8.42

All things considered, he had been extraordinarily patient. To a reason; and he did believe reason was a tenet that should be held in high esteem. He did use logic, and patience was an inescapable part of that attitude.

There were reasons he had delayed. Wistram—the Earther connection—no, what he now dubbed the Earth connection. That was almost as pressing as the new, concerning narrative of Gnollish aggression.

“Gnollish aggression.”

He muttered it as he packed. Now there was a term that had little logic to it. People talked about the astonishing assaults, sackings of cities with Gnollish populations as the sparkpoint, like Cellidel, or the Woven Bladegrass tribe’s acrimonious approach and methods, and the bloodbath in the streets of Marwsh, and conflated all of the issues under a single umbrella.

As if they were one thing, not each with their own complex reasons and individual factions within the Gnollish population. It was the Meeting of Tribes. Comfortable people, people who might harbor anti-Gnollish sentiments from proximity or their own histories, or simply attitude, saw the might of the Gnolls gather every twenty years and they got jumpy.

They remembered times when Gnolls had brought down Walled Cities, and that, before the Antinium, things hadn’t been peaceful. Hence—Gnollish aggression.

He’d been dealing with idiotic notions of checking ‘Gnollish aggression’ here, as well as coordinating with Fissival’s representatives regarding the Earther situation. The problem was that Wistram was a lockbox, and the Academy of Mages was ahead of any of the Walled Cities by months and many Earthers.

What did they know? Were they enemies? Instinctively creating a zero-sum scenario was foolish. So was presuming Wistram would remain apolitical, especially with Grand Magus Eldavin in the equation.

“He does not seem like the same half-Elf I met.”

Questions without answers. Suppositions, pieces of the puzzle now found. However, key pieces he thought were constant were now gone.

Erin Solstice was dead. He was a practical Drake. He understood what ‘dead’ meant in this case, but he did not also think coming back to life was so easy.

Grimalkin of Pallass had too much to do. Too little time. Yet, as he packed a simple travelling kit—for both the exigencies of trade and strife—one thing motivated him.

His student. His apprentice. Yes, Earth. Yes, Gnollish politics and that missing child, Mrsha, and more.

However. The Drake grunted as his huge shoulders tried to relax, but the tension was cording his muscles. He felt like he’d been tensed for weeks.

“My apprentice is my responsibility. My student.”

Ferkr was missing. She had sent him two messages. One, telling him she had arrived at the Meeting of Tribes but few people credited her burgeoning magical talent as authentic, but she hoped to present herself to the Chieftains and a number of tribes.

The second, nearly four days later, a brief line.

 

I am sorry for disappointing you. I cannot be your apprentice any longer, Magus Grimalkin.

 

No context. Except when he heard that she had disavowed her magical ability, claimed to be a fraud that had tricked even him, and vanished.

Why? Grimalkin had no answers. She was nowhere to be seen, and he had faced both scrutiny and mockery in Pallass for his apprentice, as well as her family’s understandable worry.

Well, the Sinew Magus was calm. He calmly packed a backup wand into his bag of holding, a toothbrush, various supplements for nutrition he was trialling, quality potions, some basic magical gear—spell reagents, scrolls, blank and marked, magical tools like a Seeing Glass of Rheiw, which Troy and Leon had claimed was analogous to a ‘magnifying glass’ in their world, only specialized for magic—enough coin to avoid a trip to a Merchant’s Guild, two pairs of maps, three travelling books, a set of personal training weights, six sets of larger weights he hoped to trade or give to Gnollish tribes…

He was obviously using a Chest of Holding, a small one, along with his bag of holding. He would have to either carry it to a carriage or rent a horse. Probably carriage. He couldn’t justify a Pegasus flight, even if Oteslia were not under siege. This was a personal errand.

Oh, and a few more objects in his personal bag of holding. Three lead-silver orbs, shot puts, weighing exactly six point four pounds. Grimalkin had no idea about the Earth-based game. These were small, designed to be tossed through a magical barrier and through someone’s skull.

He was not intending on violence, especially in the Meeting of Tribes. This was simple, sensible self-defense equipment for a Drake confident in his hand-to-hand capabilities. He was just going to ask some questions regarding his apprentice’s disappearance.

If he didn’t like the answers, he would calmly break some bones.

The Sinew Magus was nearly done when he heard a rapping on the door. He sighed, pinched at his snout, similar to how Humans did it with their curious noses.

Come in.

It was not his apprentices; he had given them notice of his leave. It was going to be…Grimalkin heard the clack of a separate object along with two feet on his floor.

“Grand Strategist Chaldion.”

The withered Drake with his cane walked in, although he might have taken a transport even this short way. Dignity made him walk in, alone. Grimalkin appraised Chaldion. He had expected this.

“Magus Grimalkin. A word.”

Chaldion did not ask. Grimalkin kept packing as he picked up a letter. To Lady Pryde Ulta, informing her of a slight delay in their correspondence. He had a sheaf of contacts to inform via copied [Message] spell, but she was deserving of a personal missive.

Of course, Chaldion’s one good eye focused on that. Grimalkin knew that Chaldion probably had all of his correspondence monitored. The Cyclops of Pallass knew everything. So he had known what Grimalkin was doing.

In truth, Grimalkin had expected a [General], [Senator], or a fellow [Mage] of Pallass to be here. It did not matter.

“I have time for a word, Grand Strategist, but it will be for two minutes at most. I am headed out of the city and I will not delay myself.”

“To head to the Meeting of Tribes? Are you fully recovered?”

Grimalkin flexed his pectorals, grimacing. He’d torn them after being thrown into Liscor, much like he could throw a weight himself. Belavierr the Stitch Witch. Lacking information about her, however…

“Perfectly, Grand Strategist. And no, I do not intend to debate my leave of absence. I have perfect dispensation to do so, and will not entertain reasons to stay. I am aware of the risks, my position, and events occurring, so if you will see yourself out…? The door will lock when you depart.”

He tossed the last few objects into his pack. An illustration of Ferkr, the latest notes on Raskghar, his passport, and turned to go. Of course, he didn’t expect Chaldion to relent that easily.

Sure enough, the Grand Strategist, sometimes a companion at Tails and Scales, which Grimalkin was happy to hear had reopened, didn’t move. His one eye was sapphire today.

Magical clairvoyance? Paranoid about watchers? Wistram having Eldavin would invite that. Can he bypass even our detections, our protocols with [Message] spells? Grimalkin would ponder it en-route. He reached for a notepad, but checked the motion.

“Excuse me, Grand Strategist.”

“Sit down, Magus Grimalkin. We must discuss your journey.”

Grimalkin strode past Chaldion, towards the door.

“I’m sure you would like to. I, however, do not intend to be swayed. Therefore—”

“Magus Grimalkin, there is something we must discuss. Halt.”

This time, the order had the force of a Skill and the aura of command behind it. Grimalkin’s hand rested on the doorknob. He hated aura Skills. He’d been bested by them against Magnolia Reinhart.

However, Chaldion was one Drake, not three, and auras were not the purview of [Strategists] by and large. Grimalkin swung the door open. Then stopped.

“Magic-Captain Grimalkin Duveig. This is an order of the Grand Strategist of Pallass. Sit down.”

Grimalkin of Pallass turned. He looked back. Then he glanced ahead.

The thing about [Strategists] you could like or dislike was this: the good ones never took chances or fights they couldn’t win if they didn’t have to. General Duln stood, arms folded, politely taking his leisure with 1st Army’s personal guard.

Grimalkin saw the Dullahan nod at him. Slowly, he closed the door. He walked back to Chaldion, who had found his living room. He sat down.

Ah. Something unexpected. Grimalkin sat there, perched, looking at Chaldion and not hiding his annoyance. Not for long. Chaldion’s first words had him out of his seat and walking.

“You do not take hints well when you put your mind to it, Sinew Magus. I had hoped you would be more sensible.”

Grimalkin walked back and forth. He tried to keep his tail from lashing.

“Sensible. My apprentice, as you well know, has been coerced into lying about her class and levels. My reputation is at stake. There is a conspiracy, Grand Strategist. This could implicate a much larger event in the Meeting of Tribes. Strategically, personally, there is every reason to go—”

“Magus Grimalkin. You are not debating with me. I said, sit down. I am not speaking to you as anything but the Grand Strategist of Pallass. Do you understand?”

Grimalkin turned. Chaldion fixed him with one mortal eye, one glowing one.

“Sit down. Do not speak.”

Again, the giant Drake sat. Something…his eyes flickered to Chaldion’s face, to the door. The old Drake sighed. He felt at his own bag of holding, realized he lacked it, and coughed.

“Water.”

Grimalkin got up, pointed, and summoned a pitcher of purified water. He poured it, silently. Chaldion took a gulp.

“I am well aware of your apprentice and your personal…enthusiasm for your kind of magic, Magus Grimalkin. You taking Ferkr as an apprentice was one thing. Sending her to the Meeting of Tribes, another. Do you recall that I strongly hinted to you not to do this?”

Grimalkin vaguely recalled, but he had ignored it, along with some of Chaldion’s suggestions.

“You did not order me.”

“No, because ordering someone presents a narrative. Now, be quiet. You have stubbornly refused every opportunity. Leading our own search for these Earth-children. Searching for the Stitch Witch. Expanding your school to become an actual academy—and there is motivation at this time, the very thing you want! You are stubborn, intelligent, and loyal to Pallass. Everything this city needs.”

He coughed, despite drinking from the water. Grimalkin said nothing. Chaldion glared at him as his claw tightened on the cup of water. He was not noticeably worse than some times in his life, when Grimalkin truly thought it was Chaldion’s last year. He was old, though. Grimalkin suspected…

“You are not going to the Meeting of Tribes. You will disavow your apprentice. You will not inquire into the matter further.”

The Sinew Magus stirred.

“I refuse, Grand Strategist.”

“This is not up for debate. This is an order. An order, Sinew Magus, from your commanding officer.”

“I—”

This is an order, from the top member of Pallass’ military. Do you understand?

Chaldion snapped. Grimalkin’s posture straightened further, if possible.

“Yes, sir.”

In silence, Chaldion drank, coughed a last time, and spoke.

“I am going to inform you as to why. You may object. You may think what you wish. This is because I know you will ferret around if I don’t tell you something. You will never tell another soul.”

Grimalkin’s stony silence said volumes. Now, his mind was working into overdrive. But it kept running into a problem. He could leave the city, the Eyes of Pallass or not—the spy force they kept, like every Walled City. He could disobey.

They’d strip him of his rank. This was a military order with no less than the Grand Strategist behind it. Grimalkin could be found in violation of military law. He…listened, with such intensity that his muscles trembled.

“I took over this position from the last Grand Strategist of Pallass. There is information even the [Generals] of Pallass, let alone the Assembly of Crafts, have no idea about. You are privy to the security meetings. To a degree of information about the Antinium, our enemies, plans, that few people in this city have. You do not know a tenth of what I do. Old plans. All of which, foolish, successful, revealed or not, are to keep this city, our continent, safe.

