A dream without image or sound was still a dream if you knew you were having it. Each time, he did, and it was a welcome dream.
Not a happy dream. Not a…good dream. But not a bad dream, either. So he clung to it. Hoping each second would last a bit longer. Until he woke.
The dream without anything was preferable to seeing something. It was about half-and-half that he got that kind of rest. So when the Gnoll sat up automatically, before the dawn broke, he felt glad.
Chief Warrior Merish heard rustling around his small yurt; comfortable, large enough to do a small circle around in, and as plush as you could want, really. It was packed with pillows, blankets, enough so that he had complained on seeing that he didn’t need the bed; he could lie on the blankets and stay several feet off the ground.
Someone stopped just outside the tent flaps. They sensed Merish waking up; or just knew him. A furry head poked through the flaps. A grin; russet brown fur with a bit of red, like his. Unlike his though, there was no blue and white dye in a warrior’s pattern, magic, the source of part of his powers.
His sister’s fur was just fur, and for a second she reminded him of a giant squirrel, poking her head through to smile at him.
“Merish, another good morning! Did I wake you?”
“Good! Then—Sveha, Ikl. Your uncle is awake, yes? You can be louder.”
Merish heard a rustling sound, and then something small and even more squirrel-like popped through the tent flaps.
Sveha and Ikl, the two children of Merish’s sister charged into his tent. They leapt onto the bedding and the big Gnoll—until their mother called them back.
“I didn’t say you could attack your uncle! Behave!”
“It’s fine, Khaze.”
Merish got up, and stared at the two little Gnoll cubs rolling around. They sat up obediently, and he looked at little Sveha, still running around on all fours, and her older brother, Ikl.
Khaze sighed, but in the next moment she was smiling again. She led Merish out of the guest-tent in their subclan, part of the great Plain’s Eye Tribe that was camped at the Meeting of Tribes.
Around Merish was a sea of tents, and Gnolls rising to greet the pre-dawn day. Many still slept, but it reminded him of an army’s camp…and not of one at the exact same time. So many tents, but lacking the military straightness, the layout he was used to. At the same time…
Two Gnolls rolled out of the tent behind him. Merish and Khaze turned. His younger sister’s children literally rolled out, doing somersaults forward until they got dizzy and lay on the ground. Merish just stared at them. Khaze snorted with laughter.
“You two are too silly. Where did you learn that from?”
Merish blinked. Uncle? Khaze, though, just laughed again.
“He would do that.”
She wasn’t perturbed by it, so Merish said nothing. He stood in the middle of the tents, the hustle and bustle, and realized he didn’t have his axe. He wore only a loincloth; he didn’t need armor with his shaman markings—he was a [Shamanic Warrior], after all—but a weapon was different.
He almost went back into the tent for it. Almost. Then stopped himself, deliberately. He…didn’t need it.
“Well, I hoped you were up. Ikl, Sveha, get more baskets. Two…no, three. Viri will be up soon, and Ikl and you can share.”
“I don’t want to carry it!”
Ikl protested, but he was already running off. Merish looked around. He felt lost. He didn’t have morning duties, unlike his sister. He was a returning warrior from abroad. From Rhir.
A war hero, they called him. Which meant he had nothing to do, unlike his sister. Yet it seemed today she wasn’t preparing for her usual job—[Knife-edge Slicer].
An odd class, to non-Gnolls especially. What it meant was—well, that Khaze was an expert in using knives in a variety of cutting tasks. Not combat, but butchering, cutting up ingredients for both food and alchemy, cutting fabric…anything you could want in a vast tribe like this. It was the sort of class you didn’t really get in cities unless you worked all kinds of jobs.
Today, though, she handed Merish a basket. He gave it a blank look.
His sister gave him a sheepish look and put one finger to her lips as her children ran up. She looked around for a [Shaman] and whispered conspiratorially.
“I know you’re on vacation, Merish, but you would help your sister gather some plants, wouldn’t you? There’s some fine plants to be picked today, and I need every paw I can grab—especially since few are awake at this hour!”
She had another basket and her children had two. Merish stared at the gathering basket, which he hadn’t used for over a decade, since earning his warrior markings. He didn’t mind the task, but he had to point out something he thought Khaze had forgotten. He gestured around at the tents. They stretched as far as the eye could see and hundreds of cook-fires were already beginning to glow.
This was only a fraction of the Meeting of Tribes, though. Soon, there would be countless tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Gnolls mingling and mixing. Tribes from across Izril had come. Perhaps there were millions of Gnolls here?
An army. He forced the comparison away and looked at Khaze.
“Gather what? We’re at the Meeting of Tribes, Khaze. Even the grass is being stomped flat.”
She laughed at him and slapped Merish on the shoulder.
“I know that—but the Gaarh Marsh tribe and three others got up to something last night. Now there are plants blooming everywhere! Edible ones as well as pretty flowers! A nice present, yes?”
The Gnoll blinked. He looked around and saw it was true. Unlike yesterday, the grass and dirt from so much activity had changed. A little plant had shot up overnight right next to his tent. He walked over as Khaze brought out a little bulls-eye lantern and shone it down. Merish squatted down and stared.
“That’s a tomato.”
The tomato plant sat there, three full-grown tomatoes hanging from the plant, which was already sagging under the weight. Khaze happily grabbed all three and yanked them off the plant.
“And that’s breakfast, yes? Why are you looking so surprised, Merish? [Shamans] and their tricks. Hrm. You’re still talking like a City Gnoll, too!”
Merish glanced up at her as Ikl and Sveha begged for a bite, complaining they hadn’t had food yet! Khaze assured them they would get breakfast—after gathering the unexpected plant bounty.
It was the second time she’d told him he was speaking differently.
Merish still felt like a Plains Gnoll, but his accent had changed, much to his bemusement. He had grown used to being told he spoke ‘funny’ by other species thanks to his rolling r’s and some of the idiosyncrasies of Gnollish expressions, like how ‘yes’ was both affirmative and indication of goodness, but it seemed to Gnolls from home, he had an accent.
Years abroad in Rhir had done that. Merish shook his head. Everything had changed. Sveha had been a baby, and Ikl had been younger than she was when he left. He had been eager, even ambitious, and…different.
He had come back with scars, ‘quiet’, to hear his friends and sister say it, with nightmares and stories of horror and war. And with Viri. The Plain’s Eye [Warriors] who had gone with him had come back too.
Eight of them. Many times more had gone, from many tribes. Many had gone again, to avenge the fallen. In that sense, Merish was among the lucky ones.
Commander Cirille was dead. So was Uxel. Delezza. Vorn, Lacten…
He blinked. His sister was poking him in the side. He stared at her. She grinned, and he realized he’d spaced out.
“Take Sveha and Ikl with you. I would, but I’m going to fight for the rare cooking ingredients! I have to run, many thanks!”
“Wait, but I don’t even know what I’m looking f—”
She was already gone, jogging off on a quest to find something nice. Merish stared down at the tomato plant. It stared up at him, denuded of the tomatoes, probably fated to wither away or be stepped on.
You’ve taken my fruit. Leave me alone, you monster.
He looked after his sister, who was shooing Sveha and Ikl back towards him. Because they were too slow to elbow other Gnolls away from rubyroot plants and the like.
“Uncle! Mother says we have to stay with you!”
Sveha padded back over and sat there. Ikl yawned, blinking up at Merish. He looked around helplessly, almost amused, exasperated at Khaze. She hadn’t changed. She left him with her children, as if she was a cub still and foisting dishwashing duty onto him. Merish sighed, but inwardly, he smiled.
Why it didn’t translate to a smile on his face, he didn’t know.
“Why is there a carrot outside my tent? Is this a prank? Ahoy! Merish! Sveha! Ikl! It’s meeeeeee—”
Someone shouted. Merish, Ikl, and Sveha looked around—then up. A loud, exuberant voice cut through the quiet morning. A little figure bounced from the tent he’d hopped out of, and flew through the air like a giant grasshopper. Sveha and Ikl stared up, open-mouthed, though they’d seen Viri many times before.
The Lizardman hopped through the air and landed, planting his stick on the ground. He grinned, leaning on it as his one leg planted itself on the ground. He had only a stump for his second leg, but Viri hadn’t changed.
“Uncle Viri! I want to go hopping!”
Ikl pushed his sister away. Viri hugged Sveha and Ikl and grinned.
“Merish! There’s a carrot over there. How did it get there?”
Viri could still smile. He pointed at the carrot sprouting from the ground in front of his tent, laughing with delight at it. Merish had to explain.
“We’re gathering plants. A [Shaman] made them sprout.”
“Really? Wow! That sounds like fun! Let’s go!”
The Lizardman hopped around excitedly, taking a basket from Sveha. He didn’t moan about the hour; other Gnolls were doing that, but they were used to the Lizardman, the foreigner from Baleros. Merish’s friend from Rhir.
A survivor of 5th Wall. That was what Merish couldn’t explain to Khaze. Oh, she knew enough. He had spared her all the details, but his tribe knew…and didn’t know.
5th Wall. It had come to be a phrase, almost like a password. If you understood what it meant—it was because you had been there. Merish went to gather plants on a day in the wondrous Meeting of Tribes, with his family, Viri.
He still felt like he was standing there, on distant Rhir.
“Uncle, why do [Shamans] make plants appear?”
Sveha let Merish carry her as he trudged along. Viri was hopping with Ikl, who was trying to copy the Lizardman as they bounced from plant to plant. The blooms were everywhere. Merish stared at a sunflower taller than he was and gingerly plucked the entire head and tossed it into the basket. Sveha sniffed it, then looked up at him.
“Yeah, why do they do it, Merish? We don’t have [Shamans]. Our Nagas have all kinds of magic…but this is more like Centaur stuff. Dullahans are mostly [Geomancers] and stuff. Maybe it’s a [Druid] thing. But why plants?”
Viri looked expectant too. Merish shrugged.
“…As part of a way to demonstrate the power of their tribes, I suppose. Impress the others. A fun activity.”
Viri nodded. Sveha, on the other hand, looked up.
“Why can [Shamans] make plants grow?”
“…Because they have the tribe’s magic.”
“Why does the tribe have magic?”
Merish looked down at Sveha.
“Everyone has magic, Sveha.”
“Why does everyone have magic?”
Merish was stumped by that one. Sveha was little, and curious. She asked ‘why’ so many times he felt like a [Shaman] himself.
“How about we find more plants? You can ask your mother about that later. Can you smell anything interesting, Sveha?”
And Khaze can deal with existential questions about magic. Merish was a [Shamanic Warrior], but he didn’t have time for an hour-long lecture about harnessing magical power. Sveha nodded. She cast around, sniffing, and then pointed.
“There! Smells good!”
All three gatherers trusted Sveha’s nose. She was a Level 2 [Sniffer], a child’s class, so her sense of smell was even more acute than other children. Merish jogged over, seeing more Gnolls eagerly grabbing plants. They were arguing already.
“That pumpkin is on our tribe’s land, friend.”
“But I was uprooting it before you came along, good fellow Gnoll, yes? This is a bounty for all.”
“So why don’t we share it?”
Two friendly Gnolls were arguing over a huge pumpkin. Merish took his group around what might be an impending fight, and saw a tiny flower. He blinked.
“Good nose, Sveha. I think this is valuable.”
Instantly, both arguing Gnolls looked over. They were from different tribes. Sveha stared down at the purple flower with the red pistils.
“It smells good. What is it?”
“I think it’s useful. Viri, do you recognize this?”
The Lizardman hopped over.
He announced triumphantly. Ikl, surprisingly, identified it.
“That’s saffron! Mother said to grab it.”
“Well, it goes into the basket, then.”
The non-native plants to Izril were growing thanks to the [Shaman]’s magic. Merish grabbed the entire flower and decided to uproot all of it.
“Hey! That’s on the Decles Tribe’s land—”
One of the Gnolls began to stride over. Merish straightened and the Gnoll hesitated. He looked at Merish, who outweighed him, out-heighted him, and certainly out-leveled him.
Merish, whose fur glowed with magical markings. The Gnoll blinked.
“…But the Plain’s Eye Tribe is a friend of ours! Why don’t we share everything? Here’s your pumpkin, friend.”
He backed off. Merish was amused—he would have split the saffron flower if the Gnoll insisted. Viri chortled.
“This is why you have to have a Merish.”
He whispered slyly to Ikl, who gave his uncle a proud look. Embarrassed—he hadn’t meant to intimidate the other Gnoll—Merish hurried off with Sveha.
More Gnolls joined the search, exclaiming over plants that had popped out everywhere. Merish wondered how long they had to gather; until they filled their baskets, he decided. They were almost done when Ikl pointed.
“Look! There’re some nice plants! I’ll get them!”
He ran over, ahead of other Gnolls to secure a spot. By now it was a competition. He’d found a patch of plants with fat fruits. Merish glanced at him, then his eyes narrowed and he snapped.
“Herthee! Ikl don’t touch that.”
Some other Gnolls looked around. A male Gnoll blinked.
“Herthee? Grab it!”
The Gnoll boy froze, one paw raised. He looked from the Gnoll to Merish, confused. So did the other Gnolls picking the herbs.
Viri eyed the plant, hopping over.
“What’s Herthee and why are we grabbing and not grabbing it?”
Merish trotted over to confirm he was right. He squatted down and eyed the bush-like growth.
The long, almost stalk-like plant of Herthee was strange. It was bright yellow turning to a healthy greenish white at the roots, with fat, appealing seeds that could be larger than your fist. Fleshy, a tangy yellow that when split open, looked almost like the inside of golden flatbread, but puffy and chewy. They hung from the stalks on miniature branches, inviting anything to just come over and eat it.
“It is Herthee! You should grab it, friend.”
The other Gnoll came over. He didn’t have markings, but he had a triangular cap on. He gave Merish a friendly nod, which the Gnoll returned. Sveha looked at Merish.
“Why don’t you want it, Uncle? Does it taste bad?”
Merish shook his head. It was a vegetable, and the looks didn’t actually deceive. Herthee tasted as good as it looked. The trouble was that it was also deadly.
“No…but it has side effects.”
The [Shamanic Warrior] glanced at the other Gnoll. The hat-wearing Herthee supporter shrugged.
“It’s not that bad.”
Merish begged to differ. If you ate the Herthee seeds, you experienced the secret poison in the plant, which allowed it to ‘harvest’ the corpses of those who thought they’d found an easy meal.
Your tongue swelled up and you choked to death. A horrible way to go. Death by suffocation, rightly giving the plant its dreaded reputation among small, foraging animals.
…Gnoll-sized people were by and large resistant to Herthee’s effects. You’d get a fat tongue and be in danger if you really gulped them down, but they were mostly annoying.
Even so, no one wanted a swollen, slightly irritated tongue for the next two hours, so Herthee had a dubious place in the culinary world. If you had anti-allergen Skills or knew how to neutralize the effects—or were just desperate or hungry—it was for you.
“Ikl, you’ll puff up if you bite it. I once had a tongue so big I had to breathe through my nose and keep my mouth open because it wouldn’t fit. For six hours straight.”
His [Shaman] had laughed so hard she’d nearly passed out. The others snorted and Viri almost fell over, laughing. Ikl backed away, but the hat-wearing Gnoll encouraged Merish.
“Any good [Cook] can deal with it. I’d gather it, friends—but my basket is full.”
He indicated his basket, which was full of the damned Herthee. Merish bared his teeth.
“We will, then. Good idea, friend. We’ll…add it to the gathered produce if our camp doesn’t want them.”
The Gnoll smiled as Merish and Ikl plucked the seed. He waved and headed back to wherever his tribe was. When he was out of eye and earshot, Merish dumped all of the Herthee into Ikl’s basket and turned to the boy.
“Ikl, take all of them and toss them in the nearest fire.”
The Gnoll boy nodded and ran off. Merish sighed.
“Let’s go back to Khaze.”
They found only one more plant on the way back, another plant more endemic to Izril than the rare saffron. This time, Merish brightened up because unlike Herthee, he actually liked this plant.
“Lyepeppers. Viri! Come take a look. You too, Sveha. You will like this.”
Both Lizardman and Gnoll girl watched as Merish hurried over and began to pluck the fat peppers. Both gave Merish a very dubious look.
“Uncle. Those are bad.”
“Yeah. Are you sure that’s not poison, Merish?”
Viri pointed to the peppers. They resembled the tooth-like peppers you could find in other varieties, fat and fully-grown. The difference was…well, the coloration.
The Lyepeppers were a mix of colors, each so bright as to seem artificial. One was bright red with green spots that almost looked like warts on it. Another was distinctly yellow, with tiny blue dots as if it was sick. If there was any unhealthy or poisonous look—it was that.
“Lyepeppers aren’t bad, Sveha.”
Merish assured his niece. He offered her one, but Sveha, normally eager to bite any snack or treat, even dirt, closed her mouth.
“They have spots. I was eating this thing, but not this with spots and Mommy said no.”
The Gnoll girl stared up at Merish as if that last sentence made sense and had a conclusion. Her gaze somehow managed to convey accusation for Merish going against Khaze’s rule against spotted plants.
He tried to explain and reassure her.
“Lyepeppers are…liars, Sveha. Only Lyepeppers are edible, even though they look like…”
He showed her a purple, striped Lyepepper crossed with an unhealthy orange.
“They try to trick you. They’re good, see? Just be careful; they do mix with weeds…er, bad plants. So you break a bit off and rub it on your skin. Under your fur. If you don’t get itchy, it’s probably a good Lyepepper. So you take a little bite and wait. And then…”
He gave up on the survival explanation because she was giving him an even more mistrustful look.
“…We have [Cooks] who can appraise all the ingredients. So we’ll gather it all.”
The little girl watched Merish and Viri pluck the rest of the peppers. She didn’t like them—or her empty stomach.
“I want Mommy!”
She scrunched up her face, casting around and glaring at Merish, but Khaze was nowhere to be seen.
“We’ll find her.”
“I want her now.”
Her face turned dangerously upset. Merish sighed, and looked for Khaze, but before Sveha could start crying, a claw tapped her on the shoulder.
“Sveha. Psst, Sveha.”
She looked around. Viri popped up beside her.
He made a huge face, sticking out his tongue and making his eyes wide as possible.
Sveha just stared at him. Viri stared back. Neither one laughed. After a second, Viri dropped the face.
“How about a Lyepepper? Look, isn’t it funny?”
He offered her one that seemed like it had a face on it, a unique striped look. Sveha grabbed the pepper.
She hurled it away, grumpily. Viri cried out.
“Nooo! My pepper! What are you doing, you mad child?”
He hopped after it, waving his one arm in dismay. Sveha peeked after him, and to Merish’s relief, began giggling. Viri came back, a mighty frown on his face.
“Okay, I got it and it looks good. But promise me you won’t throw it again, okay? Here…put it in the basket.”
He handed the pepper to Sveha. She picked it up, stared at it, and then at Viri. He waited.
She tossed the pepper.
“My pepper! How could you?”
The Lizardman leapt in horror, splatted comically on the ground, and rolled over until he could grab it. He pushed himself up and began hopping back.
“Okay. Sveha? I need you to put it into the basket. Here—no, don’t—!”
Away the pepper flew. Viri chased after it, brought it back, and didn’t seem to understand what would happen next if he handed it to Sveha. The little Gnoll girl forgot her tantrum and began laughing in delight as the little Lizardman grew increasingly more dismayed.
“Don’t throw it away again!”
“The poor pepper! Oh no!”
“Nagas help me! She’s gone mad! She’s throwing my pepper! Merish, stop her!”
By the time they got back, Sveha was panting from laughing too hard. Khaze laughed herself as Ikl waved at them.
“I was told you got rid of some Herthee, Merish? Good job! Remember when your tongue looked like a slug? Sveha! Are you making poor Uncle Viri chase after your pepper?”
“I don’t mind, Miss Khaze!”
The Lizardman hopped over, a huge smile on his face. She looked at him appreciatively.
“You are so good with cubs.”
Everyone liked Viri. The cheerful little [Longstick Jumper] had ingratiated himself into the tribe on the first day he’d met them. Khaze took Merish’s basket.
“Ooh, you found saffron? Well done. Lyepeppers—Sveha, stop throwing that.”
