(Side story chapter AND edited chapter are delayed due to…Windows Update. See Author’s Note for details. Blame Microsoft.)
Across Izril, people and things were moving at high speeds.
At high relative velocity—like Ryoka expelling the contents of her guts onto the floor as the curse on her added a new layer of excitement to her life.
With great distances covered each day, as with the doughty band of Goblins, Antinium, Humans…Gnoll…Vampire…and Drake who marched down the road, on the lookout for attacks from Hectval or monsters or anyone, really.
Antinium, jogging along seemingly without the need to rest, behind riding Goblins, or next to the one wagon loaded with ammunition, supplies, and so on.
Octavia rode on that, feeling marginally less useful than the potions and ingredients she’d loaded up. She watched as Garia, Fals, and Fierre jogged together, the dark umbrella over Fierre’s head bobbing. At Sergeant Gna, muttering to herself and staring at all the others.
The Goblins, arguing in their tongue. The Antinium, without sound following Bird, who was singing a Bird-song…
Numbtongue, who rode at the fore of the group, aside from Snapjaw and Icecube scouting from overhead, and Xeu, somewhere unseen, also prowling for enemies…or maybe eliminating them without telling anyone.
The Goblin was emblematic of the party, by and large. He was silent. Grim. The others might be a bit more talkative, but they were committed.
“We’re going across Izril. In search of Mrsha. We might run into armies or…we don’t know who took her.”
Octavia’s voice as she murmured to herself made the group look back. Badarrow’s head swung around; it was Ulvama who turned. The [Shaman] barked at Octavia.
As if that said everything that needed to be said, she turned and kept riding along, doing surprisingly well on her horse compared to almost all the other riders. She had actual experience, unlike some who thought you could just jump on a horse’s back and have it carry you off into the wild blue yonder.
“Yes, but…now I’m thinking of it, it’s huge. We might be going all the way to Zeres. We might be fighting…”
Octavia trailed off as someone looked back at her. This time it was Numbtongue. The [Bard] grunted.
“Second thoughts? Go back. You might die.”
Octavia met his gaze.
“I know. It’s not that, Numbtongue.”
He eyed her, grunted, but Octavia was one of his few friends. So the [Bard] slowed a bit.
“This. It’s…a great journey, Numbtongue. A…you know.”
Octavia looked around. Didn’t the others see it? Gna just stared blankly at the Stitch-Girl. Salkis, the strange Drake, might have understood, but just grinned to herself, eyeing everyone.
Garia’s head turned. Fierre glanced up as Octavia elaborated for the blank Goblins and Antinium, who had politely turned to stare as they marched.
“A quest. An adventure.”
The Vampire’s head rose. She looked back at Octavia. Numbtongue was giving her a blank look, but Fierre smiled, a pointed grin. She hadn’t wanted to say it either, but Garia looked at her and Fals and the City Runner gave them a small smile.
A concerned one, but the Humans and Vampire felt it.
The Goblins? They glanced at each other and chuckled. One of the Cave Goblins poked the Redfang. Adventure? They all snorted. Sounded like a good way to die.
The Antinium glanced at Bird for confirmation that they had inadvertently embarked on an adventure. Pivr wondered to himself if the Flying Queen would approve. Then again, if Ksmvr could do it, so could he. Bird tilted his head.
“I did not order us on an adventure, Miss Octavia. I demand we unadventure at once. We are on a rescue mission. I am in charge here!”
He waved one fist. Octavia looked at him.
“No, Bird. An adventure just happens. It’s not something we have to do.”
“…Oh. In that case, your adventure is approved. Do we get anything out of it? Will we have to kill a Dragon? I’m told it is difficult.”
Bird had some passing understanding of adventures, but Gna just growled.
“Great. I’m going to be an [Adventurer]. I hope I get to Silver-rank at least.” The Bronze-rank adventurer, Numbtongue, just gave Octavia a steady look.
“This is not a game.”
He was reproachful, and it was not necessarily easy to meet a Goblin’s crimson-eyed glare, especially as angry as Numbtongue was. Yet Octavia did it, and somehow—he blinked. Because the [Alchemist] was smiling.
“I know that, Numbtongue. I do. But look how many people came together for Mrsha. Even with Lyonette gone. That terrible [Witch]…but we still did it. We’ll get her back.”
“Even if we all die.”
Bird chipped in unhelpfully. Octavia hesitated, but then nodded.
“We all came for that. All of us. Like…like if Erin were here. We’d be doing just this, wouldn’t we?”
The band slowed. Ulvama nearly ran over Bird, and Salkis blinked. Fierre didn’t know Erin that well, but…she saw the others look at each other. As if Erin…
Badarrow smiled. Numbtongue did not, but he stopped a moment, and then nodded.
Then they kept moving.
It was just a short observation. Yet Numbtongue kept looking at Octavia. Somehow, her words had inspired something in the others. He was a [Bard]…but she was teaching him something. He kept thinking of it.
When you put it like that—an adventure. A quest, in Erin’s name. Perhaps there was some romance in it, despite the dire hour. Because of the need.
“To find the missing child and bring her home, across Izril we go. To the walls of the City of Waves or the High Passes, we fear no foe.”
He tried out a few words. Something in him wanted to have the same…basis as the kind of tales you read in story books. How did it go? Find a missing sword, slay the Dragon…finding a little Gnoll girl was close, wasn’t it?
“Goblins, Antinium, Humans? What a strange band to be seen in southern Izril. Unprecedented. We’ll probably shock the tails off everyone we meet.”
Salkis added happily, riding up to the other side. And we’ll have to fight our way through them, hopefully.
“A first for Izril.”
Bird tilted his head. Of course, only he’d heard that last bit. He glanced towards his belt where a little carrying bag hung next to his bag of holding. He nodded to himself.
“An adventure. I would like any magical bows we find. Mine keep breaking.”
Backs a bit straighter, the group journeyed on. Past the Bloodfields. Towards…well. Octavia sat back, pleased with herself as she reframed their journey for her own sake and theirs. After a moment, she decided to push her luck.
“All this to say, if we are going to be on the road for a while, and I bet we are, and if this is a grand story and whatnot…shouldn’t we have some music? Some songs to march with, at least! Or—you know, ambiance?”
All she heard were the sounds of horses moving, the jingle of packs, and the sound of distant insects buzzing.
Apista would have been hurt as she buzzed along, but she couldn’t read minds.
Octavia frowned. Hardly the inspiring soundtrack like on that movie Mrsha had watched with her.
That was a good point. The group’s heads slowly turned. Some music would pass the time. They all looked side-long at Numbtongue. The [Bard] stared ahead, until he realized who Octavia meant.
He hesitated. His hand nearly went for his guitar. Then he scowled.
“No. This is serious.”
“Come on, Numbtongue. You always play the guitar!”
“No. Silence. Who sneaks up on enemies playing music?”
Sergeant Gna mused out loud, then turned red when everyone stared at her. A Cave Goblin started laughing. Numbtongue folded his arms. Garia called out.
“Come on, Numbtongue! Just one song? You don’t have to sing!”
“You might level up! You’re a [Bard]! Play that one from the inn—”
Salkis blinked. She pointed at Numbtongue, disbelieving as she turned to Garia.
“Wait. This Goblin’s a [Bard]? I thought he was a [Swordsman] or something.”
“Nope. [Bard]. Wait…how do you know Numbtongue? What’s your class?”
“Um…[Aristocrat]. With a bit of combat classes. [Warrior], you know.”
“I shall sing if Numbtongue is incapable of singing. I know over a hundred bird-songs, all of which I have written!”
Bird announced. He spread his arms wide and began to sing. Ulvama grunted and pointed. Bird kept singing, then stopped as he realized someone had just cast a silence spell on him. They proceeded on, spirits rising as they ate up ground.
Niers Astoragon didn’t have many landmarks, but he calculated they might have a shot at reaching Pallass without the magic door in eight days or nine at the most. Fifty miles with his Skill a day was possible even with civilians, and everyone here was moving far faster. He smiled.
Adventure. The [Alchemist] was speaking his language. Duty mattered, his home and company mattered. Yet this? This was what he’d come for.
Speed. The fastest-moving piece of luggage in all of Izril realized that she was being carried at a speed even a Courier might be impressed by. Even so—Wanderer seemed to grow tired after the first day of flight from Liscor.
He put her down shortly after midday. Mrsha glanced up; she’d been carried under one arm, then held like little Gnolls in two arms. Then he’d made her piggyback…all of which she’d done without much objection.
She had been still, almost motionless, a good piece of luggage after Wanderer’s revelation about the nature of her fur. Yet it seemed like the white-furred Gnoll with the traveling staff and cloak had a problem. He put Mrsha down, stretched his arms, sighed, swore a few times, and then pointed at her.
“You’re going to have to run with me. You’re too heavy to carry. We’ll get a pony for you, but I can’t carry you another day.”
Mrsha looked up at Wanderer and folded her arms. Her blank-eyed look of sad guilt turned into an expression vaguely reminiscent of her mother’s look.
See here a minute! She wagged a finger at the Gnoll. You can’t just carry me off, tell me I’m Doom and then tell me I have to do all the running to wherever we’re going to! Am I a [Damsel] or not?
Wanderer looked blankly at the indignant little Gnoll’s face and her flashing paws.
“I can’t understand whatever you’re saying. Bite my fur…Coinpurse owes me a hundred drinks. Listen…Mrsha. We’re going to have to change your name too.”
He squatted down. The Gnoll fixed Mrsha with a serious look, his brown eyes intent on her. Mrsha slowed. She didn’t know his name, his class, or where they were going. She was going willingly—or not trying to bite him—but she was still closer to a hostage than companion.
Yet she had to know. If she had gotten Erin…Mrsha swallowed as Wanderer looked at her.
“I know you don’t trust us yet. So why don’t I tell you more, hm? I’m sorry; I’m trying to put as much distance between us and Liscor as possible. Plain’s Eye will try again, and we had better be out of their search radius. Give me…thirty minutes to stretch and we’ll see if you can keep up. If not, I’ll carry you. I’ve carried Gnolls before, day and night, but I’d rather not if I can help it. You’re a bit too heavy compared to a cub.”
Mrsha stared down at herself. Heavy? She was a little Gnoll! Well…she had grown a bit, but she wasn’t fat, no matter what Lyonette thought!
That was true; Mrsha was a healthy, growing Gnoll girl. So, a lot more than a Human girl her age. When she shot up to her full height, she might outweigh Lyonette by over a hundred pounds and be far taller; Krshia made even Ryoka seem fragile.
Wanderer sat cross-legged with a sigh. He unslung his ‘pack’, which was really his bag of holding. It was light as could be, Mrsha being the real weight. He fished around inside, and pulled out a cube of meat.
As in, a square of meat, perfectly geometrical. Mrsha eyed it as he stacked two—eyed her, and pulled out three. He offered her one and bit into the first.
“Here. Travel rations.”
Travel what? Who ate geometry? What is this? Mrsha went to slap the cube out of his paw. Patiently, Wanderer jerked it out of the way and offered it again.
“Eat. I’m sorry if you think it’s bad, but taste it first. It’s traditional travel rations. From Salazsar. Which is where we’re going. Drakes and their systems. They stack it up like this so it fits best in bags of holding. It’s meat and grain and…it keeps almost forever in bags of holding. Dry, though. Let me grab some tea.”
He fished in his bag of holding for a canteen, a bit annoyed. He was used to Gnolls fleeing imminent death, not picky little Gnolls who were used to pizza and decadence. Mrsha though, had gone still.
Salazsar? What’s this now? Wanderer shrugged as he met her startled gaze.
“I told you I’d explain. I was in a hurry yesterday and I don’t talk when I’m moving at that speed. Ever swallowed a bug while going that fast? It’s…no. Salazsar’s our destination. In case I forget—if we get separated, go there. Ask for…hm. Ask for Shadepaw at a bar and you’ll meet with Shadows. That’s one of her aliases. Go on, eat. Do you not eat scurry food? Please, tell me you do.”
Mrsha sat and poked at the cube. She broke off a piece and found it was dense, and not actually bad when she nibbled at it. Not great; it could use some seasoning. Some kind of base food. Slap it on a pizza, actually, add some cheese—maybe a bun and lettuce and other plants for the taste? Actually, just give her a hamburger.
Since there was no burger, she ate. She was a Plains Gnoll! True, she had come to the inn, but Mrsha was still a rugged traveller of the Stone Spears tribe, who had lived in the wilds. She hesitated, then fished for her writing equipment. Wanderer stared at the little note.
“…No, I don’t have a plate.”
Lyonette had rubbed off on Mrsha more than the Gnoll knew. Mrsha ate huffily, and Wanderer scarfed the first cube down, and poured some dark liquid into two wooden cups. He handed Mrsha one. It was old tea, long-steeped in tea-leaves, but still not too bitter. Refreshing, really.
“It’s got natural stamina effects. Eat up. Want another cube?”
Mrsha shook her head. Wanderer sighed. He sat cross-legged, massaging his aching shoulders. He felt at his side, winced.
“That damn [Witch] got me with needles. I haven’t been in a fight that bad since…hm. Two other times, really. Hey, do you see a needle in me?”
He pointed. Mrsha stared obediently. Then she frowned. She poked—Wanderer swore.
He slowly felt around, and grasped multiple times with his paws before his claws pulled out a tiny, wooden…Mrsha winced and looked away. Wanderer tossed it on the ground.
Mrsha was reminded that this Gnoll had bled for her, nearly died to protect her. He was due some consideration for that, so she listened as he went back to eating, no longer plagued by that stinging in his side.
“Alright. I’m Wanderer. You’re Mrsha. I suppose now’s the time to start from the beginning. We’re both white Gnolls.”
He gestured to his fur as he rummaged in his bag of holding. Mrsha nodded.
“Good observation, genius.”
Wanderer frowned at her note card.
“You’re not what I expected. When we heard of you—our group, that is, all Gnolls with white fur—we thought you’d be wanting to go with us. That inn…seemed nicer than I could have believed, especially in a city with Gnolls.”