No response. Grimalkin’s eyes narrowed fractionally. Chaldion tapped his cane on the ground.

“Pallass makes many plans. I keep some running. I put others into motion. I have to live…live long enough to sort out this business with another world. And the Antinium. And make sure some plans do not come back to bite our tail. That is why you are not leaving for the Meeting of Tribes. That would be…a complication. And our allies will not suffer your presence. Do you understand?”

Grimalkin’s eyes flickered. Oh, he did. Pieces of a puzzle he’d worked on for nigh fourteen years now, suspicions, contradictions in a popular narrative, fit together in that one moment of perfect clarity.

Rather than a glorious insight, however—he stood.

Chaldion. If what you are saying is absolutely true—”

“Don’t grandstand with me, Grimalkin! Sit back down!”

The Grand Strategist snapped. He waited until the Drake was sitting, shaking with emotion. Chaldion glared. Then he sighed.

“Plans made. Plans executed before I was Grand Strategist. You will not jeopardize them. Open your school, Sinew Magus. I will have someone issue a statement if you don’t care to. Good day to you.”

He stood up. Grimalkin did too.

“What about Ferkr?”

“She will come back to Pallass. I will make some kind of provision for her. To set up a new life, or simply be forgotten. It was a small incident.”

“She worked for two years. She sweat blood and tears—her reputation if I make a statement, her future—”

Chaldion turned his head. Grimalkin expected a glare, the famous one-eyed stare that had reduced grown [Senators] to tears. The all-seeing sapphire, carved eye in the scarred socket, the orange scales faded to grey on the hunched Drake, all made him look like what he was: one of the oldest military leaders of the Drakes.

Yet Grimalkin got no glare. No anger. Nor any guilt. Chaldion’s one good eye, which was a faded, deep blue trending to violet, just fixed Grimalkin with a…look. A look that was so blank as to be terrifying.

If there was anything in that gaze, it was irritation. Yes, the eyes told the Sinew Magus. Yes, you are factually, actually correct in everything you’ve said. So what?

Why are you wasting my time?

The old Drake spoke slowly, as if trying to put a two-piece puzzle together for Grimalkin.

“Magus Grimalkin. You once lectured an [Innkeeper] about the value of perspective. Pallass is a Walled City. She is one young Gnoll. Now. My business here is concluded.”

He walked to the door. Grimalkin watched as the Drake walked outside, murmured to Duln, and vanished. He had seldom been without words to say. He strode to the door, to—

To do what? Grimalkin had a fist clenched. Magic-Captain Grimalkin, in his beloved city, stood there. He looked around, at a recently-commissioned anatomical diagram. He spun, fist raised—

He didn’t put his claw through it, or the wall. He didn’t kick anything. What was the point? No logic to breaking something.

Logic. Grimalkin saw it. He needed a book, no, an encyclopedia of tribes, a history book, a timeline…he could do that.

But what was the point? The Sinew Magus sat there. Head blank. He did not leave for the Meeting of Tribes.

He had orders. It only occurred to Grimalkin later, as he was unpacking, that Chaldion had pulled rank as Grand Strategist of Pallass. A rank almost without equal. However…it begged a question.

Was it just Pallass?

How high did the orders go?

 

——

 

He had not lied to her. That was what she found terrifying, now. Mrsha held onto the scaled claw, eyes wide. The Drake loosely holding her paw hadn’t moved. His eyes were wide, his painted, red scales shining.

Not by daylight. Not by evening’s light, or moonlight. By [Light] spells. Mrsha heard a familiar alarm, in this city, so much like Liscor.

Tesy! Mrsha! Get on!

A figure ran towards them, with three stolen horses in tow. Mrsha saw Vetn riding towards them. She saw him realize she wasn’t fit to ride one, and grabbed her. Tesy had to be shaken until he climbed into a saddle. They raced out the gates amid a terrified crowd, shouting [Guards]. Behind them, the city was chaos.

Another city fell, thanks to Sellme being there. But it was wrong to blame the [Magical Painter]. Mrsha looked back and heard howling. She felt her fur stand up. Yet those weren’t Raskghar. They were Gnolls.

Gnolls.

It had been so quick. First, it had been happy. A huge relief! They saved her, right when she was about to die.

The Drake with white scales and a brush that could paint fake doorways in walls, create a pit by artfully painting it on the street. Tesy, or Sellme, as he was known.

And the other Gnoll, the long-legged, fast sprinter. Vetn, or as they called him, the Thief of Clouds. Two famous individuals who actually knew each other. Who, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, were actually friends. It was thanks to Sellme that the Thief of Clouds had his iconic name.

By chance and luck, Vetn and Tesy had seen when Wer and Mrsha were cornered. He stole her right out of the clutches of the Doomslayers, the Plain’s Eye hunters. At first, Mrsha just shook with relief, as they hid with his Skill and saw the Gnolls fleeing Marwsh, having lost her trail.

Vetn, Vetn, you mad Gnoll!

Tesy squeaked as the young Gnoll collapsed, covered in sweat. He’d outrun horses, he was so fast! Mrsha saw Tesy peek up at the Gnolls—right until the [Thief] yanked his friend down by the tail.

“Don’t be stupid, Tesy! My Skill’s not perfect—those are Doomslayers!”

“Doom-what? They were about to kill this kid! In cold blood! They stabbed a [Guard]…just like that.”

The [Painter] was shaken. Vetn just gulped air.

“I thought you hated Boots.”

“Well, yes, but—that was attempted murder! And killing children? What was that? Hey, are you alright?”

Mrsha was frantically searching for her notepad and quill, but she’d dropped the notepad. She tried to sign, and saw Tesy blankly staring at her.

I am Mrsha!

“What’s she waving her arms around for? Are you okay, kid?”

Vetn raised his head. He saw Tesy looking blankly at Mrsha opening and closing her mouth and doing an ‘X’ with her arms. She hopefully made a basic sign with her paws.

“Looks like [Rogue]-talk, Tesy.”

“What’s that?”

“Hand-signs. Can you say something?”

“Apparently not. Hey! What’s that? You want this?”

Tesy blinked as Mrsha reached for his brush. He recoiled, but then handed it to her and let her draw on the grass. It was a beautiful paintbrush and felt magical to Mrsha.

 

I Mrsha. I cnnot tlk! Thnk u fr sving me.

 

She had to abbreviate because drawing on grass was hard. But Tesy and Vetn got the message. Vetn pulled out a spare roll of parchment and saved Mrsha the trouble of communicating via grass-paint and pantomimes.

“Mrsha? She is the girl who was kidnapped! That didn’t look like a rescue, though.”

Tesy. She’s a white Gnoll. They weren’t rescuing her! I knew that Drake had no idea what she was doing.”

“Why? She’s a white Gnoll. I’m a white Drake. Until I color my scales. So what?”

Albinism didn’t mean the same thing across species, clearly. Mrsha had never seen Tesy, with his white scales with just the faintest hint of color, but it was just natural. White Gnolls on the other hand…

“It means she’s lost her tribe or was outcast. It’s a death-sentence among the tribes. Once they find you, you’re dead. They’ll attack you even if you flee continents. I grew up in the tribes, Tesy. They’re serious.”

“That’s crazy. Why?”

“They bring doom. That’s the rumor. Doombringers. One of them hangs around and Crelers attack, or a volcano erupts or a sinkhole swallows your entire tribe. Apparently it’s happened before. I don’t know. I’m not an expert. Listen, little girl. Was that your friend back there?”

He meant Wer. Mrsha nodded. Tesy inhaled.

“That Gnoll? Is he alive?”

“I don’t know. We can’t go back into the city. It’s on high-alert, see?”

Marwsh was indeed going insane with noise and activity. Their army was marching out the gates, following the Gnolls. Vetn shook his head.

“If he’s alive, I hope he’ll run. We can’t get back in. Well, I could, but what would I do? Maybe I could check—but we have to move.

Tesy spoke with experience.

“Don’t bother. If they’ve got him, he’s safer. If not—they’ve locked down the streets. Martial law. You’ll just stand out. Let’s make tracks, Vetn. Hey, Mrsha, right? Don’t worry. You’re safe with us! This is Vetn, and I’m Tesy. I suppose we should tell her who we are, Vetn.”

“What? Why?”

The Gnoll [Thief] recoiled, but Tesy looked askance.

“She’s already seen your abilities! And they even shouted your name. Besides, she can’t talk.”

“She can write.

“Don’t worry. She’s on the run, so she’s one of us. Use logic, Vetn.”

“I don’t think you know what logic is.”

However, they introduced themselves as Vetn pointed and led the way through the grasslands. It was only then that Mrsha realized she was in the company of two seasoned criminals. The Thief of Clouds, and Sellme.

Since she knew Wilovan and Ratici, Mrsha considered herself safe as thieves…literally. Tesy was shorter than most Drakes she knew who were adults, and he was chatty. Vetn was more reserved, but he was always shifting his weight, even when standing still. They were both young males, but high-level!

“Vetn and I are famous for defying the order of Walled Cities. I paint truth on the walls and he steals from the powerful.”

And gives to the poor?

Mrsha was excited because she knew all about Robin Hood from Erin’s stories. Tesy hesitated and Vetn coughed.

“Uh. No. Tesy’s the one with a big plan to end the Watch and change everything. I just steal things.”

From power. You shake the foundations of those rich, greedy, corrupt people with all the power who make terrible laws.”

“…Sure? Wait, does this shake the foundations of power?”

Vetn offered Mrsha something. She sniffed it and realized it was a Prelon. She took the fruit he’d snatched. Tesy hesitated.

“Why are you stealing from fruit stands?”

“I’m hungry.”

“But you can pay for it. Vetn—

“Don’t ‘Vetn’ me. This is why we don’t collaborate anymore, Tesy. One of the reasons.”

The two gave each other long looks and Tesy’s tail thrashed in the grass. Vetn turned back to Mrsha.

“What are we going to do about her, anyways? First you nearly get caught at Cellidel, next this.”

“We could take her back home? Arrange for transport back to Liscor? I have friends.”

“Maybe. But I want a Thief’s Oath she doesn’t tell anyone.”

“You’re the one who saved her. Come on, Vetn. We’re heroes! Explain to me about the tribes. Mrsha, can you walk?”

She proudly strode along after them, and lifted up a message for them to read.

I can, thank you! Can you take me to Liscor? Or my mother? Wer the Gnoll who saved me wanted to take me to Salazsar, but I just don’t want to be caught! And killed.

Vetn rubbed at his fur, muttering.

“Where’s your mother? Oteslia? Maybe? Oteslia, Salazsar, and Liscor. They’re all far away. Although Oteslia and Salazsar are closer…ish. I’m not heading through the Bloodfields. Let’s think on it once we get somewhere safe.”

“It’s just horrendous. No one told me white Gnolls were killed on sight! Do they think white-scaled Drakes are evil, too? I should raise awareness. But how would I convey that? There aren’t any walls in the tribes!”

