancer].
Her eyes flickered and she saw how hot he was. Not…hot hot, as in sexy. Rags was still not at that point. Yet the [Steelflame Strategist] could see heat. It was trickier to tell lies, but it still worked.
“We could have killed you. How many Goblins tribes kill you—people like you?”
Whet licked his lips and smiled genially. He tried to charm her, or do something—it bounced off her aura. It did work on Redscar, who had no resistance against that kind of thing, and an appreciation for anyone with a toned body. Rags scowled, jerked a thumb. Redscar left the room.
“I admit, it’s risky, making contact. There’s some unfriendly tribes out there. Heard of the Kraken Eaters? They don’t talk. Poor fellows learned that the hard way. But there’s another reasonable tribe out there. And I’m assured you knew one of the tribes we worked with from time to time. The Mountain City Tribe? Great Chieftain Tremborag?”
Rags blinked. Tremborag had…? Of course he had. She folded her arms.
“What is it you do? Buy slaves? Ask Goblins to raid places? I am not Tremborag. I would not kill you—”
Whet smiled wider, relieved. Rags went on.
“—But I would tell Poisonbite to chop off here if I don’t like what I hear.”
She gestured. Poisonbite grinned. Calescent and Whet looked uneasy. Rags wasn’t going to do that, but the [Rogue] spoke quickly.
“We don’t demand anything, Chieftain. We’re just—here—to be mutually profitable. Goblins have gold. Yet they can’t spend it. A long time ago, whomever started my gang decided that was a shame. If you had anything—anything you needed, like potions, books, trinkets you can’t get the usual way—we can help.”
Ah, they were [Traders]. Rags was surprised, then not. She supposed that she should have expected Goblins to join the underworld—if they could. Anything to survive. As for making money? Humans were greedy.
“Well, then. You can live. And keep testicles. And gonads. Even trade. If you tell about Goblinhome, though…”
She listened as Whet made his pitch, relieved to keep all his possessions. In fact, Rags asked for a catalogue, and after eying the list, turned to Calescent.
He was pointing at something in the catalog. Rags slapped his hand down. He pointed again, at the shiny cooking set. He waggled his brows. Rags scowled.
“We will buy things on this list.”
She wrote down a short list of items. After a second, she turned, punched him in the leg, and added the cooking set—he hadn’t stopped poking her until she did. Rags glared at him, and then addressed the [Chef].
“Go disarm Stupid Adventurer traps #2 and #7. Also, get playthings from crèche.”
For a second, Rags heard the word differently. She shook her head and looked at Whet. The curious [Rogue] saw the Chieftain smile.
“Playthings for little Goblins. Jewels, gold. No use for it otherwise. Same with traps.”
His mouth opened wide. Especially when she showed him the pile of gold and gemstones…right over the pitfall trap. Rags smirked.
It was amazing how many adventurers fell for it. They knew it was a trap, but they still tried to get the gold…long enough for a Goblin with a club to sneak up behind them out of the secret passage.
Rags’ brilliance among her tribe was her defining characteristic as a Chieftain. Reiss had been amazing at learning, copying. Garen was the warrior of warriors—Tremborag was fat.
Each Chieftain had a specialty. Rags’ was in plays like this. She saw Bevussa and the Wings of Pallass off at the same time as Whet.
Both [Rogue] and Gold-rank adventurer looked extremely uncomfortable as they saw each other. Rags just smiled.
“Keep promises. Goblinhome is secret.”
And good luck figuring out who the other person is. Rags had left Whet with a fortune in gold and gemstones, though. So that was why he had come with an empty bag of holding.
She shook her head, but he’d furnished her with two samples which were ‘gifts’ of his black market organization to make her eager to do business. She would have paid far more than their ludicrous rates for them anyways, and she had managed to strike a discount by pointing out to Whet that her tribe could actually buy goods via Liscor.
Of course, none of her tribe had actually gone to Liscor since Badarrow and Snapjaw, but one look at the portal stone and he’d believed it and given her a 19% discount. Rags wouldn’t have risked a door to Goblinhome anyways.
“So we’re free to go?”
As Whet left, Rags eyed Bevussa.
“Almost. Before you go—one more thing.”
She studied the Gold-ranks, who seemed a bit tense, wary, surrounded by so many Goblins. Rags sighed. Whet was an unexpected bonus, but Goblinhome’s secret was out, one way or the other. Bevussa had sworn to keep her secret, but…
“You have a question.”
Bevussa blinked. Then nodded slowly. She looked around at the Goblins. Then at Rags.