Mrsha nodded. Wanderer sighed as she held up a card indicating how mean he was. With a little frowny-face for emphasis. She’d learned that from Erin.
“We were still right. Plain’s Eye was on you and believe me—they’d have launched a sneak-attack if they hadn’t been caught up in that [Witch]’s attack. The first thing they do is…just walk into a room and stab you. Into your shop, into a bar and you’re dead. If that fails? They’d wait until you took a walk, until you had lowered your guard. A thousand paces out, a Gnoll with a bow looses one arrow. That’s how it happens.”
Mrsha felt a chill. It was too much like how Erin had died to be flippant about. Wanderer grimaced, seeing her sober face.
“Argh. I’m not good with children. I’m sorry. I’m just rescue. Coinpurse is going to have my hide.”
He kept using those names. Coinpurse, Shadows, and Spellcaster. Wanderer explained.
“We’re leadership of the Gnolls in Salazsar. They’re aliases. Do you know what that word means…? Okay, stop writing, I can see you do. That’s how you’ll know us. We have names of course, but they’re not our real ones. You can scry real names. For instance, mine? Wer.”
Wer, or Wanderer, indicated his chest.
“It’s the name I use and I’ve gone by for nearly seven years now. You can call me that.” Mrsha stared at the Gnoll. Wanderer was better. He shrugged.
“Fine then. Just remember. There are four of us. Well…four of what you’d call ‘leaders’. There are nearly three dozen of us in total.”
Mrsha began choking on her bite of cube. Three dozen? White Gnolls? She stared at Wanderer. He grinned.
“The biggest gathering of white Gnolls in all of Izril. Perhaps all of us aside from a few who go their own way. What, did you think you were unique? I’m afraid we’re a bit more common than you know. But we die if Plains or even City Gnolls find us, usually. Some of us are survivors; a few were in groups. Last Gnolls of a dead tribe. A few are children who were born by the survivors—they count even though their fur isn’t white.”
Mrsha listened, taking it in. Salazsar. She had wondered where they were going, and worried because she had to tell Lyonette she was alright. She needed to know whatever Wanderer knew about her powers, but…Salazsar made things more interesting.
She knew a certain Drake, a Wall Lord in that city. He might be…helpful.
Wanderer didn’t notice how acquiescent Mrsha had suddenly become. He went on, rubbing at his head.
“Some of the Gnolls are low-leveled. Almost all are [Survivors], like you, but we four are the best. We all have a different role.”
He gestured at his chest.
“They call me Wanderer because I travelled across the world before I found more of my kind. Shadows fell into the underworld of gangs—she still is. There’s also Coinpurse, who began it all by organizing us; he funds our rescues and makes sure we all have enough money. Hrr. You might go with him; you need someone to watch after you. Or Spellcaster. He’s not good with children either, but he knows magic. Real magic, not [Shaman] spells.”
So they knew that Gnolls could be [Mages]? Mrsha wrote furiously and Wanderer nodded. He looked a bit disappointed.
“So you figured that out too? It’s just one of the things Plains Gnolls refuse to understand. Like us. They call us Doombringers, but that’s not all of our power. Take it, use it—that’s the power our tribes left us. Fate, that’s how Spellcaster talks about it. We’re fated.”
Mrsha looked down at herself. Fate? It made sense; she thought of the Raskghar, the monster attacks, all the things, important, good and bad that had happened around her. But that meant…she wrote with a trembling paw.
“But do I hurt other people by being? How does it work?”
“I’ll show you. Later. For now—it’s been thirty minutes. We have to keep moving.”
Wer got to his feet. He gestured, and Mrsha stood up reluctantly. They tossed the cups back into the bag of holding and left almost no trace they had been there.
The two stood on a craggy hill, which Wanderer had been climbing most of the day. The ‘rolling greens’ that Mrsha envisioned of the Great Plains and the rest of Izril from her tribe’s stories bore little truth here. Wanderer was hurrying along the foothills of the High Passes; rough terrain.
He could still move, though, with astonishing speed, yet it seemed Mrsha was slowing him down. The Gnoll pursed his lips and looked at her.
“I have movement Skills, but they’d work on both of us as well as one. If you could run on your own paws, that would help me and let you move about rather than be carried.”
Mrsha nodded dubiously. She had been feeling a bit too much like a sack. She began to pad forwards on all fours. Wanderer stopped her.
“Not like that. We’ll never get anywhere if you just scamper about. Not through your shifting years, eh? Well, either way, you’ll need to move faster than that.”
That was it. Mrsha’s eyes narrowed. She’d had it up to chin-height with this mean Gnoll, who didn’t give her plates and utensils, stole her from her inn, and now disparaged her weight and speed! Without a word she leapt forwards and began racing down the hill.
She expected Wanderer to chase her or call after, but the Gnoll made no sound. Mrsha ran down the hill as fast as she could, stumbling a bit, slowing and dodging the huge rocks that jutted out from the loam. She wondered if this was some kind of geographical feature; stone stuck in hills. Maybe, as a [Druid], she could use her powers better here—
Mrsha passed by Wanderer as he leaned against a boulder and nearly face-planted as the ground leveled out. She turned to stare at him. He wasn’t breathing hard, nor had she seen him pass her!
“No, keep going. Show me how fast you are.”
The Gnoll looked amused. He gestured up the hill. Mrsha hesitated. Even Numbtongue wasn’t able to catch her at full run!
She began running up the hill, glancing back at Wanderer. He stayed there, watching her. It was slower-going uphill, slower by far. Mrsha labored, and as she was racing to the top of the hill, panting, she saw Wanderer move.
He took three steps and jumped. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. She saw him bound up the slope, jumping from rock to rock and land in front of her. It had taken him…six seconds. Mrsha nearly a minute and a half. Panting, she gazed up at him.
“Would you like to learn how to run properly?”
A few minutes later, Wanderer stood on a bare patch of grass and gave Mrsha her first lesson. She was still breathing hard, but he was going to show her…something.
“We all have something to teach you. I? I am the [Farthest Traveller]. And…a [Guardian]. There are things I can teach you. This is the key to travelling fast—well, one key.”
So saying, the Gnoll walked forwards. He did a little pose, like he was beginning to squat. It looked stupid, as he swung his arms back and forth, looking at Mrsha.
“Stand. Like this—and then just hop and curl up. You swing your arms like this. Hm. The rest is knowing not to be scared or if something is off. Try it.”
She gave him a look of moribund enthusiasm; this was not the mood for learning…what? A day, or even two, was not enough to wash away the gloom of Belavierr and leaving her home! Didn’t he know that? What was this, anyways?
“I am going to share a Skill with you, but it doesn’t work unless you know how to use it. You might even pick it up yourself if you work hard. Listen—copy me. You can do it on all fours, but it’s easier standing up.”
Reluctantly, Mrsha stood on her two legs and made the ‘potty pose’ as she instantly labeled it. She swung her arms, feeling the unsteady momentum carrying her forwards.
And what am I supposed to do now, go splat on my face? She glowered at Wanderer. He nodded approvingly.
“Good. Then the next part is pushing off. Then—you do this.”
He did a little hop, and his body rotated in the air. Mrsha’s jaw dropped.
Wanderer did a flip, and landed on his feet. It was so casual, so elegant that Mrsha was dumbstruck! She’d only seen one person ever do a flip like that—Ryoka. And she had done her tricking and big stunts.
This? This was a casual flip, as if there was nothing to spinning your entire body around. Wanderer gestured.
“You try it.”
Me? What, just like that? Wanderer smiled at Mrsha’s expression as she backed up a step.
“It’s simple. You’re young; don’t think about it, just do it. I’ve tried to teach adults and they can’t imagine it. You can flip as easily as hopping. See?”
To prove it, he walked a dozen paces and did six hops, each one a front flip without breaking stride, stopped, and did a tremendous back flip towards Mrsha. She backed up.
“No way! I can’t do that! I’ll land on my head!”
“I will catch you. This is the trick. Go on.”
Encouraged despite the odd lesson, Mrsha stood on her two feet. She wasn’t a perfect walker or runner, but this? She frowned, tried to copy Wanderer’s instructions, and did a mighty hop!
Wanderer stared as Mrsha landed on all fours on the grass. The Gnoll girl gave him an abashed look. She’d forgotten the flip part.
Mrsha stood up. She hesitated, swung her arms, hopped—and felt someone push her head slightly and legs at the same time in opposite directions. Mrsha spun, screamed silently as she felt herself go spl—
Wanderer caught her. Mrsha stared at the ground, up at him, and then tried to bite his arm. He put her down.
“Try again. Now you know how it feels.”
Mrsha glowered, but she had felt it. You tucked your head down and just— Mrsha did a hop, and then flipped. The world spun around her in a terrifying, amazing second, and then she felt an impact.
She landed on her butt and stared. Then laughed in silent delight! Look at that! Ryoka had never taught her…
She looked up as Wanderer loomed over her. He smiled, once.
“Now land on your feet. And spin a bit more. You need to practice so you know exactly when to stop and how far to go.”
Ten minutes later, Mrsha could flip whenever she chose. It was actually not that hard once you got into it, and the fear of smacking the ground was the biggest impediment.
She’d done just that eight times, and Wanderer had lied when he’d said he’d catch her! Well, he had protected her head twice, but the little bumps weren’t fun!
Nevertheless, he was a somewhat good teacher—although Mrsha found his new instructions to be odd.
“No. You are jumping too high. Lower. I will catch you if you fall…this time. As low as you can.”
He didn’t just want her to learn how to do a flip, he wanted her to learn how to do a tight front-flip, barely an inch off the ground.
She resented his instruction, but the girl had to admit—this was something Lyonette would never have countenanced, and more physically amazing than anyone but Ryoka had ever shown her.
Mrsha found the challenge exhilarating; she could feel her fur touching the ground if she did it right. She did three super-compact flips in a row, and then Wanderer nodded.
“Good enough. You won’t hurt yourself if I don’t catch you. Now, it will take some getting used to, but if you get used to it, we’ll be moving even faster within the hour.”
“Used to what?”
Mrsha frowned, a bit dizzy. She didn’t see how this translated to his jumping ability.
For answer, Wanderer placed a paw on her shoulder. He looked at Mrsha as he hefted his walking staff.
“There are more classes in this world than we can dream of, Mrsha. All with little secrets and Skills. Mine? Mine is [Traveller]. A generalist class. Some call it useless. Yet there is a trick in my class. Do you know what it is?”
Mrsha raised one eyebrow. You’re going to tell me anyways.
Wer grinned with all his teeth.
“The trick is—I have the potential to learn almost any Skill that I encounter. From any class. So—here’s something I learned on my long journey. [World Traveller: Grasshopper’s Run].”
He touched Mrsha’s fur and she felt her hair lift as a sensation ran through her. She felt… Light.
Mrsha stared up at Wer. What had he said just now? The Gnoll saw her look and knew what she was curious about.
“It’s my school of Skills. World Traveller. It encompasses…special Skills.” He hefted the enchanted staff he carried, which appeared to be plain wood, but had been tough enough to survive Belavierr’s battle.
“Staff art. Running technique used by [Rangers] and the like. Stealth Skills I learned from my travels. Enough of that. Follow me. And remember—flip.”
Without a word, he jumped. Mrsha saw him bound down the hill, racing down the grass and rocks without slowing. She hesitated—and then followed a second later.
They bounded down the hill, and this time Mrsha felt gravity loosen its hold on her. She raced, on all fours, and realized what his Skill did.
When you ran up a hill, and even down it, you were careful. Even the fastest runner downhill watched for cliffs, gaps, slowed to avoid the uneven terrain.
Wanderer raced down the hill in nearly a straight line, avoiding only the biggest obstacles. It was more like he was…falling, and pushing himself even faster and faster down the slope!
Mrsha copied him. She was fearless suddenly, and part of it was surely the Skill helping her. She leapt, her paws barely touching the ground. Fast! Faster!
Run as if you were falling, pushing off the ground in bigger leaps and bounds as you leapt.
The two flashed past an antelope bounding down the slope, away from the potential predators. The silly creature actually stopped and stared at them flying past. Mrsha could almost hear its thoughts.
I thought I was fast!
Then it happened. As Mrsha was running, she saw a rock straight in front of her. She swerved to avoid and her paws slipped on a patch of stones. She hurtled towards the rock and then pushed—
Mrsha flipped over the top of the boulder. She landed, turned her head, wide-eyed, looking back at the amazing stunt she’d pulled, and nearly fell into a crevasse. Wanderer laughed as he caught her.
“You’re a natural after all! Now—watch. This is how you complete [Grasshopper’s Run].”
So saying, he transferred Mrsha to one arm. Then Wanderer planted the stave he was running with on the ground. He pushed hard and vaulted over the small crevasse with Mrsha under one arm.
For a moment—they flew. Then, Wanderer put Mrsha down and they ran on. She bounded up slopes, jumped, and flipped, twisting through the air. Laughing—for a second just enjoying herself. Until she saw Wanderer grinning and realized it should have been Ryoka. Mrsha turned to look back, but she didn’t know where Liscor lay.
And…she had to know. Mrsha followed Wanderer. To learn the truth of her fur. Her power.
She realized what it meant soon enough. For…
They were being hunted.
Inkar was used to Gnolls by and large after having been adopted by her tribe.
She was not used to Ekhtouch, but circumstances had contrived to put her in close proximity with one of the more unique tribes of Gnolls in the world.
“I do not know if there is any circumstance in which they would welcome us into their camps in this way. Even if we were ‘allies’ in another Meeting of Tribes, it would be political, not like this.”
[Shaman] Cetrule whispered as Satar, Cers, Inkar, Tkrn, Krshia, and a group of other Silverfangs came to visit the Ekhtouch Tribe. Akrisa was still talking with Chieftain Firrelle and the others, who were considering the angle of Earth in a new light.