Sellme was already thinking of a way to combat this new injustice. The Thief of Clouds was more concerned with the immediate. He made them stop, and went racing across the grasslands, up a hill, and back, so fast that even Wanderer would have been stunned.

So fast!

Mrsha admiringly pointed to him. Tesy gave her the smile of someone who was uniquely proud on behalf of someone else. He swept his neck spines back with one claw and fiddled with his paintbrush and his own artbook.

“He is, isn’t he? He can outrun Couriers, and he’s stolen Relic-class artifacts. Mind you, he spends it like water. Not much on himself, either! He and I sort of met when I was painting and he was running from the Watch. He’s one of the few good people in Izril, you know. Someone who sees the corruption in the cities.”

Mrsha eyed Tesy. She caught onto his motif within the first ten minutes of meeting him. However, he wasn’t bad. He talked constantly about the corrupt Watch, which Mrsha had little experience with, but she did know about bad, power-hungry people.

Like Lism. And Agnes! And uh…uh…Pawn. That mother-stealing, cookie-thrifty Antinium. But of course, what stood out about Tesy was his amazing, just superlative ability to do two things:

Draw fast. And draw accurately.

There was a difference in art that Mrsha realized in meeting Tesy. Speed and accuracy-to-life were qualities that were good! But not always necessary. Tesy was amazing at those two things, but he wasn’t much for outrageous, incredible style.

His wall-drawings could be caricatures, but when he drew a door, it looked exactly like a door. In a sense, his art was valuable as much for its performative and utility aspects as the art itself, if not more so.

He could still draw good art that wasn’t just copied-life, but it took him a lot more work to translate what was imaginary, not replicable. For instance, he had a page open in his artbook and he was sketching with a stick of charcoal instead of painting right away.

It was Vetn. Much like he was as he ran back, angled in a sprinter’s run, fur blowing back, eyes alight, his beautiful dark fur alight with the patches of color, his muscular physique still contriving towards lean athleticism rather than Relc’s muscles. His handsome face—

Mrsha stared at Tesy as the Drake sat, then peeked over the artbook at Vetn. Ah. Now this was what you called artistic license. Not that Vetn wasn’t any of these things, but Tesy was contriving to make his friend look even better than reality.

“Do you like it?”

Tesy grinned, a bit abashed, as he saw Mrsha watching. He flipped through the artbook.

“This is my secret weapon. I can recreate some of the drawings. The painted ones. See? Here’s the brick wall. And here’s a pond…I’d show you more, but I’m almost out of paint for the day. Magical pigments, that is. I can only do it so often.”

Mrsha nodded. She saw quite a number of Vetn’s sketches. Children, friends, places from other cities that Tesy liked…Relc…

She slapped Tesy’s knee so hard the Drake yelped.

Ow! What?”

Mrsha frantically pointed. Go back! Go back! She stared. There was no mistaking the [Spearmaster] caught practicing via the light of the day, sweat running off his scales, spear whirling around. Tesy had made it almost like a photograph, and Mrsha stared at Relc. Relc! How had Tesy met him?

“Oh, this one? This is of a Senior Guardsman. I thought he was a friend, an ally, even, but…he’s still against us. Bastard ran me out of that city. I hope he trips on his stupid spear, the—”

Mrsha’s eyes narrowed. She gave Tesy a flying kick to the crotch, a move she had learned stopped even bigger Gnoll kids dead on the playground.

“Looks clear. The Gnolls are heading off. Tesy, what are you doing?”

Vetn trotted back as Tesy lay, eyes streaming, on the ground. He picked Mrsha up as she furiously kicked at his shins.

 

——

 

There was a lot to talk about. On the way to another city, Tesy and Mrsha learned about each other’s pasts. They were astounded by the shared connection.

“So he’s actually decent? From Liscor? But he—”

Mrsha raised her [Relc Punch] and Tesy backed behind Vetn. The Gnoll [Thief] grumbled as they rode down the trade road. He’d had to pay for the horses, but it kept the other two moving at his pace.

“Looks like this is your fault after all, Tesy. You can pay me back.”

“Vetn, you’re too stingy. I don’t have much money…”

“Then help me on a heist.”

“Only if you uh…okay. That’s actually fine. Where are we headed?”

“Just some Drake city. I thought Ustel…”

“Not Ustel. How about Lellwickee? Since Marwsh is up in flames, I can talk to some of my friends.”

“Oh, great. Your [Anarchist] buddies? Let’s not.”

“Come on, Vetn! Maybe they can help us get Mrsha back to Liscor? They’re loyal to the cause, fearless, and good people.”

“No they’re not.”

The two argued with old familiarity. Not like an old couple, though. Old couples were still couples and stayed together despite pet peeves. Vetn and Tesy clearly had differences, even though they were friends.

It was like Klbkch and Relc, to Mrsha’s eyes, but with an added layer of complications she couldn’t parse.

Anyways, they got into Lellwickee with no real issue. For several reasons: firstly, Mrsha was not a lone Gnoll kidnapped by someone of Wer’s vague description. Tesy did the talking and the gate guards didn’t even look twice at the blonde Gnoll girl. Or the Grade-1 passport both she and Vetn carried.

That was all Tesy. He’d also given himself rosy red scales, a very flattering look, all with the power of paint. Mrsha had been worried it would be annoying, but like Wer’s dye, Tesy had too many Skills.

“I’m going to lie down. I’m tired. Where are we staying?”

“The Outrageous Hairpin. That’s our meeting place. Just don’t steal anything while I’m gone. Are you going to meet with…your friends?”

“Just don’t paint anything while I’m asleep. And I don’t know. I’d have to see if they’re in this city.”

Curious. Curious. Mrsha turned from Tesy to Vetn, but neither elaborated. They were tired from being on the road, so once they got to the inn, Tesy greeted a gang of young Drakes and Gnolls with delight and Vetn grumbled before heading upstairs. He rented three whole rooms; he might be upset about the cost, but there was no way he was sharing a bed.

It was a mark of the two’s age that they did the thing neither Wer nor any of Mrsha’s travelling companions had done. They completely forgot to ‘mind’ Mrsha. Neither asked if she brushed her teeth, or had a bath, or if she was hungry.

That suited Mrsha just fine. She jumped on her bed a bit, then wandered downstairs.

“Something to eat? Of course. Say, Tesy, this isn’t that missing Gnoll, is she? She writes and everything!”

Tesy jumped as a friendly Gnoll [Barmaid] shouted. Mrsha was worried, but Tesy turned and gave her an easy laugh.

“Her? She’s just a cousin of Vetn’s. Her throat’s all sore. Anyways, look at her fur!”

So Mrsha got a piping hot bowl of very lovely noodles with a meaty sauce and listened in as Tesy introduced her to his friends. This was an inn of allies. Or at least, the [Barmaid] was ‘one of them’.

Who ‘they’ were, and what an ally was, was apparently anyone who believed the Drake cities were rife with corruption. Who saw that Gnolls were discriminated against! Who believed in exposing it.

[Rebels]. [Anarchists]. [Dissidents]. It was a second, hidden class. Sometimes they organized; their best knew Tesy as his real identity and went with him to help overturn cities. Others just gave shelter, information, a bit of coin if they could.

It was amazing to Mrsha because she had never heard of this movement! But Sellme had never gone to Liscor; it was literally off his radar. He was concerned with the Drake Izril, and Liscor was the back end of nowhere, being so far north.

That made Mrsha a bit indignant, but the [Anarchists] were friendly. They ruffled her fur, gave her some of their food, and played cards and drank.

“So, is Sellme going to stay long? I heard there’s a Drake keeping [Slaves], Tesy.”

“What?”

The rosy-scaled Drake looked up from his hand of cards. Mrsha stared at them, then folded. The others did likewise. Tesy’s expression instantly turned thunderous.

“I’m sort of busy, Vaugh. But tell me! I don’t want to cause a fuss, but…”

“It’s all over the place where I work. The Cleaner’s Guild. [Slaves]. From Chandrar. Even a Drake!”

“And the city’s leadership lets him do it?”

“She’s a corrupt [Mayor]. They all are. He’s rich. Come on, Tesy. One painting? I even have a wall for you. We can cause a diversion.”

The Drake bit his lip.

“I don’t know. Mr—Mri’s here, and so Vetn and I promised I’d lay low. I’ve got heat on me after Cellidel.”

The others egged him on, drunk on literal wine and excitement now this famous rebel was among them. Some were Tesy’s friends, others had the high honor of meeting him and knowing who he was.

“Come on, Tesy! You-know-who doesn’t fear the Watch! We’re with you!”

“Are you really going to turn a blind eye to the [Slaves]? We’re ready to go, Tesy. We’ve been training. We can hit the Watch and get them liberated within the week! Within three days!”

They had slings, knives, and alchemical weapons. Tricks to fight the ‘boots’. Tesy squirmed, but in the face of all the eagerness…he turned to ‘Mri’.

“I won’t be long. You stay here. Just tell Vetn I’m out for a bit if he wakes up.”

Mrsha watched him go, vaguely feeling like this might be a mistake, but she was high on the feeling of being among the company of high-level professionals. Wer had been good and all, but he’d been on the lam. Tesy and Vetn felt free!

…A bit too free? When Vetn woke up, past midnight, and slouched down to bother the [Barmaid] on night-shift for food, he stared at Mrsha as if he had no idea why she was here. Then he groaned.

“Oh yeah. You’re here. Maybe one of Tesy’s friends can help you get home?”

Not he himself? Mrsha was hurt. But then Tesy came back, laughing, and word of Sellme’s latest painting began to spread and Vetn was upset.

“You’re making my job harder! And uh, Mri’s here!”

“Come on, Vetn. I’ll go with you to your event.”

The [Anarchists] didn’t know Vetn, and regarded him with a bit of wariness. He looked at them with clear disinterest.

“Pass if it’s your friends. I’ll check. So are we staying? How’s she getting to Salazsar, or Oteslia or Liscor?”

“Dunno. I’ll think on it tomorrow. I’m out for bed!”

Mrsha sat there as Vetn rubbed at his face, then turned to her.

“I’m going out to check on something. Be back in a bit.”

And they left her there. The [Barmaid] was the one to show Mrsha to her room, give her a glass of milk. Mrsha realized no one had told her to brush her teeth, so she did it herself. Then she went to sleep.

 

——

 

No one woke her up, either. Tesy was out, and Vetn had gone back to bed. Mrsha had breakfast, then sat, wondering if they had a plan.

They did not. Vetn and Tesy met over late breakfast, as Sellme’s painting was all over the city. Vetn was annoyed, Tesy clearly proud of his work, which featured the objectionable [Slave Owner] with a Drake with a collar—and trying to put one on a passerby.

It was already causing waves of discontent. And neither had even thought about Mrsha.

“Uh…uh…we’ll think about it tonight. Vetn, is there…?”

“Can’t tell. I’m going to scope out the city and see if there’s anything worth looking at.”

“Well, I’ll find out if there’s more to do. Some of the others are going to see if they can force that monster out of their home and free those poor people. You want to come, Mri?”