The Gnoll girl looked disappointed that the game was over, but she hopefully stared at the cooking station set up. Breakfast was going to be more special than the regular; Khaze was chopping up some of the findings and preparing a pot. She gestured at the table.
“Put everything on there and we’ll see what else we can put in. We have some goat…I just need to make a fine stew around it. How do tomatoes sound? Tomatoes and…where are my spices?”
She looked around. Merish set the basket down as Sveha whined.
“I want beef.”
“Goat is fine. Don’t whine, Sveha.”
Her mother, exasperated, looked at Merish.
“Children. She complains about the type of meat, never mind that we get it every breakfast.”
The [Shamanic Warrior] felt his lips move up. He smiled, for the first time that day.
“As I recall, Khaze, you used to throw beef jerky on the ground because it was ‘too salty’.”
She blushed under her fur.
“I was just—”
Boom. Merish saw a flash out of the corner of his eye as he heard a sound. Viri screamed.
The [Shamanic Warrior] whirled. He looked up and saw an unnatural flash cross the heavens. A spell. An attack.
Lights fell down from the sky.
A second dawn; a false one, tricking the defenders of 5th Wall into believing they had survived the night of Demons.
It only brought oblivion as Merish looked up, seeing the Demon soldiers fade to nothing and realizing he had battled an army of ghosts. His companions, friends fallen to a…spell.
It took Cirille as he watched. A flash from above, something hidden beyond the clouds. Then she and everyone around her were gone. That brave Drake who had led them—gone in a second. Before she even saw their foe’s face.
The Death of Magic.
For a second, the voices were intermingled, the shouting from his warriors—Merish was on 5th Wall. Then—he was back in reality.
He came to his senses. The Gnoll was panting raggedly. He heard Khaze’s voice, shocked.
Merish was crouched behind the upended food preparation table, the hard-gathered ingredients lying on the ground, utensils and dishes overturned.
Gnolls gathered around cooking fires were staring. Viri was flat on the ground. Everyone else, from Khaze to Ikl and his clan were just…looking at Merish. He straightened, then flinched as another boom echoed in the air. He turned to see the flash—
A silly little face, a cartoonish Drake, floated overhead. Mage lights. Someone was artificially darkening the air and shooting up spells into the sky. A [Merchant] or someone with a wand, perhaps. Not [Shaman] spells. Merish stared up at the lights. Then at the table.
He heard a small sound. Then he looked down and saw Sveha.
She was lying next to the table. Sveha was whimpering, curled up and holding her leg. He’d—Merish saw her staring at him.
“Uncle. Uncle—you threw me! He—”
Then she began to howl. Khaze instantly raced over to her and scooped her up.
“It’s alright, Sveha. Show me your leg. It’s just bruised? Merish didn’t mean to do it. It was just—”
Merish stood there, staring at Sveha. He walked over, but she wailed and swung a paw at him, and Khaze fished for a potion.
“I don’t have a healing potion. Sveha, it’s not bad! One second…”
“I have one. Let me—”
Merish was blocked as something hit his leg. He looked down. Ikl had seen his sister crying. The little Gnoll boy began to punch Merish’s leg as hard as he could, snarling.
Khaze shouted at her son. Viri was getting up. He looked at Merish. The Gnoll looked at Khaze, at the others coming over to pick up the fallen goods. Khaze met his eyes—then hurried for a potion. Merish stood there, trying to say something. Explain? In the end, he could only look at Khaze, and repeat himself.
When he dreamed of nothing, it was welcome. The alternative was nightmares.
Blood and terror. Hacking down a Demon [Soldier] in his way. Turning. Hearing the bang. Ser Vorn falling.
Light from the sky.
He woke up with his fur matted with sweat, howling a cry to arms. Seeing light flash down from the heavens.
It was another day. Merish woke before dawn, the day after the disaster with Sveha. No Khaze to greet him. He wondered how upset she was. Understandably…or was she giving him space?
Of course, the day went on after the incident in the morning. But it colored everything. What had he done after that? Merish washed his face, wondering if he’d woken anyone up. Then again—his clan might be used to it by now.
He stared into the bowl with water taken from a flask. The Gnoll found he couldn’t actually remember. He’d done something. Eaten. Gone around with Viri, maybe?
The world was grey, sometimes. He forgot what he was doing. He felt…out of place, no matter where he was, even with his sister. He was glad he wasn’t with the entire clan; shamefully, Merish was glad his mother didn’t see him like this, which was part of the reason why he had volunteered to join the Meeting of Tribes.
He wondered, if his father had been alive—what he would have said. Maybe he would have understood. Merish’s father had been a [Shamanic Warrior] too, and even if he had never gone to Rhir…
The Gnoll did not leave his tent for a while. He sat, rummaging through his things. He nearly reached for his enchanted axe—left it be. After the incident with Sveha, he didn’t trust himself with it. No accident had been fatal, or injured people beyond Sveha’s leg. But if it did?
Merish unfolded a bit of costly paper. He sat, cross-legged, and conjured a bit of light from his fur markings. The pattern lit up his dark yurt, giving him ample light to read by. A beautiful pattern. He didn’t look at it.
I still feel like I am at 5th Wall. I have to go back and settle things there. For Commander Cirille. If you choose to come back, there will be a place for you with us.
The writing was neat, cursive, and Merish had found it hard to read at first. Yet he’d read it so many times he could recite the letter by heart.
Captain Shellc. No—hadn’t he been promoted? Merish’s finger traced down the letter.
Ah, yes. It said here. [Swordgrace Major] Shellc. Merish stared at the letter and thought about it again.
If you choose to come back…
Would that be for the best? He had leveled too, even if he hadn’t changed his class. Their reward for surviving the massacre was to level faster than anyone else. Merish had left, to come back home. Perhaps he would leave? What would Khaze and his family say?
Merish folded the letter. Then he went to wake up Viri. It was just a hunch—but it proved to be correct.
The day after seeing the lights-show, Viri did not emerge from his guest-tent beaming and smiling like normal. He was thrashing in his sheets, crying out. Merish heard him even before he pushed back the thick fabric. Viri was shouting in his sleep, like Merish.
“Call the charge, Uxel! Uxel! Where are—”
His face was twisted up, and his legs were kicking. Both legs—the whole one and the stump. Merish reached down.
“Viri. You’re dreaming. Viri—”
He touched the little Lizardman and Viri’s eyes opened wide. He looked at Merish and cried out.
He slept with his staff by his side. The little staff blurred.
Viri struck at Merish three times with his staff in a fraction of a second, so fast the Gnoll couldn’t block the third blow. Merish stumbled, his head ringing with the impact. Viri dragged himself up—then, like Merish—came back.
He reached out, but Merish waved him away.
“I’m fine. You were having a nightmare.”
Viri swayed—then fell over. He stared at his missing leg. Then he curled up.
“I’m sorry, Merish. Can—can you leave me alone for a moment?”
Merish nodded. Without a word, he backed up and left the tent. He heard Viri crying before he swung the flaps closed.
What a wonderful day in the Meeting of Tribes.
Merish stood in the darkness, shoulders hunched. Head bowed. He waited for something—for Viri to emerge. For something to happen.
It was someone else who came to find him. Merish’s head rose. He saw someone walk towards him, straightened, and then dipped his head.
Merish did not kneel or bow, but he was surprised. This was not his clan’s leader, but the [Chieftain] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe.
Chieftain Xherw smiled. One of the greatest [Chieftains] of Gnolls here or anywhere walked forwards, out of the night. No bodyguards or escort—not among his tribe.
“Merish. I hoped to speak with you. Is now a bad time?”
He could hear Viri too. Merish hesitated, then stepped away.
“No, [Chieftain]. Of course not. Is something wrong?”
“Not with the tribe, Merish. Walk with me.”
Xherw gestured, and Merish fell into step with him, walking through the camp. He looked at Xherw, sidelong.
The Gnoll had dark fur, almost black, but with faint lines of silver breaking the uniform fur. He was not as tall as Merish, and he was certainly far older. Twice Merish’s thirty three years, nearly.
He wore a [Chieftain]’s garb. Lightweight, free clothing, like most Plains Gnolls wore, but ancient cloth, still perfectly maintained by magic. Practically relics unto themselves; the Raiment of the Plains. They were decorated with motifs of their tribe, and the cloth was probably stronger than Vorn’s steel plate had been.
Xherw also carried a light hand axe, for throwing or close combat. It wasn’t the spear he would take to battle; just decoration at the Meeting of Tribes. His pawed feet were bare, as were Merish’s, and if you could not see the power of the magic he wore, he might look almost normal.
That was just physical appearance, though. The Chieftain of the Plain’s Eye Tribe was more than just his looks. Where he walked, you felt it. Merish could feel it.
It was like walking beside…solemnity. A temporal disturbance. Gnolls looked up, or came out of their tents, feeling it even from afar. They called out, waved.
Xherw waved at them, calling greetings, but led Merish away from the tents, and the Meeting of Tribes itself. If he was careless, he could wake up everyone within a hundred feet of him just by walking past them as they slept.
It was the power of Merish’s [Chieftain]. That he had come here was humbling, and Merish wanted to know if he’d heard about Sveha, or…
Well. He was respectfully silent as they walked away from the Plain’s Eye camp, past sentries, into the Great Plains. It was dark, and the two Gnolls strode along at a good clip. Only when they were truly alone, and the wind blew in a distant gale across the dark plains did Xherw speak.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it? Is Rhir so, Merish? I have seen images on the scrying orbs—but never been.”
Merish hadn’t expected that. He looked across the flat Great Plains, which stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Flat land, that made you want to run forever. Once…Merish would have raced into that distance.
He thought of Rhir.
“It is different, Chieftain. No part of Rhir save the Blighted Lands is not in some way managed. They have glorious fields, tall structures. Beautiful and deadly—but it is like walking through an armory. The walls are magnificent, but Rhir is all geared to war.”
“I see. Some beauty there.”
Xherw paused, and the two Gnolls slowed. Merish waited, trying a few different sentences out in his mind, but he couldn’t break the silence.
He was a [Chief Warrior]. This was the [Chieftain] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe, far beyond him. Normally, [Chief Warrior] was a rank close to [Chieftain], but the Plain’s Eye Tribe was different.
It was one of the largest tribes of Izril. It had so many Gnolls in it, hundreds of thousands, that it rivaled Drake cities in population alone. Accordingly, it had many ‘clans’ which were all part of a greater whole. Xherw commanded it all, such that there were at least a hundred [Chief Warriors] under his command.
Still, Merish was important enough to have been chosen to lead the expedition to Rhir. That he was important enough for Xherw to meet himself—well, that was as much his brush with the Death of Magic as anything else. He had been questioned by the [Shamans] and other [Chieftains], as well as Xherw.
“I heard you were disturbed by the light show yesterday. I asked they confine it to the night-time, or inform the tribes when such displays would take place.”
Merish jumped. Then flushed.
“Chieftain, that was my fault. All the tribes?”
“It disturbs children, and we should regulate it. Think nothing of it, Merish. The nightmares and visions of Rhir continue, then?”
Xherw looked at Merish. The Gnoll nodded. The [Chieftain] sighed.
“We will send for an expert if our [Shamans] cannot mend your pain somewhat, Merish. It is not good to heal the body and leave the mind behind, no. Tell me. What do you dream of? Is it always…her?”
“Yes. The Death of Magic.”
The wind dropped for a second, as if even here, the name alone had power. Merish shivered. He saw her, laughing, sweeping down and blasting the [Clown], before attacking 4th Wall. Xherw shook his head.
“I have seen great names, Merish. I have met Zel Shivertail, and Sserys of Liscor. I have even beheld the Centenium. I saw one die a final death during the Antinium Wars. I dream of them, sometimes. But the Death of Magic? That is an old legend. I grieve that it haunts your waking and sleep.”
“I am ashamed. I thought even if I met the Deathless on Rhir, I could stand against them. Fight. Now? I suppose this is what it is like to see a true story, not dream of it, Chieftain. It is—painful.”
He did not daydream about fighting the half-Elf, or even hurting Silvenia. He couldn’t picture it. Xherw touched Merish’s arm. The Gnoll started, but his [Chieftain] just shook his head.
“I do not mean to judge, no, Merish. You saw something I have not. Tidebreaker, even the Antinium are recent tales. The Death of Magic is the oldest of stories. Like a Dragon of ancient days reemerging, not the hatchlings who sometimes appear every few centuries.”
He stood there, arms folded, shaking his head. Merish listened as Xherw stared across the empty plains.
“I have lived three Meetings of Tribes. The [Chieftain] before me lived six. Six, Merish. And she told me that the elders when she was a cub said how small the Meeting of Tribes had become. Small. Look.”
He pointed back at the sprawling encampment. Merish looked, and couldn’t credit it himself. So many Gnolls, so many tribes.
Then he thought of the Death of Magic. Xherw nodded, knowing Merish’s thoughts.
“Old stories. I would like to see the Death of Magic gone for good, Merish, but part of me does not.”
“Chieftain? Why not?”
The Plain’s Eye Chieftain stood there, sighing.
“Dragons are dying out. Perhaps they are all dead already. For the best for them, yes. One could say the same of Giants—they made terrible war and sided with the Demons. Perhaps we say the same of Cyclopes when they go too, hm? Then there will only be nicknames, like that for Pallass’ Cyclops, Grand Strategist Chaldion. But each time they go—they become stories, and we forget they were real. We are an old tribe. If stories die out, do we lose our power too?”
Merish had no answer. That was a [Chieftain]’s dilemma. Xherw speaking of such things before Merish was an honor.
“Will you go back to Rhir?”
The [Chieftain] also saw through Merish. The Gnoll hunched his shoulders.
“I do not know, Chieftain. Viri is thinking of it. If he goes…I would go with him. If not?”
“I understand. Know this, Merish—you have done enough. You could stay with our tribe, and I would give you the position of [Chief Warrior] in any clan with an opening. Or a post among the warriors in the central tribe.”
“That is a great honor, Chieftain.”
Merish ducked his head. Xherw studied him.
“Perhaps it is not what you need, though. Ah, Merish. I come to you with my worries, not to help! I am sorry.”
“Not at all, Chieftain.”
The two Gnolls stood there in the darkness a while. Merish’s ears perked up. He glanced sideways.
Voices? Xherw had heard it too. He looked to the side and three [Shamanic Warriors], like Merish, the elite of the Plain’s Eye Tribe, appeared out of the darkness.
Xherw’s bodyguards after all. One nodded to Merish and Xherw.
“The Gnoll, Kerikool, is asking to see you, Chieftain.”
“Again? Tell him later.”
Xherw scowled. Merish glanced at Xherw, not recognizing the name. The [Shamanic Warriors] nodded and melted back into the darkness. Merish saw their dyed fur glow—then they turned transparent.
[Camouflage]. They took on a glass-like appearance, melting into the landscape. Scentless too. The power of his kind.
“Who is that, Chieftain?”
Merish wasn’t sure he should ask, but Xherw just snorted derisively.
“Just another pest from Manus. Asking if we will represent the Walled City before the other tribes.”
“Manus? For what?”
Merish was not surprised that someone would seek Xherw out. The Plain’s Eye Tribe had strong relations with the Walled Cities, actually. As Merish recalled…well, they had some kinds of longstanding trade agreements. Xherw waved a paw.
“[Soldiers]. Experts, as always. Anyone they can lure to their ‘High Command’. I will talk with him, later.”
“If I am keeping you from him, Chieftain…”
Xherw looked at Merish. He stood there a moment longer, then sighed.
“The Plain’s Eye Tribe is old, Merish. Gnolls are…old. We have endured much, but even in the days when Dragons hunted us with Drakes and we hid under the earth, I cannot know if we were this…few.”
Such somber words. Merish would have flinched at them, but then a paw took his arm. Strong, even now. Xherw smiled at Merish, and the touch had that power in it. It made Merish feel strong, for a second. Strong enough to face dreams. To go back to Rhir.
“We will survive. With your strength, the strength of Gnolls like you, with cunning, and with resolve, Merish. I am glad you returned. I came here to tell you that. If you would stay—we have need of you.”
He turned before Merish could reply, and walked away. The [Shamanic Warrior] stood there, feeling humbled at the trust. He walked back to camp an hour later, thinking.
Xherw’s meeting with Merish was more than a gesture. It meant something. Well, a [Chieftain] singling you out was already a sign you were honored, or on your way to it.
But the touch was something too. Merish felt…alive. That was Xherw’s power, or part of it. He felt clear-headed, hungry.
When he came back to the clan, he actually smiled and waved Viri’s apology aside. He ate breakfast, apologizing to Sveha, talking with Khaze. She nearly dropped her plates.
“What has gotten into you, Merish?”
“I met with the Chieftain.”
“Olmpe? Why would that old nag make you feel better. Unless—”
Ikl and Sveha looked up. Khaze spun around, wide-eyed.
“No. Chieftain Xherw?”
Merish smiled. Khaze made a sound and threw up her paws.
“I have to brag about this! My brother! What did he want?”
“Just to talk. He touched my arm. I feel…good.”
“Of course you would! What an honor! No—you might be Honored Merish! Do you hear that, Sveha, Ikl? We might be moving up! He touched your arm? I heard a Gnoll ran a hundred miles after that happened—without any movement Skills!”
Merish smiled, enjoying Khaze’s excitement. The energy that blew away his depression seemed to fill Viri too—such that they were actually out and about the camps, rather than being tugged into something by Khaze.
“Merish, Merish. Do you want to play some games? You can win money if you win some of the tossing games.”
There was a Gnollish game that involved tossing bolas, or just balls if you were smaller, through goal posts. Playing was free, and there was already a crowd. It was just one activity among the Meeting of Tribes, and Viri was being practically carried by Sveha and Ikl towards it. Khaze had work, and Merish for once felt tempted. However, his conscience pricked him.
“I actually have someone to call upon, Viri. I will catch you later—don’t buy sweets for Sveha and Ikl with your money.”
“No promises! Sveha, are you good at tossing things? Want to show me?”
Viri bounced away, Sveha clinging to his leg and shrieking with delight. The Lizardman was watched by a bunch of Gnolls, shaking their heads at the odd sight. Merish smiled. Then—he went to call on his friend.
Merish had friends. It occurred to him he had not prevailed on any of them since returning. Now, with Xherw giving him energy, he tried to make amends.
They were glad to see him, mostly. Some weren’t sure what to say, but Merish was a [Warrior], and thus many of his comrades just clapped him on the back, avoided talking about Rhir. He knew Gnolls from many clans in the Plain’s Eye Tribe, and did a circuit of the entire camp for four hours.
Four hours of straight walking and he didn’t clear the Plain’s Eye camp. That was how large it was. Merish actually called on the power in his markings to relieve the exhaustion in his legs. He greeted a fellow [Shamanic Warrior], Ghamen, and the two Gnolls stood a while.
“Anything interesting happening where you are?”
“Aside from the clan wanting more [Hunters]? Or in the Meeting of Tribes?”
Ghamen leaned on his spear, then shrugged.
“Ah, well, I heard my sister kissed Lehra Ruinstrider.”
“That’s something. Not everyone can be visited by the Chieftain!”
Ghamen slapped Merish on the shoulder, pretend-irritably. He grinned.
“Aside from that, I wish you’d been there in a competition yesterday. Twenty eight of our [Shamanic Warriors] engaged in a brawl with other tribes’ warriors.”
“No…an organized thing. You know, to show how good we are? Just fists. Not weapons. Disappointed some of the tribes, but we’ve had too many injuries already.”
“So a tournament.”
“It looked like a brawl, yes? I was in it. We did pretty well, of course. But Steelfur? It’s like punching chainmail. And some of those tribes…well, all the regular [Warriors] were easy targets.”
Merish smiled. The tribes were competitive, and [Shamanic Warriors] like Ghamen and himself considered themselves to be the best of all. He inquired after about ten minutes.
“I have to keep going, Ghamen. My friend, Viri, can’t be left alone or he spends all his gold on my niece and nephew.”
“Of course. We will see each other another night. I am glad you are not as gloomy as before.”
Ghamen nodded, and Merish smiled.
“Me too. Here is hoping the Chieftain’s touch lasts a while. But Ghamen—do you know where Yelroan is? I think he would be at the Meeting of Tribes, yes?”