The cat was out of the bag, to use Rose’s expression, a phrase that invited a lot of questions when she’d used it and everyone else scrutinized her hobbies. It was not what Krshia wanted, having planned to reveal the secret of Earth—but now that Steelfur knew, things were moving fast.
Politics in large made Inkar nervous, but the concrete benefit in the small way—or not so small as she turned out to be was the giant, Gire.
A fifteen year-old Gnoll who was second-tallest of any Gnoll here. Smart, quick—she’d snuck up behind Tkrn and Inkar to stare at the phone. Sweet too; she had apologized so much for overreacting. It was thanks to her, and her alone that Ekhtouch had decided to put their weight behind the other tribes.
It was not just Firrelle, either. Why else were so many Gnolls staring—albeit from behind the hide ‘walls’ each tribe used for privacy’s sake at this odd turn of events? Ekhtouch was busy setting up their camp.
Next to Silverfang. It was a bit of an uproar in the Meeting of Tribes. They had abandoned their spot in the center of the gathering, uprooted their tents overnight, and were settling in over here. Countless Gnolls were wondering what had happened. Why had Ekhtouch decided to move here and state their affiliation so openly?
Gire. When she had convinced her Chieftain to support Akrisa, Inkar had known she had influence, but she was still a child.
It turned out Ekhtouch saw things differently. When Gireulashia spoke, they listened. Not only that—the Gnolls of all three tribes were told they had free access to the Ekhtouch camp, with the obvious proviso that Gire and the others could mingle with them.
“They have never granted such rights before! Not even to the other great tribes! It must be Honored Gireulashia. Please, Honored Inkarr—take care not to offend her.”
Inkar assured Cetrule, who was admonishing Satar and Cers the same way. The younger [Shaman] gazed at the Ekhtouch Gnolls, half-nodding to Cetrule as Cers listened to his father, peeking at them.
They knew it was important, but…even Krshia was distracted. Because Ekhtouch was so interesting.
The young of Ekhtouch were almost never seen outside of their tribe. Perhaps because Ekhtouch had a reputation to maintain; any flaws in their ‘perfect’ people might reflect on their product…which was them.
There were many things to be made uncomfortable by, since they were a species that did what Terandrian nobility did; breed for perfection. That you could do it in this world…well, Inkar was no fool, but she understood Ekhtouch’s arranged matches had produced many ties in the Meeting of Tribes and as they met other tribes.
Satar herself was a product of that relationship, and so some of the Gnolls regarded her like a…half-cousin. Marred by imperfection, yet one of them, family forever because she was a descendant of the same ties that kept their tribe alive.
It made Satar patently uncomfortable. Inkar, though, was drawn to the children.
Like Gire, they were all larger or quicker than other children their age. They had smooth fur of all colors, and they were nimble and quick. They learned and grew fast, such that she was astonished to see a walking Gnoll cub who was only a year old! Even Cers couldn’t walk on two legs unless someone made him.
“Can I play with them?”
Cers whined. Cetrule hushed him, but one of the children had spotted Cers. Ekhtouch and Silverfang watched as a girl raced over on all fours.
“We are allowed to speak with you. You are Silverfang. Do you want to play tag?”
She spoke, a bit too eloquently, and Cers blinked. But in a second he was grinning and showing her a ball Aunt Krshia had given him—he tossed it and they were racing off like a shot. Cers wasn’t too slow to play tag—until Inkar realized he was playing with children several years younger than he was and they were just as fast or faster.
The interesting thing was their games. Tag, fetch the ball, those were normal. But as the Silverfangs walked the camp, looking for Gire and trying not to openly spy, they heard two teenage Gnolls talking as they fletched arrows. One spoke.
The other returned, unperturbed.
At that, the other Gnoll glanced up. He sniffed at his companion, looking victorious.
“I am male. It does not follow.”
“Temptress can be male or female, I opine. You just ran out of insults that begin with ‘s’.”
She snapped back. Inkar looked from one to the other and realized—they weren’t insulting each other, they were playing a word-game.
He retorted instantly, and she wavered just a hair too long, lost, and threw down her arrow in disgust before they began again.
“Animals, next. Taurus.”
Meanwhile, the children Cers’ age were eager to show this strange Gnoll boy some more games. One paused, ball in hand.
“Let’s show him the game of Triumphs! Me first, me first! I’ll do…words and ball and tumbling!”
The others mocked her. The Gnoll girl glared around.
“Just to show. Four, then. How about…maths?”
“I’ll do it! Cers, you can play too.”
Cers halted on his bum, looking interested as the Gnoll hefted the ball a few times, gauging the leather orb’s weight and the Gnoll who’d volunteered to help with ‘maths’ stared at the sky, thinking. The other Gnoll boy explained.
“You prove you can do all four! Watch! She’s going to do four—it’ll be easy. Ready?”
The girl had dusky-grey fur with a striped orange pattern, like a tiger in a way. Inkar slowed as the others counted down.
“Three, two, one…go!”
The Gnoll girl bounded into action. First, she tossed the leather ball up. Not straight up, and not too high! It flew in a lazy arc in the air, with plenty of air time. Then—she began to speak as she burst into, of all things, a cartwheel.
“My fur is silky butter and I have no graying hairs or wen, They envy me from the Walled Cities, Baleros, and Terandria, I race against all Centaurs and I wrestle only Minotaurs…”
She cartwheeled across the ground, singing, towards the falling ball. Cers’ jaw dropped, but it wasn’t over yet. One of the children shouted.
“Eighteen six times!”
The Gnoll girl heard, but didn’t slow. She came up, out of the cartwheel, still singing without missing a word.
“I know of ancient chieftains and shaman tales historical…”
The ball landed in her paws. She smirked around, but uttered a triumphant finisher to the display of Triumphs.
The Gnoll children, who had been watching with appreciation stopped. Then a chorus of jeers rang out.
“Wrong! You failed!”
The Gnoll girl froze, and was then pelted with clods of earth and bits of grass. Cers looked confused.
“But she sang and caught the ball and…”
“Eighteen six times is a hundred and eight! Not ninety six, stupid!”
The other Ekhtouch children shouted at the Gnoll girl, who hung her head all of six seconds before raising it.
“Fine, someone else do four! I wasn’t prepared because I was just showing three!”
“I’ll do five! Um…I’ll do math, juggling, um…”
Another Gnoll boy volunteered. The others began to throw in ideas.
“No, that should be worth two. Do another song! Sing ‘Oh, Jolly Drakes’.”
Triumphs was a game only Ekhtouch could have invented, where you demonstrated your ability to perform multiple tasks. Cers looked nervous when they wanted him to do it; math would be his downfall even if he was allowed to do just that.
“Astonishing. That’s what their children do?”
Krshia muttered to herself, eyeing the children’s game, which they seemed to be enjoying, even competitive at. She doubted this was a show; no other tribes mentioned these odd games. This was what Ekhtouch did for fun?
It might explain why the giant child herself, albeit taller than the adults, hurried towards them with such interest in her eyes.
“Inkarr! Tkrn! Honored Krshia, Shaman Cetrule, and Shaman Satar, I welcome you to the Ekhtouch camp. Please, accept the hospitality of the Ekhtouch; need you any refreshments?”
She greeted the two excitedly, her tail wagging, then remembered the others. Her bow was graceful, her tone measured. But when Krshia and Cetrule shook their heads, she was all too eager to bend down.
“May I see it again, Inkar?”
“Of course, Gire.”
Inkar carefully offered the iPhone up to the excited Gnoll [Paragon]. Gire beamed—for all of two seconds before one of the Ekhtouch called out to her.
“Honored Gireulashia, they are playing a game of ‘football’ with the equipment from Liscor. Chieftain Firrelle wants you to participate.”
“I am…entertaining our guests!”
Gire called over her shoulder, peevishly. The Ekhtouch Gnoll was made of sterner stuff than most; maybe it was the silver in her mane that Krshia suspected indicated she had helped raise Gire.
“She knows. One ‘point’, Gire.”
“Very well. Inkarr, I must go play this game. May I see it after I come back?”
Gire handed the iPhone back. Bemused, Inkar nodded.
“Of course. If you want to play…”
To her surprise, Gire scowled, not at all enamored by the game which a lot of Gnolls found so enjoyable.
“No. It will be quick.”
The game of soccer or football depending on where you were from was popular among Izril’s people. Baseball had its charms, but kicking a ball around was something anyone could do. All you needed was the ball, after all, and Joseph was a celebrity.
So small wonder countless Gnolls wanted to play with the balls that Rose had brought with her from Liscor. The autographed ones courtesy of Joseph were being carefully gifted by Akrisa.
Then again, this game was all about showing off, and there were Gnolls from numerous tribes trying to prove that Pallass’ team would be nothing in the Meeting of Tribes.
They certainly had lots of Skills. One Gnoll kicked the ball so high that Inkar swore it was nearly a minute in coming down—he was told not to do that again. Another Steelfur Gnoll playing goalkeeper blocked a shot at five feet away—with his face. She just blinked and laughed as the ball bounced off her fur.
Gire stomped into the field, not looking as excited as the others. She had been ordered to score a goal, to prove Ekhtouch could do anything. The other Gnolls, [Warriors] and [Rangers], even a [Chieftain], looked like they were still having fun.
“Ekhtouch is playing? That’s Honored Gireulashia! Let’s see how she does! A Gnoll from Emaspath’s tribe has the ball and she looks quick!”
A Gnoll was taking Drassi’s job of announcer. Sure enough, a Gnoll was leaving a blurred path across the field as some Skill took her forwards.
Gire stood a dozen paces in front of the goal on her side and scratched at her arm, looking unhappy. Already, the soccer pitch had been doubled in size and it might need to be tripled, depending on the Skills at play.
Inkar was curious, so she watched only Gire as she stared at the game. Gire was at once shy and imposing, intelligent and childish. She seemed happy enough to race about; was it just the iPhone that made her so unhappy?
The Emaspath’s Gnoll saw Gire standing in front of the goal, and wavered. Another Gnoll raced forwards, waving a paw.
They came towards the Steelfur Gnoll again, watching out for Gire as more Gnolls ran after them—or slowed to see how Gire would do. The [Paragon] stood still, staring around, scratching her arm…waiting.
Both Gnolls slowed, but then the Emaspath’s [Scout] shot towards the goal. At the last moment, she kicked the ball towards the other Gnoll. He responded with a shout.
He actually had a kicking Skill! The [Fighter] didn’t kick the ball, but rather, dug his foot into the ground and then kicked up a wall of dust over Gire.
And the spectators. They cursed and coughed as the [Grasslands Fighter] passed the ball back to the [Scout]. Another move that was going to end up with the player disqualified…but the [Scout] launched the ball back at the goalkeeper, who was still facing the [Fighter], drawn in by the feint and Skill, shielding her face.
Gire had also closed her eyes when the dust storm rose. She stood as the [Scout] kicked the ball—and then whirled. She pivoted on the ball of one foot as the [Scout] kicked the ball straight towards the goal.
Inkar hadn’t been in the way of the dust. She saw it all.
Like a piece of puzzle coming together, Gire stepped in one motion over to a point only she could see and pivoted on one foot. Her other leg flashed up, coming around in an arc to meet the ball flying towards her. The [Scout] gaped as it seemed to the audience as if she’d kicked it straight into Gire’s path.
She had not, but the result was the same. Gire kicked the ball into the air, the rebound so powerful that Inkar lost track of it for a second. Gire stood, stared past the players who were turning, coughed in the dust, and then walked off the pitch.
The soccer ball flew through the air in a powerful arc, curving, losing momentum, but zooming across the pitch. Every player’s head rose and the goalkeeper on the other end stopped flirting with the opposing player. He swore, looked up and jumped—too late.
The ball hit the top right corner of the goal and went in. The audience didn’t cheer; they didn’t’ realize what had happened, many of them, until the dust cleared. When they did shout, Gire was already hurrying towards Inkar.
“There. I scored! Let me see the iPhone!”
She hurried Inkar off. The young woman looked at Gire.
Oh. So that was why. It just…wasn’t fun.
“Have you played soccer before?”
Tkrn gaped at Gire as she ushered them back to the Ekhtouch camp where she could stare at the device. Gire gave the [Guardsman] a frown.
“You scored, though!”
“Yes. It’s just kicking a ball into a space. It’s eas—I mean, I’m not interested. And I’m too big to play other games. Tag or hide-and-seek…”
She looked wistful and sad.
“Well, I’ve had more fun at the Meeting of Tribes.”
Inkar saw Tkrn flicking his eyes back to the pitch where Gnolls still stared after her as another Ekhtouch Gnoll took Gire’s place. He looked at Gire.
“I guess hide and seek is hard for other reasons, but I can see why tag and soccer are no fun.”
“Mhm. They never find me if I hide.”
Tkrn’s mouth worked. He looked up at Gire and at Inkar. The young woman was interested.
“Are there any games you do like, Gire?”
The Gnoll girl thought about it and brightened up.
“I like dances. Learning dances and dancing is fun by itself. And…I appreciate all the activities the [Shamans] and tribes perform, although I’ve been busy meeting with so many Gnolls. I’ve also been playing games of chess with Strategist Venaz. He can beat me.”
“It’s a challenge. Now I want to play the game with the birds!”
Chief Warrior Merish was not in the mood to play or watch games of football that day. The power of Chieftain Xherw’s touch had left him. He woke feeling a pall over his entire being.
However, the touch had reminded him of what should be. Like someone who had seen light through the clouds after a year of rain—Merish fought to return.
So he visited their [Shamans]. Plain’s Eye might not be a city, but they did understand something about loss. They had healers of their own kind. Rituals for warriors who had lost too much.
The first of such took place before dawn, and Merish had woken up even earlier to ready himself for it. He had not eaten, and when he joined the [Shamans] with a handful of other Gnoll warriors, he was all but naked; he had only underwear on his body.
He recognized some from Rhir. Others were of his tribe, but had seen something terrible in their battles to keep the tribe safe. War or monsters. He saw one Gnoll checking her fur, manically running pawpads through her hair as if…searching for something.