Mrsha looked at them. She had a thought. But she wasn’t sure if she should voice it. So she wrote, and held up a message.

I would like to tell my Mother I am safe. Can you help me?

Tesy and Vetn exchanged looks.

“Sure! She doesn’t know? Do you know where she is? I guess I can do it. Do you want to, Vetn?”

“Sure. The Mage’s Guild is on my list.”

That was how Mrsha found herself going to the Mage’s Guild as Vetn posed as her older brother. The [Scribe] didn’t bat an eyelid. He just took down a simple message for Lyonette.

Mrsha was a bit worried. Vetn had given her the blankest of looks when she asked if she should disguise where she was or something. He didn’t know, so she sent the following to Lyonette of Oteslia:

 

Salutations to Lionette du Solstice,

By the Eternal Throne, greetings! Or should I not swear by that? It is I, your humble little friend, by blood deferred, of Calanfer. Me! Mri! I know you have inquired after my health, and posthaste too, given the dire straits left to our friend of mutual acquaintance. However, I must inform you I am well.

Some complications have emerged, but I assure you I was not abducted and fully plan to rendezvous with you in time. Yet a pressing suitor is after me, and I must decline his invitations. I am simply well, and I hope to see you soon. Much love,

—Mri

 

She was super-proud of that. Vetn had no idea what it meant, and he grumbled over the cost.

“What does blood-deferred mean?”

Mrsha gave him an indignant look. It was obvious if you knew Terandrian expressions among the aristocracy and royal class. It meant she wasn’t technically of the bloodline, but since she was Lyonette’s daughter, she might qualify as a [Princess] of Calanfer! If the crown accepted her. Otherwise she was an [Illegitimate Heir] at best, but Mrsha wouldn’t mind that class.

Vetn gave her the look of someone who wished he’d had his morning tea.

“You actually know Terandrian lineages and whatnot? You’re something. You remind me of me when I was a kid…no, wait. You don’t. You remind me of someone else when they were young. Smart. Say, maybe she can help us with you needing to get places.”

All was going well, in short. Mrsha wanted to wait for a reply, but Vetn wanted to go off and he was at least conscious enough to drop her at the inn. Mrsha debated slipping outside, but before she could do so, or he could leave on his mysterious business, it happened.

“Hey. There’s a riot already at the gates.”

Tesy looked up from a lunch, frowning. Mrsha even heard the first horn blaring.

“Already? Why the gates? We’ve been stirring up trouble at the mansion, but the gates?”

“Maybe it’s relatives. Come see!”

Everyone went, even Vetn, frowning. He muttered to Tesy.

“My [Advanced Dangersense] is going off.”

“Really? Well, let’s stay back, then. Don’t worry. We’ve got a good group of fighters. Even if the Boots come out in force, it won’t b—”

And then they saw it. Mrsha, holding Tesy’s claw, saw the [Anarchists], ready to join in on behalf of the citizens, stop. They looked ahead as a Gnoll came through the gates, joining a throng of fighting Gnolls. Some were on the battlements.

They were armed, had glowing paint on their fur, and they were killing the Watch.

Not fighting. Not brawling. Not throwing things. They had weapons, and they were tearing through the unprepared City Watch. More were advancing into the city, sniffing, shouting.

Doom! Somewhere! I don’t have her scent, but I have the Drake’s. Spread out! Chief Warrior, go!

A familiar Gnoll and the biggest group yet advanced past the fighting, ignoring the screaming civilians. Tesy saw Vetn and Mrsha looking at him. Wer had already shown Mrsha how to hide her scent and Vetn was the Thief of Clouds.

“But I just drew…”

Sellme. They had come for Sellme. Not because they cared about his drawings, but because he was where she was.

Doom. Mrsha saw Vetn move first, again, breaking out of the horror. He pointed.

“The south gates. Move! I’ll find horses!”

 

——

 

And then they were here. Wer hadn’t lied. Mrsha fled with Tesy and Vetn as another city burned. Not literally, but the Gnolls had been tracking them through the streets. They missed catching Tesy only because Vetn had doused him in scent-killer. But they were right on their heels, and from this spot, they’d be tracking any city nearby, searching for new arrivals, prevailing on Gnolls in the city who believed in their ways, allying with local tribes…

It sunk in to Vetn and Tesy as they rode. They looked back at Mrsha, and really looked at her. A little Gnoll girl, hunted across Izril. Vetn had known, but this?

“Two Drake cities. They just walked in and…why do they hate her so much? One Gnoll?

“It’s the Plain’s Eye tribe. They hate them more than anything in the world. Trust me. Other tribes wouldn’t go this far. But Plain’s Eye? I think there’s a reason. I don’t know. I left when I was young.”

Vetn stared back at the city. Tesy was looking back. The [Anarchists] had fled, to protect their homes. He turned to Vetn.

“My friends don’t fight warriors. Not like that. We can hide out with them, maybe. But—do you know where to go?”

“A Thieves’ Guild might give her up.”

“No. Come on.

Vetn shrugged, matter-of-factly.

“Depends on the price. Listen. Tesy. This is…too big. I don’t know where to take her. Oteslia, Salazsar? We might not make it to either. But I do know who might help out. She’s nearby. Maybe…”

Tesy ran a claw, trembling, Mrsha noticed, down his neck spines. He looked at Vetn, and some composure returned.

“Her? She’s not always an ally…”

“Tesy—just shut up. She’s never turned you in, not once. She gives you money, and she’d know a safe place if there’s one in a local city. If you don’t want to—”

“Okay, okay. Yes! Let’s go. Come on, Mrsha. We’re going to a friend.”

A friend of Tesy and Vetn? And also a safe place, apparently. Vetn sped ahead. He needed to check where she was, but any Mage’s Guild or Merchant’s Guild or local gossiper could tell him. That was how Mrsha found herself heading along a route no one could predict.

Not her worried mother. Not her pursuers. Not even Plain’s Eye.

 

——

 

They were the best of times, and the worst—no, wait. They were just the best of times.

The Meeting of Tribes had gotten off to a big start, with festivities, games, activities, reunions, and spectacle. Now, nearly two months in…

It was pretty much still going strong. Lehra woke up one day, dangling foot-first from a rope, still drunk, and had no idea what had happened.

“Cliff jumping. You kept insisting it was ‘your turn’ because you forgot you did it last time.”

Suxhel, the Gazer [Wizard], patiently informed Lehra when she found one of her companions at their tents. Lehra rubbed at her face.

“Didn’t anyone stop me?”

“No. Everyone eventually left because you threw up on the way down. You fell asleep there.”

“Oh. But how’d there get to be a cliff, anyw—”

Lehra turned, saw the giant wooden scaffolding and tower set up to let Gnolls and brave visitors leap from the top with the enchanted rope and stop a dizzying ten feet from the ground, and frowned.

“…Was that always there?”

Suxhel rolled all her eyes, which, coming from a Gazer, was a sign of extreme annoyance. However, she still watched some Gnolls trying the new, and newly cleaned, activity.

“It does surprise me. Even Lizardfolk don’t do this.”

“Well, we’re an adventurous species.”

“Yes. Adventurous is exactly the word I’d use.”

Lehra grinned. The Star Gnoll was actually the one member of her species in Stargazer’s Promise, and while Suxhel had met many of her people, Lehra was something, even among Gnolls. She pointed.

“The Meeting of Tribes is a time to have fun, Suxhel. New experiences!”

“I thought it was a time to give the great gifts and make deliberations on the future of Gnolls.”

The Named Adventurer thought about it.

“Well, yes. But those’re the Chieftains’ jobs. Do you think we’re here to sit about and be stuffy? It’s super entertaining, every single day.”

That was true. The biggest tribes worked hard to make sure there wasn’t ever a lack of activities. Multiple events, per day, hosted by different tribes, meant that this gigantic fair never stopped being both economically and socially rewarding.

Case in point. Lehra dragged her friend over for food and the first activity she saw. She bought a pie, rather than find a free food stand, gobbled it down, and was licking her paws when she saw and remembered her friends in the Silverfang tribe.

“Suxhel! Look! Let’s visit, uh, uh…Inkar! Hey, is that Ekhtouch over there? I thought they were somewhere else.”

She pointed at a gathering near the Silverfang’s area. Children and adults were gathered up, in a placid activity of some kind. Suxhel’s eyes spotted what was going on at once, but Lehra had to come closer to see they were fiddling with beads, string, various carved symbols or even shells.

“Oh! They’re making jewelry?”

“It’s free! Honored Lehra, will you make something? If you have anything, we can help you make something. A clasp for a jewel or stone? Earrings?”

Lehra brightened up. Suxhel, who was a [Wizard] and thus loved magical accoutrements of all kinds, peered at the Gnolls helping children make necklaces. Some were on the level of children’s handicrafts, but some looked like bracelets or necklaces you’d actually keep.

“I have one last [Fit to Form] Skill for the hour! Who’d like it? You?”

A [Jeweler] walked over to a frantically waving young Gnoll woman. The necklace adjusted to fit her perfectly. In another area, a patient [Goldsmith] was working with actual gold, making earrings for a reduced fee.

“Suxhel, do you want something? I could make an earring, maybe? Maybe a dangling one like that Drake has?”

“It will get torn out in your next fight. Like the last one. Get a pin.”

Fine. Do you see Inkar? That other one?”

“Tkrn? No. They seem to be absent today.”

Suxhel’s eyes scanned the crowd, but she didn’t see the acquaintances they’d met earlier on. Nor even the new visitors. They were all scattered across the Meeting of Tribes.

 

——

 

Not everyone was having such a great time, despite the fun and fare. Children were allowed a lot of free roam in the Meeting of Tribes, and they met Gnolls they hadn’t seen and never would outside this one event.

Sometimes friendships emerged. Odd meetings. Sometimes it changed your life. Adetr had been told of this, but he hadn’t expected how it would happen to him.

The Gnoll seemingly made of metal sat, head lowered, waiting for his guest just outside the Steelfur Tribe’s tents. Some children were playing in the background.

We’re going to win! Plain’s Eye or not!

“Yeah? There are lots more of us!

It was a children’s war. It could be vicious, ugly, or silly. In this case it wasn’t going to go to blood unless there was an accident. It was just the Steelfur cubs ‘fighting’ with the Plain’s Eye tribe. There were nearly a thousand Plain’s Eye children, and a tenth of Steelfur, although more children were gathering in expectation of something interesting.

They could have gone to an activity, but sometimes you just had to ‘fight’. Adetr knew that. But he didn’t so much as glance at them as he saw a young woman slow, apprehensively. He rose, and heard a call in the background.

Rawr! We’re a bear! Get them!

That’s cheating! That’s cheating! How are they—

“Rose.”

Adetr strode over to her, but the young woman had lost focus on him. She was staring at something. Adetr turned, and saw a sight that made even the other visitors turn and laugh or point.