“I swore to keep this—Goblinhome and your tribe’s secret. If you didn’t attack other groups.”
Rags nodded, face blank. Bevussa frowned, her expression warring between a kind of sympathy, a desire not to believe—and suspicion. She peered down. Pointed.
“…I have to ask. Where did you get those boots?”
Kin and Issa looked down. Rags sighed. Stupid, clever bird-people. She lifted the boots, which no Goblin had made. Same as the chairs in her room, which Whet had noticed. She sighed at Bevussa.
“Goblins must live.”
She had decided to do it, in the end. Again and again. How will we break the cycle?
They needed more than they could produce, though. So again she had ordered it.
Burn the playthings. She remembered the voice. The burning Human villages. Rags’ eyes flashed crimson as Bevussa tensed. Rags turned.
The three Gold-ranks struggled, but gave up as the Hobs around them did just that. Bevussa nearly got into the air—but one look at Snapjaw, riding her personal Wyvern made her slow.
“Captain. You just had to—”
Issa was cut off as she was gagged. Rags nodded to the other Goblins.
“What now, Chieftain?”
Redscar looked at Rags. She pondered for a moment, and met Bevussa’s gaze. Rags smiled. The nicest Goblin the Garuda would ever meet shrugged.
“No help for it. Before they tell—let’s raid.”
The Redfangs whooped and grinned. Rags swung up behind Snapjaw on the Wyvern. She turned her head.
“Bring the Gold-ranks too. We’ll drop them on the way.”
Bevussa wished she could have kept her fat beak shut. She was a prisoner, dangling from a Wyvern’s claw as it flew. Goblins rode on the back, light as could be; they had bags of holding.
Perfect raiders. Damn it! I should have just asked later. But I had to know. I didn’t think she’d—
She thought Rags had been the Goblin that Erin had met and talked about. A kindly little Goblin.
Time had changed her. Bevussa had no idea who that [Rogue] was, but she knew one thing: Goblinhome was raiding.
Maybe the Humans. Maybe Pallass wouldn’t care? She owed it to her city to report it. She hoped Rags wouldn’t…force her.
But her hopes were dashed. As if to make a point, to dare them, Rags and her group flew onto a raid. Carn Wolves followed by ground.
They blindfolded the Garuda and Kin and Issa as they left Goblinhome, so they didn’t get a perfect aerial view of where the fortress was. Not that Bevussa needed it; she knew the rough area.
They could have let the three Gold-ranks go there. They could have, with only suspicions, a pair of boots, a few strange items like high-quality soap, manufactured, dyed fabric.
They showed the three everything. Two days after her capture and then release, as Eldavin’s great history lesson was going on, the Goblins let the prisoners watch a raid.
It was everything Bevussa had feared. Worse—Rags gave her orders, watching the history lecture on a scrying orb with half an eye for the battle. She pointed, once.
The explosion consumed a trio of [Guards]. Bevussa saw the last go flying like a toy doll. She wanted to believe…no.
That was not non-lethal. If she had any doubts, watching the Redfangs on Carn Wolves descend and attack the survivors of the Thunderbow’s ambush settled her doubts. They swung their blades with lethal efficiency, and then the Goblins stripped the caravan.
Worse—this would mean intervention. This was not something Pallass would entertain, to weaken the north.
They were Drakes dying. Rags looked at Bevussa, from her perch where she’d directed the slaughter.
“Do you see?”
Bevussa saw. She glared, gagged, unable to speak. Rags looked at her. She gestured.
“Not yet. Snapjaw! How many more caravans by scout?”
“Three. They want supplies bad. Big escorts.”
She and the Goblin warband were on the wing within twenty minutes. They dove out of the skies on the second caravan. Bevussa saw Rags sitting on her Wyvern. The Goblin Chieftain bellowed.
Like a [Commander]. Like a miniature [Warlord] in green. Her sword pointed, and the Drakes looked up at the unfamiliar voice. They scrambled—
Six huge Hobs who’d set up Thunderbows fired. The bolts took out the [Caravan Leader], the head of the [Guards], a [Mage]—and they were reloading.
Redscar raced out of cover, whooping. Snapjaw and her Wyvern dove from above, dropping a stone from a bag of holding that sent the [Guards] scrambling for cover.
A second slaughter. Bevussa saw Rags turn to her.
“Do you see?”
Bevussa struggled to shout. Kin and Issa were staring hatred. Rags looked at Bevussa. Pleadingly? No—not even that guiltily. She spoke.
“I was angry. I am. Figure it out. Third caravan. Snapjaw, go!”