Crelers, he guessed.
The ceremony was simple and designed not to have many visitors, if at all. No fanfare, no grand speeches. It was for them.
There were six [Shamans], two with special classes and markings that indicated they had a specific duty in the Plain’s Eye tribe. They were [Keepers of the Past]—or one might be an apprentice to look at him.
They remembered. The female Gnoll who was old, shrunken by age, gestured. Her eyes were deep, as if you could see past lives and names floating within. Like one of Rhir’s libraries, Merish thought. Deep, holding secrets.
He shivered, but then she spoke.
“Brave warriors. Come forwards one at a time. You have suffered. You have lost. Plain’s Eye Gnolls have died, other Gnolls have fallen and you lived through terrible sights that no one should see. Disaster. Crelers. War.”
Her eyes lingered on individual Gnolls and they shuddered as memories returned at a single word. Yet here—in this place, Merish embraced the pain. He had to. For the [Keeper of the Past] was speaking.
“Do not shy away from it. Later, you will be given draughts to forget and ease your mind. Later, rest. Here, in this place, speak to me, speak to us. Tell me their names. Do so, and I swear to you all—so long as Plain’s Eye endures, they will not be forgotten.”
The Gnolls looked up. In the [Shaman]’s eyes lay a promise. Something greater than their individual lives. Something…eternal.
They will not be forgotten. Leave their names with me and rest.
So, they did. One by one, the warriors approached. They stood in front of the [Shaman] and whispered or shouted. Names, events. Some ranted and raved; others broke down.
Merish did not hear. He was recalling them. Perhaps the Gnolls in front of him spoke the same names—they too were from Rhir. It did not matter. He would speak the names that he knew. Let her remember them twice.
The [Keeper of the Pasts] bade him approach. The [Shamans] were swaying, a hum rising from their throats. Merish saw some of them had their eyes closed. Their fur’s markings were glowing. He realized magic was at play here.
The keeper’s eyes were growing deeper. More than mere memory was committing these deeds to the past. He was glad of that.
“Name what you will. Our enemies. What passed. Who you have lost. Speak their names, great warrior, and let them be remembered so long as tribe and time endure.”
She told him, not unkindly. Merish nodded. His head rose. Then he hesitated.
Can I let you go? It felt almost as if he were giving over his burden.
No, he decided. No, it was not. It was honoring them. He could not forget. Perhaps, though—he would not feel as guilty after this. So he nodded, and began to recite the list that had played in his head every night. Faces. The way they spoke and laughed and died.
“Commander Cirille of Manus. Commander Uxel of the Stone Gaze Company. Delezza, Demon Hunter of Noelictus. Ser Vorn of Ailendamus. Lacten of Pomle…”
The [Shamans] began to stir as the first of their names registered. The humming faltered. One of them, the apprentice, broke in, unexpectedly. He growled.
“These are not Gnoll names, Chief Warrior Merish.”
Merish faltered. The [Keeper of the Pasts] looked at her junior with undisguised anger. Yet she waited for Merish.
“I have many names, our warriors and other tribe’s that were sent to Rhir, [Shaman]. These are among the many names I choose to remember, Gnolls and non-Gnolls alike. Is that not permissible?”
The apprentice hesitated, and then met the [Keeper of the Past]’s gaze. He lowered his head instantly.
He was young. The [Keeper of the Past] had issued no complaint, nor had her gaze wavered. Merish recited names until his voice was hoarse, and after another promise that it was done and remembered, the gathering broke up.
That was not important. Merish did not know if he felt lighter, but there was some reassurance in the act. What was…interesting…was that the [Keeper of the Past] sought him out afterwards.
“My apprentice, he interrupted your moment, Chief Warrior. For that you have my greatest apologies.”
“Perhaps I erred, [Keeper]. So many non-Gnoll names…”
He ducked his head. The old Gnoll fixed him with a steely gaze.
“Are they less worthy than the Gnolls who died, Chief Warrior? No, do not answer. You and I know the answer, both. My apprentice is simply…new. He would remember only Gnoll names. It is a recent point of view in the tribe, among some clans. If we remember only Gnoll names—history becomes strange indeed.”
She snorted and Merish almost smiled. He hesitated, though.
“New, [Keeper]? I do not recall any whispers of a change in how we performed this ceremony before.”
Not that he had attended one before. The [Keeper of the Pasts] visibly hesitated then, and the eldest of Gnolls in the Plain’s Eye Tribe looked at Merish and her face grew sad.
“…I misspeak, Chief Warrior. Recent, new—they are terms that change as I grow. I simply mean past my generation. It has been this way for a while. Never mind. The past lies with me and the tribe. It will never be undone. They will be remembered. I promise you.”
He nodded. The [Keeper of the Pasts] let him nod. He looked after her. Then wondered.
“How old is the [Keeper of the Pasts]? You mean Honored Celinthe? Why? Did she get hurt or stumble?”
Khaze was worried over breakfast, later. Merish shook his head.
“No. I am simply curious.”
If it was odd Khaze did not, well, counting ages didn’t matter as much after you’d reached your majority in the tribes. Merish nodded and gulped down a hot bowl of Herthee mixed with meats—someone had decided it was good, much to his displeasure.
“Merish, they’re going to play a huge football game! I’m watching with the kids, you want to come?”
“I will pass, Viri.”
Merish was better, not up for that. Viri was understanding—part of Merish wished he had been allowed at the gathering, but the games and distractions were another kind of balm for the Lizardman. He had told Merish he didn’t want to go home to Baleros. That would remind him of his missing comrades.
So, after breakfast, Merish went to find Yelroan. The [Mathematician] was in his tent as usual, and Merish poked his head in, took one look at the yawning Gnoll, and came back with some tea and meat biscuits from a nearby campfire.
“Merish! My great friend! Food? Will you be my partner? I need someone like you.”
Merish swatted at Yelroan as the Gnoll sought to embrace him. The slighter Gnoll scarfed down the food; he was working hard on a ledger.
“Thank you, Merish. How can I help you?”
He grinned as he kept working. Merish hesitated.
“I don’t want to disturb you. I was just checking in…”
“You have something you want. Don’t be shy—everyone who comes here does. I like that. They do come to me!”
Yelroan chuckled as his fingers waggled, then he frowned.
“[Check Sum]. Aha! So that’s—stupid. Why do numbers have to look alike?”
He found the issue that had apparently been fouling up a ledger of incomes and grumpily corrected it. Which of course meant every number after that was off…which he’d already deduced. Yelroan blew on the paper, folded the ledger, and rang a little bell.
A Gnoll girl raced into the tent, stopping when she saw Merish. Yelroan chucked the book at her, unperturbed by the visitor he had.
“Run this down to Crab clan.”
He meant Nebrecrab’s clan, one of the coastal parts of the Meeting of Tribes. Yelroan pointed at it.
“That’s where the missing gold is. All one thousand and eight pieces.”
The Gnoll girl tucked it under her arm respectfully.
“The [Chieftain] asked me about that. But where’s the gold, Yelroan?”
“In the ledger. You mean, physically? In someone’s pockets! But there’s the gold and it’s not my problem. Shoo!”
She went. Yelroan sat back, folding his paws behind his head. Then he looked at Merish.
“So, what’s the task, friend Merish?”
“I could be just here to pay you another social call as a friend.”
Merish tried to defend himself, a bit guiltily. He looked around, coughed, embarrassed, and did his best.
“So…is the money good with the Plain’s Eye Tribe?”
Yelroan stared at him, snorted, and then rolled his eyes.
“Yes, the money is ‘good’. Would you like to compare our wild Sage’s Grass harvests incomes to that annoying [Farmer] around Liscor and see how much of a depreciation we’ve suffered over the last six years?”
“Um. No. Sorry.”
Yelroan flicked his quill and promptly sent it soaring across the room. He went after it, grumbling.
“Just a question. How old is our [Keeper of the Past]?”
Yelroan glanced up, eyes glinting. He didn’t ask the obvious, but instead just answered the question.
“One hundred and two.”
“Over a century?”
That was surprising. Gnolls didn’t live that long, although Merish had heard of some who got nearly a century and a half by virtue of their class, good living, and so on. Still—it was surprising.
“Just something she said. It…never mind. I wouldn’t want to start rumors.”
“I don’t gossip! I would if there were anyone to gossip with—fine, keep your secrets. Oh, you should know that some of your friends were looking for you. There’s a group of Shatterstrike [Warriors] who poked their heads in.”
“I might see them. Thank you, Yelroan. I could stay…?”
His friend waved him off.
“I’m working and believe me, it’s not fun to watch. Or do. This is boring math; figuring out why Gnolls can’t add.”
Merish found the Shatterstrike warriors—a subset of the Plain’s Eye Tribe—and recognized some old friends and subordinates at once.
The way it worked was that each clan had their individual warriors, and Merish had been one of them until he worked his way up and left for Rhir. However, Plain’s Eye as a whole had their own warriors and people, which they could send to a clan that needed help.
Merish had spent time in both camps, and the Gnolls who made up the front-line of many battles with their tribe greeted him with claps on the back, sniffing him, patting his shoulders.
“Merish! Here comes our hero from Rhir, eh? The others who left were moaning they couldn’t ask you for advice.”
“What was the Death of Magic like? Can you talk of it—ah, the [Shaman] told me to shut up but I forgot—”
“Will you be leading one of our groups? Or acting as [Chief Warrior] to a particular clan?”
Merish bore the greetings well, all things considered. His mind flashed to Rhir, but the morning’s ritual had helped. He brushed off paws, growling.
“Let me speak! Are you all cubs or [Warriors]? Scopikl, it’s good to see you. Where’s Emrhi?”
“Outhouse. And keep away from her—she ate something she shouldn’t have.”
The others laughed. Merish fell into their company with ease, and soon they were marching towards the nearest tent serving free drinks. Plain’s Eye [Warriors] got them free, at least—the [Kegmaster] took one look at their markings and especially Merish’s [Shamanic Warrior] ones and served them up some cheap ale.
“No Velrusk for Merish?”
One of them demanded. Merish cuffed her on the back of the head.
“Stop that. Ale is fine. Our thanks.”
Drink, eat, and swap stories. Now that felt familiar, at least. Merish stood with them in the middle of the festivities, chatting, then walked around the Plain’s Eye camp, and caught up on what he’d missed.
…Not a lot. Oh, it was the same old as he’d always known. The Gnolls told him who had retired, gotten too hurt, switched classes, married into another tribe or just married, interesting gossip and funny accidents, and battles won or lost.
It was only after an hour and a second round of drinks they got into who had died. Bad stories, rumors, mirrors of Merish’s trauma, but lighter. He told them a bit too, and they listened in somber silence to his tales of the Death of Magic.
“A terrible thing, Merish. I am sorry I was so flippant. It was wrong of me, no.”
“Think nothing of it Scopikl. We all lose friends. Here and on Rhir. I only hope the reinforcements are guarded well on Rhir.”
All the Gnolls nodded somberly. They paused, in that moment where nothing could be said or should be said. Merish knew it well. However, then a Gnoll who’d rejoined them spoke.
Emhri had left two more times for the restroom, but whatever she’d eaten seemed to have finally passed out of her system. No one spoke of the smell; you smelled everything and got used to the bad ones and the good ones. Humans, now, and Drakes, they complained when they did smell something, as if the Gnoll in the area hadn’t smelled it five minutes earlier and far more vividly.
“If we speak of tragedies—maybe there is something I could bring up to you. I know it’s for the [Chieftains] and [Shamans] to decide, but it troubles me. A rumor, Merish. Well—not a rumor since I know it to be true.”
He lowered his mug, realizing he had his appetite back. Merish peered at Emhri.
“What have you been listening in on?”
She raised her paws defensively and flattened her ears.
“Nothing! I swear! I just have friends and I knew what was happening—we talk. I didn’t tell anyone, but…you’re a [Chief Warrior], Merish. You might be called on.”
The other Gnolls glanced at each other. Merish folded his arms.
“Something…happened yesterday. I saw [Shamans] running about, and word got to me…that I know what happened is because I saw them leaving. It’s not as if someone told me to keep my mouth shut, no.”
“Spit it out, Emhri.”
She growled, but then nodded and leaned in. Whispering so only they would hear, the Gnoll [Warrior] spoke.
“Merish. A [Hunt Leader] took seventeen [Warriors] out weeks ago. Maybe a month? I can’t remember. All I know was that I knew some of the Gnolls who went. Good ones. They were all over Level 20, and the leader over Level 30. A Vision of Seir. I’ve seen them gather like that before.”
Merish’s brows rose. A Vision of Seir, like Shatterstrike Warriors, was an internal term. This referred to a heavily-armed group in small numbers, to scout or harass an enemy.
“Not bad. What were they after? Creler scouting?”
“No…and listen. They were wiped out. Every Gnoll.”
The other warriors fell abruptly silent. Merish felt his hair rise slightly. He gripped hard on the mug and cracked it by accident. He cursed, and it was a loud sound in the silence.
“By whom? A [Hunt Leader] over Level 30 and a full Vision of Seir was wiped out? By what kind of enemy?”
Emrhi gulped. She looked uncertain if she wanted to continue the story, but it had been started. She looked around, and lowered her voice even more.
“I don’t know where, but I do know their purpose. They were…Doomslayers.”
If it had been silent before, now it was a void of space in which no one even breathed. Merish felt a chill and met Emrhi’s scared gaze. No wonder she was gossiping.
“I see. You should keep this silent, Emrhi. It’s…not to be spoken of. Understood?” She nodded.
“I only told you because you’re over Level 30 yourself, Merish. If there was anyone who could fix—”
“I’m not going to lead a bunch of Gnolls off. I’d wait for a [Shaman] or my [Chieftain] to ask me, Emhri. Don’t spread it around.”
Merish interrupted her. But that wasn’t why the Gnoll woman had gone silent. Her eyes were round and only then did Merish realize…he turned slowly.
“Chief Warrior Merish.”