The Steelfur children had formed a kind of living pyramid of bodies. They all had the famous grey, hard fur of their tribe, given to them by their Chieftain. The ones on the bottom were biggest, and carried the Gnolls on top forward in a living mimicry of a bear. The Plain’s Eye children, faced with a goliath, realized they’d lost their tactical advantage and fled, shouting.

Multiple child-formations began rising as other children copied them and began to have fights as multiple levels of children grappled with each other, trying to push the others off-balance so the entire structure collapsed.

Adetr had done the same thing when he was a cub. He had no time for that. The [Battle Seeker] had seen actual creations of steel, which rolled or even flew. He looked at a harbinger of nightmares.

Rose. She waved weakly at him and wished she didn’t have to talk to the intense Gnoll warrior. Inkar had met Tkrn and she was friends with Gireulashia, Feshi, and all the other interesting and famous Gnolls. Some people had all the luck.

Speaking of Feshi, the Gnoll [Strategist] was gloomy because her friends had gone north on another huge adventure, but she was stuck at the Meeting of Tribes. She consoled herself that she’d see them, especially if they were successful, and this was an important time. She had interesting people to meet here as well, and Yerranola had stayed because she needed the Oteslian medicine.

On this fairly ordinary extraordinary day, in the Meeting of Tribes that came once every twenty years, Lehra was trying to make a circlet with a few gems she had in her bag of holding. Rose was greeting Adetr for their discussions. Tkrn and Inkar were having a more enjoyable time watching Gire puzzle out the iPhone that Inkar owned.

As the sun rose to early morning, someone walked over to one of the innermost tribes present. Az’muzarre. The famous defenders of the Great Plains, small, but wielders of weapons of old. Ancient weapons made from the bones of Dragons or armor of scales and such.

Yet that was not what this Gnoll sought. Rather, their greatest warrior strode over to something hanging there. A lesser artifact; ‘merely’ the gigantic, hollowed, crafted horn of a Horned Wyvern, a great beast from back in the day slain by warriors of old.

It hung on a vast stand, so huge it was her size again. Yet angled such that the tip now faced the Gnoll at head-height. She took a breath, and adjusted the converted horn into its new purpose. Then she blew through the cut opening.

It was no wail. The bass blast from the horn filled the air and every Gnoll present looked up, some clapping paws to their ears. A Gnoll on the cliff-diving scaffold turned, the magical rope around his foot. His buddy pushed him off and down he went, screaming. But then the other Gnoll stared.

Not in fear. If there was an attack, everyone would be piping their individual alarm calls and there would be howling. By the same token, there were few ‘universal’ events. This, though—he began to grin and pointed, the first to see it.

It’s happening! It’s time!

He was actually the second to see it, but the first person. For across from the Gnoll, the only other being of comparable height moved. A hill that had already begun to sprout with grass and flora native to the Great Plains, sitting in the center of its tribe, moved.

The Earth Elemental of the Gaarh Marsh Tribe raised its head as the thunderous call went out. It looked up, once.

Time.

Everyone had gone silent. Lehra, frozen in the midst of trying to hang a bracelet from one of Suxhel’s eye-stalks, turned her head. She saw a figure move, amidst stillness.

A gigantic figure. Reserved. So tall she put even Gire to shame. A ragged cloak of fur, like a second body, hung from her frame. Her eyes had a second luminescence, or so it seemed.

There she was. The [Racdelbear Shapechanger], the legend of her tribe. Garsine Wallbreaker, striding next to the much smaller Chieftain who walked almost deferentially with her. Neither one was alone; flanking them were five of their best warriors, and their tribe’s [Shaman].

They were walking, with Garsine herself bearing something, a huge Chest of Holding in her long arms. Lehra’s mouth opened in delight, awe, and comprehension. She turned to Suxhel.

“What’s happening, Lehra?”

“It’s time. Suxhel! It’s time! We have to get to my tribe!”

That was what Gnolls all around her were saying. Lehra leapt up, tugging the Gazer, activities forgotten. She wouldn’t go with her Chieftain, Nesiee, but she wanted to see, to be there. She saw Silverfang’s tribe stir, and from their tents emerged another group.

Lehra knew them. Chieftain Akrisa of the Silverfang Tribe did not look any more surprised than Garsine or the others. She had adorned herself in silver, as was most fitting; a band of silver fangs from various monsters was her chief decoration, and her [Shaman] and partner, Cetrule, stood tall, fur groomed, garb immaculate.

They had no Garsine, but their company of Silverfang’s warriors was no less dignified. Yet it was Krshia, and Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, who carried something wrapped in heavy, magic-concealing cloth between them. With ease, for it was light, but with immense pride and nerves. Lehra’s eyes fixed on it as Garsine Wallbreaker slowed.

Chieftain Akrisa. Will you walk with us? The Chieftains gather.”

“It would be our honor, Chieftain Terrough. However, we await…”

Akrisa looked to the side. She let the words linger as more figures strode forth.

Here came Chieftain Orelighn, of the Greenpaw tribe. Longstalker’s Fang, on the other side, parted the sea of Gnolls as Chieftain Eska, Shaman Pulsg, and Honored Deskie walked forth, bearing their gift—the part that was obvious, at least—openly.

Magic cloth. And a strange device that the [Spinners] knew quite well. Yet the bolts of shimmering cloth, some of Waisrabbit fur, others made with the Shockwoolie wool, or other magical creature’s cloth, was something Deskie had labored over. It would be her last gift to the Meeting of Tribes, and the old [Magical Weaver] walked proudly.

From their tents came the Chieftain of Ekhtouch, Firrelle, and another escort. Four tribes met, coordinating their purpose and arrival.

Garsine and Chieftain Terrough noticed the way the four gathered. All Terrough did was nod, though, eyes keen, appraising.

“We would be honored to walk with you.”

Akrisa bowed her head to both, and so they did. Five tribes, each bearing a gift, great or small, towards the Meeting of Tribes.

Towards the huge tent that had been prepared for this enclave. Only the Chieftains, [Shamans], and Honored Gnolls would be let in. Three Gnolls per tribe at most. Even then, it would be a sea of them, because every tribe present had sent their Chieftain and a gift.

This was the day the Meeting of Chieftains began, and the great deliberations of Gnollkind began. Krshia’s blood was humming in her veins.

At last. At last. Gnolls stared at her, trying to sniff or see or guess what they carried. She kept her head high, noticing some tribes kept their gifts plain to see.

There was strategy in both. Some tribes plainly didn’t have a great gift, so had tried to curry favor in other ways, or simply resigned themselves to a poorer showing. Some tried to camouflage this by hiding their gifts.

Others considered a show of it. Like Demas Metal, who had weapons and armor and ingots of their new Demas-alloy borne proudly behind their young Chieftain, an armory’s worth.

Some tribes had enough for all. Others had one thing; a single magical blade, acquired at great cost from Hendall Fur’s group. Enough to arm a chosen Gnoll, perhaps. Some had already given their gifts and so made shows or reminded people of it, like the [Hunter]’s tribe of Yth Rethang, who had provided a lot of the food that fed every Gnoll for free for the last two months; they had a procession of food on display, cured meats or preserved foodstuffs.

Time. Krshia walked slowly, praying she didn’t trip. She didn’t know if they’d present their gift right away. This was the first Meeting of Chieftains she had ever been privy to, and Akrisa herself had taken the mantle before the last Meeting of Tribes. She knew from second-hand knowledge that the most powerful tribes spoke first, and the gifts would be shown with each Tribe’s pleas or suggestions over the coming days and maybe even weeks. It would be discussion. Great deeds.

She had to succeed. Success for Silverfangs, decisions on Earth—and Mrsha. Krshia’s heart pricked with worry, but if there were any way to curtail the hunt…she would have talked to each Chieftain individually, had this not been in the works. They had to present their case first. So she walked, carrying the great tome of magic. As the Chieftains gathered.

Krshia told herself she had little to fear. There would be disagreements, arguments, but they were all Gnolls. She brought them tidings of magic, a view that challenged tradition on white Gnolls. Yet they were Gnolls. She had no enemies here.

 

——

 

The Meeting of Tribes’ procession of Chieftains was all about reputation. The weight of fame. From Garsine to Lehra, the most famous Gnolls in the world were there. So they did not show off in the sense of engineering a spectacle. They had the kind of ponderous weight of authority. We do not need to remind people who we are.

Confidence. A commendable amount of self-assurance and even its own kind of panache, as such subtlety worked well in some cases.

Yet oh dear, was it dull. Not all Gnolls went to the Meeting of Tribes, once every twenty years yadda yadda, whatever. Not all Gnolls cared.

When she walked past the vast, shimmering curtains that had been set up, the audience screamed.

Mainly because of the fireball and howling gale of flames that hit the stage. Yet it did not touch the Gnoll that strode out of the fire. Or was it a Gnoll?

She had wings. Huge, flaming wings—no, an illusion! A dress? They turned with her as she strode down the stage, strutting, waving at the cheering Drakes and Gnolls, a riotous accompaniment with her.

This was an entrance. This was style. The Dragon-motif was not lost on the audience. Those who knew her cheered louder, but more than a few Drakes were outraged by someone invoking their Ancestors like that!

They were drowned out by the roaring of voices around her, the screams. And she herself had spells to amplify her voice.

She did not sing; she wasn’t the up-and-coming Singer of Terandria. There was music because you had to have music, and she performed to that. But she wasn’t a [Dancer] either, not exactly.

Like the motif of the flaming Dragon, her dress was some kind of bright, fiery fabric. It reflected fragments of light into the crowd.

People of Beithstrel! It. Is. Me!

They cheered even louder, her fans. The Gnoll woman laughed hugely. Then, and this was what made her different from a [Dancer], as the dress whirled around her, it abruptly vanished in a cascade of magical sparkles. Leaving behind all Gnoll, and only Gnoll.

Scandalous! Eyes popped, and the screaming grew louder. ‘Naked’, the Gnoll woman strutted down the stage, blowing kisses at outraged Drakes, and making a gesture that gave one a near heart-attack.

She was about as naked as your average Gnoll; which was to say, covered in fur. Even so, the morals of decency and such! This was not your average Gnoll, though. Nor was her fur brown, or spotted, or black, or russet red, or…white. No. It was what gave her the iconic name behind the famous [Merchant] and personality, so much so that her arrival in cities was performance and spectacle unto itself.

She shone in the spotlights trained on her, glittering so bright she reflected more than her dress. After all—

Her fur was golden. The Golden Gnoll herself, harbinger of good fortune, good business, and good love, was a celebrity who hadn’t attended the Meeting of Tribes. She was a City Gnoll, and she spread her arms wide to the horrified and adoring crowd.

My beautiful darlings! Life is rich! Who wants to make money? Or—

And here she tossed her head, dipping a paw into a basket another performer and assistant on stage had brought out.

“—make love? It’s one and the same to me. And I have enough to share!”

So saying, she drew a pawful of coins out and flung them into the crowd. Gold coins bounced off cheering faces, or in one case, into an open mouth, as a mad scramble broke out.