“Yelroan? Try the central camps. I forgot…well, he’s certainly here. Tell him…no, just have fun meeting with him.”
Merish bade farewell to his friend and headed for the center of the Plain’s Eye camp.
[Warriors], [Scouts], [Hunters], [Rangers], [Trappers], and so on. Warrior-friends, and childhood friends in various non-combat roles. All were part of the Plain’s Eye Tribe, in various levels and positions. Merish realized—he was above them all in status. Especially after leveling and surviving Rhir.
And all of them, even Merish, had a class that was not unique to the tribe. They had many [Shamanic Warriors], even though it was a higher-level class. Every role overlapped, and Gnolls could occupy any place within the tribe. You were only expelled if you truly could not fit in; there were places for the solitary, the grumpy, and the odd.
However, Yelroan, Merish’s land friend from childhood, was truly unique. No one in the Plain’s Eye Tribe had a class like his, Merish knew. Perhaps no one in the entire Meeting of Tribes had a class like Yelroan’s.
The Plain’s Eye Tribe was one of the greatest traditionalist tribes in the world. Az’muzarre, Wild Wastes, Gaarh Marsh…they were the tribes you spoke of.
Plain’s Eye were alchemical ingredients. [Shamans]. [Shamanic Warriors]. Tradition.
Yelroan stood on a stump, striking a pose. The Gnolls around him tried to ignore him.
“Children, if you want to learn how to hunt—with me!”
A [Hunter] was trying to entice a bunch of Gnolls old enough to begin learning a profession away from a [Cook] who was cunningly handing out snacks to an eager group. Merish watched.
It was a job market, of sorts. The Gnolls were competing, trying to lure promising young Gnolls to apprentice with them.
Yet this crowd of nearly two hundred of the most promising Gnoll cubs taken to the central camp to apprentice with some of the best instructors was distracted.
By Yelroan. The Gnoll was posed on the stump, standing above all the other instructors. It was…a pose. Merish stared up at his friend.
Nobody stood like that. Yelroan was perfectly balanced on one leg, the other pawed foot resting against his leg, yet he stood perfectly straight. One paw was laid across his chest, two fingers forming a ‘V’. The other paw was held to his face, as if supporting the flashing spectacles perched under his eyes.
He’d somehow managed to stand just so the sun glinted off the glass. It was currently blinding one of the [Shamans] trying to gather her own promising apprentices.
Spectacles on a Gnoll. That was already strange, but Yelroan’s fur was combed up. He had a proper mane, dyed—not in shamanic colors, but like ‘hair’.
He also had full-body clothing on. No loincloth, no easy, simple and free cloth like most Plains Gnolls, but a City Gnoll’s attire.
…If City Gnolls had such vibrant colors. Long, dark leggings cut with white, and a flashy red jacket. Merish covered his own face, trying not to look.
“Er—apprentices, if you want to hunt…”
The [Hunter] trailed off. Even the [Cook] was failing to get commitments from the two hundred potential apprentices.
They were all staring at Yelroan. How could you not? He had a crowd around him, little Gnolls who were waiting to see what his class was. After all…they might well follow this Gnoll, right?
Everyone waited. Yelroan held his pose perfectly still. He let the silence build, then dramatically raised his head. The Gnoll had piercing eyes. He smirked, glancing around at the ‘lesser’ classes around him. The other instructors glared at him. Yelroan took a breath, exhaled. Then he pointed at the sky, striking a second pose.
Merish came to find Yelroan after everyone had left. His friend stood on the stump, in the same pose.
No Gnolls had chosen to learn from him, even just to try it. Again. Merish didn’t think he’d ever seen Yelroan acquire even a single apprentice, and that had been years before he’d left for Rhir.
“The clothing is new. So is the pose. Why?”
Yelroan sprang to his feet. He beamed at Merish.
“Merish! Do you like it? I tried to do something and it almost works. They stare at me.”
“Right until you start talking.”
Merish shook his head. Yelroan sighed.
“I got an apprentice last year with this trick. She lasted for…half a day. I need more respect.”
“And you think doing that will get respect? Yelroan, just be honest.”
“I am honest. Math is amazing!”
Yelroan did another pose, arms crossed. A [Hunter] tried to hurry her apprentices away, telling them not to look. Merish smiled. He reached out and hugged his friend. After a second, Yelroan did the same.
The one, the only, the unique [Mathematician] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe embraced Merish hard.
“I’m glad you’re okay, Merish. Chieftain Xherw told me he’d see you.”
Merish blinked. His friend was slimmer, although a bit taller; not a warrior. He looked at Yelroan.
“Did you ask him to see me?”
The [Mathematician] gave him a sly look and pushed his glasses up. Somehow, they caught the light and blinded Merish with an afterimage.
“I may have made the request. After all, I had good odds.”
Merish stared at Yelroan. His friend gave him a sidelong look, holding the pose. After a few seconds, they laughed so hard both had to hold onto each other.
Yelroan was the most interesting Gnoll that Merish knew. A [Mathematician], a class so rare that even city-people didn’t know what it was.
It just meant Yelroan was good at math, as far as Merish was concerned. Really, really good at math.
…It didn’t sound too impressive. Until Merish told stories about their youth, like when Yelroan had answered a math question that had stumped every [Shaman] in the Plain’s Eye tribe. It had been something like…what was it?
“Add every number from one to a hundred up.”
Yelroan entertained Merish in his private tent, overflowing with parchment, paper, quills, and books. More books and ledgers than anywhere else in the Plain’s Eye encampment, and many written by Yelroan himself.
“Ah, yes. That. Why did we even wonder about it?”
“The [Shaman] mentioned it to us. A clever question posed by someone from Chandrar. And I solved it while you were all adding numbers up.”
“Yes. But why does it matter?”
“It was a test. There’s a way to solve it quickly. Well, that set the tone for my future, didn’t it?”
It did indeed. Yelroan hadn’t gained the [Mathematician] class at first. He’d become a [Scribe], an [Accountant]…then, as he was appointed to calculating the entire clan’s income, managing supplies, and such, he’d morphed into the [Mathematician] class, rather than [Administrator] or some reasonable class.
“You could have been a [Manager] or [Accountant] or something. Why [Mathematician]?”
“Because I’m good at numbers, Merish. Not scribing. Not managing. Numbers. I’m fairly good at managing things. Math is my talent, though. You see?”
Merish did. And ‘fairly good’ meant that Yelroan was the administrator for the entire Plain’s Eye tribe. He calculated income from each clan, assigned supplies, made sure the numbers…were the numbers.
It hurt Merish’s head just to see one of the ledgers that Yelroan wrote out. His organizational strategy, his calculations had caused fights with the [Shamans], who normally oversaw such things.
Yet it worked. The [Chieftains] and then Xherw had decided just to…leave Yelroan alone. Within a year of taking his position, Yelroan had found over sixty three cases of misplaced supplies going nowhere, faulty incomes—only two examples had been actual cases of [Chieftains] embezzling money.
He was the kind of Gnoll who could tell you where the coppers went missing when you bought supplies. If the Plain’s Eye Tribe went to war, the [Warriors] owed Yelroan a debt of gratitude because he could calculate how much they needed to carry.
It didn’t get him much respect. As his lack of apprentices each year indicated. Yelroan was in the central camp, but he wasn’t ‘Honored Yelroan’. He was an outsider among his people for his odd, City Gnoll ways.
Even though Merish had never met a City Gnoll who could calculate half as fast as Yelroan. He quite liked his friend, who had a penchant for showing off and touting math’s many virtues.
Yelroan could also do more…interesting things. Even as a child, he’d shown Merish interesting tricks.
“I still remember when you calculated how many ants were in that ant hive based on…something something with squares.”
“Yes, that. We tried to count them all and Khaze had so many ants in her fur the [Shaman] threw us in the lake.”
The two chortled over that as Yelroan poured glasses of juice. No alcohol for Yelroan; another oddity. Yet the Gnoll had more talents than just the magic of good math. He sighed.
“Math is power, Merish. I keep telling Chieftain Xherw that. He knows my Skills. If we had…eighteen Gnolls with my class, Plain’s Eye would make Pallass look over its shoulder.”
“I thought we traded with Pallass.”
Merish was reminded of Xherw talking about Manus. Yelroan flapped a paw, exasperated.
“Of course we do! And quite profitably—we have an exclusive trade deal, the only one of any tribe, as far as I know. I have no idea how Xherw negotiated that back in the day…we have other deals too that keep us on top. But give me eighteen—no, seven more [Mathematicians] and some deals with tribes, and we could replace Pallass and sell everything directly.”
“Mm. Seven more Yelroans. I can’t imagine it.”
“You can’t imagine parabolas.”
“…Those aren’t regular bolas? Magical bolas?”
Yelroan groaned and Merish grinned to himself, having done that last bit on purpose. He had to take Yelroan to task for one thing, though.
“Why the spectacles? You don’t need them.”
Yelroan had perfect vision, in fact. The Gnoll winked at Merish.
“Do you like them? I had to figure out how to make them catch the light like that. They’re specially treated with alchemical substances to reflect the light.”
“…That is the most obnoxious thing I have ever heard of. What kind of [Alchemist] would make that?”
“Saliss of Lights. I did an accounting job for him, once.”
Merish put his head in his paws. But he laughed. Yelroan fiddled with the glasses, doing the pose again.
“I decided to wear them after I saw some people with glasses. The stylish [Scholar], you know? I thought it would help my image. Actually…you met someone like that on Rhir.”
Merish glanced up, frowning. Yelroan scribbled something down; he was working as they talked.
“Perhaps not directly. It was…Bastion-General Quiteil. Um—”
The tone of Merish’s voice made Yelroan look up. The Gnoll nodded slowly.
“How do you know him?”
The [Mathematician] smiled slightly, but watched Merish’s face.
“He offered me a position. Quite well-paid. I said no. I’m a Plains Gnoll in the end. A member of the tribe. Even if…well.”
He leaned back in his chair.
“If you go back to Rhir, I might take the job. But you’re probably not going to.”
Merish started. Yelroan knew about that? Then again, if he had persuaded the Chieftain to visit him…he was important. People just forgot that.
“How do you know I’m not going to go?”
Yelroan glanced at Merish, then pulled out a sheet. He handed it to Merish.
“There’s your odds of going.”
Merish stared down at a strange series of notations. Then at the final number.
“You can calculate that?”
Merish laughed. Yelroan looked at him over his spectacles.
“Merish. I can calculate anything.”
The [Shamanic Warrior] blinked. Yelroan held the gaze, serious as could be. It reminded Merish of the time he’d shown his friend the true power of his Skill. Probability. Calculation. If you gave a Skill to that?
Then Yelroan crossed his arms and did a pose.
The moment ended. Merish put his friend in a headlock and laughed.
The moment Viri saw Yelroan, he was awestruck.
“That is the coolest Gnoll I have ever seen!”
Yelroan posed in front of Ikl and Sveha, who stared at him open-mouthed. Merish was much amused.
“Sveha, Ikl, you don’t remember Yelroan?”
“Mother says we shouldn’t copy him.”
Ikl piped up. Yelroan laughed and swept back his dyed hair. His glasses caught the light and flashed.
Someone screamed and toppled from a ladder. Merish hurried the group off.
The Meeting of Tribes was brighter to Merish. Or maybe it was Yelroan plus Viri and the children. Khaze met them, sighing at Yelroan, but she embraced him.
“You don’t visit us at all, Yelroan. Not that we see you in the central clan apart from gatherings like this.”
“I’m often busy. Besides, I heard what your partner thinks of me.”
Khaze coughed, and Merish wondered what her husband, Inir, did think of Yelroan. The Gnoll was occupied with the tribe’s job all day, at any rate, so there was no conflict.
“Ah, the tribes! What shall we do, now we’re all together, like when we were cubs?”
Khaze looked around. Yelroan glanced at Merish, but the Gnoll had no preference. Viri gestured at the festival-section, which had lots of games, some of which you spent money on.
“We’ve been playing games all day! I uh, spent some money. Want to play? And pay?”
Sveha and Ikl tugged the older Gnolls over to some of the games. Many were indeed free, and prizes were given out to winners; it was the Meeting of Tribes, not just a place for [Merchants].
However, there was money to be made anywhere there were this many Gnolls, and they’d already wrung Viri dry. He pointed accusatorially at one booth.
“Look at that!”
It was a variation of a game many cultures had—a guessing game. Some Gnoll, a clever [Craftswoman], or expert in string or just games, had created a huge ball of thread, with multiple outlets. Pull the right string of the dozens upon dozens dangling there, and you got to win whatever it was connected to!
Predictably, the cost of a pull was only three coppers while the prizes were worth much more. A fabulous little Centaur doll that made Sveha’s eyes go round, a sharp dagger…Viri had tried multiple times and refused to tell Merish how much he’d lost.
Yelroan glanced at the stall, amused. Merish agreed to try and stared at the string. His [Shamanic Warrior] class let him see and interact with magic, so he tried to use that to his advantage.
One string looked magical…and there were a few magical strings connected to the winning prizes. He pulled the magical string.
Nothing happened. The owner of the game smirked slightly and Merish knew it had been a lure. Sighing, he watched as Khaze refused to play.
“What about you, Yelroan?”
The others glanced at Yelroan. He raised a paw.
Merish frowned, but thought no more of it. They went on, dragging Viri away from the ‘one more time’ game. Merish actually did manage to win some snacks when he pitched a bola around a target, more from luck than skill, and gave some spicy crackers to Ikl and Viri. He saw horse races in the distance, which you could bet on, competitions of strength…
“Merish, there will be songs later tonight. Will you join us?”
Merish had never been in the mood, but he agreed at once to Khaze asking if he wanted to join them. He was looking around for Viri—who was slowly edging towards the betting on horse races—when Yelroan jogged over.
“Merish! Where’s Sveha?”
“She’s playing with some cubs. Creler Escape. Ikl too.”
The more modern game was simple. A ‘Creler’, a Gnoll dressed up with horrific claws and in a costume, ran after little screaming children. The last one to be caught got a prize.
“Oh, good. I’ll give her this afterwards.”
Merish turned. Yelroan had the little Centaur doll in his paws. Khaze blinked.
“How did you—? How much did you spend?”
Merish guessed at once. The [Mathematician] winked at him. He gestured back at the stall.
“Er—you might be banned from there. I certainly am.”
“Why don’t you come to the horse races? I could bet some money!”
Khaze instantly looked to the place where Viri was headed. Yelroan shook his head.
The Gnoll winked once more.
“I’m banned there too. The [Bookies] know a dangerous class when they see one.”
Khaze did a pose, mimicking Yelroan. The Gnoll grinned.
Both his friends gave him a blank look.
Viri being Lizardfolk meant that he stood out among the Gnolls, but there were members of other species who had come for this great event.
Some of note, like Venaz, Peki, Merrik, Wil, Yerranola, the students of the Titan. The team of Lehra Ruinstrider, and so on.
The fact that Merish had a passing acquaintance with the Stargnoll herself made Ikl and Sveha agog. Merish himself had to…think about it.
“I feel as though I have been under a cloud.”
He confessed to Yelroan and Khaze. They listened sympathetically. Merish wanted to apologize, but Khaze was just glad he was ‘back’.
“It won’t last forever, you know. The average time for the Chieftain’s effect to last is a day. Five days is the longest significant time excluding outliers.”
Yelroan glanced at Merish. The [Shamanic Warrior] had no idea what outliers were, but he knew Yelroan was right.
It was already wearing off. He could feel himself jumping at loud sounds, and he certainly kept away from any non-[Shaman] magic. Merish was more impressed that Viri could smile and play with the kids. Perhaps it was a front.
So, he made his night last. Merish ran a footrace and came in distinctly average. He ate more than he had all month, and nearly got sick stuffing puffy sweetened bread down his mouth.
He smiled and laughed, and actually showed off his class’ Skills for Ikl when the boy pulled over some new friends. Merish’s fur lit up and shone. Then he called on the magic.
“Viri. Do a big jump.”
“Sure. What are you going to—whoa!”
The Lizardman leapt and did a double-take as Merish followed him up. Laughing, the Lizardman and Merish leapt around, and Viri hugged him.
“You never did that back on Rhir!”
“I was serious back on Rhir. You never were.”
Merish smiled and put an arm around Viri. They put Sveha and Ikl to bed; the little Gnolls had run around in an excitement-high and crashed before it was fully dark. But Merish helped Khaze get them up one last time.
“Mommy. What are we doing?”
Ikl whined, sleepy and carried by Merish. The lighter Sveha was in Khaze’s arms.
“Stop whining, Ikl. This is important. This…is your heritage. We’re attending the songs.”
The little Gnoll peeked out of Merish’s arms. He saw Gnolls, thousands of them, gathering around a bonfire.
The lights had gone out, but countless torches and fires remained. In this place, though, it was dark. There was just the central light, from the blazing fire.
A few Gnolls stood together. Merish recognized the [Shaman] in front of the fire.
This was a Plain’s Eye event. It was…music.
The Gnolls made sound at first, finding places to sit or stand. The talk died down quickly, and the crackling fire filled the night. The [Shaman] spoke then, into the darkness, to the gathered group.
“Gnolls from across Izril, we are honored by your presence. We have had great [Singers] and heard tales of [Bards] on other nights. [Storytellers], [Shamans] reciting great tales. Today? Nothing so dramatic. Let us…simply sing. The old songs. Together. To lead us is [Singer] Ecleif.”
She gestured at a young Gnoll, who bowed slightly. He looked nervous, but he would not be alone.
Viri stood on his staff to watch, but solemn, eyes shining in the darkness. Next to him, Yelroan smiled and helped Sveha and Ikl stand on the shoulders of the adults—Khaze’s husband, Inir had joined them, but all were silent in this moment.
Merish found himself standing alone, as it began. He had missed the name of the song, but it didn’t matter. As soon as he heard the tune, he knew what it was.
There were some songs every Plains Gnoll knew. Passed from tribe to tribe, old to young, generation after generation.
It began with humming. A growling sound, from deep in the throat. Crooning Gnolls of every pitch. A rumbling buzz that filled the night and sky. Ikl and Sveha listened, wonderingly. So many voices, providing a backdrop.
Then Ecleif began. He sang at first, but a second later, dozens, hundreds of Gnolls joined in. Anyone who wanted to sing, could. Most, like Merish, just hummed, following the tune.
“So when my fur calls me to Igawiz’s Jet…”
Ecleif’s voice was strong and rang across the crowd. The other voices swelled, a powerful chorus. The song…Merish knew it. It was the same song that had called him to Rhir. A desire to go beyond Izril’s shores.
A beautiful song. A melancholy song if you listened to the words. They called it…
Great Plains Sing
So when my fur calls me to Igawiz’s Jet
To seek my people’s kingdom in that distant jungle land
Oh, finding the glade where the Queen of Gnolls still lies
And find the heart of stories my [Shaman] sang to me.
Race across the wilds where [Explorers] feared to go
Continents apart in which the Gnollish people died
To howl and greet their bones, to tell them we remain
One day we’ll reclaim lands as yet untamed.
So when my fur calls me across the Kraken’s Pass
To follow Garlen the Explorer over The Last Tide
Seeking mountains in the High Passes never climbed
And find the heart of stories my [Shaman] sang to me.
[Adventurers] long past call upon distant winds to me
Chieftain Seru’nial took her tribe beyond the clouds
The Gnolls who passed their years o’er and under land and sky
So not a patch of grass could say it never had seen Gnolls…
And on the song went on. Verses of Gnolls who had gone beyond the continent they all stood on. Tales of when their people had spread across the world.
Merish felt his fur rising. He felt…connected. A part of the mass of Gnolls around him. As far as he had gone—he was still a Plains Gnoll.
He looked around. Viri was listening, eyes wide, to the Gnolls of many tribes singing. A sound he might never hear again in his life. Sveha and Ikl were experiencing it for the first time.
Khaze held her partner, singing loud and clear.
As for Yelroan? He stood there, humming. Apart in his garb, in his class. Yet…here. Part of the Plain’s Eye Tribe. He had turned down better offers for better pay, perhaps more respect and power. Because this was home. A family.
Plains Gnolls all. Merish stood there, as the last of his Chieftain’s gift faded. For an hour, though, as they sang, for this night—someone else let him push aside dark memories. He sang with his people.