A [Shaman] stood behind the group of Gnolls, having walked over while they were focused on Emhri. One of many [Shamans] in the Plain’s Eye Tribe?
No. One of a kind.
The Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands, the greatest [Shaman] of their tribe, Shaman Ulcreziek, stood next to Chieftain Xherw and a cluster of Gnollish guards and other leaders of the tribe. Shaman Ulcre looked at Merish and the Gnoll froze.
Mismatched eyes stared at him. One was brown, regular—the other was brown too. The difference were the striations of faint color, the inner pupil of the second eye. The power there. An eye passed down across their tribe for as long as it had endured, that gave them their name.
To stare at it was nearly impossible. The [Shaman] himself though was kind—to members of his tribe. His brows rose and he glanced at Xherw, who himself was powerful enough to make every Gnoll’s fur prick with energy.
“We are just in time, Chieftain. The warriors are already gossiping.”
Emhri wilted. Chieftain Xherw glanced at Ulcre.
“[Shaman], you can even see gossip? Now there is a true power.”
Ulcre snorted through his nose. He tapped the Plain’s Eye and it focused on Emhri a second before turning to Merish. Normally it moved with his other eye, but if he willed it to, it could move independently. Sometimes, Merish had heard it rumored, it showed him things he needed to see, that previous [Shamans] had known.
“I do not need to read lips or strain my ears. I can see gossiping Gnolls with both my eyes, [Chieftain]. Warrior Emhri.”
She squeaked. The Gnolls around her were apprehensive, but The [Shaman] just looked at her for a second with both eyes.
“Discretion would be appreciated.”
Merish thought Emhri would be silent with that alone. Ulcre and Xherw looked at Merish and the [Chief Warrior] felt his skin prickle again.
“Warrior Merish, we were looking for you. And it seems destiny has already moved your way. A good omen. Chieftain, I am convinced from this alone.”
Xherw nodded thoughtfully. He looked at Merish and smiled.
“I as well. Perhaps he should rest. Let us tell him and we shall see. Merish—a word.”
The [Shamanic Warrior] instantly agreed. When your [Shaman] and [Chieftain] of the entire tribe called, you went. But he couldn’t help but wonder why him, of all the [Chief Warriors]? Perhaps…fate indeed. Or Xherw remembered their conversation earlier.
He did not doubt the reason. It echoed in his mind. Something not often spoken of. A terrible name.
As it happened, there were multiple reasons that Xherw had thought of Merish. The Chieftain led Merish over to another gathering in the secret heart of the Plain’s Eye tribe, deep in their encampment. No one, not other Gnolls or even foreign spells could spy on them here. Not with Shaman Ulcre.
“You heard about the Doomslayers.”
Xherw did not beat around the bush. In his private tent, he sat, amid trophies of his tribe, gifts—it was not as luxurious as it could be, but it was impressive. Merish sat on a pillow.
“Yes, Chieftain. I hope you will not be angry at Emhri.”
“Angry? I will forget it in a second. Rather, I understand. Rumors spread and why not? When doom is abroad no one is safe. It is for that reason I thought of you. Well—that and two other reasons.”
Xherw lifted a paw. Ulcre stood, refusing to sit, glancing towards the tent where other Gnolls were assembling. Xherw peered at Merish.
“The [Keeper of the Past] tells me you went through the Recitation of Names. I hope you felt better, these last few days?”
“I did. You are kind, Chieftain.”
“Not always, Merish. I would have let you rest, but news of the loss of an entire group of Doomslayers reached me yesterday. I thought of you for two reasons along with our recent talk. Do you know all of what transpired?”
Merish shook his head.
“Only that they were wiped out.”
“Hrm. Not all, then. They were wiped out at Liscor, Merish. The Silverfang’s new city. The border of north and south.”
“I know of it.”
Only vaguely, but Merish felt he’d heard the city’s name on a few lips of late, and not just Silverfang. Oh yes, hadn’t there been battles there? During his time on 5th wall, and in the capital, they’d watched…
Xherw saw his expression and his face softened.
“Yes, Liscor. That city with the door and inn and such. There is a Doombringer there, Merish.”
The [Shamanic Warrior] nodded.
“Did it…kill them?”
He knew what Doomslayers did, and the Plain’s Eye had a few. They killed white Gnolls, before the doom that had destroyed a tribe could infect others. Merish…had never been asked to join such a squad. He would have, of course, despite the danger and duty.
Kill white Gnolls. They were not spoken of, but they were like Demons to Gnolls. Just as deadly.
Just like Demons? Merish frowned. He thought of Silvenia, the Death of Magic and hesitated. She was as half-Elf. A traitor to her people. So that was what white Gnolls were. Like Demons.
Worse, perhaps. If one had killed an entire Vision…but Xherw shook his head.
“Not it. Well, perhaps. The truth is we don’t know what transpired exactly, Merish. Only that an entire army was involved, the Antinium…and a [Witch] named Belavierr. The Spider of Terandria. A powerful [Witch] over Level 60.”
“Over Level 70. Perhaps over Level 80.”
Ulcre cut in. Merish’s head rose and turned.
Shaman Ulcre’s eye was deep and staring. For a second Merish thought he saw rings—before a terrible anger took hold of him.
“An old [Witch], Merish. A dangerous one—for a certain level of it. Peril to those who have lost or desire. Not like a Dragon on a rampage, but almost as bad if angered. She was angered and nearly destroyed the city. Perhaps she killed the Doomslayers.”
“Or perhaps the city, or the inn, or the army. Hectval. Yet I say it was doom, and doom from one source, no matter the many causes.”
Xherw growled. He looked at Ulcre, then at Merish.
“A dangerous Doombringer indeed.”
Merish nodded, head spinning. Over Level 80? That was the kind of thing that was legend. Myth. Like the Death of Magic.
His blood ran cold and Xherw fixed his eyes on Merish.
“I thought of you. You have survived an encounter with a monster like that.”
“I would not fight the Death of Magic again, Chieftain. Not with ten thousand [Shamanic Warriors] at my back.”
It might be cowardice, but the words burst out of Merish as he shuddered. Xherw lifted a paw.
“I would not send you for that. Not against this [Witch]. I would send Ulcre and the full might of the tribes if I thought we had to fight her…no, she has fled. But doom remains and it has left. Apparently, so my people say, with a second white Gnoll. A stranger who killed at least a few of our people.”
Merish started. Two Doombringers?
“It is as I suspected. There are more, and they conspire.”
Ulcre broke in. The [Shaman] was upset. He waved a staff skywards, at a hole for the smoke of a fire to escape through. The sky was still bright, but the tent darkened.
“I cannot see this one, or the two. But they have fled Liscor. Heading south.”
“Do you want me to assemble another Doomslayer group to hunt them down, Chieftain?”
“Yes. If you are willing, Merish. I know you are resting, but when destiny calls you like it seems to do…I will ask other [Chief Warriors], but for this task I will arm you with weapons and give you our best warriors. If you agree.”
Xherw met Merish’s gaze. The Gnoll [Shamanic Warrior] sat there, on the pillows. He could have refused, asked to think about it, or asked questions, uttered reservations.
He did not. Merish was a [Warrior] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe. A soldier of his people.
“Of course, Chieftain. You have only to ask.”
Ulcre and Xherw smiled. Merish rose after Xherw, and the [Chieftain] nodded at him.
“You honor your tribe, Merish. Thank you. We shall arrange it and you must be hunting soon—but we have to know our quarry first. There are things you should see.”
“What was the third reason you wanted me, Chieftain?”
Merish followed Xherw to a group of Gnolls outside. For answer, Xherw pointed. Merish saw a scrying orb held by a [Shaman], a group of the Plain’s Eye’s best magic-users…and Yelroan. The [Mathematician] blinked at Merish, and then waved. Xherw gave Merish a slight grin.
“Destiny? Or just friendship. Now, come see this, Merish. Doom has foolish allies, but it may help us in the end.”
He pointed at the scrying orb and Merish saw a Drake on Wistram News Network. He vaguely recognized Drassi as the Drake began speaking, her voice hoarse, strained, her eyes red. With a start, a jolt to his heart, he saw an illustration of a little white Gnoll behind her and the caption.
Young Gnoll Missing – Believed Kidnapped.
It was a road laid with best intentions. You could even see all the logic behind it with little effort. This Mrsha was a friend of Drassi’s. The [Honest Reporter] knew her, and she had a rare position of power in Wistram News Network.
So if Mrsha went missing, Drassi would obviously report the story. The Drake made an impassioned appeal, laying out the events, even getting a [Mage] to show the devastation from the battle.
“Mrsha is a dear child, and I wasn’t able to—listen. This rat-Gnoll, this…white-haired stranger has her. I am begging anyone with information to reach out to us. I’ll be covering this story with any sightings, and if you see her, tell the Watch Captain! Again, her name is Mrsha and she can’t talk, but she can write and…”
Everything checked out. Missing child, appeal across Izril, a heartfelt story. Anyone from Chandrar would instantly sympathize, and indeed, Drassi’s appeal would lead to hundreds, thousands of appeals from other citizens across the world for her to cover missing persons—a segment that would endure.
Drassi had made just one mistake, and no one else had stopped her from making it. No wonder; Wistram News Network was run by Wistram and crewed by Drakes at the top, or City Gnolls. In short, there was no Plains Gnoll with concern on Mrsha’s side to point out how horrific this was.
Alarric stared at the scrying orb and wanted to vomit. He knew Wanderer had the child; he’d received the signal. This?
“She’s going to get them killed.”
He whispered. Drassi’s earnest face—he had to believe she meant the best. But this? Now every tribe with a scrying orb could see that there were two white Gnolls. They were taking notes and writing down the nearest location. Just not for the reasons Drassi hoped.
“Other tribes have already told me they will join the hunt. Yet Plains’ Eye will not rest on them alone. Every tribe in the region will be searching for the two, but Merish, the older Doombringer is clever. He—it—apparently moves fast and was skilled enough to defeat one Doomslayer group, if with help.”
Xherw shut off the scrying orb with a wave of his paw. Merish stared at Drassi’s face before she vanished. She’d spoken of the Doombringer—Mrsha—with such passion.
Well, she was a Drake. She had no idea what she was talking about. It had given them a lot of information, though.
“Two Doombringers, and we know their ages, even the name of one. Is that not enough, Chieftain? Can we not [Scry] them?”
He glanced at Xherw, but it was Ulcre who responded.
“It should be, even if [Shamans] do not perform [Mage]’s magic, Merish. Yet we cannot. They are warded. I have called on all our artifacts capable of it and my conclusion is that one or both have means to evade us.”
He glowered. Merish nodded. Only standard.
“Hence this gathering to inform you of a place to start. We have a vague region ‘south of Liscor’. I mean to narrow it. So, then. What can you divine?”
Xherw’s head turned and Ulcre regarded the best Gnolls in the Plain’s Eye tribe for the job. After all, their tribe was known for the quality of their [Shamans]. And [Shaman] was a catch-all class.
Merish beheld the gathering of nearly twenty Gnolls. He saw and recognized their classes.
[Oracle]. [Seer]. [Augur]. Even the [Keeper of the Pasts]—Gnolls with insights into the weather, the future, chance and fate and what had gone before and might come again.
“It is not an auspicious time, Chieftain, but we are casting our magics and using our Skills. We shall look for great portents and signs.”
The [Oracle of Calamity] spoke, one of the Gnolls who could predict incoming dangers to their tribe. A [Seer] growled.
“One of the Doombringers has more than an artifact. My divinations return only mystery, yet I tell you they are headed east, not west. The wind howls that way alone.”
“My readings say west…no. Wait. The origin of one comes from the west, the other from the east.”
The [Augur] argued, sorting through the entrails of a fish. Another Gnoll growled.
“Don’t look to their origins, but to their destination!”
“I tried that and got an infected gallbladder. In the fish, I mean. Some kind of ward—let me try again.”
A [Shaman] pinched her nose and complained.
“Would you stop cutting open fish? I am trying to work—”
What a mess of conflicting professions and styles. Merish watched as Xherw gestured to Ulcre and the [Shaman] stopped the fighting. The Gnolls worked.
“Southeast. Along the High Passes?”
“I sense proximity to Drake stone. Maybe along the cities?”
“So they’re heading southeast, possibly close to cities.”
Merish interpreted the many Gnolls’ commentary and arguments. It wasn’t much to go on, but it did help.
…The problem was, there were a lot of cities, and a lot of ways you could take that. The map of Izril along the High Passes which formed the border between north and south was huge. Xherw growled.
“I will keep them at it and keep in contact with you, Merish. That may be enough to go on. It is frustratingly imprecise. The older Doombringer must be powerful.”
“Then I shall arm myself well, Chieftain. I would like more information, but I will set out and hope more knowledge reveals itself.”
“That is all we can do. Unless…my last expert has an opinion?”
Both Gnolls glanced up. The arguing [Seers] and [Shamans] looked up, offended. They stared at the Gnoll, who had posed so his glasses flashed as his head rose.
“Heh. You can fool magic and Skills, but not numbers, Chieftain Xherw.”
“So you say. You know where they are then, Yelroan?”
The [Mathematician] smirked at the offended magic-users. He turned to Merish and Xherw with a superior look and shook his head.
“No idea. I need more data.”
Merish slapped his forehead. Yelroan did another pose.
“I’ll collect more data. Rest assured, I’ll have an answer soon. A real one, not ‘southeast’. Unlike spells, math doesn’t lie.”
He smirked until a fish hit the back of his head.
Merish was supposed to engage in more ceremonies to deal with his nightmares and trauma.
He attended only one more, and it was to gather the Gnolls he wanted to join him. They heard him out.
Viri hovered at the gathering. So did Khaze, clearly worried; the children were put to bed. Merish had moved fast, but he still took till nightfall to gather what he needed.
They’d be riding horses and running next to them for maximum speed. He had Gnolls from the Plain’s Eye Tribe—Xherw had given him all but the very best to recruit from and Merish had chosen experts. Trackers, those who could speed them up, and so on.