There were a few reasons you paid attention to the Golden Gnoll. Because you could actually get the gold coins she was known to throw out as signs of largesse, because she performed her business, because you were a fan of…various things, including her unique style of ‘dress’.

Or because you actually had business with her. The Golden Gnoll let the tension ride higher, then got down to work. First she hyped up the crowd. Then she gave her universal speech.

“I came here to do business. And do you know what that business is? Making money. Not making silver, or making a few pieces of gold. Children, I give away gold. And so should you! If you needed to pick up a gold coin, if that was something that would change your life—you are doing it wrong. You should be making enough money that if someone drops a gold coin on the ground in front of you, you pay someone else to pick it up. People like to say ‘money isn’t everything’. They talk about levels, family, love…in my experience, you can buy all of that. So. Let’s talk about how to make money.”

She practiced what she preached, and had followers. Oh yes. But the Golden Gnoll raised a paw and amended the time-honored speech she’d given for over a decade.

“—And before you shout at me, don’t talk nonsense about this Golden Triangle. I never invested a coin into it. I told everyone it was a scam, and guess who was laughed at? Well, guess who was right, you idiots! I have the names of every brainless ‘[Merchant]’ and ‘[Strategist]’ who told me I was a fool. Some of them are Merchant’s Guild guildmasters…or were. Because I’m going to shout them out. Money isn’t an idea. It’s something you have in your paws.

To demonstrate, she seized another handful of coins and tossed them. The crowd was fixed on her every word. The Golden Gnoll paused for breath.

“Everything is a trade. Everything is a deal. People tell you there are rules. Like, ‘don’t sell yourself’. Well, I’ve sealed a deal any way I please, but always a deal I want to take. No one has ever made me take a bad offer. Because I don’t bet all my gold on dreams like the Golden Triangle. I diversify, I invest, and here’s how you’re going to start.”

Welcome to her finance-talk.

 

——

 

The thing about the Golden Gnoll, or Qwera, if you actually knew her name, was that she did give good advice. Yes, a lot of it was hype and showwomanship. However, her actual advice to the part-time entrepreneur or business person was frank.

Invest what you can, in appreciable commodities and don’t panic. Sell when high, buy when low.

What did that look like? Well, she did her research on local commodities, but healing potions were a good example. Quality ones that didn’t go bad were fairly easy to store as long as you kept them from spoiling due to temperature, breakage, etc. When a war broke out, everyone wanted good healing potions and you could literally double your investment with ease.

However! There were bad commodities to get into. The one her audience and fellow [Merchants] and [Traders] always winced at was the ‘purified water’ scam, wherein [Merchants] sold the highly valuable, yet extremely hard-to-keep stuff to some young fool and they stored it in a keg or glass jars and it lost its purity.

So she had good advice. But it was true that the Golden Gnoll was a personality. As in, her fans ranged from aspiring [Traders] to people who wanted to live her dream. Also, to members of both species that would worship her bare feet.

‘Fans’ of something other than her business acumen. Of course, Qwera took it as a sign of success. She played it up, as they tried to touch her on stage, making fun of them, or teasing.

When it was over, and the travelling conclave of [Merchants] got to actually sell and buy with the eager crowds, and after they had all retired and she was talking to fellow business people, she was more retiring, not performative.

But still her.

“If you don’t like me hogging the attention, find a way to attract interest yourself, Totosell. What’s that? Oh, you can’t.”

The angry Drake from a competing caravan who’d had the misfortune to stop at the same city as Qwera, glowered. Her group had outsold his by a large margin.

“All you do is cover yourself in gold paint, you—you shameless [Nudist]!”

Qwera rolled her eyes as the [Merchants] relaxing in the back rooms of the Merchant’s Guild all watched the impending fight.

“For the cost of a bit of gold paint, I multiply my income because people love the Golden Gnoll. It’s not all gold, anyways, see? I have a patch right here.”

She pointed down. Totosell stared down at—he jerked his eyes up, turning crimson under his scales. Qwera laughed.

I get away with it. You? You couldn’t sell diamonds even if you covered yourself in gold paint.”

“You’re just a fraud, Qwera. You bring down the reputation of all [Merchants] and I don’t see how anyone allows you to keep doing this shameless act!”

He made a mistake. Which was getting into a war of insults with Qwera in the first place. She narrowed her eyes. The Golden Gnoll, who had been sipping some wine and drinking a soothing tonic for her throat, stood up, as some of her friends, knowing what was going to happen, backed up. One of her friends moved forwards, to stop her.

Qwera took two steps over to Totosell—who had chosen his business name much like her persona—and deliberately tossed her drink in his face. Then she growled in the gasping silence.

“You’re just a pathetic Drake who’s jealous I have what you don’t. So let me give you some advice, Totosell. Quit your job because you’re no good at your class and you’ll never even scrape Level 30. You have no style, no personality, and even toads can see you’re jealous of my assets.”

Here she made a gesture to indicate which ones she was talking about. Totosell was growing increasingly red, but Qwera wasn’t done and no one talked over her.

“So I’m going to give you some advice for free, since I doubt you’d find customers, even on Rhir. Go take your tail, find a hole that’s somehow dirtier than your shit-crusted scales and complete lack of hygiene, and then ram it—”

The horrified look on the local Guildmistress’ face grew over the next minute, and Totosell’s wine-dripping expression of similar stupefaction grew. He was just lucky he hadn’t pushed or taken a swing at her, because she wasn’t someone who held back there either.

His bodyguard made the mistake. A burly Drake went for his sword and Qwera’s friend stopped the Golden Gnoll from escalating, because she did not deescalate anything. The Drake had his sword half-out when someone kissed his throat.

Metaphorically. With a point of steel of her own. Totosell froze and Qwera turned and grinned.

“I’d keep the blades off the table, friend. Or Qwera will do exactly what she just said with your severed tail.”

The [Bodyguard] gulped and let go of his sword, slowly. Totosell backed up. He pointed a claw at both of them.

“You two are the reason why Izril’s gone to the Antinium! People like you. Foreigners and…”

He backed up more as Qwera’s eyes narrowed. Even so, he wasn’t fast enough. She threw a chair at him and at this point the local Guildmistress pulled the [Merchants] apart before Totosell got hurt any more.

In one of the private rooms, Qwera rolled her eyes, completely ignoring the scandals about assaulting fellow [Merchants]. She shut the door on the aggrieved [Secretary]’s face, turned, and, delighted, embraced her fellow [Merchant].

“Look who it is! You filthy fleshbag.

“I’m here, you wet dog. And just in time to stop you from getting hurt.”

“Me? Hah!

Qwera threw her head back. The Human woman had to smile. Qwera was not in danger of Totosell, who was far smaller and thinner, causing her harm. Dead gods, even the bodyguard had better watch out. Qwera wasn’t an expert with a sword, but her friend had once seen her use a bottle of wine to take out five people.

“I haven’t seen you since the last time I went north. Sit down. Have a drink. What brings you this far south, Ysara?”

The Golden Gnoll threw herself back into a seat. Ysara of House Byres, the Silver Trader, a delightful counterpoint to the Golden Gnoll, settled back in her seat.

“Multiple reasons. The north wasn’t exactly fun with the Goblin Lord marching about. I was caught in the south on a little run and decided to tour down this way. I would have gone north, but I’m actually pondering a cross-continental trip.”

Really. Is there profit in that?”

“Not so much. It’s personal business. I’m sure my younger brother has it covered, but—let’s not get into that yet. I have a proposal for you.”

Ysara grimaced as she sipped her wine. Qwera’s eyes were sharp, but she shrugged. The Silver Trader didn’t actually sell just in her motif, it was just her nickname. You had to be known if you were more than a local, small-time person and the ‘Golden Gnoll’ was hard to forget.

Same for the former [Lady] of House Byres, who was so good with a sword she didn’t need a personal bodyguard outside her caravan’s usual security. She actually tended to invest in rare alchemical ingredients. Silver was one of those things, but it made good money if you knew what was in stock and were the provider for a number of good [Alchemists].

By contrast, Qwera did as she advised; she diversified. This was one of six caravans she had running, and while the central one made more money just because of her presence, she was a business magnate. Bigger than Ysara.

“So, what’s new? Anything happen on your trip? I’ve been heading back from Fissival. [Mages] and magicore. Name me a more profitable duo.”

Qwera prompted after a second. Ysara sighed.

“Have you ever heard of a Wailant Strongheart? I’ve been thinking about killing him because he’s devaluing Sage’s Grass across the south.”

“Hm. Not familiar. That’s a Human name. Is he a new [Merchant]?”

“Nope. Northern. But his Sage’s Grass is hitting Pallass’ markets, so I have bushels of the stuff I just got from Plain’s Eye losing money every second I don’t offload it.”

“How’d he get it there?”

“That damn magic door.”

Ah.

Qwera’s eyes lit up. She’d heard about the effect it was having on the economy, and had been thinking of ways to exploit it, but hadn’t had the golden idea yet. And without one, she wasn’t about to make a move. Ysara shrugged, rubbing at her mess of indigo hair.

Indigo, incidentally, was not blonde. Nor might her sister have recognized her older sister’s long earrings on one ear, or a tattoo on an arm. It was all Qwera knew of Ysara, though. Only the sword would be recognizable to both. A silversteel sword with House Byres’ crest, wielded by someone they had called a genius when she was growing up, but who had never become a [Knight].

“I also had to change directions and skip my Prelon run. For the [Alchemists]. Cellidel is up in flames and prices are skyrocketing.”

“Cellidel? Why?”

“Sellme.”

A one-word answer was all that was required. Instantly, Qwera threw her head back.

“Dead gods, don’t talk to me about Sellme. If that [Painter] gets anywhere within a hundred miles of me, I swear, I’ll nail his balls to the next mural he puts up. Such a pain.

She grumbled, filling her cup. Ysara just shook her head.

“I’d watch out. Between Sellme and these ‘Gnoll attacks’, the cities are getting jumpy.”

“For everyone but the Golden Gnoll, darling. I’m just a [Merchant]. It helps being me. So, what did you want to talk about?”

“Hm. Buy out my stock so I can take a ship? All that I can’t transport without needing a wagon, at least.”

Qwera threw back her head and laughed, long and loud. Then she looked at Ysara.

“Wait, you’re serious, aren’t you? Oh, Ysara. What have you done this time? Don’t tell me someone else has captured your heart? Say if it’s so, so I can beat some sense into you.”

She raised a paw, but Ysara shook her head.

“Worse, it’s family.”

Instantly, the Golden Gnoll put a paw on Ysara’s arm, giving her a sympathetic look of understanding.

My dear…we’ll talk numbers.”

They were, of course, friends, for a given value of friends. Not very close, but a bit more than acquaintances with a mutual respect for each other. However, business was business. And for Qwera, business was good. The Meeting of Tribes could kiss her shiny tail if she thought about it at all.

She agreed to look at Ysara’s wares and give her an answer by the next day, and retired to her rented inn, meeting with some starstruck fans, promising nothing, and making sure they left and she had her inn to herself to relax afterwards. Qwera pushed the door open to her luxury room, and stopped.