Then he slept, going back to his tent with the others after the bonfire had burned low, to embers. Merish only wished…they could be good dreams for once. Or oblivion. That would be a fitting end to it.
He had nightmares. For dreams of Rhir were not kind to him. Merish dreamed of Demons and light in the sky.
When he woke, it was to screams. To howls of horror. To nightmares in waking. He emerged from his tent, axe in hand, as Viri leapt out, watchful, and Khaze cried out to him in fear.
He almost laughed. Merish almost thanked them, even as his teeth bared and his fur stood on end. He was almost grateful, because it proved he was right.
I am not crazy. I’m not going mad. No—at least some of the madness is right. There are nightmares, even back home.
It was almost a relief. Merish heard the word on the wind. Horror had arrived. It had a name.
The army from Pallass brought them.
Raskghar. Not all of them. A mere dozen. Chained, in cages, to show the Meeting of Tribes.
Nevertheless, the effect they had on the Gnolls was extreme.
Raskghar! Nightmares of old! Ancient enemies! The names whispered to frighten children. Predators of the dark.
The Feasting Betrayers. Darkstalkers. The Gnolls Who Abandoned Sun.
A great howl went up among the Meeting of Tribes, from everyone who saw it. Other Gnolls picked it up, hearing the fear in the air. The army from Pallass halted, warily stopping as thousands of Gnolls joined the sentries surrounding them.
It was a…gift. A gift from the Assembly of Crafts, from High Command and Chaldion. See your enemy. Know they remain.
The first ranks of warriors parted as a scream shook the air. They looked up and scattered as a bird larger than any Wyvern, massive, furious, landed. Gnolls leapt from the Roc’s back as one of the greatest predators of the sky shed members of the famous tribe.
Az’muzarre. They howled, and one of them, the Roc’s rider, lifted a sword.
“Fear not, Gnolls of Izril! We will let not one of these monsters claim one of our kind!”
The [Relicbearer] hefted the sword of Dragonbone. The Drakes standing in neat formations eyed the sword made of their Ancestor’s bones uneasily. Then they saw more of the small, deadly tribe appear.
Here stood the power of the Great Plains. Az’muzarre stood together, forming a line a hundred Gnolls wide, confronting the Raskghar.
The caged monsters stared at the Gnolls, warily, but without fear. They sniffed the air, eying the Az’muzarre tribe. Wary of the Roc pecking at the soil. They had never dreamed the world was this vast on the surface. Even so…what they saw were Gnolls.
Merish was part of the crowd who had gathered to see the Raskghar. He saw them—like him, but different. Bigger, hunched. Bestial, ancestors who had gone down a different path than Gnolls.
That was not what chilled him. It was the innate sense, the revulsion in his very bones. Something in Merish told him they were enemies.
He was among regular warriors, axe in hand. He saw Az’muzarre begin to move forwards. They struck the weapons they held, making a rattling sound. The Pallassian [Commander] hesitated. Then raised a hand. He was smart enough to move the Drakes back.
“Are they going to take them into the camp? They should be killed!”
One of the Gnollish [Warriors] snarled, voicing a thought shared by many. Merish stared at the Slayers of Muzarre. He saw them strike their weapons. Then realized—a [Shaman] was leading them. She pointed at the Raskghar.
“Raskghar! Enemies of old! There is only death for them here. Warriors of Az’muzarre, protect the Great Plains!”
His eyes widened. The warriors began to advance. As it happened—they were not planning on letting the Raskghar exist another second at the Meeting of Tribes.
Some of the Gnolls growled assent, but Merish looked around. No. Wait. He was as unsettled as the others were by the Raskghar, but you didn’t kill your enemies. Rhir—the Blighted Kingdom didn’t kill every Demon if they took prisoners.
Yet Az’muzarre was advancing and the Pallassian [Soldiers] did not look ready to bar their way. The Drake [Commander] rode forwards, but one caw from the Roc and his horse nearly threw him off. The Gnollish warriors stepped forwards, and three bearing relic-class weapons moved towards the Raskghar.
The Raskghar began to snarl. Merish swore he heard one say something that sounded like…words. He was pushing through the crowd, but everyone resisted him.
“Stop. Don’t be fools!”
Merish growled. He began to use more force, and shoved Gnolls aside. Too slow. He saw the first warrior bring up a Dragonbone sword, howling, as the [Shaman] exhorted her warriors.
The Az’muzarre Gnoll never got a chance to execute the Raskghar in their cages. The air was full of howling, shouts, screams, but a noise broke through the chaos and fear.
A roar. It was angry and loud. A bear’s roar, but scaled up. Merish whirled. So did Az’muzarre’s tribe. The warriors stood in a bunch, continuing to be reinforced as more raced towards them. The [Shaman] stared back—then up. One of the angry [Relicbearers] moved to block someone striding forwards. Gnolls parted before the giant figure. The [Relicbearer] looked up—
A paw shoved the Gnoll aside. The other Az’muzarre Gnolls stirred—took one look at the giant Gnoll—and backed away.
Merish’s eyes went wide. He saw a Gnoll towering over the others, half again as tall as the tallest Gnoll, striding forwards. Behind her—he saw more Gnolls marching out of the Meeting of Tribes.
“The Chieftains are coming! Do not touch the Raskghar!”
Someone shouted. The Gnolls’ heads turned. Merish heard a questioning voice.
The answer soon became self-evident. Which ones?
All of them. They emerged from the center of the Meeting of Tribes, some with their tribe’s warriors around them, others alone. Not just the [Chieftains]. [Shamans] strode forwards. But who came first were…the Gnolls that Merish knew.
That every Gnoll knew. Lehra Ruinstrider and her team appeared, the Stargnoll wearing her armor already. Chieftain Iraz and the Steelfur Tribe stormed forwards. Yet every eye was on the first Gnoll, who had pushed through the Az’muzarre Tribe. Now, she stared down at the Raskghar, who backed up in their cages. Eying her with clear disbelief.
She was thirteen feet tall, as if someone had…stretched her. Her arms were long, hanging low at her sides, and she wore a ragged cape that stretched to her legs. The cape was…hide.
A bear’s hide. The Gnoll was growling. Roaring.
“Who is that? What kind of—she looks like a bear herself. What kind of class turns you into that?”
One of the Gnolls didn’t recognize her—or couldn’t put name to the truth. Merish knew her. Someone else breathed, a [Huntress] who lowered the bow she had been clutching.
“[Racdelbear Shapechanger]. That’s…Garsine. Wallbreaker. I thought she was dead.”
The Gnoll who had broken the walls of six Drake cities came to a halt, in front of the Az’muzarre tribe, facing the Raskghar in cages. The [Shaman] tried to give an order and Garsine looked at her.
The [Shaman] fell silent.
Merish heard a familiar howl among the others. A muster-call from the Plain’s Eye tribe. He began to push towards it. It was for [Shamanic Warriors]. Before he got there, he saw another group emerge.
Gnolls. Each one was tall. They were akin to him—he stopped as he saw the first wave of them appear. He smelled them too. When he saw them, Merish knew in an instant who they were.
Each Gnoll looked to be covered in muck. Mud, detritus of nature. A swamp’s coating. They were practically masked in it, from head to toe. They left a trail behind them. As if the swamp had come to life itself.
“[Marsh-Guardians of Gaarh]. The Gaarh Marsh Tribe’s greatest warriors.”
Behind their tribe, Merish thought he saw the hill, the living embodiment of their tribe itself moving. Then he heard the howl and moved.
Gnolls looked around as the Steelfur Tribe’s [Warriors] began to march towards the Raskghar. They joined Gaarh Marsh—and then other tribes.
[Shamanic Warriors] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe. The Woven Bladegrass’ fierce warriors.
Krshia Silverfang had come to a halt when the Raskghar arrived. She remembered them and their horror, and was thus less affected by seeing them than the other Gnolls who had never glimpsed such things. She saw the Gnolls stream forwards. Not just Az’muzarre, or new heroes of Gnollkind like Lehra.
Summoned by the word of these monsters from myth, older than even stories of the Death of Magic, older than Demons, all the Gnolls were coming.
Honored Berr strode forwards with Wild Waste [Berserkers] and [Barbarians], bare-chested, not smiling, their weapons already drawn. Next to him strode giants, not as tall as Garsine, but taller than any other.
“The Ekhtouch Tribe.”
Krshia recognized them instantly. The Gnolls in the crowd were calming, recognizing the greatest tribes. One pointed.
“Who is that?”
A Gnoll strode along, the second-tallest Gnoll but for Garsine. Taller than the other Ekhtouch!
“That must be…Gireulashia Ekhtouch. Their [Paragon].”
Krshia started. She saw her sister by her side. Chieftain Akrisa had come, with the other Chieftains and [Shamans]. She moved past Krshia, towards Garsine.
The other Gnolls were coming to a halt next to her, facing the Raskghar.
The legends of Gnolls. Next to Chieftain Iraz marched a Gnoll whose entire body was metal, not just his fur. Even his skin underneath looked like moving metal.
Adetr Steelfur, nephew of the Chieftain of the Steelfur clan. Inheritor of the same will that had created his tribe.
He looked like a statue of a Gnoll cast in metal come to life. His teeth, his claws…all but his eyes were metal. And even the eyes…the whites had turned to iron or something like them. Only the pupils looked like flesh.
The ranks of Steelfur parted. Krshia, moving towards the front with Akrisa, saw even the other tribes stop. Steelfur Gnolls looked back and moved aside.
A Gnoll was coming. Krshia stared past them and saw an honor-guard wearing curious armor escorting an elderly Gnoll. He was walking with help, but he slowed.
Krshia jumped. She saw Deskie, the Longstalker Tribe’s great [Magical Weaver] behind her. Chieftain Eska was there. Deskie raised her own aged head.
“Is that you? Shedrkh?”
The Gnoll was so old he had gone to full-grey. But never white. His eyes had a trace of rheum and a Gnoll had to support him as he walked. No wonder he had not been seen like the other famous Gnolls. Yet his was a famous name as well. Krshia instantly ducked her head with the Gnolls around her and stepped back.
The two Gnolls met. Deskie joined Shedrkh, who gestured to his guard as they admitted her.
“Deskie, I am told terrible foes have returned. Come…I would not have the courage alone. Show me these ancient nightmares of our people.”
They moved on. Eska held back, but Chieftain Orelighn didn’t recognize the old Gnoll. He whispered to Krshia and Akrisa.
“Who was that?”
Both looked incredulously at the Greenpaw’s Chieftain.
“Didn’t you recognize him, Orelighn? Honored Shedrkh. The Keeper of Hides!”
Orelighn frowned; the name was familiar to him. He blinked, then focused on Shedrkh’s back.
Krshia corrected Orelighn, almost about to slap him for his tone.
“A [Tanner] who made armor out of Kraken’s flesh. Who has made more leather out of Wyverns than a lesser [Tailor] has made cloth out of cotton.”
She pointed at his honor-guard. Some of them wore unfamiliar, leather-ish armor. Flexible as fish’s scales. Tough as…Orelighn’s eyes went huge.
“Do we go with them? Us?”
Akrisa’s partner, the [Shaman] Cetrule, wavered. He represented the Silverfang Tribe, but Krshia had to admit—she didn’t know if Akrisa fit, even being a Chieftain with these Gnolls.
“We go. We are Chieftains and you are my [Shaman]. Krshia, you are my sister. You fought these Raskghar. We belong.”
Gnolls turned to look at Krshia. Akrisa’s chin rose. A voice came from behind them.
“Yes. Silverfang and Liscor. You do belong. Let us go.”
The group of Gnolls turned. They fell back a step, but the Gnoll just walked towards Akrisa and nodded his head. Armor covered him, and he leaned on a strange polearm that Krshia had never seen before, despite being a [Shopkeeper].
“I have never seen such things, and I have walked every land in this world. If you know more, then come, Chieftain of the Silverfang Tribe. I would be honored to walk with you.”
The adventurer inclined his head. Akrisa stuttered.
“That—we are honored, Honored Gadiekh.”
She fell into step with him. Orelighn pointed wordlessly and Krshia nodded.
Gadiekh, the World-Pact Adventurer. The Named Adventurer who was unanimously given his rank by eighteen different nations.
One more great Chieftain joined the procession near Krshia. She too, was unmistakable.
“I am…sad. This day dawns again. Can no old horror ever truly be ended? My cousin should have been here to see it. Feshi, come. You must see them too.”
Krshia saw light. The dawn was still breaking, yet somehow, impossibly, light also shone down from the sky. The dark clouds overhead parted.
A Gnoll walked in the light.
The sun shone down around her. A beam of light that broke even rain and clouds apart and shone on her always.
Torishi. Chieftain of the Weatherfur Tribe. Next to her walked Feshi. They joined the Gnolls, who formed a semi-circle. The Raskghar in their cages snarled, eying the others. Sensing their power.
They recognized Krshia. One actually pointed at her, howling what might have been an insult in their tongue, and she saw countless heads swing her way. Krshia stared at the Raskghar.
Now they see you. Can you overcome our people at their strength? I think…not.
She felt safer here than she had in Liscor, even with Chaldion and the army. Krshia bared her teeth. Then she felt the world tremble.
Something was walking. Krshia’s head slowly turned. The snarling Raskghar fell silent. They looked up—then tried to squeeze back against the bars. The Pallassian [Commander] gulped.
The Gaarh Marsh Tribe’s greatest guardian was moving. The huge thing that you could mistake for a hill, so still it had been. Now, it walked.
It rose above them all, even the Rocs and Garsine Wallbreaker. A figure of earth and swamps. The greatest power of the old world.
Merish felt the thing with each step. He gazed up at the Gaarh Marsh’s protector. He saw the Earth Elemental stop.
The great elemental was not shaped like a Gnoll, or a humanoid, really. It was too squat. Yet it had limbs. He had heard tell there were smaller ones in times past, and they could change shape.
That they were intelligent was also a given; the Earth Elementals, like Treants of old, were great, natural protectors. Guardians of nature, which could doom cities if roused to wrath.
All that Merish knew. Yet, as the living piece of earth halted, Gnolls moved back, wary, like people around an unpredictable animal.
They underestimated it. Merish did too. For he saw a line split across the Earth Elemental’s body. Not where a mouth would be on a regular creature; along its belly.
Yet it was a mouth. It moved. The Earth Elemental pointed one limb at the Raskghar.
Merish heard the emotion in that single word. Wrath, fury—an implacable hatred that reached back far past the days he had been born—all delivered in the immortal tones of grinding earth, the very squelch of mud, the shifting of the firmament itself.
The monsters flinched at that. The Earth Elemental walked forwards further, raising a huge limb. The Gaarh Marsh tribe ran around it, trying to calm its wrath.
Was it going to slaughter them? Merish didn’t think even Garsine could stop this great creature’s wrath. The Raskghar flinched, almost resigned to their fate.
They could have died in that moment, surrounded by so many Gnolls feeling the ancient grudge amplify the old stories and nightmares carried among the tribes. The Earth Elemental was moving, the Gnolls tensed.
Then a howl disrupted the Elemental’s movement. It slowed, and the last great tribe appeared. Merish began to walk forwards, following the first Gnoll as he walked through the ranks of the [Shamanic Warriors].
The [Shaman] stared ahead with mismatched eyes. He had removed the eye patch that normally covered the unnatural eye. He walked forwards, and the Raskghar focused on him. Then looked away.
They couldn’t help it.
The Plain’s Eye [Shaman] of [Shamans], greatest of them all, advanced, his eyes unwavering. Gaze into the eyes of the Shaman of the Eternal Grassland. The Raskghar shuddered. For his eyes recognized them. His eyes had seen Raskghar before.
One eye had.
The [Shaman] stopped, and the last figure approached. Merish felt him coming. A familiar feeling. He straightened, and locked eyes with the Gnoll as he passed by for a moment. He saw the lips move, the words unspoken, but there.
Old stories, Merish.
Something—walked with the greatest Chieftain, leader of Merish’s tribe. Chieftain Xherw halted next to his [Shaman]. The Gnolls regarded each other, then turned as one to face the Raskghar.
The beasts of Liscor’s dungeon quailed. Thus, the Raskghar came to the Meeting of Tribes. Merish saw Garsine snarling, the implacable wariness of Iraz. The wary battle lust of the Woven Bladegrass Chieftain and her people.
Thereafter, he realized, the Meeting of Tribes could not be the same. He felt it in his bones as he looked for Viri. A calling back to war.
The day the Raskghar arrived at the Meeting of Tribes caused chaos. Not productive chaos, mind you.
It reminded Krshia too much of how Liscor had dealt with the first attacks. A lot of condemnation, outrage, and unity—but no resolution. The tribes united against the Raskghar threat. Thereafter?
Splintered. The great meetings with the Chieftains were about to begin, and it became clear that the Raskghar issue, the tribes going to Chandrar, the Antinium, would be among the contentious issues discussed.
For instance, Az’muzarre wanted the Raskghar dead. They would execute them within seconds if they got their paws on them, which was why Az’muzarre wasn’t given responsibility to guard them. That fell to a joint task-force while the Raskghar’s fate was decided.
A lot of tribes wanted them dead, but the cool-headed ones wanted to know all there was to know first. One side effect of the Raskghar arriving was that it thrust Pallass into the limelight. The Walled City had as many grudges with and against the tribes as any Drake city, but this certainly helped their image. Then again—others wondered if this was a ploy, to distract the tribes.
Silverfang’s involvement with the Raskghar was far more of a net positive, and Krshia and Akrisa were invited to tribe after tribe to re-tell the story of the Raskghar raids.
That was how their tribe finally worked its way into the fore of the Meeting of Tribes, rubbing ears with even the biggest and best. And there were a lot of stronger tribes. Silverfang was good.
Compared to the legends of Gnolls, Krshia recalled they weren’t superior. But good.
Good…at what Silverfang did.
“Hrr. Are these Silverfang’s chief warriors? Well met.”
The Wild Wastes Chieftain looked the Gnolls armed with silver-alloy weapons up and down. They had no fancy names like the marsh guardians or shamanic warriors of other tribes, and were not a recognized class or force.
They were…[Silverarms Warriors]. As in, you literally carried silver. And presumably this helped with the stabbing or fighting.
It actually did, a bit. Silverfang’s warriors were quite good at fighting mage-barriers and the like. They were a reason no Drake city picked a fight with their tribe lightly.
On the other hand…the [Silverarms Warriors] stood behind Akrisa and Krshia and tried not to sweat as they eyed their counterparts from the Wild Wastes Tribe, a tribe known for their combat prowess.
[Barbarians]. [Berserkers]. Gnolls who somehow contrived to outweigh their Silverfang counterparts by sheer height or muscle, despite the armor the Silverfangs wore. The likes of Honored Berr, Berr the Berserker, were cut from the Wild Wastes Tribe.
Chieftain Perale was bare-chested, sitting in a loincloth to greet the Silverfang’s delegation. Akrisa, the technical junior in age as well as her tribe’s might, dipped her head slightly.
“Chieftain Perale, you honor us.”
“The honor is mine, Chieftain Akrisa. Please, share our fire and hospitality. Ah—what is this?”
He sniffed the air and some of his bodyguards—a lot less professional-looking than the Silverfangs, some lounging around, but decidedly more deadly—perked their heads up. Akrisa gestured. Baskets heaped with snacks were brought out.
“Merely some refreshments. Let us share in it, Chieftain Perale.”
“Silverfang is generous! Then we shall talk of Raskghar—and eat like [Princes], yes?”
Krshia sat, among the Honored Gnolls, close to her sister, but able to glance around. The Wild Wastes tribe was fascinating to the [Royal Shopkeeper]. Mainly because of a few things.
Wild Wastes. Mighty Gnolls who had actual [Barbarian] classes, the theoretical basis of the ‘savage Gnolls’ stereotype. In truth, they were quite civilized, albeit traditionalists, who roamed to the far northeast of Liscor, along the mountains of the High Passes. They did crazy things like fight cows, climb mountains, and often took work as [Mercenaries]. They had herds, and other goods, but they were known for being among the best fighters in close combat.
Honored Berr waved at Krshia, and turned back to a small group of far-younger Gnolls, each one marked with a [Berserker]’s dyes. He bore few decorations, and his warriors, despite being some of the best of his tribe, were simply armored, with enchanted weapons…little to no armor.