But for fighting potential, he went to the Gnolls who had come from Rhir. Survivors of 5th Wall.
“5th wall stands. I fought with great warriors from every corner of the world. We faced the Death of Magic and held her back.”
He gave a speech to them, as the warriors looked at him. Merish was supposed to speak of his experiences, hence him attending this ceremony. He was here to recruit them—but he had taken the time to speak. He had already prepared, and it felt like a waste if he did not.
Yet the words made him question them even as he spoke.
Lies. Were they lies? They had fought ghosts, illusions of magic. Had they stopped her? Had they done…anything?
Had their sacrifice mattered? He wanted, had to believe that the answer was yes. He had to.
Merish went on.
“We were not friends until that last month, but we came to Rhir and fought. We did not run. We held the line, and then we went home. The only difference was…they went back before I did.”
Cirille. Vorn. All the others. He closed his eyes. He had heard of the ghosts who walked from Rhir. Merish stood there as the Gnolls listened in silence. Then he looked at the other survivors.
“Now, I ask you to join me again. I fought by your side. It is not a battle you need to come with. I know I am asking you…to die. Yet when I was told by Chieftain Xherw to choose Gnolls who I trusted, I thought of you. For you were there.”
They looked at him. Brave warriors, some with eyes shining with tears. They did not speak—but like Merish…one stepped forwards after only a second.
“Where are we fighting now, Chief Warrior?”
The rest agreed at once. So it was done. As Merish had known it would be, really. He nodded around, gratefully, humbled.
“Reclaim weapons, armor—we leave by midnight. Muster here in thirty minutes.”
They loped off, and Merish knew most would need only to visit their tents and utter brief goodbyes before…
Khaze was waiting for him. His sister looked at him, knowing what he was about, worry in her eyes.
“So you’re going?”
“Chieftain Xherw asked me specifically.”
He did not see pleasure on her face from hearing that. Khaze met Merish’s eyes.
“You could refuse.”
Merish hesitated, then shook his head. He gestured to the ground where Gnolls were already gathering. Not the warriors of Rhir alone either. Other tribes were sending warriors, having seen the scrying orb broadcast too. He looked at Khaze, choosing his words.
“I could. But I can’t relax anyways. Not with the Raskghar about. A mixed-company of Gnolls will improve relations between the tribes, anyways. I can be of some use and it will do us all good. I will keep us all safe.”
She nodded at that. Yet both of them knew—the Raskghar were the excuse. Doombringers were the excuse.
Merish had never left Rhir. So this was a relief. It was not healing, but it was what the warriors knew. He embraced his sister and turned, already thinking of the road ahead.
The warriors set out at midnight, without fanfare, but Xherw and Ulcre saw them off to give their blessings. Then they made for the readied horses, packed with gear.
It was only then that Merish saw Viri again. The little Lizardman had a pony and was waiting.
“Viri. What are you doing? You can’t go with us. This is tribe business.”
“You can’t leave me alone. Please don’t leave me again.”
Merish’s mouth opened. He looked at Viri as the other Gnolls looked at him. He was in charge. And Merish…after a second, he nodded.
“It will be dangerous. Deadly.”
Viri smiled. The [Longstick Jumper] reached out and touched Merish’s arm.
“That’s okay. As long as I’m with you. 5th Wall stands.”
“5th Wall Stands.”
The other Gnolls and Merish spoke it reflexively. So Viri rode with them as they left the Meeting of Tribes in silence.
“I saw Silverfangs heading north ahead of us, Chief Warrior. A war party it seemed, but a small one. For speed.”
One of the Gnolls ventured after the first ten minutes on the road. Merish’s head turned. Xherw had warned him…
“We will see what happens, warrior.”
“Yes, Chief Warrior.”
So it was done and Merish saw the long road ahead, days of journeying, hunting…but a purpose. He felt almost relaxed, as the familiar duty crept on him.
To slay doom itself. He bared his teeth—until Viri looked at him.
“So what are we doing, Merish? Hunting doom?”
Merish started. And he realized—Viri didn’t know. He hadn’t asked, and everyone else knew what ‘Doombringer’ meant. The [Shamanic Warrior] turned.
And his mind went blank. He looked at Viri, the Lizardman, riding next to him with his one leg gripping the saddle, the other lashed into place so he wouldn’t slip. Viri’s earnest expression. Merish tried the words.
White Gnolls. Cursed Gnolls. A child that would bring death to the tribes.
For some reason…it felt impossible to say. Merish opened and closed his mouth.
“—I will explain in a bit. We must go as fast as we possibly can.”
The Lizardman nodded, and they all moved quicker. You didn’t talk while riding this hard, anyways.
Yet that was another excuse. Merish silently frowned. Viri might not understand. He had to explain it to him…properly. Explain…
He had never, ever thought of how to explain why Doombringers had to die to another people. They would not understand, of course, which was why they were not told. But Viri had to. It made sense, after all. It was right. Merish just had to explain it—properly.
They rode forwards as Merish realized even this was no longer as easy as it used to be.
Wanderer stopped Mrsha by the end of the second day. Panting, the little Gnoll opened her mouth for another gulp of stamina potion, but he had halted them for other reasons.
“Time to dye ourselves. Past time. We will be hunted, and I fear…” He was glancing at something. A scroll, bearing bad news. Alrric had broken their silence to warn him. Wanderer cursed, and pulled something from his pouch.
Dye. Mrsha hated dye. She shrank back, but Wanderer crouched down.
“Don’t worry. This isn’t going to smell. Nor will it itch or make your hair dry and crack like other dyes. Water doesn’t wash it off easily either. It took Shadows and Spellcaster a long time to synthesize it. Now, which color should you be? We should be similar, but when we get to Salazsar, you can create a pattern, even.”
Mrsha blinked as he offered her a choice of colors. Not just brown? Not just Lyonette’s smelly dye she used for her hair and Mrsha’s fur—once or twice?
This dye was a lot easier to use. You didn’t have to soak in it—you just added a powder to water, and lathered it on. Wanderer had a tub and Mrsha could actually roll around in it.
She came out with reddish black fur, and Wanderer applied a similar, lighter coat. Mrsha stared at herself in a mirror as he checked for white spots.
“Who are you, strange Gnoll?”
She sniffed at herself, but it really was scentless. They were just finishing up when Wanderer’s head rose.
“Not a second too soon. Damn. Would you look at that?”
He pointed. Mrsha turned her head, and he grabbed her, pressing her down. They stared at something in the distance.
Plains Gnolls. They were loping along. Mrsha stared at them, and then Wanderer. What was the problem? They were dyed, just in time. But the Gnoll growled.
“They’re looking for us. Worse—your friend has told every tribe there’s a white adult with my description and a child who are Doombringers.”
Mrsha’s eyes widened. Then she looked at the Gnolls.
The Gnolls were a band of six, [Hunters] nominally. But it looked like they had come back from a kill of two Corusdeer and were looking about. Wanderer glowered, then pointed a ring at them. Mrsha would have grabbed his paw, but he just twisted a ring and suddenly she heard their voices, still a bit muffled, but enhanced by the magic.
“I saw two just like that. They were running down a hill. I wasn’t sure if the little one was a prisoner—she looked like she was having fun, but they were movement Skills. I thought their fur was light, but it was far off…”
“Damn. I didn’t know a tribe had gone this far north! They’re supposed to be at the Meeting of Tribes!”
Wanderer snarled. He cursed himself, and Drassi, and the Gnolls. Mrsha felt Drassi was fair, and him. The Gnolls were just minding their own business.
Unfortunately, the Gnolls were getting closer to their location. Wanderer and Mrsha hadn’t been that visible; they were in the lee of a hill, not on top of it, but the Gnolls had seen where they were from afar and were coming to investigate. Only their distance was saving them from finding exactly where the two were, and the uncertainty of if they had been white Gnolls or not.
“How did you not see if they were white-furred or not? Anyone can tell. That’s white, that’s blonde. Simple, even from afar!”
One of the [Hunters] was arguing with the other who’d seen them. She was defensive.
“I’m a bit colorblind, alright? Everything looks similar from afar!”
“Well, let’s just ask them what they’re about. Two travelling Gnolls isn’t that usual, especially a child. If they’re parent and child, no harm. If the child can’t talk—”
“We rescue her?”
“Nope, we run back to the tribe and play dumb. Apparently the older one’s dangerous. So if we sense something’s off, just smile, make excuses, and…”
“Damn, they’re coming here.”
Wanderer whispered. He checked himself and Mrsha saw him look at his staff. She froze.
Wanderer had killed the Gnolls coming after her. These were innocent [Hunters]! She shook her head. Wanderer pointed. If they find us, they’ll kill us.
No! She shook her head. He growled.
“Last resort. I’ll try something else first. Hold on…I’m not sure if…” He closed his eyes, and frowned. Mrsha didn’t know what Skill he was using, but it wasn’t immediately apparent.
The [Hunters] were closing in. They couldn’t smell the dye, but they were picking up some scent of the two. They closed in, growing silent, and Wanderer’s eyes were shut. Mrsha was tensed. She didn’t want more Gnolls to die! What was he doing? Could he defeat them without hurting them? Even if he did, the tribe would know. What could they do? Maybe she could use her magic? She reached for her wand.
Then, it happened. Mrsha heard a braying call in the distance, then a flurry of curses not a hundred feet distant. She peeked over the hilltop and saw the [Hunters] whirling.
They had been heading straight for them! Yet suddenly they were pointing, moving away. She heard them shouting.
“Dead gods and fur lice! The Corusdeer herd! That buck’s coming right after us! I thought we distracted it!”
“Don’t talk, move! They’ll char us to bits, go, go!”
Suddenly, the Gnolls were moving! They were running, debating dropping the two deer they’d killed as the angry Corusdeer herd sought vengeance for the [Hunters]’ attack. They fled, climbing higher where the Corusdeer couldn’t follow.
Distracted. Mrsha stared. That…that couldn’t be a coincidence! It was beyond any credibility.
Nor was it a Skill. Wanderer had opened his eyes and he looked relieved.
“We’ll move while they’re distracted. I’ll use a stealth-Skill. I’ll carry you.”
He gestured. Mrsha looked at him, then back towards the [Hunters]. She put it together in one moment.
He had used his power? Wanderer saw her look. At his fur. He nodded slowly, meeting her eyes.
“I told you we had power. This is it.”
Mrsha looked at him. Then her little face fell. Her eyes turned bleak and guilty.
A paw touched her shoulder. Wanderer shook his head, as if he could read her thoughts.
“Not doom. Luck.”
Mrsha blinked. Then—he scooped her up and they ran. Her eyes were round. She looked back.
Luck? Luck? What were they?
Mrsha’s pursuers were far distant, even the ones who had started first.
An entire day of marching—or in Octavia’s case, riding along the wagon, brought them nearly past the Bloodfields in one go.
Dismayingly slow compared to that strange white Gnoll, Snapjaw reported. She landed, looking frustrated as Icecube gulped down a bucket of water from a bag of holding.
It still awed Octavia, and probably a lot of their companions, that a Frost Wyvern was flying in their company. City Runner, [Alchemist], and Frost Wyvern. One of these things did not fit in.
The difference in levels and abilities also became more apparent as Snapjaw leaned over to talk with the Hobs and Bird. Sergeant Gna listened in, as did Fierre; the rest stretched or took the moment to break and tend to the horses.
“Stupid Gnoll tracks. Hard to follow. Looks like every fifty feet…then less. Gets tired, but too fast. Like fast-fast death runners.”
She indicated the road ahead, then pointed at Fals and Garia. They looked up.
“Even Hawk takes a week to get from Liscor to Pallass! How is one Gnoll better?”
Fierre frowned, checking her burnt skin despite her layers of protection.
“My guess is he’s not. Movement Skills, stamina potions explain half of it, but remember he’s got a road. Hawk used to make this run without this new road, and his was a benchmark for the Runner’s Guild.”
“Oh, he was that good?”
Octavia saw Sergeant Gna raise her brows, unaware that Liscor’s Courier was the hero of Runners everywhere. Fierre shook her head.
“Benchmark. He was…sort of average. It’s not like the fastest he can do.”
Fals frowned and looked at Snapjaw.
Snapjaw’s head rotated about. So did Badarrow’s. Snapjaw pointed at her chest, looking delighted.
Fals looked nervous and Garia whispered in his ear.
Flustered, Fals looked at Snapjaw and then slightly away. He was…nervous. Octavia forgot how non-Inn guests were so afraid of Goblins still.
“I was just saying that if we can see the tracks, we might be able to tell what kind of movement Skill it is. It sounds like he’s propelling himself forwards, not [Double Step] or anything else. That’s a Skill that moves faster on flat ground, maybe.”
The Runner’s knowledge of movement Skills exceeded even Fierre’s own. Snapjaw chortled.
“I can show.”
“Lead the way, Snapjaw.”
“No. Miss Goblin. I like that. Call me Miss Goblin. Sounds…person-like. Very nice.”
She slapped Badarrow on the shoulder. He grunted.
The little interplay was interesting more in how it disclosed the clear differences between this band. And while Mrsha was the common cause, there was no Erin as of yet to keep them together, just the memory of her.
Sergeant Gna stared at Snapjaw with ill-disguised hostility. Badarrow glanced at her, and she looked away. Salkis just stared at the Frost Wyvern.
They kept moving, but it became clear they would not fully clear the Blood Fields in one night. Even going as far as they had was amazing and due to Bird’s new Skill. As they made camp, Octavia stretched.
“How are we sleeping? Tents? I have one or something…”
“I’ll sleep under the wagon. That’s how my family travelled. Unless there are bugs or it’s muddy, it’s not bad and it saves time.”
Fierre offered. Fals and Garia looked surprised.
“I’ve never done that in my life. We just get out a bedroll—or the ground if it’s soft—and lie down. Like them, see?”