Vetn was slapping Tesy’s claws away from rummaging through Qwera’s possessions and most valuable items. A little Gnoll girl was jumping on her bed. Sellme and the Thief of Clouds took one look at the Golden Gnoll’s expression.

“Um, hi, Qwera. We were just—”

Tesy got no further before she seized him, and, holding him by both of his legs, began to shake him as he screamed, dangling out of the window, head-first over a three-story drop.

Here came trouble. Just like every time these two idiots brought it to her. She was just about to fetch a pair of clippers and make good on her threat when Vetn began to explain and she saw the telltale patch of white on the little Gnoll girl’s ears where Tesy’s paint had begun to disappear.

Then Qwera knew they were in even more trouble than usual.

 

——

 

Tesy and Vetn knew interesting people. Mrsha watched the angry Gnoll smack the younger two Drake and Gnoll for a good eight minutes. She hugged them once, then began to buffet them every time they did or said something she found stupid.

Which was a lot. Surprisingly, Tesy and Vetn just ran away or ducked or dodged. They all knew each other, the Golden Gnoll, Sellme, and the Thief of Clouds. They weren’t just friends. It was like a big sister taking two younger brothers to task.

But they clearly weren’t related. Childhood friends? Mrsha listened as Tesy spoke rapidly.

And then they attacked a city! Like, literally sacked it, Qwery! They’re insane!”

“You mean, you, Sellme, the famous [Anarchist], are upset because some people attacked a Drake city?”

Qwera scowled at him. Tesy looked offended.

“We fight the corrupt Watch! We don’t slaughter people! They were insane!”

“Plain’s Eye. They’re completely out for blood, Qwera. You should have seen it.”

Vetn agreed. Qwera looked from one to the other, then at Mrsha.

“So you decided the best thing to do was bring this child and an armed force of high-level Gnolls to me.

Tesy and Vetn exchanged a glance.

“We thought you could help. You’re connected, and you have guarded caravans…”

“I have [Guards]. I don’t fight armies! Dead gods. And I heard about Cellidel. You idiot.”

She raised the golden fist of justice to smite Tesy, and the [Magical Painter] threw up his claws.

“It wasn’t my fault! There was a Senior Guardsman—I wasn’t going to leave, but he found out who I was!”

“You idiot! Drakes’ Ancestors, I need another drink and a Calming Tonic or I am going to kill both of you. Give me one second, and don’t you dare cause trouble in the minute I’m gone!”

She stormed out of the room. Tesy and Vetn exchanged glances.

“She’s mad.”

“Yeah, but she didn’t throw us out so she’ll probably help. See? I told you she could help. Mrsha, that’s Qwera. Don’t worry, she’s n—she’s n—”

Tesy hesitated. Vetn interrupted.

“She’s nice to everyone but us. Children. Probably.”

“Yeah, definitely. Just don’t make her mad.”

Mrsha nodded respectfully. She was quite impressed; she’d met few [Merchants] before, and all gold? Plus, she didn’t wear clothes, which Mrsha respected. She knew Lyonette was lying about having to wear them!

Why does she know you two? Is she an [Anarchist]?

Tesy laughed so hard he spat water onto the floor. Vetn and he stared at it in horror, then moved the chairs so they covered the carpet stain. Sellme leaned forwards confidentially.

“No, she’s not. Actually, she told me never to paint in a city she’s in. She’s a childhood friend. Well, Vetn knew her and he introduced me. She was a [Trader] and he used to work with her.”

By selling stolen stuff? Or Sellme’s paintings?

“No! She’d kill us if we tried…”

The two instantly chorused. Vetn shook his head.

“She’s too smart. She used to make me tell her about things I saw so she got trading information. Break into the Merchant’s Guild and read ledgers. Tesy sometimes paints a Sellme piece and she ‘finds’ it fast. But only now and then.”

The [Magical Painter] looked aggrieved.

“I only do it because she’s an ally. She sort of funds us now and then. Even though she’s rich and she could be distributing…”

Vetn rolled his eyes. Mrsha glanced up as the doors flew back open and the Gnoll woman returned.

“I’m back. I am not calm. But here we are. Since you two can’t decide how you’re going to fix this, I will. And you two will pay for it later.”

The [Thief] and [Painter] cringed, but Qwera wasn’t interested in them. She sat down on her bed. Mrsha, sitting upright, saw two keen eyes fix her with a searching stare.

“So you’re Mrsha. You can’t speak, is that right? But you can write?”

Yes! I am Mrsha. It is nice to meet you!

Mrsha saw Qwera’s eyes study the neat handwriting.

“That’s interesting. And you have…white fur. Child. You poor child. You’re in trouble now, and no mistake. Ancestors.”

She sighed. Mrsha saw her glance at Tesy and Vetn. The two looked…well, much like Kevin and Rose and the others did when they first came to Erin’s inn.

Shocked. Still horrified by what they’d seen. Both were high-level, but the attacks had been something they weren’t used to, that they stayed away from, even Tesy and his anti-governmental stance.

Out of their depth. Qwera? She began to ask Mrsha questions.

“You had better explain all of it. Where did you come from? The Stone Spears tribe? Vetn, do you know about that? Liscor? Liscor? That backwater? And…The Wandering Inn? Wait a second. Didn’t Ysara say…?”

The story came out in scritching writings, questions, ‘are you lying?’, ‘really, that actually happened?’, lots of ‘whats?’, and so on. Vetn and Tesy actually forgot their worries long enough to stare.

It was a tale and a half. At one point Qwera made Mrsha actually swear on a little truth stone that she wasn’t lying. And then she had the gall to make Vetn double-check with a Skill! She sat back.

“This is bigger than I could have guessed. Your Human mother’s in Oteslia, your [Innkeeper] who’s also your guardian is frozen, you know the Wind Runner of Reizmelt, a Courier, and you were en-route to Salazsar. Why? Because that other Gnoll knew someone there?”

Mrsha hesitated.

He has a contact and a place to hide near there.

She lied about Wer, to keep the secret Gnolls safe. Qwera accepted that; the thing about truth stones was that they didn’t work as well on writing and she’d already asked if Mrsha was telling the truth about the inn.

“So you need to get to one or the other without a bunch of insane Plains Gnolls killing you for having white fur.”

“I still don’t understand that. Can you believe this, Qwera? It’s crazy.”

“It’s tribe-logic. Don’t argue about it, Tesy. They won’t listen. And they would attack Liscor again. Any city. They’ll come after you until you die because it’s more than pride. More than doom.”

There was something about the way Qwera said it. Mrsha shuddered. It was exactly like Wer, but the Gnoll had some reddish fur right there. Did she know a white-furred Gnoll? Did Vetn?

If so, it sounded like it was past-tense. Qwera rubbed at her ears; her golden fur didn’t lose its shiny coating, unlike even Sellme’s paint.

“It’s simple, then. We get you to either this Courier and have her pick you up and take you somewhere very safe, like House Veltras, or we get you into Oteslia. Gnolls can’t break through a siege. Or Salazsar if this Wanderer turns up. I’ll figure out exactly how, but it’s easy to hide little girls in chests and trunks for a [Merchant]. It’s not the riskiest thing I’ve smuggled.”

Vetn and Tesy brightened up.

“You’re a lifesaver, Qwera. And you can help Mrsha! Even with the checkpoints—”

Vetn kicked Tesy, but the white-scaled Drake’s mouth ran too fast. Qwera looked up.

“Checkpoints?‘

“There are armed Gnolls checking everyone on the roads. They uh…they’ve been following us. There are lots of them. There’s even been some fighting, but they’re so high-level…”

Vetn and Tesy saw the Golden Gnoll’s face go slack. Somehow, they’d followed Mrsha. They had Skills or a scent or something. She looked at Mrsha. Less confident. Sellme and the Thief of Clouds exchanged a glance.

“Yes. They would do that.”

That was all Qwera said. Mrsha’s ears drooped.

I’m sorry.

The Golden Gnoll looked at Mrsha. She brushed the piece of paper aside. She looked at Mrsha, and her eyes moved to Vetn. Then, she exhaled.

“You didn’t do anything but exist, child. Come here.”

The Gnoll woman picked Mrsha up and began to pat her head. Instantly, the little girl began to wriggle because she hated petting. However, Qwera didn’t do it like Rose or someone else. She just gently placed a paw on Mrsha’s head and enveloped her in a warm embrace. When next she spoke, her voice was sad. Sad, but oh, so determined.

“White fur. You did nothing wrong. Believe me, you didn’t. It was always what they brought. Their hatred. Their reasons why you had to die. They hunted you and you’re so young. But you never let them break you. You never will.”

Mrsha looked up at Qwera’s face. How did she know…? But the paw kept patting her hair, combing knots and tangles and a bit of dirt out of her fur.

“Well done. Just rest easy. I’m here, and they’ll never get to you with me in their way. That’s a promise.”

Many people had made Mrsha that promise. Or had they? She looked up, and realized Qwera was one of the few people to ever say it aloud. Her family had always implied it in everything they did. Wer had said he’d try.

This was somehow more comforting, in a moment. A promise. Mrsha knew adults couldn’t always keep them. But she liked to believe they could. She nodded at that knowing face, then she closed her eyes. She leaned into Qwera, trembling a bit, but relaxed.

It was like magic. But it wasn’t a Skill or magic the Golden Gnoll needed to be given. Just words. She whispered to Mrsha.

“Never let them trick you into thinking it was your fault. Understand?”

Tesy and Vetn looked at her solemnly as the little girl nodded, tearing up a bit. They looked awkward, unable to handle this moment. Unable to find anything to say that wouldn’t detract. At last, Tesy murmured.

“Thanks, Qwery. Really.”

Above Mrsha, the Golden Gnoll sighed.

“Just find a room. I’ll tell the [Innkeeper]. Mrsha can sleep here or in her own room. We’ll talk on it tomorrow.”

They nodded. Mrsha told Qwera she was fine and could have her own room. The Golden Gnoll nodded, and made sure she was fed, had a toothbrush, and told her to call if anything happened. Mrsha lay down.

This inn was called Sotosilt for some reason, but it catered to rich travellers. It had a big room, huge, fluffy sheets, and lovely beds. Mrsha wished she were back in The Wandering Inn.

She was tired. Scared by the relentless pursuit. Tesy and Vetn hadn’t even told Qwera how close it had been. The Thief of Clouds was high-level, but even he’d barely kept ahead of Gnolls that would stop any group, that feared no one.

She was scared. But also very tired. She just wanted to find Lyonette. If she found Lyonette…

Would she bring danger to her, too? Mrsha imagined a bunch of Gnolls with crossbows. She saw them aiming at Erin.

Doom.

She had fallen asleep at some point, because she jerked up with a wordless howl on her lips. However, it didn’t come out. Panting, Mrsha realized it was long past midnight and into dawn.