They flew. The third caravan knew. They were spread out, using the wagons as cover. It didn’t matter. Rags blew apart one barricade with a [Fireball], her magic. She set up the Thunderbows out of the Drakes’ range and made them sally forth or die. This time the Redfangs loosed bows, refusing to even close.
A bloodless victory on one side. Death on the other. Bevussa saw halfway through the last Drakes dying, refusing to surrender. Drakes did not run.
She began laughing hysterically through her gag. Rags looked at her. She began laughing too. She cut at Bevussa’s gag and stood back. The Gold-rank Captain focused on Rags. She inspected the distant caravan, which the Goblins were setting to light after looting it of whatever they wanted. But before they did, she spoke.
Issa and Kin stopped struggling. They peered at the caravan and guards. The Drake caravan. No Humans, no Gnolls, which was odd if you thought about it. Liscor wouldn’t run a one-species caravan.
Rags grinned. She gestured, and her Wyverns took wing. She was raiding caravans. She was attacking…just not every target.
The reason Hectval-Luldem-Drisshia had not attacked Liscor was due to the distance, and their defeat, however pyrrhic it had been. Also, fear of the Antinium.
But also because every trading caravan had been hit in the last month. Only with an army’s worth of [Soldiers] for an escort would their mysterious attackers not strike.
It was not justice. However. Rags was content with that. She looked at Bevussa’s expression, and nodded.
“One more stop. Then you go.”
A truth of all species was that change was inevitable. Smart peoples prepared for it, as Rags had known Goblinhome would always one day be revealed.
Change. Sometimes it was individuals.
Anand had not moved since Wrymvr had left, although it had been about eight hours. He spoke.
“You are lucky. You—ancestor of mine. For you know nothing of pain except…pain. Which doesn’t hurt as much as feelings.”
The little ant crawled on his finger. Anand stared at it, and then flicked it off him. He lay on his back.
Until he heard the thrumming. The vast beating of wings unlike any bird or creature in the skies save one.
Wrymvr the Deathless had returned. He was carrying something too. Anand heard the screaming long before the Centenium landed. He gazed up. His mandibles opened wide.
“Goat? What happened to you?”
He scrambled to his feet. The Soldier slid off Wrymvr’s back and lay on the ground in a ball. He hated flying. Anand looked at Wrymvr, shocked, angry!
However, he realized the screaming hadn’t stopped. After all, Goat was a Soldier. They didn’t make sounds the same way as Workers.
Slowly, the [Strategist] turned as Wrymvr put something on the ground. It scrambled away from the Centenium, screaming.
“Antinium! You monsters! Dead gods—fleets take me. I’m—I’m—”
Anand saw the half-fish features. The duskier skin. His mandibles opened wide.
The Drowned Person turned to him and Anand realized—this was not Seborn! Seborn was male. And the fish-parts were different. He slowly rotated.
“Wrymvr. What have you…done?”
For answer, Wrymvr gently pulled something off his back. Even a good bag of holding could only store a certain amount of material. Perfect bags of holding like the ones Ryoka Griffin had were magically neutral—but couldn’t hold more than the contents of a single room at most.
Which was why [Merchants] used chests of holding. Wrymvr couldn’t strap it to his back, of course. And hands were useful—even a Soldier’s hands. Which was why he’d brought Goat.
It was a very nice chest of holding too. Even so, only half of the small ship had fit inside.
“Have to get second. Come, Goat.”
Wrymvr picked up the Soldier, who flailed again. Anand shouted.
“What—what have you done?”
The Centenium turned to him, looking as amused as he could be. The Drowned Person was running, but Antinium were already emerging from the Hive. To capture it. Wrymvr indicated the broken wreckage.
He pointed at the distant Drowned Person.
“Wh-wh—really? You just attacked—”
Anand was hyperventilating. Wrymvr hesitated. He looked at the Drowned Person, cleaned some blood off a mandible, and amended his statement.
“Just a [Pirate]. Anand will build ships.”
He took off again. Anand looked at the half of a ship. He looked at the Drowned Person, screaming, and then at Wrymvr, flying, clutching the flailing Goat under him.
He was never drinking again. See what happened?
The potential for someone to change things was great. Krshia Silverfang knew that too. Of course, she was often surprised by chance-encounters and events. Just look at Tkrn and Inkar. She had no idea how that had turned into Lehra, of course.
Now, though, she thought that this would improve matters greatly. She waved from the hilltop where she’d been waiting and heard an answering howl. A group of [Riders] accelerated. Yet that was not who Krshia bounded down the slope to meet.