The Goblins were just tossing their things down and arranging them next to their sleeping space around the beginnings of a fire. Ulvama had created one with astonishing ease. She just dropped firewood out of a bag of holding, kicked it together, and pointed and it burst into flame.
Sergeant Gna looked scandalized. She stared at the haphazard camp and then turned. First to Bird, then away to Numbtongue or Snapjaw, who was petting Icecube, and then to Fierre as the best, most reasonable leader.
“This can’t be your camp! Where are the sentries? Fortifications?”
Fierre bit her lip.
“Goblins will watch out.”
Numbtongue called back. Indeed, the Goblins had already established a sentry-order by poking each other and Badarrow had first watch. The Goblin stopped as everyone turned to stare at him. He was climbing onto a rock where he’d sit with bow in hand. He raised his eyes at Gna.
“But that’s…well, that’s something. Yet you don’t have a latrine, or organization. You should use the wagons as cover, and have some kind of basic defensive area set up. I suggest moving to a cave or—”
The Gnoll hedged, unwilling to give the Goblins credit. She turned and stopped.
The Antinium looked up from digging a trench in the ground. Workers, Soldiers…all save for two.
Bird was sitting on the ground, kicking his legs and watching, apparently not at all pressed to help out. Next to him, Pivr, the strange Antinium on all fours with wings was giving orders.
Sergeant Gna and Pivr locked gazes. The Gnoll instantly turned away.
“What is that thing?”
“I am the Flying Antinium’s Prognugator. Also Revalantor. Pivr. My job is to keep Bird safe. I have already established Antinium safety protocols. Observe.”
The Flying Antinium rubbed his palps together as one antennae flicked towards the Workers. Octavia realized they weren’t just making a trench; they were digging into the ground and planning on resting there.
“Perfect camouflage and protection. If the camp is attacked, we shall sacrifice the meat-things and tunnel up to assail our opponents or retreat.”
The ‘meat-things’ did not appreciate that, yet it was clear each group had their area covered. There was just no overall leadership.
The others looked at each other, unsure if this was fine to let lie. Fierre went over to the wagon, Gna stomped off to find a rock to lie behind…until Bird stood up.
“Pivr. Redirect some Workers to place dirt in front of the wagon. It will hide it and provide natural cover. Badarrow should also move closer; we will create a hill he can watch from, with a bit of cover. Strategy!”
Gna blinked and turned back. Pivr looked uncertain, but some of the Free Antinium instantly moved to obey. Badarrow, who’d just finished getting settled, grumpily stood up, but when he heard Bird, he tilted his head and nodded.
“That’s…almost good. But we’re still open to attack from every other angle. They could come over the hills.”
Gna muttered, not looking at Bird. The Worker stared at her. He gestured around. They were in a natural ‘bowl’ with one opening, that Snapjaw had pointed out.
“This is a naturally defensible area. As to attacks from other angles—Ulvama. You will use a [Shaman]’s mark to ward the other directions.”
Ulvama looked up. She pointed at her chest.
“Me? No. I’m tired.”
Bird stared at her.
“But I have given the order.”
Numbtongue grunted. He nudged Ulvama with an elbow. She looked at him, at Bird, and blew out her cheeks.
Grumpily, she went up the hill to do what Bird had said. This time Sergeant Gna looked around.
“Well, well…it’s adequate.”
“It is a simple and efficient plan. You can find no flaws in it. Because I am smart.”
Bird lifted all four arms. Sergeant Gna refused to answer. Inside his space, Niers Astoragon chuckled to himself.
“Bird really is smart as, well, Olesm! I had no idea!”
Octavia remarked to Numbtongue. He nodded slowly, but didn’t seem surprised.
“Bird is Bird. Maybe Klbkch taught him.”
Sergeant Gna’s ears perked up. Salkis rubbed her claws together.
“I don’t know who any of those are. You mean Klbkch the Slayer? That’s Bird the [Hunter], right? He slaughtered Wyverns at Pallass. He’s also a [General]?”
She gestured at Bird, impressed and wary. Octavia and Numbtongue chuckled at the assessment, but they realized Salkis really didn’t know him at all. For answer, Octavia gave her the most charitable answer.
“Miss Salkis, Bird is uh…Bird. He’s a bit odd, but he’s good at whatever he does.”
“I can see that. Uh—should I watch out for them in my sleep? You know? Goblins. Or the Antinium?”
Salkis jerked a claw at the Goblins. One of the Cave Goblins looked astounded and flipped a finger at her. The Antinium also heard.
“We are not given orders to kill you at this point. Your safety is assured unless we are attacked.” Pivr answered. Then he paused.
“Well, the Flying Antinium promise this. Where is Xeu? The Silent Antinium may be seeking additional targets.”
“We. Are not.”
Someone spoke right next to Gna as she was setting up her bedroll. She yelped, and rolled away with a short sword in her paw, and stared as the landscape shifted.
Xeu, the Silent Antinium slunk past Gna, who backed up. Her scythe-arms rubbed with a gentle metallic sound, but she had been silent, invisible up till now.
“Dead fucking gods!”
Fals shouted. Even the Goblins started; even some of the Antinium. Everyone had almost forgotten Xeu had been part of the first group.
“There you are, Prognugator Xeu. Where have you been?”
“Scouting. Three minor threats eliminated. Proximity to danger-zone Bloodfields. Resting now. Does Revalantor Bird have further orders?”
Xeu rested, her body already beginning to chameleon itself into invisibility. Octavia edged closer to Numbtongue.
“I forgot she was with us!”
He nodded, but Snapjaw was already relaxed and grinning.
“Strong allies, eh? As good as Poisonbite at hiding! Better! Also, Drake, we don’t have bad sex. That’s Mountain City Goblins.”
She pointed at Ulvama. The [Shaman] froze as she was coming down the hill. Snapjaw and Ulvama locked gazes and the air grew frosty. Badarrow nudged Snapjaw.
Interesting. Niers, Gna, Fierre…well, practically everyone noticed the rift between Goblins at that. Fierre rested her chin on her hands.
“If even the Goblins aren’t united…and the Antinium too?”
She glanced at the two foreign Antinium. Prognugators she understood, at least the leadership term. She was itching to look into Revalantors and maybe sell data, but she wasn’t at work.
“We’re all here together. Let’s just relax, okay?”
Garia tried to play Erin, smiling around and booming. The farm-girl turned City Runner was already rummaging in her bag of holding.
“I bet we’re all hungry. I’ve got lots of food for the road. Who wants to cook, or are we doing it separately?”
Another pause. Octavia looked around. The Goblins shrugged. It was Gna who muttered.
“I suppose we can pool rations. All I’ve got is travel stuff. Dry. If anyone wants to cook…I’ve got [Survival Veteran]. It uh, lets me cook at a level a bit below [Basic Cooking].”
A level a bit below…heads immediately turned to Garia. She shrugged.
“I can cook too. Fals, you have [Basic Cooking], yeah?”
“Yup. Anyone got that beat?”
No hands immediately rose. Fierre knew how to cook—mostly blood dishes. Snapjaw had decent abilities, and Numbtongue could call on Pyrite, but only for a minute. Octavia pursed her lips.
“I could help. I’m good at recipes.”
Of course the [Alchemist] was. Fals rubbed his hands together, then finally noticed the person waving his hand indignantly.
“Oh. Uh…are you better?”
The Cave Goblin glaring at him finally got the attention of the others. It had been waving its hand non-stop, but no one had noticed. Everyone turned to look at the Goblin.
“…Let’s let the Human cook.”
Gna muttered sotto voce. However, Numbtongue was intrigued. He glanced at Badarrow.
“Huh. I don’t know that Cave Goblin. Which one of us did he learn from?”
He. That was more information than the others knew. Cave Goblin? Badarrow shrugged. He pointed.
Then he lapsed into the Goblin’s tongue. The Cave Goblin replied, almost indignantly, and smacked his chest and then his lips. He pointed to the air above his head, and then shrugged.
“What was that?”
Salkis laughed, but Octavia had some inkling. The Goblin had said about three words and done that ridiculous pantomime. Yet Numbtongue answered evenly.
“He said he was a Cave Goblin who learned from Rabbiteater. Which means he knows cooking. Not as good as Pebblesnatch, but he has [Basic Cooking] and two more cooking Skills. He’ll help or do cooking if we let him.”
The others stared at Numbtongue. In a bit of surprise or—incredulity.
“Wait a second, he didn’t say all that just now, Numbtongue. You’re putting words in his mouth.” Garia protested. Numbtongue shook his head.
“He did. Lots of words. Also, not ‘he’. His name is Rasktooth.”
The others turned to look at the Goblin. Gna frowned mightily.
“Odd name. Why’s that?”
For answer, the Cave Goblin laughed and fished something out of his tunic. He had armor on, and underneath the cloth itself…he pulled out a necklace with one long canine fang.
A Raskghar’s tooth. A trophy from dead oppressors. He bared his teeth.
Gna blinked at him. So did Fals.
“I’ll uh…I’d welcome the help. If we want to combine Skills, maybe?”
He meant to make sure everything was going according to normal rules of edibility, but Rasktooth was already investigating the small mountain of vegetables and prepared goods Garia had pulled out. In the end he shrugged and just grabbed a lot of dried noodles.
“Big pot. Big fry. Big eat. Slice, slice. Big taste paste.”
He communicated well. Boil the noodles, fry up meat and vegetables—slice those. Big taste paste referred to a pot of seasoning. Fals squatted there, warily, but getting into it.
“A stir-up? That sounds good for so many. Great! Er, how do you want to—”
Rasktooth was slapping vegetables on a cutting board as he chattered to another Cave Goblin, who begrudgingly filled a pot with water and began to hang it over the fire. He gave Fals a look.
I’m not an idiot. Stop getting in my way.
The City Runner hesitated—then stopped asking questions.
As the food began, Pivr watched. He turned to Bird
“We cannot ingest gluten. Revalantor Bird, have we alternative food sources? If not, I have secured ample provisions.”
Bird looked up; he’d missed the food talk in whispering to a little bag for anything else he needed to know. Belatedly, he saw the noodles.
“Oh no. I should shoot some birds.”
“No need. Here. Antinium! Sustenance is prepared.”
Pivr dug in his bag of holding. The Antinium gathered around and saw him disgorge a huge, ample portion of nutrient…
Slop. Sergeant Gna instantly clapped a paw over her nose. Fierre’s own nose wrinkled and Salkis gagged.
“What in the name of the walls is that?”
She pointed and an orange and brown…no, there was green. It was mold. But it was probably edible mold and, all things given, the most appetizing part of the nutrient paste that Antinium produced.
“Efficient food. Storeable. Compact. No fire or preparation needed.”
Pivr extolled the benefits of Antinium food. The Free Antinium looked at each other. They looked at the fire, and Fals and Rasktooth, staring in horror at the abomination of cuisine.
They edged towards the fire. They’d be happy with incontinent stomachs.
“We are not eating that, Pivr.”
“Y-yeah. We can make non-noodle food! Anything! Really. Just—put that away, please?”
Fals waved at Pivr. The Antinium, disgruntled, kicked the food into his bag of holding. The dirt would not interfere with the taste or quality of the food either. Xeu rubbed her scythes together.
“Alternative to noodles required?”
“Yes. I will shoot a bird. Or bat. Or many.”
Bird tilted his head up at the sky. Xeu shook her body, having to scuttle left and right to perform the action.
“Alternative food source. I have.”
“Really? Well then, I will eat it.”
Bird looked up. Niers frowned, poking his head out of the bag. The others watched as Xeu scuttled off. Fierre, who was watching as the Antinium formed a wall between the wagon and road, frowned.
“Wait a second. Where is she going?”
Xeu scuttled right past her, vanishing into the land beyond. But she was headed towards the road…past the road…towards the distant red earth. The area far, far out of range for even the spores or deadly tricks of—
“The Bloodfields. Xeu, wait!”
Octavia screamed, but it was too late. Xeu was gone. Half the party rose to their feet. Ulvama swore as Goblins, Humans, Vampire, Gnoll, and more raced after Xeu. She took five steps forwards, looked back, and then caught herself.
“What am I doing?”
Ulvama went to sit back down. She wasn’t going anywhere near that place.
Two Humans raced after Xeu. The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Normen and the other man had also been forgotten, uncomfortable with everyone here. Now, they charged forwards, but were drawn up by a shout.
“No, you idiots! You’re not wilderness fighters! Fall back!”
They slowed. Normen glanced over his shoulder. The voice was right. They were used to street fights; neither had ever seen the Bloodfields. Who had said…? Numbtongue raced past them, sword drawn. Normen moved to follow, but the Goblin had halted.
Numbtongue bellowed. Yet he couldn’t see the Silent Antinium. Everyone halted on the road, staring into the darkness. They saw the strange, alien fauna beyond.
Bloodfields. The deathly ‘sentry’ plants which impaled the ground, the bulbous plants holding insects within, cutting grass…a thousand things ready to slaughter you. Everyone remembered the Crelers—but even without them, the Bloodfields were dangerous.
Xeu though, was nowhere to be seen. Bird whirled to Pivr.
“Where is she?”
Pivr shrugged his wings.
“I do not know. Xeu is Silent Antinium. Her Queen would know.”
“You are unhelpful, Pivr.”
Bird twisted back, staring, but even his eyes couldn’t spot her amid the twilight. Fierre sniffed the breeze.
“I’m too far away to pick her out. Anyone else have better eyes? A Skill?”
Badarrow was squinting. Gna tried to pick up Xeu’s scent, but she had been odorless and Gna hadn’t detected her even when she was right next to the Antinium! The first sign of Xeu was when the Bloodfields abruptly moved. There was a flash—and one of the bulbous pods went pop. Everyone recoiled and heard distant thrumming.
Garia pointed in horror. Normen and the other Brother stared in shock as insects exploded out of one of the pods. They whirled around, having been disgorged from the trap-plant they’d infested by…what?
Xeu! The Silent Antinium became visible in a rending whirlwind of her scythe-arms. The little insects covered her, biting, trying to eat through her armor, but unlike flesh-beings, she was the superior insect.