Here was the interesting thing: the Wild Wastes tribe was poor. Or, they had little gold to spend, an important distinction.
Krshia saw it everywhere. When they had asked to meet, Chieftain Perale had instantly volunteered to host them. It might have been a power-play, but now Krshia thought it was so they could offer the fire, tents, and limited refreshments. Traditionally, the visiting tribe brought gifts.
The snacks from Liscor, including cookies and new items from Erin’s inn, but also including snacks purchased or made by the Silverfang tribe vanished fast. The Wild Wastes Gnolls literally stuffed everything they could grab into their pockets or belt pouches—or mouths. They looked at Silverfang, and Krshia saw them eying the jewelry many of her tribe wore, their clothing, with a bit of envy.
“Ah, Chieftain Akrisa, such good snacks. Sometimes I envy tribes who trade more with cities.”
Perale confided, the older Gnoll scratching at a battle-scar under his fur. After the greetings were done, he was quite retiring.
“Wild Wastes has its charm, Chieftain Perale.”
Akrisa tried to be diplomatic. Perale just laughed.
“Charm is not a replacement for money! Whenever we leave our homes, I feel poor. When we return, I will feel all is fine. When we win a war or battle? I will feel rich! For about six days. Then all the gold vanishes.”
He grinned. His tribe had lots of [Mercenaries]; hence, Krshia supposed their income was very random.
“Surely the Wild Wastes tribe is not that poor. Your [Warriors] are known Izril-over.”
Krshia spoke up when she had an opening, as her position allowed. The Wild Wastes Gnolls chuckled. Perale rolled his eyes.
“That lot? Honored Krshia, from Liscor, yes? You overestimate my warriors. Fierce in battle—lazy at home. They train, yes. They practice and fight, and eat without doing much. And when they break each other’s bones, who has to pay for healing potions?”
He jerked a thumb at one of his head warriors. The Gnoll called out, completely unabashed.
“We hit things, you make decisions, Chieftain.”
“So they say. Silverfang has Gnolls who can work jobs that pay. My Gnolls? Many earn money only a fraction of the time.”
Perale sighed. Silverfang was clearly richer than their tribe. Which made Krshia feel they had some ground to stand on. A tribe like the Wild Wastes could use a rich friend, and Silverfang a powerful ally.
But they were just introducing themselves today, so Krshia let Akrisa and Perale talk and walked the camp after she’d told Perale about the Raskghar. He listened intently, growling at hearing the sacrifices, but it was clearly not news; Krshia suspected her story had made the rounds everywhere, but Gnolls liked to hear it from her lips.
She talked to the one Gnoll she did know in the camp. Honored Berr. He was the oldest Gnoll she saw still acting as a [Warrior]. His fur was grey, and he was short.
Unless he chose to grow. He stood like a dwarf-Gnoll among a group of giant, far-younger [Warriors] in their twenties or thirties at the latest. Krshia nodded as he smiled. Berr was scarfing down cookies he somehow had a dozen of.
“Honored Berr. Are these Gnolls all your apprentices?”
He shrugged as the Gnolls sniffed at Krshia, nodding to her, also chowing down.
“My apprentices—and offspring. That’s my son. And that one. And that one…hrr, they were all boys. Eleven. Strange, eh?”
He pointed out three Gnolls among the warriors standing around him. One, with blonde fur, tall, handsome, and a scar running from the ear down along his neck, gave Krshia a smile. He was like a Gnoll out of stories, and some of the Silverfang Gnolls were giving him admiring looks.
Krshia just grinned. Honored Berr gestured around.
“Isn’t it annoying? They crowd me so, so I like to leave my tribe. Shoo!”
He pushed at his son, irritably, but the tall Gnoll just rested his chin on Berr’s head.
“Father, we have to learn from you. Such an honored Gnoll. Give us wisdom.”
“Don’t mock old Gnolls. Here is wisdom!”
Berr ducked, swung a fist up, and hit his son in the chin. The Gnoll went cross-eyed and staggered, and then swiped at Berr. The [Berserker] was already gone, and the others laughed uproariously.
[Berserkers]. [Barbarians]. What was amazing was that they weren’t all Gnolls. The laughter cut off as one of the warriors apprenticed to Berr came forwards. He had emerged from the guest tents, rather than greet the Silverfangs.
He didn’t even notice Krshia, as he fell to his knees in front of Honored Berr. The female Gnoll started and stared. The other Gnolls fell silent as a tear-stained man, seven feet tall, as muscular as Grimalkin—almost—sank to his knees. His eyes were red; his scarred arms reached out as Berr stopped jesting and turned to him, gravely.
“Master. I ask you to teach me, now. I have rested from my journey, and I must learn or go mad.”
“Hrm. Solen, isn’t it?”
Two companions came out of the tents and joined the Human man. They were all Humans, similarly strong, but wearing armor. Their accents were…Terandrian?
“I apologize, honored Berr. He would not rest.”
One of the men spoke, clumsily adding the title. Solen ignored his friends. He reached out, supplicating. To…Berr.
“I have…I have taken too much blood, master. When the pounding is too loud—it consumes everything. Already, the crimson sin knows my name. I cannot live like this. I will slay all I love. Can I be cured? Can the beast inside me be tamed?”
Krshia’s fur rose slightly. She looked at the [Berserker], and finally noticed something that wasn’t a scar on his cheek. An ashen brand; a tattoo in his flesh. It looked like a slave-marking, but if he was from Terandria…she took a step back.
[Berserker]. One didn’t have to guess what blood he had taken by accident. Yet why had he come here?
For Berr. The small Gnoll looked up, unafraid, though even his sons and the other Wild Wastes Gnolls were wary. He laid a paw on Solen’s shoulder.
“There is a way. I will teach you what you must know, Solen. Now…no. If you cannot wait, please excuse me, Honored Krshia. We will begin the first lesson.”
The man clutched at Berr’s paw, the light of hope in his eyes.
“Thank you, master.”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not…well, don’t call me that.”
Berr gently led the man away. Respectfully, the others watched and the two lesser [Berserkers] followed. Krshia was curious.
“They come to Honored Berr to teach them to master their tempers?”
She turned to his son. The Gnoll grinned.
“My father? Of course. He is calm. A rare thing in our class. This lot came from distant Terandria. That one—he killed his father in battle-rage.”
He nodded at Solen. Krshia was struck again, with sympathy, wariness—and also curiosity.
Now that she thought of it, she had never seen Berr lose his temper. Even in that fight with Inkar and the others, he had seemed like he was having fun. Even when the Raskghar came and half the Gnolls were in a frenzy—if she didn’t know his class, she would have never guessed it.
She went back to the discussions just in time to see Akrisa rise to her feet. Perale was standing too, and Krshia feared some offense had been given. But both Gnolls turned to her.
“Krshia. There she is.”
Akrisa pointed. A panting Gnoll turned to her. It was…Beilmark? She was supposed to be with the Silverfangs.
“What is wrong? Beilmark?”
The Senior Guardswoman looked at Krshia. She spoke, her voice ragged from sprinting here.
“Krshia. It’s Liscor! It’s Mrsha. She’s been kidnapped.”
It was a game of catch-up. News travelled—but always too slowly. Krshia Silverfang and her tribe learned of the attack on Liscor after it had happened, after Mrsha had been kidnapped, too late. They reacted—but slowly.
In the same way, Wil Kallinad felt how far he was from the action when the call came for him. The Order of Seasons rode to war against Ailendamus, and he was far too far from his home kingdom to help if Pheislant had to fight.
Even this…he turned to Yerranola, limping along next to him.
“The Professor. I can’t believe he’s in trouble. Why’d he go to Izril alone? Isn’t he the one who always says ‘don’t take stupid risks’?”
She slowed, resting an arm against a tent pole. Wil felt bad and slowed, but Yerranola just kept walking after a moment. She was still…stiff in her body, which was something he had never seen in a Selphid. She bared her teeth at him; she had a Gnoll body to blend in.
“Maybe, but the Professor’s not always careful, Wil. This sounds like something he’d do—but are we going?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see what the others say.”
Wil kept on. He had received a communique from ‘home’, that was, the academy. No less than Professor Perorn had written to him. Him and the students here. Asking if they would join in…what?
She hadn’t specified. A search, or a rescue mission. Perhaps combat. Wil wasn’t an idiot. He knew that if she was reaching out to them, there might be trouble indeed for the Forgotten Wing Company. One of his classmates said that the entire academy was in a furor. Something was going down on Baleros.
And here they were, enjoying the Meeting of Tribes. Which was the point! Heal Yerranola, help/watch Feshi gain the approval of the other tribes, and enjoy themselves.
They had been doing just that, today. Wil and Yerranola arrived just in time to see what was, by now, a regular start to their day in the Meeting of Tribes.
There were worse ways to start your day. Of course, Venaz could later ruin it by being surly or challenging you—or denying he’d lost, but a good Venaz-defeat put a smile on Wil’s face, even now. There was something about the Minotaur’s superior attitude that invited it.
Only he’d consistently choose to lose like this, as well. The Minotaur lay face-down in the mud. He came to after a second.
“Eight losses each morning. What will it be tomorrow, Minotaur?”
An amused voice called out. One of the Gnolls watching, a tall one even by the standards of their kind, chortled. Venaz sat up, blinking.
Merrik and Peki hurried forwards. They checked Venaz, but he wasn’t concussed—just knocked out. He swigged a bit of healing potion, spat out some blood, and looked around.
“Chess. Chess tomorrow, again. I nearly had the timing right.”
“Sure you did.”
Merrik rolled his eyes. The Gnolls laughed. But it was the tallest of them, the giant who’d laid Venaz low with a single punch, who bent down.
“I do not see the desire behind your actions, Venaz of the House of Minos. I hope I did not hurt you?”
If there was anything to wound the Minotaur’s pride…he took the paw slowly, and was effortlessly lifted to his feet. Wil stopped as the second-tallest Gnoll in the entire Meeting of Tribes lifted Venaz up.
Gireulashia Ekhtouch and some members of her tribe surrounded Venaz, as tall, or taller than the Minotaur. Superior Gnolls…bred to be superior. And Gireulashia herself was the best among them.
A [Paragon]. Venaz spat again, a bit of blood landing on the ground. He bowed slightly to the female Gnoll, and snapped.
“I am not hurt, Honored Gireulashia. But I insist on another try! Tomorrow. If you are willing, of course.”
She nodded. Wil stared up at her. Magnificent red-brown fur, nine feet tall, and strong enough to knock a Minotaur flat with a punch—she was an Ekhtouch among Ekhtouch.
“I still fail to see the point, Honored Venaz. I am using my Skill. [Superiority Made Manifest]. By definition, all that you do shall be inferior to my action.”
“I know. And yet—I deny it! I will best your Skill.”
Venaz ground his teeth together and winced; her punch had knocked something loose. Wil shook his head as he joined the party.
“Are you still trying to prove you can best her in some way, Venaz?”
The Minotaur had tried for eight days straight to beat the [Paragon]’s Skill. It had been throwing yesterday, a game of chance the day before…he harrumphed at Wil.
“You’re late. You should have seen the punch I threw so you could analyze it. I had my guard up—”
“She punched him silly. Nothing to see, just hilarity.”
Peki announced. The [Martial Artist] demonstrated.
“Straight punch. Venaz could have done better.”
“It was a classic punch.”
“I can throw a better one.”
The Garuda mocked the taller, heavier Minotaur. Venaz growled, but didn’t dare Peki to prove it; she was the best hand-to-hand fighter there, with the possible exception of Gireulashia.
“Until tomorrow, Venaz. Greetings, Wil Kallinad, Yerranola.”
She bowed slightly and strode away, as the Ekhtouch fell into a kind of procession around her. Gnolls turned to stare as the [Paragon] departed.
“I don’t know why she humors you, Venaz.”
Merrik grumbled. He massaged his neck from staring up at all the tall Gnolls. Venaz shrugged.
“She respects Feshi’s tribe. I have to prove I can beat her Skill. The implications of a Skill just…exceeding someone? Could she do it to the Professor?”
“Maybe. That’s why she’s the Ekhtouch’s pride. It’s a great Skill. No matter who appears—she can best them.”
“But can she best…something she’s never done? Maybe I should ask her to prove it with…magic? I don’t know magic, damn. How about an activity…”
Venaz broke off, scheming. He was fascinated by Gireulashia. Yerranola just laughed.
“Besotted by the first person taller, stronger, and better than you, Venaz?”
The others grinned too. Venaz’s head rose. He looked after Gireulashia, still visible in the distance.
“What? Do you think I fall for the first tall-legged person I meet? That athleticism equates to love? For shame, Yerranola. That’s shallow. She’s not my type. Too young as well. I prefer…strength of character.”
The others laughed. But Wil remained silent. He cleared his throat.
“Venaz. Did you get the message from Perorn about…the Professor?”
Venaz stopped. He looked at Wil, and then gestured to his bare hand.
“I took my rings off for the contest. Let me put on some privacy artifacts. Then talk.”
Wil nodded. The others went sober at once.
Something had to be done. Krshia met with Akrisa, Beilmark, and other senior Gnolls of the Silverfang tribe. Krshia was distraught, upset, frightened of the reports of the strange [Witch].
“We must send aid back, sister! Chieftain!”
She implored Akrisa. Her older sister held up a steadying paw.
“Of course we must, Krshia. However, it may be best to appoint Silverfangs from Liscor who…know…Mrsha. I am also not about to order Gnolls to race hundreds of miles north if there are better trackers on the job. You said acquaintances and her guardians are already on her trail.”
It was hard for Krshia to explain just how bad of a group was going after Mrsha—even if Akrisa would have believed her.
“The problem is, this little Mrsha cannot be scried, and her trail is apparently hard to follow, even by scent. We are far from Pallass.”
Cetrule pointed out. Beilmark paced.
“I’m informed a [Tracker] from 4th Company has joined the rescue operation, but there must be something we can do. Is there no one in Silverfang who can quickly go north?”
“We are not a tribe known for speed. What I can do is ask other tribes to lend their aid. A tribe around Pallass…the issue is not that, Krshia. Sister?”
Krshia jerked upright from visions of Erin. Lyonette. She had told Lyonette that Mrsha would be safe here! The inn…little Mrsha…who had done it? She looked at Akrisa.
“What? Anyone who can help would be welcome.”
Akrisa let the word linger. She looked at Cetrule.
“But Mrsha is the little white Gnoll, yes? The one you intend to plead before the Meeting of Tribes? That complicates things. It would—not be wise—for some Gnolls who might help to encounter her.”
Krshia’s fur rose slightly. She swung her head from Cetrule to Akrisa.
“They wouldn’t kill her out of turn, would they? Akrisa, when Brunkr came, he was violent, but not every Gnoll would be so…”
Murderous? Akrisa pointedly didn’t reply. She rested her paws on the table.
“I am concerned for the child’s safety. But sister. I am more concerned about the Gnolls who attacked the inn. Gnolls with no tribe’s markings. Yet Plains Gnolls. Which tribe is that?”
Krshia felt an uneasy sensation in her stomach. A tribe had sent…? She looked from Akrisa to Cetrule. The [Shaman] cleared his throat.
“I can inquire, Chieftain Akrisa. That may be more important. I fear for the child, Krshia. But if a tribe knew she was a white Gnoll and sent those Gnolls…the Meeting of Tribes might be more dangerous than wherever she is.”
Which tribe? Krshia could only nod as Beilmark swung her head from face to face.
At the same time, Wil and his friends held conference. They faced a similar problem, albeit from a different angle. Wil had a map of Izril and it was dismayingly large.
“Here’s the High Passes where some adventurers claim to have run into the Professor. Here’s Invrisil, where he appeared. For reference, that’s a search area four hundred miles across.”
“You’re exaggerating, Wil. We know the Professor travelled via door to Liscor. Here. It stands to reason he’d stay near civilization.”
Wil glowered at Venaz. He was the best at logistics. He tapped the pin where Gold-rank teams had claimed to meet the Professor—and taken heavy casualties. Three Gold-ranks were dead, in the skirmishes, or the monster attacks afterwards.
“How did he get to the High Passes then, Venaz? Wayward teleportation spell? Fleeing the first group? He could be anywhere there.”
“And it’s literally like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Yerranola laughed. The others glared at her, and the Selphid raised her hands.
“What? Oh, come on. It’s hilarious. Right? He’s the hardest person in the world to find.”
“I’m glad you think it’s funny.”
Merrik rolled his eyes, but the others were glad to see Yerranola in high spirits. Feshi chewed on her lip.
“I don’t understand why the Professor came to Izril in the first place. Did Perorn say why?”
“The answer is obvious. His mysterious chess partner.”
Venaz opined. Wil fell silent, but a surge of excitement rose in his chest.
“Yes, it has to be that. Or—he wanted to meet that Drake who published some of the games. Olesm. Liscor. It’s around Liscor we’d find him. Damn shame it’s so far. Even if we went to Pallass…are we going to go after him?”
Merrik folded his arms. He looked around at the students.
Feshi the Weatherfur Gnoll, Wil Kallinad of Pheislant, the [Lord]. Peki from Pomle, a [Martial Artist], standing next to Yerranola, a Selphid of Baleros who leaned on her shoulder.
Venaz from the House of Minos. All talented [Strategists]…but students still. They had already survived a perilous battle at sea.
“What can we do? If there are [Mercenaries] for hire—we’d still be looking for a needle in a grassland, no offense to the Professor. Especially if he doesn’t want to be found. We’ll also be up against the Great Companies—at the very least their agents! Professionals!”
“Professionals against [Strategists] with three Relic-class weapons, Wil. Or are you forgetting this?”
Venaz indicated the diamond greatsword on his back. Wil felt the sword at his side, and Feshi moved her paw to the dagger at her belt.
The Diamond Swords of Serept. Khelt’s treasure. Merrik stroked his beard.
“So what I’m hearing, Venaz, is that you’re an even bigger liability.”
“Yes. No. What?”
The Minotaur turned on Merrik. The Dwarf [War Leader] gave Venaz a critical look.
“You have a Relic-class artifact, so that means every [Bounty Hunter] and [Thief] will go after us. Feshi’s tribe is a deterrent here—elsewhere?”
“I have a sword that casts [Haste] on me whenever I draw it!”
“Sure, sure. All I’m saying is—there are better candidates for that. You’re not exactly a Level 40 [Warrior]. You’re a [Strategist]. I’d do better with it, honestly.”
“You? You can’t even swing it properly! It’s longer than you are!”
“Don’t be heightist, Venaz.”
The arguing banter between the students reminded Wil of home, yet this was serious. Feshi realized it too, and knocked her paw on the table.
“You two, stop arguing. Focus. This isn’t a game. They must be desperate if they are reaching out to us, even as a contingency.”
Merrik and Venaz fell silent and both grudgingly nodded. Feshi was concerned, but Yerranola coughed and grinned.
“Yet—don’t you see, everyone? I see the greatest opportunity for us here.”
They all looked at the Selphid. She’d endured terrible poison, but somehow, despite still needing treatments from the faerie-flower painkillers and antidotes, she grinned. Wil…was relieved to see her smile.
“How so, Yerra?”
Peki tilted her head. She was the least strategic-minded of the lot, being in the officer-classes. Yerra elaborated.
“There are more high-level individuals here than you could find in any great city in the world regularly. Mercenaries? Entire tribes known for their battle prowess are sitting about with nothing to do. And if we did rescue the Professor—that’s definitely worth top marks, right? How much is the favor of a Great Company of Baleros worth, eh, Feshi?”
The Gnoll blinked. The others looked at each other, feeling the same call to adventure. Until Venaz muttered, sotto voce.
“Assuming the Professor isn’t more valuable as a hostage.”
The others glowered at him, but Feshi nodded.
“You’re right, Venaz. There is a chance. I just don’t know if Weatherfur will take it…but we can ask. Let me talk to my Chieftain. If we decided to go and search, we could take a small group. Max movement Skills, horses? How much could we pay?”
The others glanced at each other. Wil sighed.
“I can ask my family for an advance, but war in Pheislant…”
“I’ll pull funds from my account at the Merchant’s Guild. All I can muster; nearly ten thousand gold. That’s all I was allocated.”