Rather, it was the strange vehicle and young woman determinedly peddling it towards the Gnoll camp. Rose looked sweaty, but she’d gotten the hang of riding—and the bike could actually outdistance the horses!
“Miss Rose. You are just in time, yes? So quickly, too! Where is Mrsha?”
“Not here, Krshia. Elirr decided she was too young for the trip.”
“She will have to come soon.”
Krshia scowled, but then beamed at Rose. Not least because Rose had brought the bicycle, spare sports equipment, copies of the plays—any number of gifts for Lehra and the other tribes.
“This is going to be amazing. Where’s Inkar? I have some electronics to show her—I want to hug her and ask her about everything! She must have been so—”
Rose was walking a bit unsteadily after days of riding the bike. However, her face fell as she looked at the other Gnolls. For all they were glad to be here in safety after their journey, their faces quickly turned from relief to…
“What is the matter?”
Krshia halted. Had they gotten wind of the Woven Bladegrass’ madness? Was it already affecting the other city’s dispositions?
No. Rose looked at the leader of the caravan. The Silverfang Gnoll looked at Krshia, gravely.
“We made it here, but we were barely ahead of the second group on the road, Honored Krshia. They’re right behind us.”
“What other group? Another tribe?”
“No. They came the same way as we—they left earlier, but moved far slower. They’re literally an hour behind. Az’muzarre practically ignored us. You—you may have to tell them to stop. They were ready to slaughter all of them, Pallass’ escort or not.”
Slaughter all of…? Krshia’s hair rose. She scented it, carried on the group. She spoke one word.
They had arrived. Prisoners, yes.
But Raskghar. Krshia looked at Rose, then shook her head.
“Come. Worry not about Raskghar, no. You, Rose—come.”
She led them forwards. Inkar, talking with Tkrn, tickling him gently, looked up. Her hands fell away. She stood, uncertainly. Rose gasped. She began running, arms spread wide. Inkar heard her shouting, and her eyes filled with tears.
Rose met Inkar.
The last visitors of the day to the city of Esthelm came through the gates. They were promptly stopped by the [Guards].
“You there. Halt.”
The Guard instructed one of the figures. The person turned, looking surprised, but not saying a word. They gestured at their face as if to say, ‘me, but why me?’
The [Guards] were more vigilant than most cities. They were former [Militia] who’d become regular [Soldiers], [Warriors], [Sentries], [Watchwomen], and so on.
This [Gate Watchwoman], a specialist in fighting at…gates…rolled her eyes.
“Yes, you. Are you serious? Your group. Stop. Hands up.”
The figures halted. The other people entering the city—and they weren’t many—backed away as the [Guards] drew their weapons. They didn’t play games. The [Watchwoman] pointed.
“I’ve never seen—you think you can just walk in? Like that? Are you serious?”
The masked figure in front, with a hood over their head, began to speak. The [Watchwoman] ignored her.
“Mask off! Hood off!”
She looked at her squad, who were ready for anything. Part of the [Gate Guard] was just…incredulous. Who thought someone wearing a face-mask and a hood wasn’t suspicious?
The carved, painted wooden mask was blocking the person’s features, and the rest of the small group. They wore heavy hooded cloaks that disguised everything about them. They were the most suspicious group the [Gate Guard] had ever seen.
The great disguise of Garen Redfang, as it turned out, was not that useful as the legends said. The arrows were nocked, ready to fire. The leader of the trio hesitated.
“Mask off or we fire!”
The [Gate Guard] had already signaled for reinforcements. At this, the leader apparently decided there was no help for it. Slowly, they reached up, removed the mask—
“Hold your fire, Guardswoman. Please.”
The [Watchwoman] saw Bevussa look at her as she tossed her hood back. Issa removed her mask, and so did Kin.
“Is that…the Wings of Pallass?”
One of the [Guards] recognized the three. The [Watchwoman] lowered her crossbow.
“Captain Bevussa? Why are you dressed like that?”
“It’s a long story, Guardswoman…”
Bevussa had no idea, really. All she knew was that Rags’ last ‘request’ was that Bevussa had to wear hood, robes, and mask as they were dropped off a walking distance away from Esthelm. She was as confused as the [Guards], but it was clear she wasn’t a Goblin.
On the other hand, further into the city, a Goblin happily walked into Esthelm, glancing around merrily, nudging his companion every five seconds.
“Look at that.”
“I see it. Stop nudging.”
“Look at that. Chieftain, buy me that.”
He pointed to a window display, tugging her back to point at a handsome cast iron pan. Imagine how many meals he could make on that! Rags punched his leg.