“Dead gods, she’s slaughtering them!”
Sure enough, the swarm covered Xeu, and then fled. She scuttled around, the bag of holding attached to one limb, and then trotted back. Everyone stared as she appeared, covered in insect blood and bits, but unharmed.
She handed Fals a bag full of diced insects. He nearly dropped it. Rasktooth smacked his lips.
“Good extra. Make more fries.”
The others looked at him in horror. But the Antinium were all nodding. Good provisions. The bugs looked tasty.
“I am not eating from that pan again. Did you make that before this plate? Or after?”
Sergeant Gna nearly threw down her plate of stir-fry when she saw the Antinium’s version. It was roughly the same. Crispy meat, vegetables, all glazed with a sauce to keep it together—Rasktooth also had [Natural Seasonings]. The only difference was that instead of chewy, flat noodles, theirs were fried insects.
Garia turned pale as the plate was handed to Bird. Fals hurried to reassure the others, looking queasy.
“I made it all before that. That’s…are you really going to eat that?”
Bird looked up from stuffing his face. The Free Antinium were accepting plates as Rasktooth and another Cave Goblin handed them out with every sign of enjoyment.
“It’s bugs. I knew they were insect-people but—I’m going to be sick.”
“Oh, stop being such a baby.”
Fierre snapped at last, unable to put up with the Sergeant’s constant complaining. Gna twisted.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
“It’s just bugs! You’re not eating them! Chickens eat bugs all the time. We eat chickens. Bugs are in grain—have you never seen a grasshopper leg in some wheat? I bet you eat at least one per year!”
Fierre was not impressed by the bugs; she was a farm girl. Garia looked a bit queasy, but nodded.
Rather, it was the city-folk, Gna included, who looked pale. Normen muttered into his plate as he reached for a stiff drink instead of water.
“No offense to the Antinium. Fine gents I hear, Miss. But that’s not something I’ve ever seen. Never heard of regular folk eating bugs, myself.”
Salkis and the two Brothers exchanged looks. All the Goblins tittered. They were amused. The city-folk glanced at them.
“Not ever eaten bugs? Fat Humans, fat Drakes and Gnolls. Never been hungry! Rasktooth, give us plate of bugs! Non-Goblins eat the rest.”
Snapjaw waved, a challenge in her eyes. She offered the plate back for the noodle-portion and the other Goblins gave up theirs too, grinning. All but Badarrow, who kicked Snapjaw when she poked him.
“I hate bugs.”
Ulvama refused too, but the Goblin’s teasing still clearly rankled the others. Gna’s head turned for support…and found surprisingly little.
The two Brothers were with her, and Fals. Garia and Fierre didn’t object. However, Octavia didn’t blink twice at bugs.
“I use ‘em all the time in my alchemy. They’re in potions too. Also…Ceria eats them, you know. All the time. Even worms. Say, can I get any parts left over? I’ve never experimented with Bloodfields bugs…”
Rasktooth indicated a bowl of bits, in good humor. Octavia went over, and Numbtongue accepted a plate of bug-fry with resignation. But the dour [Bard] had a bit of his own humor in his eyes as he deliberately took a big forkful and crunched on a bite.
“Pretty good. Sour.”
“Needs more good sauce.”
Rasktooth added more sauce. The thing was—which none of the Goblins said—the thing was, bugs still tasted a bit worse than noodles unless your palate was aimed around them. Most bugs were bitter or sour, because they didn’t want to be eaten. Cows were apparently suicidal because they tasted good.
Even so, they grinned as they crunched, supplementing satisfaction for taste. The others stared—until Garia slapped her legs.
“Well—well, why not? Give me a forkful, Numbtongue!”
She rose to her feet, a challenge in her eyes. The others stared as she walked over. Numbtongue was merciful; he gave her a shell-portion, which crunched, but tasted mostly of the rest of the plate. Garia’s eyes watered, but she crunched it down, then lifted an arm up.
“It’s not…bad! Really, Fals!”
He looked horrified, but someone else lifted a claw.
“Why not? I’ve had raw meat. I’ll try one.”
Salkis, grinning again like it was an adventure, actually took a raw bug and after a moment of staring at it, bit off the head. She chewed, swallowed fast, but then tossed it down.
“Oh, so it’s a contest, is it? I can eat bugs. It’s happened in Liscor’s army. Give me that. I’ll just—”
Gna grabbed a centipede-thing, took a bite, gagged, and nearly threw up. Fals stared at her, lowered the fork he’d taken to try a bite, and refused.
Fierre had a bite too, mostly to see if insect-blood sated her thirst. It didn’t—or there wasn’t enough of it to help. The others chuckled or laughed, and the Antinium quietly noshed, watching the others trying their food.
“I am updating the Blood Fields as possible food source. It is not that dangerous, it seems, if food is abundant.”
Pivr opined to Xeu and Bird. The Silent Antinium rubbed her scythes together.
“Dangerous. Stalk-plants impale any Antinium. Can sense me.”
“How did you survive, Xeu?”
“I did not get close.”
“So Antinium eat bugs and they come in all forms. Goblins eat bugs, and half-Elves apparently. Strange. No one mentioned that. It’s cannibalism—sort of. And they’re all good in a fight?”
Salkis washed down the buggy bite with a drink. She was still getting her bearings. The others looked at the newcomer. All assumed that someone else knew her. Numbtongue shrugged. He counted.
“That one is good at fighting. Bird is. I, Badarrow, Snapjaw, and that one are best at fighting. Redfangs and [Chieftains]. Ulvama too, maybe. Garia can punch. You have enchanted daggers. Brothers are good. So…nine good fighters.”
He counted, and pointed at Xeu, much to Pivr’s dismay. The others stirred as Numbtongue counted them off.
“I know those two are good. Men with hats.”
“Brothers, Miss. I’m Normen, and this is Alcaz. At your service. Pleasure to be with you on this mission—heard you helped us out at the inn.”
Normen tipped his hat. So did Alcaz, the other man. A spluttering sound came from Salkis’ left.
“Wait a second! You forgot me!”
Sergeant Gna. Pivr raised a claw.
“And me. I am a Revalantor of—”
“We’re not bad fighters, Numbtongue. I’ve held my own in a fair number of scraps!”
Fals protested as well. Fierre also nodded.
“I survived the Archmage of Izril’s mansion with Ryoka!”
Numbtongue shrugged, unmoved by all but that last. He looked towards his bedroll and yawned.
“I said good fighters. Most can fight. Let’s sleep. We move tomorrow.”
He went to lie down. Someone threw a spoon at him.
Sergeant Gna. She was on her feet, glowering, eyes flashing.
“I’ve had enough of this, Goblin. I may not like coming along. I may have been ordered to come along, but I am a [Sergeant] in Liscor’s 4th Company. When we get into a scrap, you’d better listen to me because I—”
Numbtongue tossed the spoon back. He spoke over Pivr, who was also trying to state his credentials.
“I am a Level 35 [Bard].”
Gna choked on her tongue. Pivr fell silent. Xeu stared. Niers peeked out of his bag, grinning, and took another bite of his snack. He was damned if he’d live on bugs; he’d had a cookie he’d been eating all day. One cookie. It’d probably last him the next day too. He’d had a single noodle for dinner. Not bad eating.
Gna looked at Numbtongue, lost for words. Her paw twitched towards her side, instinctively. Salkis sat up and stared at Numbtongue, eyes glittering. The [Bard] looked around.
“Who else is over Level 30? Just raise your hands.”
He stared about. Fierre held her breath.
Level 30? It was rare to find anyone of Numbtongue’s level just hanging about. He could be a Gold-rank with that! Erin was even more exceptional. Of course, she was a Vampire, but she understood why he said what he did. There was no way—
Badarrow raised his hand, and Bird raised two of his, one for him, one for Niers. Then he lowered one hand because he remembered he was a [Liar]. Snapjaw raised a hand, and so did Ulvama.
Salkis was the last, and her eyes lit up as all gazes fell on her. Gna gaped.
Goblins with levels. The two Brothers touched their hats, and Normen muttered.
“Crimshaw should’ve been here.”
Octavia stared at the Goblins. One of them, a Redfang, folded her arms, but looked delighted at the representation. Numbtongue counted.
“Six. Good fighters.”
He rolled over.
“Go to sleep.”
Goblin dominance established, the others fell silent. Gna rolled over behind her rock, muttering, but subdued. The Antinium tucked themselves into their holes. Fierre rolled under a wagon and the Goblins fell asleep almost at once. They rested like that, and Octavia, who’d elected to sleep on top of the wagon, unsure why everyone wasn’t fighting for this space, reflected it wasn’t the worst first day.
There was tension, but they’d tried bugs, and it might work out.
The next day, the band of mostly not-Brothers except for the two who were, awoke. They packed up and struck camp early—Octavia snoozed through everything until they got moving. So did Salkis, and she just climbed into the wagon, muttering curses; she wasn’t used to rising like that either.
Even so, they were well underway when a commotion happened. The others slowed as Pivr came striding up the lines to Bird, who’d decided he’d try riding a horse for fun. He glided forwards, ‘hopping’ and flapping his wings to arrest his fall.
“Bird! Bird! This is an unprecedented event!”
Bird turned in his saddle. Pivr pointed back at Xeu, who was menacing a terrified worker with her scythes as the other Antinium gathered around.
Again, the column halted. Goblins turned, and even Snapjaw flew back when she saw what was happening. Gna tensed, unsure what new drama was occurring.
And here it was. Octavia saw one of the Workers who’d volunteered to come after Mrsha trembling, holding its pack and a simple spear and buckler. It carried a bow, but like the Goblins, the Antinium aside from Bird, Xeu, and Pivr were faceless.
Much like the Goblins, really. If you looked at the group, they were made up of the important, the over Level 30’s, and those like Fierre, who knew they were special.
On this great trip across Izril, some might live and some might die. The odds were it was the ones you didn’t know, the lowest-leveled ones who’d die. That was why Salkis grinned. That was why Normen and Alcaz said little. Some people had different expectations.
Most of all for the nameless Goblins and Antinium, some of whom couldn’t even claim to be over Level 10. If you wanted to name the group…
It was Numbtongue, bearing the ghosts of Reiss, Pyrite, and Shorthilt. Ulvama, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Salkis, Octavia, Garia, Fals, Fierre, Gna, Bird, Pivr, Xeu, Normen, Alcaz, Icecube…and that was about it. Then came the ‘Goblins’. Then the ‘Antinium’ as a whole.
There was Niers unseen, and if someone remembered her, a bee named Apista. The rest were the masses.
Or so you thought. The Worker was trembling as Pivr complained, loudly, to Bird.
“It is unsanctioned! It is unprecedented! Did you authorize this, Revalantor Bird?”
Pivr hesitated. Bird stared at him. Pivr fanned his wings.
“…Do you even know what it is I am referring to?”
“I authorized it. So you cannot complain, Pivr.”
“You did not. That is a lie, Bird. Name the issue.”
“…Then I will authorize it when I find out, and authorize it now but in the past so my authority was always there.”
Pivr’s mandibles clacked open and closed. Eventually, he turned around.
“That Worker! It has gained a new class!”
He pointed at said trembling Worker, who had a curious decoration on his chest. He was a Painted Worker, and he had chosen a strange, nonsensical symbol to represent himself. One he had gained from his visit to the inn. It was a sign that Kevin had been teaching Mrsha during math class, a strange inverted loop, combined with the Worker’s favorite food.
A pear, in the center of the sign for infinity.
Thus, he was Infinitypear. Bird tilted his head.
“What has Infinitypear gained?”
Pivr fanned his wings angrily.
“He is an [Adventurer]!”
The column stopped. They all looked at Infinitypear. An…[Adventurer]?
“You don’t mean Adventurer as in Bronze-rank Adventurer. You mean…”
The Worker looked at Octavia, then away. The [Alchemist] realized—he’d been listening to her.
We’re on an adventure. And he believed it. Of course he did. This was an adventure for a Worker. A grand adventure.
We may die. We may never come back. Yet…as Bird began to chuckle, then laugh, a little man in his pocket laughed too. The Goblins grinned.
We may die. Or we may rise. The band was this: It was Numbtongue, bearing the ghosts of Reiss, Pyrite, and Shorthilt. Ulvama, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Salkis, Octavia, Garia, Fals, Fierre, Gna, Bird, Pivr, Xeu, Normen, Alcaz, Icecube, Niers, Apista.
And the Goblin named Rasktooth. The [Adventurer] Antinium named Infinitypear.
[Adventurer Class Obtained!]
[Adventurer Level 3!]
[Skill – Find Roads Less Travelled obtained!]
[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Spear obtained!]
[Skill – Spirit of the Wild (Enhancement) obtained!]
Author’s Note: I feel as though I’ve kicked a white Gnoll. Or an entire tribe of them.
If there was ever a cursed chapter—it’s this edited one. Everything gets in the way. Case in point? Windows Update decided to delete core system files as I was just about to start working on the chapter.
…14 hours later, I ‘fixed’ it. My computer is a mess. All my files are there; nothing’s in the right place. Windows in its infinite wisdom deleted my Office files and replaced it with Microsoft 365, the most disgusting program I’ve ever seen.
I’m now using a new word program…that has none of my dictionary terms and keeps formatting my dialogue ‘properly’ by cramming it onto the same line.
I hate it all. I have written easier chapters while sick, injured, and with less than 4 hours of sleep.
Anyways, I was never in danger of losing key files; most everything is backed up including notes. I’m not a complete fool, but while I could have used a backup laptop or something, my computer is my setup and organization. It’s like…I could work from another room instead of my office, but I’m working in another room while watching my office burn down.
The point is the edited chapter is delayed. Blame Microsoft. I do. This chapter is probably shorter since I lost an entire day to technical issues. Bleh. Someone uncurse me.
The Wandering Inn – One Piece homage by Tnoz!
Yelroan and Let Me Inn by Brack!
Apista by Auspicious Octopi!