“I can throw in a few hundred gold too.”
Merrik’s hand rose. Feshi did some quick notations. Yerra grimaced.
“I can do uh, a hundred gold?”
They looked at Feshi, who had already added her income. Peki raised her wing-hand proudly.
“I am poor.”
Merrik patted her on the arm. Peki slapped his hand down.
“Don’t pat me.”
They nodded at each other and made to leave the private guest-tent. Feshi was jotting down notes.
“We could recompense some Weatherfur warriors. Not the best, but if I add in horses—are we moving fast or do we want a fighting force? Maybe we could purchase…”
They stopped in the middle of the Weatherfur Tribe’s camp. A bit of a commotion had occurred when they were planning out a possible rescue. A bunch of Gnolls had come to the Weatherfur Tribe. They had clearly been allowed in, but their very presence had quite a lot of Weatherfur’s colorful Gnolls with their dyed fur staring.
No less than the Chieftain of their tribe, Torishi, was greeting them, under a halo of light from the sky, the manifestation of her weather aura. Wil blinked.
He knew these Gnolls. Or one of them. Torishi called out to Feshi.
“Niece! You have guests. They claim to have an appointment with you. I hope you are not going to make them wait?”
She looked pointedly at one of the Gnolls, who was scarfing down refreshments. Feshi blinked.
“Chieftain. But I didn’t call for…”
She stared as the little Gnoll swung himself to his feet. He grinned, and motioned to the Gnolls—and three Humans. They fell into step as they approached Feshi, Wil, and the others.
Honored Berr’s grin was wide as could be.
“Feshi did not call us, Chieftain Torishi. But we are here, yes? Hello, children. I am Honored Berr. Do you remember me?”
He waved at Venaz. The Minotaur shuffled behind Peki. Of course they recognized him.
“Of course, Honored Berr. Can we help you?”
Feshi bowed slightly. She looked at him and the others—the Wild Wastes’ finest warriors. Honored Berr scratched at his belly. He stared at her. Then smiled.
“I am Berr. We know each other, yes?”
He…repeated himself? It was such an odd thing to say, all the [Strategists] looked at each other.
“Er—yes, Honored Berr. Can we help you? We did not call you.”
The Gnoll nodded. Then he tilted his head.
“I am Berr. These are [Berserkers], by the way.”
Was he going senile? Wil hesitated, feeling a bit uneasy by the odd way the Gnoll kept repeating his name, reintroducing himself. Then he heard an oath.
It came from Merrik. The Dwarf figured it out first and stroked his beard furiously. His eyebrows bobbed up and down. The others glanced at him.
“What, Merrik? Did you call him?”
“Not me. But we don’t need to. Honored Berr. Wild Wastes. I think we just ran into a high-level Skill. Used by [Mercenaries].”
Yerranola’s brows shot all the way back up. Everyone whirled around. Torishi gave her niece a stare, but Feshi was flabbergasted.
“…We can’t hire Berr! Merrik, you’re joking. That’s not—”
She turned. Honored Berr grinned wide as could be. The Gnolls behind him perked up. One of them flexed an arm—the other slapped his shoulder. Berr peered from student to student, a happy smile on his face.
“Can’t hire me? Why not? How much gold do you have?”
His eyes twinkled with excitement as the students looked at each other.
High-level Gnolls. Strange plans. Strange designs.
The first arguments over the Raskghar spilled into discussions about Pallass.
“Pallass wants a universal peace treaty with the Meeting of Tribes?”
The rumor was in among a lot of milling warriors from various tribes. Apparently, no less than Chaldion had asked for a mass-treaty since all the tribes were here. The Raskghar were a token of good-will.
Someone spoke, a Plain’s Eye [Warrior].
“Peace with a Walled City would be fine. My tribe is at peace and Pallass’ gold fills our pouches. If the Chieftains effect it, we could do away with other tribes causing trouble for us all.”
The remark was aimed at a Woven Bladegrass Gnoll. She pushed herself up with a growl.
“So says a tribe afraid of Pallass. Will you let them push us around, take our lands and tell us ‘this is Drake property’?”
She slapped her chest.
“Let them come! We all know what Lemol and these cities have done to Gnoll tribes! Do you not remember the Kedarune tribe’s fate? How Drake armies drove off Grovelind’s people from their vineyards they had tended for nearly eight decades over petty laws those cities made?”
Another Gnoll barked back. Someone else slapped him on the shoulder, provoking a growl, but the third Gnoll was big enough to make the rest back down.
“I say the Woven Bladegrass’ Chieftain has the right of it. We bow to Drake law and their armies in every part of Izril. Will we bow to their armies here? At this time? Do you think Pallass sending their army here, even to ‘escort’ the Raskghar, isn’t suspicious? Eh?”
The warriors fell silent. They turned to the third Gnoll, who was impressive, a strong Gnoll. No visible tribe’s markings, but there were wanderers as well as every tribe.
It was one discussion of many, but now the question had been posed…the third Gnoll kept speaking.
“There are too many designs on the Meeting of Tribes this time for my liking. I have been to the last one, when I was a cub, yes? But the Walled Cities never dared interrupt us before. It feels like many foreign powers are attempting to influence us. Or have you not heard of the King of Destruction’s representative?”
The other Gnolls looked at each other. Many hadn’t heard about that. One laughed.
“Designs on the Meeting of Tribes from foreign powers? What could they want? And the King of Destruction’s representative? What is he representing, a burnt pinecone? I heard that’s all that’s left of him.”
There were laughs, but the big Gnoll gave the other a reproving look. The Woven Bladegrass [Warrior] gave the unknown speaker an approving look.
“You have good points, [Warrior]. What tribe are you from?”
“None. I am a [Sellsword]. Among other things.”
“Then join our tribe for the night. Our Chieftain admires any Gnoll who speaks with conviction. Perhaps she will meet you. She will not like hearing about other powers; she does not like this Pallass army any more than you. How are you called?”
The other Gnolls broke up, some thoughtful, others shaking their heads. The Gnoll clasped paws with the female Gnoll.
“Me? Keras…il. Kerasil.”
She laughed and gestured. The Gnoll walked with her. He thought he’d done that well, but he kept forgetting his name. Yet if he met the Woven Bladegrass’ Chieftain…or should he win one of the martial tournaments yet? Perhaps tomorrow.
Kerash scratched at his neck, wondering if his Master was watching. Then his head swiveled.
Someone was watching him.
Even here, Kerash had seen powerful living beings. It was almost like there were worthy foes among the living, unlike how Venitra and Ijvani talked about the ‘inferior flesh-things’. Kerash had been…impressed…by all the Gnolls who had confronted the Raskghar.
He rather liked it here. Something called to him. He didn’t know what. But he was wary, because his master had warned him about the potential for discovery.
Who was watching him? As he followed the Woven Bladegrass’ representative, Kerash spotted the watcher.
A metal Gnoll? He slowed, and stared. One of the Honored Warriors of the Steelfur Tribe. One of the names he had memorized.
Adetr Steelfur. Kerash felt the Gnoll’s Skill touching him. Trying to learn something.
It wouldn’t work. The undead Gnoll’s mind raced.
A probing Skill. Master warned me about them. I am warded against such things. Keep calm. Do not react. Bow?
He inclined his head slightly. Adetr snorted, nodded once, and turned away. Kerash kept walking.
Keep to my Master’s plan. All is well. Enjoy myself. Master, how am I supposed to do that?
“Do you use that axe well, Kerasil? Or is it for show? Perhaps you can show me after this.”
The Woven Bladegrass Gnoll teased. Kerash bared his teeth. He forgot his worries.
“I am among the best you will ever meet.”
“Oh? You’ll have to prove that!”
The undead walked forwards. This was a bit fun after all. Far better than being taught by that rude skeleton.
Someone who was not enjoying the Meeting of Tribes sat cross-legged, in the middle of her tribe. Her small tribe—but not a weak tribe.
Ekhtouch, perfection made manifest, the tribe whose children were without flaw, who comingled and produced the finest of each species…were a boring tribe. They tended to be aloof when meeting other tribes.
They did not intermingle freely. They certainly did not comingle in any way that could lead to offspring without their Chieftain’s permission. In a sense, each Ekhtouch was like a work of art.
And works of art were boring. Like paintings hanging on walls. They ate regimented meals. They trained themselves to be the best at what they did. They aspired to have children who were even more superior.
But what happened if you were the pinnacle of all things? The allegedly superior Gnoll, who could not be matched? The answer was…you were bored. Especially if you were Gireulashia Ekhtouch.
She sat cross-legged in the camp, watched by the children and adults alike. If she was hungry, someone would instantly prepare her food. If she desired a sparring partner—well, they would line up to be punched, like that funny Minotaur.
To be honest, Gireulashia preferred Venaz to her kin. He was strident, always asking questions about her Skills, and perceptive. Ekhtouch? Superior.
Of course, in theory, Gireulashia was one of them, but Ekhtouch had done too well with her. She was an anomaly, even among them.
Nine feet tall. Akin to half-Giants. It wasn’t just size, though; her mind was as sharp as a razor. She thought faster. She reacted quicker. She could even do things that lesser Gnolls struggled with.
For instance—she had stared at the ball of string in the festival, and picked the string that led to a prize unerringly. Ekhtouch had made much of that; proof positive of her eyes and mind.
…That other Gnoll had gotten the Centaur doll first, though. So she’d turned down the dagger, much to the stall owner’s relief. Gireulashia sighed, and shifted, but did not open her eyes as she ‘meditated’, or else her people would flock around her, asking what she wanted.
What she wanted was for them to leave her alone. Intellectually, she knew that would never happen. She was too valuable. Too…important.
[Paragon]. She was a giant among Gnolls, a queen among her kind. Greatest of the Ekhtouch bar none, and thus—greatest across this wide world among all Gnolls. Only the best of Chieftains and Named Adventurers could match her, and only by dint of deed and level, not simple…superiority.
She did not think it was arrogance to believe any of this. Already, Gireulashia had defeated countless Gnolls in sparring matches. She had beaten them in every contest imaginable, from races to strength to even displays of mental acumen.
If anything, her status weighed heavily on her. She had to be a leader. To inspire! Gireulashia Ekhtouch would lead her tribe in the decades to come. She might be mother to the greatest [Chieftain] of this era.
…It was a heavy burden. Too heavy for a fifteen year old girl.
Sometimes, Gireulashia, who preferred ‘Gire’ rather than her portentous name, thought even her tribe forgot how young she was. She spoke like an adult and thought with their complexity, but that was just how she was.
Other Gnolls had no idea, obviously assuming you didn’t get to her height without being at least fully-grown. They thought she was half again as old as she was, if they wondered at all.
Being treated like an adult, especially an attractive one, was not fun either for Gire. So many requests, subtle and otherwise, made her very uncomfortable. Only Venaz had instantly figured it out. When she had asked how, he had snorted.
“I’ve seen noble children surrounded by [Nursemaids] before. There is a difference between that, and an honor guard.”
“Honored Gireulashia. The Chieftain wishes you to meet another tribe. Will you attend?”
The Gnoll [Paragon] opened her eyes. She rose in one movement and nodded.
Boredom took many forms. It was uncomfortable to meet the Gnoll [Chieftain] of the tribe who tried to introduce her to his fine son who was far too old. Or she too young.
Gire tried to hide behind the tallest Gnoll there, nearly a foot shorter than she was. She spoke, demonstrated her perfect etiquette, made an incisive comment, and slunk away as soon as she could.
They thought she was aloof. Some superior Gnoll who looked down on the others. Gire went into her tent and put her head under pillows custom-made for her.
“Honored Gireulashia, are you hungry? There is food if you require it.”
Someone bothered her no less than thirty four minutes later. Gire already knew it was time to eat, and they worried about her growth.
“Mm. I am content.”
“We shall put aside meals for you, then.”
The Gnoll bowed and retreated. ‘Honored Gire’ sat up. They had made her an Honored Gnoll before she was even grown. That was expectation for you.
She sulked. She hated sitting and making pleasant-talk with all the other important Gnolls and her [Chieftain] and [Shaman]. It was okay now and then, when tribes met, but that was every day in the Meeting of Tribes.
And she couldn’t act her age. Gire listened to Ekhtouch’s children playing. They were allowed to be children, even for the superior tribe. She rummaged around her private possessions and pulled out a doll.
She had really wanted the Centaur doll, but it did not become Honored Gire to ask for one, or carry one around in the Meeting of Tribes. That dratted Gnoll with the spectacles had gotten it. She’d heard him muttering; he hadn’t seen the lines of thread, but he’d used a Skill. He’d watched twenty six Gnolls take turns, then made his move a fraction before Gire could.
Had he counted the Gnolls, observed which strings they pulled and somehow extrapolated the right answer? It was a function of his class, but which class?
Gire’s mind sorted through factoids. Let’s see. His scent, location, and markings all indicated Plain’s Eye, as had the Gnolls he joined, despite his flashy dress. Plain’s Eye Tribe had few Gnolls of such description, but they were rumored to have…
…a [Mathematician] of all classes…
Her mind connected the dialogue she’d once heard in regard to rumors about that tribe. She matched the Gnoll to the class in less than a second, putting the clues together.
That was easy. It was just how she thought, which other Gnolls took to be supreme calculation. It was just…how she was born. Did other people applaud Gnolls for breathing? Gire was not proud of her attributes because they were not earned. Ekhtouch was wrong to place excessive pride in that, to her mind. There was a word for that. Hubris.
Her ears could pick out a fly rubbing its legs together fifty feet away. Her eyes could see tiny bugs and things other Gnolls didn’t believe existed, like the munching bugs that ate plant leaves.
…Which was terrible, really, especially in crowded places like this. Thankfully, Gire had long learned how to ‘adjust’ all her senses down to a normal Gnoll’s level of perception to prevent being overwhelmed. Even so, she had taken precautions for this event.
She removed a bit of beeswax she’d stuck in her ears in the privacy of her tent. That she could hear as well as ‘regular’ Gnolls despite that was also a virtue.
A curious sound made its way into her ears in the brief moment when the overload of countless voices and sound filled Gire’s ears. She could hear conversations, could eavesdrop on any conversation not warded if she chose, and she did not choose to hear such things. Too often, she could sort through the layers of sound and hear a Gnoll having a really bad, just explosive time in an outhouse.
Smell it too. However, this sound called to Gire because she had never heard it before. She blinked.
She rose from her tent. Gnolls instantly approached her with food, but Gire waved it off.
“I…am going to walk about the Meeting of Tribes.”
“We shall accompany—”
“No. I shall simply observe.”
The Ekhtouch Gnolls wavered.
“The Chieftain would not want you to be hurt, Honored Gireulashia.”
She fixed them with an arch glance.
“What could harm me here? Raskghar? Other Gnolls?”
Faced with that, they couldn’t rightly object. So Gire strode off before they could find the Chieftain and stop her. She wound her way through the Meeting of Tribes as Gnolls stopped. Pointed. She heard them.
“What is that? Ekhtouch?”
“She’s magnificent. So tall.”
“I don’t even know if we’re the same species…”
That hurt her. Gire affected not to notice, her chin raised, posture perfect. She walked forwards, slowed, turned her head. Following the sound.
She had to traverse the Meeting of Tribes for a while to hone in on it. It turned out the sound was coming from the ‘exterior’ of the camps, and Gire’s ability to use her hearing wasn’t perfect yet. Still, she eventually tracked it down to a foreign Gnoll’s camp and sighed.
It was hard to just walk in, so she pretended to be looking at activities. She waved away Gnolls who approached her, asking to talk, flirting, or just curious. She paused as she circumnavigated the ring of tents.
Gire paused, and watched Gnolls playing a curious game with lengths of wood where you hit a ball and then ran around a diamond. She angled herself.
She leaned against a post of wood that could support her weight. In theory, to those who looked at her, she was watching the game.
In truth, she was staring into the other Gnoll’s camp. At a tent where the sound was coming from. Gire stared at the tent.
She stared through the tent.
Her eyes sharpened, piercing through the weave of fabric. It was hard to ‘see’ unless it was poor-quality cloth, but Gire could still put together a picture of what was happening inside. Again—she usually didn’t want to, as there were only a few things Gnolls did inside tents.
This time, though, she slowly pieced together two figures. She listened, focusing on the voices from within. It was hard, very hard, to tune out everything, but she eventually put together a picture in her mind.
Two individuals. One Gnoll—fur brown. Male voice? Female non-Gnoll. Can see skin…Human? Stitchfolk? Dullahan? Half-Elf?
“…so strange. Is it alright for me to see this?”
The Gnoll was speaking. The female one had a laugh in her voice. They were sitting together.
“You know about me, and your aunt says it is alright, Tkrn.”
Tkrn. Gire realized she was staring at Silverfang’s camp. She knew his name from Ekhtouch, who had journeyed with Silverfang’s tribe. A ‘Tkrn’ had been part of a brawl…
“And it doesn’t run out of mana—power?”
“Not with the spell, Rose said. I don’t know what Krshia did! Everything is different. Even the data is…let me see.”
“Can you play another song?”
Song. That was what she’d heard. But it had been different than even the song-crystals of the Singer of Terandria. A sound she had never heard.
She couldn’t see whatever they were staring at. Her eyes could see through holes in the fabric…but not actually pierce it completely.
She’d have to get closer. Gire rose, glancing ahead. There were walls of cloth or actual material that allowed tribes their privacy. She rotated her head, checking the camp.
The two were in a secluded spot at the back; there were sentries on the outside, but it was clear they were in private, far from anyone but her hearing. It would be hard for Gire to find an excuse to walk into the camp.
So she didn’t. She pretended to walk out of the Meeting of Tribes, as if she was going hunting or for a run. She checked the landscape around her.
Gnolls roaming the plains, playing games. Games of tag—she didn’t care what they were doing, only the positions of their heads.
Cones of sight. She waited, forming a picture of the lines of sight. Waiting, waiting…until the sentry nearest her glanced down at a bug crawling up her fur. Until all eyes were off her. Then Gire jumped.
She jumped straight over the wall of the Silverfang encampment. The Gnolls inside the camp never saw her land; she’d jumped such that the top of a tent hid her. She landed in a squat.
In theory, a nine-foot tall Gnoll was the most obvious thing in the world and impossible to hide. In theory.
Gire had Skills as a [Paragon]. Her class was one of those rare ones that encompassed countless areas; in time she might consolidate it. Like [Paragon Warrior] or [Paragon Chieftain].
At her young age, she had more general Skills. One of them—[Superiority Made Manifest]—was terrible. All it did was let her beat whatever someone was doing. A superior punch, a superior action…it required something to exist first.
She liked her other Skill better.
“[Perfect Action: Stealth Roll].”
A giant Gnoll flashed so fast past one tent to another that a sneezing Gnoll never saw her. [Basic Perfect Action]. If you could name a low-level Skill and Gire had seen it, she could do it too.
She padded over to the tent where the two were and sat down. Now, without anyone realizing, she was right behind Inkar and Tkrn. She listened.
“There are games too?”
Tkrn exclaimed as he played a curious game. Gire craned her neck. Now she could see the bright screen, but it was at an angle as the two kept fiddling with it. What was that strange…light? She caught a flash of tiny, pixelated dots, a strange substance…but if she unfocused her eyes, it became a picture. How clever!
“Yes! Your paw isn’t working well.”
“It won’t let me press!”
“It was made for Human fingers.”
Gire listened to the two. Flirting. You could even hear it in the pitch of their tones. She didn’t care about that. She was fascinated by the device. She edged closer. Damn this fabric! She wanted to see this wonderful…toy.
The new iPhone was the latest model from Earth. It was a model invented after Inkar had left, which made it all the more impressive that Krshia had somehow managed to ‘upgrade’ her old one into it.
There was just one problem. There was no headphone jack anymore, and so Inkar and Tkrn had to play it out loud—away from curious Silverfangs. Well, his tent was at the back of the Silverfang camp, so they had elected to mess with it there.
It was a magnificent device. Inkar admired it more now that she was away from Earth’s industry. Smooth, Plexiglas screen. Beautiful details. A camera with such accuracy that Tkrn had insisted on taking pictures of everything and marveling at how he could ‘save’ what his eyes had seen.