To any amused observer, it seemed like a daughter punching her father in the leg. Well—they appeared vaguely related, and that was enough for silly Humans who hadn’t seen many of their kind. A male half-Elf and a younger, female half-Elf child.
Rags wondered if the illusion on the rings did that because of the pointed ears. She kept checking her reflection, but she hadn’t even needed Bevussa’s distraction.
“Amazing. Am I handsome?”
Calescent stared at himself. Rags snorted.
“For a half-Elf, maybe. Hurry up.”
Whet’s gifts to the Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe had been calculated to impress a Goblin like her. They probably would have given Tremborag food or something. However, Rags? Whet had warned her she’d need to use more elaborate tricks to get into Pallass or any city with actual magical checks, but she’d walked into Esthelm easily enough.
She towed Calescent away from the stall where he was admiring knives, next, already flirting with the [Shopkeeper]. The [Chef] was happy to be here.
Redscar had refused. Snapjaw was with Badarrow, and he didn’t want to come back. So that left Calescent or Poisonbite.
Given the two, Rags preferred the [Chef]. She walked through Esthelm. There were many things to see. Many possibilities. Many things to do.
She knew the legendary smith was in this city and she wanted to meet him. She wanted to see these ‘bikes’.
Liska smiled as Imani and Palt went out to Liscor, arm in arm.
“Have a good evening, sir or madam!”
She parroted the instructions Ishkr had given her. The Gnoll, who was on door-duty, waited until she closed the door and had begun changing the dial, checking the other doors. She did pause to sniff the air, though.
“How, though? Is it…lots…and lots of oil? Is he really, really small? Or do they have a contraption? Or maybe—”
She opened the door, letting in someone from Celum who wanted to go to Pallass. Sighing, Liska did that, letting them deal with the checkpoint.
She was counting the minutes until her break. At least she didn’t have to talk to people. She opened the door to Esthelm.
“Anyone through to Liscor or elsewhere? We are not accepting guests for The Wandering Inn, as the inn is closed…”
She stopped as someone stepped through. The second visitor was a genial half-Elf, who peered around, rubbing his hands. But the first person, who was fumbling with her hand, had been shielded by his back.
A short Goblin walked into the inn as Liska’s eyes opened wide. She breathed in, slowly, and stared around the portal room. She looked at the Gnoll, at the unfamiliar walls, floor…
So familiar. So not. She listened, to the silent inn, scampering feet, to her own beating heart. Rags waited a moment.
Then she stepped forwards.
She was back. She walked out of the portal room as Liska eyed Rags, the half-Elf, decided it wasn’t her business, and went back to spacing out until the sand timer counted down ten minutes again. Rags emerged into the hallway that was unnaturally long, and gave her eerie vibes, and halted.
So quiet. So…forlorn. Someone was missing.
Someone had returned. And as if that changed things, amid the silence of the inn, the few living people, the Hobgoblin with his head bowed in the [Garden of Sanctuary], the [Shaman] and little Gnoll playing tag, the Titan sitting and scowling next to the bee in the rafters—
The door of The Wandering Inn burst open. Someone rushed in the regular way, having not been able to get through the portal door with Liska operating it in time. She was panting, clutching at her chest, having run all the way here.
Her light green scales and dress were a bit sweaty. Selys gasped, and then shouted, missing Rags and Calescent, who’d drawn a kitchen knife and bag of red powder.
Selys Shivertail shouted. The noises stopped. She gasped, then shouted, her voice cracking with nerves.
“They’re doing it! They’re attacking the Village of the Dead! It’s just begun!”
A shout from further down in the inn. Calescent blinked. Selys gasped for air—then saw the little Goblin staring up at her.
She spluttered. Rags looked up at her. She listened to the crash, the sounds of life. She smiled, nodded at Selys.
“Long time no see.”
The Drake stood, stunned, as Rags walked over to the secret door, opened it, and went inside The Wandering Inn.
To have a bite to eat.
Author’s Note: Them’s lots of words.
Not as many words as last time, but…am I gaining in word count even now? It feels so, but surely the hard-stop is my arms. Well, I do have a lot more management techniques, but there is such a thing as too many words.
Then again, for big chapters, you need lots of words. This wasn’t one chapter, but it is advancement. That’s Volume 8, I guess.
I hope you enjoyed it. I’m not sure what chapter comes next. I guess I’ll figure it out~
Nah, there’s only two it could be. Two good chapters, hopefully. I’ll see you then. For now, thanks for reading!
Today’s artist is not an artist, but a composer of songs! SystemGlitch101 has composed three new TWI-themed tracks! Give them all the approbations!