…A shame there was no internet, and many apps were functionally useless. A shame Inkar didn’t have many movies or bits of data that were useful. Rose had wanted to bring a computer to ‘load’ movies and other things onto Inkar’s phone, but she’d given up when she heard it was an iPhone. Kevin had a Windows.
None of that made any sense to Tkrn, of course. This was just magic. Fun magic! Accessible magic, despite the touchscreen not liking his paws.
“Ooh, what’s that? What’s that? Press that app.”
Tkrn was already learning the lingo, unlike Krshia. Inkar laughed, lying next to him on cushions. They were very close.
“It’s ‘Podcasts’. Um…stories people read out, or conversations.”
“Let’s listen to one!”
“I don’t have any.”
Inkar patted Tkrn on the shoulder. The [Worldly Traveller] smiled and pointed.
“Don’t worry. Look, I have all these little games.”
All the game-apps she’d installed to pass the time on train rides and so on were on the iPhone. Here was the curious thing that was important and useless: Krshia’s Skill had changed the software of her iPhone too.
Somehow, all the free apps she’d downloaded now thought she had paid for the full versions. Inkar did not like wasting money on such things, so it was a pleasant discovery, especially because no one would ever buy apps on this iPhone again—unless she went back to Earth.
“Let’s play that one! That game! What’s that game?”
“Um…tossing birds at buildings.”
“What? That’s hilarious. Let’s play. Why is that a game? Wait—never mind. I answered my own question.”
Inkar giggled. She had set the iPhone to ‘English’ instead of her native language since everyone apparently spoke and read it to some degree or another. No Kazakhstan peoples…just her.
It made her lonely, but she had good friends. A tribe who protected her. Deskie, Eska…and now Tkrn and Rose. Rose was interesting, a bit excitable—different.
Tkrn? She trusted Tkrn.
The two were playing as Tkrn let Inkar show him how to play, then tried it himself. It was so addictive, so fun. Inkar had played it many times—the free version, of course—but she found the lure of the electronic device was magnified for its uniqueness.
And it was just a fun game. They bent over the iPhone, arguing about placement. They played for minutes…then an hour…going through levels.
The problem was, Tkrn was bad at the game. He didn’t know how to use the touchscreen, and the paw-pads of Gnolls weren’t what this highly-sensitive touchscreen was customized for.
Inkar helped him out, more patient and amused by Tkrn than the game itself. He was a bit frustrated as he tried to get the best score on a level.
“Stop tossing it so high! You want to crash everything and hit that piggy, see? Poor piggy.”
Inkar heard Tkrn growl, annoyed.
“Is this special bird better? I hate that piggy. I want to cook and eat him. Ooh. That’s cool.”
Inkar grinned—but her smile turned curious after a second. Had she just heard…two oohs? Her hearing was enhanced by her Skill, but even so, it had been the softest sound.
She frowned, but Tkrn was struggling on the next level. He had spotted a way to win the entire level in one go, but predictably, it was a perfect shot, and he hadn’t figured out the geometry of the arc.
“Maybe here? No. Damn. Let me restart…here? No? No…”
Frustrated, he tapped on the phone, trying to figure out the right angle. Inkar was amused, and exasperated because he wouldn’t let her help.
“It’s a bit up! No, it’s not—let me help.”
“I’ve got it! I want to do it!”
“But you’re not aiming right.”
“I’ve nearly got it—”
Tkrn frowned at the screen. A furry finger reached out and tapped the screen. He blinked. But then he saw the little bird fly and topple everything and the screen rewarded him with a cheering explosion of light and sound.
Tkrn focused on that, then turned to Inkar as something occurred to him. He stared at her hands. Her fingers, long and distinctly not paw-like. He saw her head turned, eyes wide, mouth wide open.
The [Guardsman] slowly turned his head. He saw a giant Gnoll, looming over both of them, sitting right behind Inkar and Tkrn. She had somehow snuck into the tent and was so close her fur nearly brushed their backs without either noticing.
It was she who had been watching for the last hour, and unconsciously, unable to help herself, touched the iPhone. She stared at Tkrn. At Inkar. Gire came to her senses. Her eyes went round and then—she panicked.
“I’m sorry. I was only looking!”
Tkrn went for his blade, or tried to. Inkar opened her mouth to scream. Gire saw it all, and—acted instinctively.
She reached out and tapped Tkrn’s jaw with her fist. His eyes rolled up. She did the same to Inkar so fast both were unconscious before their heads hit the pillows. Then Gire was out of the tent, over the wall, and running, so fast the sentries only saw a blur, fleeing back to her camp.
Gire stormed into her tent, hid under her blankets, ignoring the questions from her tribe. It was only after she’d stopped quaking that she realized she had only made all of it worse. A child, as Venaz would have said, was still a child. Worse—
This child had taken the iPhone. She hid under her blankets, a giant mound of terrified Gnoll, until someone began calling her name.
“Gire? Gire—some Gnolls from the Silverfang Tribe and a Human are looking for you.”
Another strange encounter in the Meeting of Tribes occurred at roughly the same time. Another iconic Gnoll walked through the crowd, focus of many eyes and speculation.
The difference was that he looked back. The metal Gnoll roamed the Meeting of Tribes, eyes locking on individuals, passing over many…stopping on the ones who mattered. Adetr was looking for powerful Gnolls, and he knew when he found them.
Adetr Steelfur, nephew of the famous Iraz Steelfur himself. Ironically, it was he, not Iraz’s offspring or even grandchildren who had taken most to their tribe’s heritage.
His body was metal. Tougher than steel. He weighed twice what a normal Gnoll did. He was tougher than a [Knight] in plate armor, one of the greatest warriors of the mighty Steelfur tribe. Some whispered he would be the next [Chieftain], regardless of bloodlines. Adetr wondered if that was so. There was more to leading than just physical might, or so Iraz told him.
He would be fine with just physical might, for now. If only he could be the best.
Unbreakable body, indestructible heart. That was all of what Steelfur believed you needed to win any battle. He passed by the strange Gnoll [Warrior] he couldn’t read.
He wondered what kind of item that Gnoll [Warrior] had—or Skill—that let them deflect his Skill. Even Honored Berr and heroes like Garsine Wallbreaker, or adventurers like Lehra Ruinstrider couldn’t prevent this Skill from working on them.
Many had Skills that analyzed their opponents’ strengths, even revealed Skills, levels, etc. There were even spells for that—none of which worked on most Gnolls here. Any [Chieftain] or famous Gnoll had protections against them. Yet Adetr had a Skill few possessed.
He was a [Battle Seeker] along with his primary class. That was how much he craved proving his worth. Some Gnolls loved and lived battle like Honored Berr.
Adetr dreamed after it, lusted for it more than anyone he had ever lain with. Thus, his Skill was this.
He came to a halt and spotted a towering Gnoll racing back through the Meeting of Tribes. A worthy enemy. He didn’t know why she was so upset, but the [Paragon] was in his sights. He stared at Gireulashia and used his Skill.
[Analysis: Vision of Greatest Battle].
He died snarling, the Ekhtouch tribe surging around him. They were good! Yet he had killed nine already. The Steelfur warriors were trading less effectively. Ekhtouch were few, but they made up for it with strength, reach, even skill!
He was aiming for their Chieftain when she appeared. The giant, covered in wounds, swinging a sword that bit through the Steelfur warriors’ hides. Adetr roared a challenge and saw her turn. He charged, a [Bull’s Rush] through the others. She saw him and—tossed—
The Gnoll blinked. Staggered. Gnolls passing by saw him stumble, clutch at his eye. Then recover. They looked at him, but he just growled and walked on. He tried to look at Gire again, but she had already left.
A pity. He would have liked a rematch. He had no idea she was that good. Adetr had died; she’d thrown a javelin straight through his eye. It was a weak point.
Greatest battle. Adetr learned more about the Ekhtouch tribe from that moment—real knowledge.
Such as the fact that they could back up their claims to superiority—to a point. If Steelfur and their tribe fought, they would lose. Steelfur’s warriors were weaker than Ekhtouch’s, a rarity, but they had numbers and Ekhtouch wasn’t armored with that many relics.
Still, Adetr had died so he hadn’t seen the final tally of the battle. He might have understood, then, just how matched both tribes were.
Not that they would ever fight. Steelfur and Ekhtouch were too well-respected, the consequences too fierce. It would never happen, so Adetr’s longing had given him this Skill.
What a wondrous Skill. With it, he could see glorious war. Appraise his weaknesses, gauge how much he should truly respect his ‘betters’.
For instance—Garsine Wallbreaker. Adetr went to watch a wrestling match with some Gnolls for about twenty minutes, then hunted her down again. He saw her walking through the Meeting of Tribes, creating a passage as Gnolls looked up at the [Shapechanger] and backed away.
To his amazement, she was bending down and sniffing at flowers.
She was picking out flowers to plant when they returned home! An old woman, not the hero of old, to look at her like this. Garsine held a tiny little flower and paid the Gnoll for the seeds.
She tore off his head as her tribe fell around her. Wallbreaker’s tribe was not as strong as she, though they had shapechangers. But Garsine? An army apart! She turned into her true form and he roared as she lifted him up—
Death. Adetr bared his teeth. Now here was a true hero of Gnolls. He had to watch out for her reach; if she got him, he was dead.
Garsine twitched and glanced around, but Adetr was gone.
“Reel in some fish! Biggest fish wins a prize!”
Adetr went fishing. He failed to win, but it passed thirty minutes and then some. The pond that had been made for the competition let him recharge his Skills. Then he found her again.
This time, she went down, but only because Steelfur’s entire tribe went after her. He saw her bring down nearly a hundred alone—and that was because he’d taken her tribe down around him. He heard the howling of triumph—the Steelfur warriors were never ones he recognized. Just generic warriors, with the few strong ones of his tribe—those over Level 30. They never recognized their foes. It was a simulation. Adetr howled in victory.
He was back in the real world. The Gnoll grinned to himself. Well, heroes died and he was used to seeing that. Even his Chieftain fell when he used that Skill—sometimes. The third time he’d—
Garsine Wallbreaker walked towards him. The giant Gnoll broke away from her inspection of paintings. Adetr went still as Gnolls behind him backed up.
Her huge, snarling mouth opened. Her elongated form bent down, and he saw two eyes—yellow. Not brown! They glowed with power as the bear-cape swung around her. She breathed, one word.
The Gnolls of her tribe stared at Garsine, then Adetr, confused. He saw some Steelfur Gnolls staring at him. Adetr met Garsine’s eyes. Somehow she’d sensed his Skill and what he was doing.
“Apologies, great Garsine.”
She stared at him, snorted hot breath, and turned away. Adetr bowed after her, abashed. Only a few people had recognized what he was doing.
He was more circumspect after that, but he spent his time thusly. Thirty eight minute increments, then—battle. It was a shame he couldn’t level, yet the Meeting of Tribes was what he’d dreamed of for the last six years; he hadn’t attended the last one, being far too young.
He tested himself on almost every Gnoll he could find. Lehra Ruinstrider was an interesting foe. She was weaker by herself than a Named Adventurer should be; compared to the others he had met. Her team was good, though. That damned Gazer could actually lock him down.
I should buy more anti-magic protections.
What was also useful was learning how each tribe fought. Generic warriors with a few powerful individuals they might be, but they still fought like…their people. Adetr used it on the Minotaur, Venaz, and was rewarded with a fight.
The King of Minotaurs herself wiped him out. He tried three times and she killed him before he even touched the Minotaur lines. It was actually a disappointment; he wanted to fight the House of Minos, not see a giant axe filling the world and feel his death. He supposed Venaz was fairly important in the House of Minos after all.
Then again, Adetr’s Skill gave him the greatest battle possible. Not solo-duels. Sometimes he regretted that—but it suited him. He always had Steelfur at his back. Always faced his foes at full power.
Well, should I try it on Plain’s Eye? If they sense it like Garsine and I offend their [Shaman] or Chieftain…
Adetr growled. He could use it on a lesser warrior, but less of the tribe showed up. Presumably because a lesser representative couldn’t get all of his or her tribe behind them. He cast around, but there was no ‘fun’ Gnoll to see at the moment.
“Maybe that Garuda.”
He looked up, hopefully. They made much of Pomle’s strength. Or—what about the Dwarf? Something had gone wrong that one time he’d used it on a Dwarf. He’d won eighty nine simulations against Dwarves…except for one. A weak Dwarf, but someone in the projection had slaughtered Adetr so fast he couldn’t see what it was.
That was why he lived, to know there were worthy foes like that. He’d level up, challenge them again. Who next?
Az’muzarre. Of course! He found one of their warriors and grinned.
Let’s see how the greatest warriors of the Great Plains fare.
He fought the entire tribe and died in seconds. Adetr grunted.
“Not bad. But cheap.”
Dragonbone weapons. That was how they cut through him and his warriors in moments. A weapon with unmatched attack power.
Surprisingly, Adetr didn’t respect that. They were bearers of relics, whose power was given to them by what they held. Take it away and…well, his Skill didn’t let him choose the parameters of the battle, but he could choose to do it himself.
Thirty eight minutes to reset.
This time he yanked a blade off one of the Gnolls before they killed him. Sure enough—the snarling Az’muzarre champion was less effective, just striking ineffectually with a mundane weapon while her companions ran him through.
So they relied too much on the weapons. Adetr lost interest at once. Maybe some were better—but that was annoying. It was half and half—the Gnolls who stood up to the stories, and those who turned out to be exaggerated.
Aimlessly, Adetr chased through the crowd. You know who was good? The Pallassian Drakes. He went hunting for one—or a City Gnoll. Where was one of them?
There. He found one after a few minutes, a group striding along, arguing.
“Are you sure it was her?”
“She was huge.”
“I do not understand. Why would one of Ekhtouch, especially their [Paragon]…she knows. We must be careful, Chieftain Eska.”
“We have the right to be angry, Krshia! If she appeared in their tents—”
He aimed. Krshia Silverfang. Adetr whispered.
“[Vision of Greatest Battle].”
As always, he went still. Then he jerked. He snarled.
Gnolls around him turned. Krshia didn’t hear, as she strode off. Adetr felt at his fur.
Liscor’s first defenses had folded up depressingly fast. Despite the city’s walls blasting them with decent wall spells, Steelfur was a powerful tribe and their Watch was…average. No high-level Drakes beyond one with a sword and a few [Senior Guards]. He’d heard there was a powerful duo, but he hadn’t seen one. They’d taken the walls, fought towards the Watch Captain…
Then the Antinium had come out of the ground. Thousands! Adetr had fallen into a pit, where it was dark, fighting shapes that came out of the darkness, the earth—he’d killed many, until they bore him down.
He had to do it again. See more. Instantly, Adetr followed after the group—then cursed as he remembered the recharge time.
“Hrm. This is excellent. I can fight them. Watch the ground. We have to lure them out? Stick to the walls…”
He was planning the battle, excitedly. He strode about, nearly hopping with impatience, then set out for the Silverfang camp.
To his great disappointment, Krshia Silverfang wasn’t there. Had they been talking about Ekhtouch? Adetr paced back and forth, then decided to go there. But before he could, he heard a voice.
“Oh my god. Where? Ekhtouch? What are we going to do?”
Something was—off. Adetr frowned. He saw a young woman hurrying with a group of Gnolls out of the camp. A Human woman.
Adetr had met many non-Gnolls at the Meeting of Tribes, so a guest didn’t surprise him like the Lizardman with one leg. He guessed this young woman was a friend to Silverfang.
Maybe she was from Liscor? It was worth a try. He pointed at her.
“[Vision of Greatest Battle].”
Adetr awoke under a strange sky. It seemed smaller. He frowned, sniffing the air as his tribe howled their traditional call to war. Then he heard a strange sound. An explosion—louder than anything.
Gnolls vanished next to him. Adetr recoiled, knocked sideways by some powerful blast. Was that a [Fireball]? No—he stared ahead as they pointed at a strange object.
“What is that?”
He charged towards something. A…were those Humans standing over there? What were they holding? What was that giant metal thing?
He saw a strange metal tube swiveling to point a long ‘nose’ at h—
Adetr died. He stopped, staring, as Rose ran past him. His head turned to follow her. The Gnoll’s jaw was open. He had died quickly before—always to high-level warriors who could close the distance. He had seen many battles. Many armies.
They were heading somewhere. Adetr stared at Rose, then instantly followed after.
Gireulashia Ekhtouch stood behind her Chieftain, head bowed, the iPhone on the ground in front of them. The tent where they talked was filled with commotion—albeit warded so no one could hear the intense discussion taking place. More Silverfang Gnolls and Ekhtouch stood tensely to one side.
Adetr didn’t care. He stared at one person, and one person alone.
Rose. He lurked, but couldn’t help but stare at her. Every forty minutes—the transit through the sprawling Meeting of Tribes had taken a while, and the discussion looked to be a long one—he blinked for about five seconds.
And his questions multiplied.
He survived the fourth time long enough to see more. It was a small force. He counted barely two hundred Humans, not counting the strange Golem-vehicles. He supposed that was all Rose was ‘worth’.
They still ravaged the Steelfur tribe. The second time he’d gone down to—something. A shard of metal that hit him, propelled through the air.
It didn’t kill him, not the first shot. Nor the second. Nor the hundredth. He was metal, and a stronger metal than this.
Yet he was hit by hundreds, thousands of rounds in moments. Each Human had some kind of weapon that flashed and—
Lesser Steelfur warriors went down before they even closed. Their fur resisted the deadly projectiles barely at all. One, two, four at most, and they died.
Worse was that one…thing. One, or two; it did vary…giant boxes that destroyed everything they aimed at.
Worse than [Fireballs]. Somehow, it tore him apart. So he didn’t let it hit him.
The fourth time he managed to survive. Adetr had control of his tribe’s assets. Chieftain Iraz was there, as were [Shamans].
“Walls of earth! Barrier spells! Hide us under the earth!”
That seemed like the best way to survive. Adetr followed the Silverfang tribe as they concluded negotiations. The other Human and a Gnoll were talking with the huge [Paragon]—he didn’t care.
He had to know what this Human’s army was. The thirty eight minute cool-down was killing Adetr.
They couldn’t hide under the ground! The Humans just punched through with those damn explosions! Adetr snarled as he raised his head. His skull rang and he fell back as Steelfur warriors cried out and dragged him back.
Something had lodged in his head. More of the bits of metal—the only reason he was surviving was that his body was tougher. They’d still cracked his skull. He snarled.
“Through the earth! They die if we touch them!”
The fortifications were failing—he saw his Chieftain go down as another round blasted through a wall. Adetr knew the Humans had to come in, though. He refused to let his tribe charge. Then he heard a sound and saw something streaking down through the air at—
Something had blown up their entire tribe—or just the ones around Adetr. He could have sworn he saw something in the sky. The Gnoll snarled.
Night fell. Gnolls ate. Adetr did not. He ran around camp, to burn off the adrenaline running through his veins.
Thirty. Eight. Damn. Minutes.
Eleven tries. Seven hours, almost. Adetr was worried Rose would go to sleep.
He finally found their weak spot.
“Blind them! Blind them!”
The Humans were in disarray. Adetr stood, shielding himself and watching the battle turn at last.
The [Shamans]. That was the key.
In his desperation he had tried everything. Skills? Even Iraz’s Skills didn’t overturn whatever the Humans had, but the [Shaman]’s magic had stymied the Humans—until that thing in the skies came and hit them.
So Adetr had tried other spells. The Humans—these ones had no magical guard. They went blind, fell asleep, unable to block even Tier 1 spells.
If the [Shamans] lived long enough to cast the magic. Adetr watched as the blinded Humans in the metal vehicle fired ahead. Killing Gnolls—but the Steelfur Tribe was on them, trying to rip open the metal armor. The Humans on the ground held their fire—until they realized it was fire or die, then they fired, but fell as Gnolls closed.
Adetr was striding towards the first vehicle, which had been disabled, the long ‘nose’ a smoking ruin after one of the Gnolls bent it out of shape and it exploded. The Humans were blind; they couldn’t detect the [Invisible] Gnolls who had assailed their ranks.
Eleven times. Such a strange battle. It had gone from annihilation to victory—and Adetr wondered what they were. Why did they not tell stories about this army, if it was so powerful? What weapons were they, that spat metal?
Where was he? Why did the sky…
He stared up. Another object streaked down and the Steelfur Tribe vanished. He stared up.
“What is that thing in the skies?”
Then he died.
Rose went to bed. Adetr was so furious he considered storming into the camp and making a pretext to keep her awake.
Reluctantly, he went to sleep, though he had to literally go to a [Shaman] to beg a sleeping draught. The Gnoll gave him a concerned look.
“Are you using your Skill, Adetr? The Chieftain worries—”
“I am fine. I’m leveling!”
Adetr snapped, snatching the medicine. He consumed the foul elixir, felt himself tire…
[Battle Seeker Level 27!]
[Skill – Foreign Lands Training (Landscape) obtained!]
His eyes snapped open. Adetr shot out of his bed with an oath.
He shouted so loudly the sentries shot to attention and half the tribe woke up. Adetr told them all was well, but Chieftain Iraz himself fixed him with a sleepy glare. The Gnoll bowed his head. He didn’t quite know how to tell Chieftain Iraz he had leveled in his non-primary class overnight.
“Adetr. Garsine Wallbreaker complained of your Skill. The [Shamans] tell me you have been erratic. I am concerned. Is there something you need tell me?”
Chieftain Iraz was a strong Gnoll, a Chieftain who had turned his tribe into one worthy of standing with the best of them in one generation. It was his Skill which turned his entire tribe’s fur to metal.
He did not pry, but let Adetr and his people act as they would. Normally. Adetr was a protégé, and one of the best warriors, so his uncle was concerned. Adetr sat in a private meal in the Chieftain’s tent. His head was bowed. He did not touch his breakfast.
Iraz prompted after a few minutes had passed. Adetr finally looked up.
His eyes—the flesh parts that remained—were bloodshot. Iraz wondered if his nephew had slept.
“Must I prohibit you from using your Skill? What are you fixated on?”
“I…cannot say, Chieftain. Not yet. I do not know. Give me leave to find out.”
“Will this cause trouble with other tribes?”
Adetr admitted. Iraz frowned.
“Why does it consume you so, Adetr?”
The Gnoll warrior took a long time in replying. At last, he looked at the Steelfur Chieftain.
“If I cause trouble, if I am obsessed, Chieftain. Let me. Let me do what I must. I leveled four times last night. As a [Battle Seeker]. I have a new Skill.”
Iraz slipped in pouring himself tea. He splashed tea all over his fur and stared at his nephew.
“Four times? How many Skills?”
Adetr’s eyes glinted.
“One. A good one. Chieftain. I climbed Mount Sernis this morning.”
The Chieftain went silent. Mount Sernis was well-known to him. It was a mountain where the Steelfur tribe was founded…eight hundred miles from here. Steelfur warriors honed their bodies and climbing skills there.
“I see. Can you take me there?”
Adetr shook his head.
“Not yet, Chieftain. May I go?”
Iraz stared at Adetr. The Gnoll was trembling.
He was not actually there. But he could visit his home—and train. Even fight monsters and learn how to take advantage of the geography.
Adetr’s blood boiled. There were no people in his Skill. Not yet. He felt like the Skill was…incomplete.
Landscape. Did that mean if he grew more, if his other Skills combined, he could walk another nation, fight their people, all in his head? He had thought it was a class that might weaken him. Iraz felt so, sometimes. Now?
Adetr sought out Rose. His obsession made manifest.
The fifteenth time he won everything.
It was simple. Steelfur died en-masse. There was something in the skies. There were…things that shot across the air and destroyed everything in vast sections. The Humans even had a whirling thing that appeared twice out of the fifteen times and raked the Gnolls from above with some kind of weapon even more destructive than on the ground.
What was worse was that Adetr was sure, sure, by now that this was a skirmish. If you used his Skill on weaker members of a city or tribe, you got less of them. A [Chieftain] or leader? All their might.
Rose gave him a fraction of whatever army this was. Some kind of…patrol? Imagine tens of thousands of Humans like this.
They had no magic. That was how they died.
[Invisible], [Muffled]. Artifacts borrowed from his tribe’s armory. [Mage]’s artifacts. Adetr didn’t need to use them to ‘bring’ them into the simulation.
They weren’t idiots, these Humans. They knew he was there, but they let him study them. He let them win, and watched the rolling machines, listened, saw how their weapons worked.
Some kind of bow or crossbow. Not magic. It smells. Adetr stared at a Human, noting the odd helmet. Why not a face-guard? Why…cloth?
They knew he was here. They had some tools that were trying to pick him up. However, he had their weaknesses.
You can’t stop spells. You can’t detect magic. Adetr bared his teeth. He swung his axe, watched the Human’s head vanish. The other ones in the squad jerked, lifted their weapons, aimed at him. They fired. Adetr lifted the object in his other hand. He heard a tremendous sound of ringing, that tore at his ears. Yet when he lowered the shield, he saw they were dead. He checked the metal, and it was unblemished. The projectile had bounced.
“You can’t break artifacts.”
He laughed. Then saw the giant metal turret turn. Adetr dove, shield raised—
His body couldn’t survive the impact, but he was almost positive the shield had survived—just lodged halfway through his spine.
Still, it was proof he needed to take lessons from Az’muzarre. Adetr tore through the Steelfur’s armory. The Steelfur warriors watched him with significant concern as he ‘went for a walk’ wearing armor, enchanted metal, the highest-grade he could find. Adetr was famous for relying only on his body’s toughness.
Adetr threw up. His body was ringing.
It didn’t break, but his body still rang with each impact. The giant vehicles tossed him around. He was almost there, though. Blind them. Something would come from the skies, but it detonated on a mage-barrier. If they used clouds to hide their location—they won! He could now save sixty-percent of the Steelfur—
Adetr woke up. Something had hit him in the eye, past the visor of his helmet. A Human [Marksman]? He shook his head.
“One more time. Thirty eight minutes.”
He stared at the Human, determined to win.
Rose felt like someone had been staring at her all day and yesterday. She eventually went up to Beilmark and whispered in her ear.
“Beilmark, who’s that Gnoll in armor who just stormed off?”
Beilmark had seen him too, especially after he’d begun showing up in armor. She frowned.
“Adetr Steelfur. A great Gnollish warrior, so I’m told. Young. Why?”
“Did…did you think he was staring at me?”
“Perhaps, but I cannot imagine why. Did you offend him?”
“What? Me? No, I haven’t even spoken to him!”
“Hrm. That is odd.”
Adetr stood on the battlefield, howling victory. Less than a hundred Steelfur Gnolls lay dead. The Humans?
There was a way to beat their strange weapons. Blind them, paralyze. Adetr had survived a round from that—thing that spat metal, then torn it open. Ambush them! Defeat them!
Even whatever was in the skies had gone down to a [Shaman]’s hex. It hit the earth and exploded. He roared his triumph, and raced across the ground, leaving the Steelfur tribe to celebrate. The clone of Iraz lifted a paw in victory.
Adetr was racing towards the downed craft—what remained of it. He wanted to know how those vehicles worked. They didn’t look like Golem-devices, or even magical craft! The [Shaman] with no real face had shook her head when he demanded to know if it was magic.
Still, Adetr laughed. Victory! Victory! He wondered if he’d level. He knew this was a battle in a box, but if he went up against this army just so, his tribe would win.
Adetr slowed…even in the simulation and looked back. All of Steelfur. The entire tribe. His battle-rage, his frustration left him suddenly. He felt…a chill.
All of Steelfur beat this force of two hundred Humans after fifteen tries in which we all died. True, once they found out the weaknesses, they won with a strange reversal of strengths, but…
Chieftain Iraz has to know. But what is this army? Where is this?
Adetr didn’t know. He looked about. The sky was wrong. The…mountains…were wrong. Even the ground looked different. It smelled so strange. He looked up.
“Even the sky. They were different stars. One moon? Where am I?”
Then…he blinked. He thought he saw something.
Wait a second. High, up there. So far only his keen eyes could even make out something. A flicker past the clouds. Was there a second craft?
Of course! If he hadn’t ended the Skill—Adetr pointed up.
They broke off celebration, cast as Adetr looked up. He saw something drop out of the skies. Adetr braced, grimly raising his shield as he knew he would not reach his tribe before it fell. Which was it this time? The rain of explosions? The curving thing?
It was just one object. It dropped down, a bit off-target of his tribe. Adetr saw it break. He saw a flash and saw—
[Greatest Battle]. Adetr died. But he saw enough when he died. When he opened his eyes in the real world?
He was no longer smiling.
Rose watched as the Gnoll jerked. He had stared at her, seemed to whisper something and…
“You’re right. He is staring at you.”
Beilmark sipped from her cup. They both watched as Adetr looked around. He had been smiling—then it drained away.
“Do you think he likes me?”
Rose tossed her hair in a show. Beilmark chortled.
“That would be funny. Almost as funny as that Gnoll—Gireulashia—learning the truth, eh? One problem at a time.”
“Mhm. Where’re Inkar and Tkrn?”
“Talking with her.”
Rose was a bit envious. Ekhtouch’s outrage over being accused as [Thieves] aside, and the ramifications of their tribe knowing, Gire was full of questions and in awe of Inkar. That was nice. Maybe—
She saw Adetr stride forwards, snarling, and blinked. Beilmark sat up a bit.
“Hold on. That’s diff—”
Adetr roared. Silverfangs turned, and the Steelfur Gnolls who had been told to watch over him. They dropped what they were doing and bounded forwards.
Rose froze. The Gnoll’s face was twisted in sudden fury. He stormed towards their camp.
“What is it? Where are you from? What weapon—”
Steelfur Gnolls grabbed his arms and shoulders, trying to slow him. He pulled eight behind him in his fury. Beilmark put out an arm.
“Rose, back in the camp. Rose?”
The young Human woman was frozen. Adetr roared.
“Everything was gone! What was it? Who are you? What weapon destroys mountain and land like that?”
He stormed towards her, picking up speed. Adetr reached for Rose, to tear the secrets out of her. If that army came here—he had seen it, before whatever it was reached him. It could destroy the Meeting of Tribes. It would change the landscape. Had they more? It was a skirmish. It could destroy the High Passes.
Rose was trying to back up, but she was terrified by the Gnoll’s sudden, battle-raging fury. Adetr had lost himself, blending the Skill and reality. He lunged.
Chieftain Iraz ran out of his tribe, to stop his nephew before an incident occurred. He did not know what Adetr had seen, but his warriors had come howling Adetr had lost his mind.
He skidded to a stop, having raced through lines of bewildered Gnolls. Five minutes too late, no matter how fast he’d run. He saw a commotion, pushed his way, breathless, through Gnolls gathered around…
Rose. She lay on the ground, face white. Pale. Unmoving.
…Not dead. She had fallen on her butt in terror. In front of her, paw still outstretched, lay Adetr. He had fallen while reaching for her. His face was a rictus of fury, but he was pinned by countless Gnolls.
But someone had knocked him down. How? Iraz panted.
“Who stopped Adetr?”
A Gnoll moved. He turned and saw Senior Guardswoman Beilmark. She flexed her paw and shook it out. There were great wars, and Skills, and battles you could dream of. Reality?
Adetr had never been arrested by the Watch.
Chieftain Iraz sat with Chieftain Akrisa, Eska, Orelighn, and the Chieftain of the Ekhtouch Tribe, Chieftain Firrelle.
Steelfur, Longstalker’s Fang, Silverfang, Ekhtouch…and Greenpaw.
Greenpaw definitely didn’t fit. You could sort of make the connection with the other tribes, given some variance in fortunes, specialties, and their great Gnolls, but not Greenpaw.
Yet here they were. Adetr was not present, but Gireulashia was. Iraz would have liked his nephew here as instigator of this mess, but Adetr was so worked up, Iraz had told his Steelfur warriors to sit on him until he calmed down, or pin him under a boulder or something.
At last, Iraz broke the silence.
“I must apologize again for Adetr’s behavior. It is…rude for him to use his Skill like he does. He is young, and it does not bother most if they even notice it. I am ashamed.”
“Young Gnolls do what they do out of youth, rudeness or not.”
Firrelle offered. She glanced at Gire, and the huge [Paragon] hung her head; she was so tall she threatened to touch the tip of Akrisa’s tent with her head.
“Nevertheless, it seems that while two tribes have given offense, both incidents were because of our Humans. Perhaps we have been careless. Do not apologize overmuch, Chieftain Iraz. You cannot control every Gnoll perfectly.”
Chieftain Akrisa lifted a paw, and Iraz was grateful. He nodded to her; they said Silverfang’s Chieftain had a silver tongue to match, and she had not been found wanting.
“I ah—don’t hold any ill will against the Steelfur tribe. Or Ekhtouch. But if the secrets are out…”
Chieftain Orelighn didn’t have Akrisa’s reserve or gift of gab. He was nervous at having two powerful tribes here. Technically they had offended the others, but offense could turn to retribution if not handled right.
Iraz was not that kind of Chieftain, but he bowed slightly to Orelighn.
“It is our mistake. Adetr’s mistake. He will be punished, but it seems we have…”
He trailed off. How did you even say it? We have stumbled upon a secret that may change this world forever?
We have learned of weapons Adetr claims could wipe my entire tribe out in a moment if used?
We have seen artifacts that run on no magic, that come from a land only Humans inhabit by the billions?
He had been told, of course, as had Firrelle. They had to be. Adetr had seen too much through his Skill. Gire? She was too intelligent. Inkar had let her touch the iPhone by mistake.
Gire had opened up the specifications, and been about to start inquiring about the Apple company, and locations listed in the details with the nearest Mage’s Guild before Tkrn tackled her and she helped pick him up and dust him off.
Firrelle looked disturbed, but she was trying to appear unfazed. Iraz hoped he was half as stoic.
“…learned of something that might influence your great gift to the Meeting of Tribes. That is no small matter.”
He finished, choosing the most understated way of saying it. The other Chieftains nodded. Firrelle sighed.
“Knowledge is power. So [Mages] claim. This? I would agree with. It is hard to believe.”
“It will change everything. Firrelle, Firrelle. They said you could make things move with harnessed electricity. If that is so, you could make a horse out of metal and wood! You could do what great enchantments do without needing levels!”
Gire piped up. She fell silent as her Chieftain looked at her warningly, but she saw what might be.
Iraz only knew what Adetr had insisted on telling him. Weapons that spat metal a hundred times faster than arrows. Great armored war-vehicles that could kill even Adetr in a single strike.
“It is not here yet. These are travellers from Earth, Chieftains. They are our gift. Soon, all the Chieftains will know this secret. We will decide as one people what will happen. But…it must be the right decision. That you know is concerning. I had hoped to have an accord before then.”
“On what will be done?”
“About the other world. About the children who appear across this world. Unity, Chieftain Iraz. Longstalker’s Fang, who has adopted Inkar, Silverfang, who knows of more such children, and Greenpaw, who have relics of their land, all stand together. We will gather them, protect them, and learn. Prepare, perhaps, to make ties with a world apart.”
Chieftain Akrisa looked at him. Iraz shifted. Firrelle glanced at him, and he kept his thoughts inside.
What if this world fights like Adetr saw? He fought two hundred to our tribe’s death fifteen times. He never won; he only saw them destroy him a different way at the end.
“I like them. If Ekhtouch does nothing, we refuse to act on a matter that will invariably force itself. Therefore, we should act or oppose and since they have done nothing wrong, Firrelle…”
“Gireulashia! Be silent!”
The [Paragon] sat up, flushing, as Ekhtouch’s Chieftain scolded her, scandalized. She almost shrank and the elegant speech broke off. She was a child then—until her spine stopped bending.
“I am Honored Gireulashia. Ekhtouch’s [Paragon]. I say it so, Chieftain, and this is my word.”
“You are still young. I said be silent while I think!”
The room fell silent as the two engaged in a battle of wills. Firrelle seemed surprised at Gire’s adamancy. Gire’s eyes slowly narrowed. The two traded looks—then, of all things, Gire reached out and poked her Chieftain in the side. The Ekhtouch Chieftain recoiled and swatted at her, but Gire poked her again, and again, her paw darting quickly.
The others in the tent stared at the odd display. Firrelle moved faster, trying to block Gire with both paws now, but she was too slow. Gire began poking her harder, until she was practically shoving Firrelle off the cushion, never changing her narrow-eyed expression.
Rose nearly snickered, but fell silent. Firrelle eventually snapped.
“Alright! Alright! Stop poking me! If that is the wisdom of the greatest of Ekhtouch, so be it!”
She turned to the others.
“My…Honored Gireulashia, who has the wisdom of her blood and nature in her, declares your tribe and mission worthwhile. Ekhtouch stands with you. We must learn more—”
Another poke. Firrelle twitched, and went on.
“But we will join our influence to yours.”
Iraz stared. He knew Gire was fifteen. Firrelle listened to her?
Then again—she was Ekhtouch, and Gire was the ‘greatest’ of them. It was an astounding display of another tribe’s politics and decision-making.
He…wished he hadn’t seen that. But then all eyes turned to him.
“And you, Chieftain Iraz?”
“I will keep what I have learned secret, Chieftains. I cannot promise Steelfur will join your tribes. But I swear I will keep…”
He hesitated. The Gnoll wanted to talk to other Chieftains he respected this instant, after questioning Adetr. Akrisa saved him.
“They will know soon enough, Chieftain Iraz. Perhaps—consider this a gift in advance. We will consider no harm done, if Steelfur will agree to present this issue first among the Meeting of Tribes, along with the issue of Raskghar and perhaps one other.”
She locked eyes with Krshia. Iraz thought about that.
“That is…exceptionally kind, Chieftain Akrisa. I accept.”
It was. Steelfur had the power to press to ‘hear’ one of the myriad issues before all the tribes first, and if he threw his power behind Ekhtouch and the others, they had a chance of beating even Plain’s Eye. Given what he had learned, he agreed wholeheartedly. If they wanted to tack on a personal Silverfang matter—it was a cheap concession.
“I will keep the news private as I may, and I would like to speak to…Rose, and Inkar.”
“Of course. Will you take tea and discuss it? There is much to say.”
They were eager to make allies of him. Iraz hesitated, but demurred.
“I shall return tonight. First—I must calm down Adetr. Chieftain Akrisa, Eska, I have one last request.”
They gazed at him. Iraz would learn, talk to others, and decide what was best. But first…he looked at Rose.
“If I can ensure he is calm, would you consent to talk to Adetr? I could have all of my best [Warriors] ensuring he is restrained. Whatever works.”
“Me? He wants to talk to me?”
“Yes, I think. It would…calm him. I know I ask for much, Chieftains.”
Akrisa exchanged a glance with Eska and her sister.
“It is up to Rose.”
“I—if he doesn’t charge me, I guess? W-why? I didn’t do anything, he just saw…what he saw.”
Rose was still unclear on that. Iraz nodded.
“I am sure he has many questions, Miss Rose. I only ask that you talk to him, that you might reassure him.”
“Your world. He saw war, Miss Rose. Greatest war. That is the flaw of his Skill, and his fault, of course, but still.”
“…I have never seen him that terrified.”
He walked off, as the secret of Earth spread. Iraz went to find Adetr. Then—as soon as he could, he would talk to Chieftain Xherw of the Plain’s Eye tribe. He was not sure he had the wisdom to know what should happen next.
It’s me! p-pirateaba. Did you remember me?
I’m off my break! It’s been a nice two weeks. Really, I realized how tired I was about halfway through it. Breaks are good. Breaks are important. But I am back!
I wrote a lot. Not all of the chapter I intended to, but I’m getting back into grove. I can tell you next chapter MIGHT be the edited chapter. I have the letter, I have the notes, and I’ll be working on it…
If I can’t get it done by Saturday, I’ll write a chapter and release it whenever the chapter is good. Either way, though, I have lots of energy so I’ll be writing all month and probably take my monthly break early August and go from there. So it’s chapters! Writing!
Relc? Well, we’ll see what the future holds. Hope you enjoyed the chapter and let’s get into it.
…I could still use a 3-year break. But that’s probably called ‘retirement’.
Nutball, Sariant Lambs, and Pirate (not me, Pirate), by Kalmia the [Threadweaver]!
Sun, Seborn the [Pirate], Pawn and Erin, and more by LeChat!
Yvlon, Let Me Inn, Snowball, and more by Chalyon!