She woke up because of the bad dream, but she stayed up because she heard the creak of floorboards, a door opening, a whisper…

Mrsha ignored it at first, but then she padded to her door and opened it. Just in time to see Vetn and Tesy, clothed and packed, sneaking out the third-floor window. They whirled as Mrsha stared at them.

“Mrsha! We were—”

Tesy’s voice rose over the whisper. He was the one she’d been hearing; Vetn was as quiet as a cat. The Thief of Clouds was already scaling out the window. Mrsha stared at him. He avoided her look.

They were leaving her! Leaving her with…Tesy backed up.

“Look, Qwera’s really responsible. She’ll…we’re not cut out to fight Gnolls. Sorry. We’ll see you later, maybe. Don’t tell anyone who we are, okay? So…”

He was at the window. Mrsha just watched him go as the white-scaled Drake turned guiltily and put one foot over the window ledge. He was halfway out when a furious Gnoll charged out of her rooms, seized his tail, and yanked him back in.

Oh no you don’t. You’re not dumping this problem in my lap and running! Vetn! Get back here or I’ll post a ten thousand gold bounty on your worthless hide!

Her shout woke up the entire inn. Mrsha saw Tesy scramble for the window.

“Qwery! Don’t—”

She picked him up, and began to shake him as Vetn froze outside. Then she put him in a headlock as he frantically tried to get his paints. The Golden Gnoll took no prisoners.

 

——

 

Tesy and Vetn did not flee, mainly because Qwera promised them that if they did, she would personally make them suffer. They couldn’t meet Mrsha’s eyes either.

Cowards. Mrsha was hurt beyond words they’d just tried to run. She’d never, ever had anyone run away from her when she needed help.

Except Ryoka. But even Ryoka left after the monsters. These two?

They weren’t Wilovan and Ratici after all. They were just…in over their heads. They were like kids. Numbtongue would have stayed even if an army was attacking. And died.

Maybe there was something to it, after all, but Qwera wasn’t impressed either. She had a sumptuous breakfast that neither one got to eat and let Mrsha nibble at sea food canapes after a big, juicy meat brisket.

“They never grew up, neither of them. I was always the big sister—I’m not that much older than either! A bit. Vetn and I grew up outcasts and he…bah. He and Tesy get along right until they don’t. Little children. Unable to even face an ounce of responsibility.”

Mrsha glanced at Qwera as she ranted—then the two hunched figures of Tesy and Vetn, having to literally watch them eat and have Qwera insult them. The Golden Gnoll eyed them, then sighed.

“Vetn. You stole something from the Meeting of Tribes, didn’t you? Did you fence it?”

He glanced up.

“Sure did.”

“…Then I’ll let you go. I’ll catch up in…two hours. I need to meet a [Merchant] friend who might be able to help.”

“I’ll go—”

Qwera pointed a butter-knife at Tesy and he froze.

“You’ll go with Vetn, and if you so much as paint a drop on a single wall, I’ll tell the [Chef] to prepare me Drake balls for lunch and have you eat them. We’ll catch up. If there are Gnoll Doomslayers in this city, it will probably be the safest place.”

“So there is one in the city?”

“Yes. Here’s the address.”

She whispered in Vetn’s ear and he nodded. Mrsha perked her ears up. What was this, now? Tesy looked a bit uncomfortable, but the Golden Gnoll was adamant. She finished breakfast, told Mrsha they were going to meet a ‘Ysara’, which sounded a bit like two people with stupid names that Mrsha both sort of liked, and then meet them at a bar. She took Mrsha by the paw, and marched on.

 

——

 

Mrsha never saw Ysara. Qwera was warier than both Tesy and Vetn, and thus didn’t want to say she had the famous kidnapping victim in her company, even if she trusted her friend. There was trust, then there was being associated with that.

Rather, she engineered a clever disguise for Mrsha before even leaving the inn. The little Gnoll girl admired her new ‘look’.

Two gold-tipped ears, and a necklace with her bag of holding strung around it. She also had gold-themed clothing, adjusted for her height, and a little basket. It was full of two things.

Firstly, a kind of calling-card, only it wasn’t a business card, but a scroll with a list of Qwera’s future tours to cities, Merchant’s Guild info, and tied neatly to that, a gold coin.

An actual gold coin, and Mrsha had written a few cards she could hold up and show people to advertise the Golden Gnoll. She was Qwera’s helper and disguised because everyone batted an eye at her. Everyone saw the Golden Gnoll’s advertiser.

Here was the genius of Qwera, though. Where Mrsha would still have aroused suspicion from clever Gnolls who were looking for a girl of her build…she was just one of dozens. Qwera hired nearly three dozen children to advertise for her, and Mrsha could walk around and hand out the scrolls while following Qwera in disguise.

Smart. Just like Vetn said. She was waiting for Qwera as she emerged from the Merchant’s Guild.

“I might have a plan that gets you to real safety. But it’s a weird one. If there’s anywhere safe in the world, it’s a place where there are no Gnolls. I just wonder if she’ll agree…well, first we need to see about your mother and get out of this deathtrap. Follow me and I’ll explain.”

Qwera had a carriage waiting, even though it was a short trip and she informed the driver they’d walk the last few blocks. She spoke to Mrsha out of the corner of her mouth, so only they’d hear.

“Tesy and Vetn were right. There are Gnolls in this city and the ones nearby, searching for you. They’re stopping even [Merchants] outside the city…even Totosell got searched and the idiot put up a fight. Dead gods, but the Drakes aren’t going to take this. However. We’re dead and they’re closing in. I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to smuggle you out with my Skills. This is not an ordinary Doomslayer group. They sent their best. Multiple Level 30+ and I hear their leader was a Rhir war veteran.”

Mrsha gulped. How were they going to escape that? Qwera gave her a brief look.

“Don’t worry. We can get out of this net. Vetn is one of the best in the world. Not the best, but he didn’t get his name just because of Tesy. The problem is finding a way to keep you safe for good. I have some crazy ideas…but Ysara wants to see you and I didn’t dare tell her everything in the Merchant’s Guild. Not even a private room. Here though—here will be safe. If it was monitored or surveyed, we’d all be dead. So! Safe. Excuse me, we’ll stop here.”

The [Driver] halted the carriage and Qwera began to climb out. She offered Mrsha something.

“Put this on.”

Mrsha did. She saw, as they left the coach, that Qwera was suddenly an ordinary, black-furred Gnoll woman. She walked along with her daughter, as casually as could be, as the coach driver pulled away. She led them along a strange, circuitous route, until they finally got to an inconspicuous store on a street Mrsha had no idea about. Qwera headed straight for it—then turned left, headed down an alleyway, and halted in front of a brick wall in a curve where they were invisible from the street.

She kicked the wall low to the ground and Mrsha heard a hollow thunk from the ‘bricks’. Qwera coughed, then spoke.

Is it a cow?

Mrsha went cross-eyed with confusion. Right up until one of the bricks slid aside and two Drake eyes frowned at her.

“Who’s the child?”

“Someone in need. Don’t make me kick down the door!”

“She’s not one of us.”

“Yeah, well, neither’s my foot so far up your ass that—”

“Alright, alright, fine. Don’t throw a fuss! Who am I looking for? A Human?”

“Yep. Let her in. Also: your password is stupid. ‘Is it a cow’. Who thinks of that? If they’re standing in front of the door and saying anything, they know or it’s a coincidence beyond belief.”

The entire wall swung inwards. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. A Drake glowered at Qwera as she removed her ring and began to sparkle again. He folded his arms and she saw he was wearing a dress.

Like Selys. But it was a male Drake. Mrsha blinked up at Qwera, but she didn’t bat an eyelid.

“People like passwords. It makes them feel safe.”

“It makes me feel stupid. Come on, Mrsha. And this is a secret to everyone. Just like your fur. You protect us. And we…hello, my beautiful darlings! Guess who’s back?

She spread her arms and the Golden Gnoll shone. This cheer was different than that of her crowds. Here were her real fans, the ones that knew her. She danced forwards into the most secret and fun bar Mrsha had ever seen as the brick wall closed. She looked up at the Drake, who gave her a friendly wink.

“What’s wrong, little miss? Never seen someone pull off a dress so well?”

She shook her head. To Mrsha’s eyes, the dress was a contemporaneous, pre-trend duovem, which was a word in the lexicon of Lyonette’s people—fancy people—to refer to a dress in how related it was to the common, current aesthetic. Obviously, according to Drake trends, which were currently those airy, fairy-like long dresses; this one was more form-fitting, with that seam on either side.

Mrsha knew Lyonette would probably know exactly which dress it was and Mrsha had already failed the test. It looked like the red silk had the patterns of the city’s emblems on it, and personal names in gold.

But she was no expert on dresses or anything. The Drake laughed and bent down.

“Ah. Well. Just remember: this is secret. You’re that girl from the scrying orb, aren’t you? Do you know what this place is?”

Mrsha stared into the bar, built out of an old and forgotten safe room that criminals had used. Concealed doorway. Passwords of dubious quality.

Yet this wasn’t a hiding place. Or at least, not in the sense she knew it. In here, in secret, there was alcohol, dancing, and a flamboyant Gnoll on stage—Qwera. Drakes and Gnolls in lovely clothing. None of this was illegal.

Only they were. It was when Mrsha saw two male Drakes holding hands and talking, Tesy sitting uncomfortably as Vetn laughed with a Drake girl with colorful tail-tattoos, saw how Qwera was at home here, that she put it together. But she’d forgotten the word, so the Drake [Doorkeeper] supplied it for her.

Turnscales.”

 

——

 

That was the answer to a question Mrsha didn’t know she had. Turnscales, a word she’d sometimes heard children shouting at each other. An insult that meant you had to run over and punch whoever said it.

She knew the meaning. But not the meaning. She got it now. One look at two Drakes doing a smooth groove together—and by together, she meant together, as if someone had stuck them together with glue—and she got it. They were dancing to some song and style that reminded Mrsha of the Earthers’ songs. Only, these people had it. Song crystals, from Terandria.

It was a big room, with a few other chambers. Some underground, a literally underground space. There was alcohol, dancing, and the cheer that had arisen when Qwera took the little stage at the back had filled the place.

They knew her. Mrsha was reminded of Tails and Scales at first, or The Wandering Inn as it pertained to the Players of Celum. In that this was clearly an establishment that sold alcohol and even food and had entertainment. Not Erin’s wackiness, which was chaos.

Why a password, though? Obviously, Mrsha approved of secret hiding places; she had lots. But why the secrecy? And, for that matter, she noticed instantly that this was a bar of more than just libations and adults doing gross things.

There was enough of that, but Mrsha saw that Tesy and Vetn were actually a similar dynamic that spoke to the…the room.

No, Tesy, Vetn, and Qwera. All three were represented. Some of the Drakes and Gnolls were like Tesy, inherently uncomfortable with this place, staring around as if everything was scandalous. Others were comfortable, like Vetn, flirting, talking, more relaxed than Mrsha had ever seen the Thief of Clouds.

Then there was Qwera, the doorman…doorlady?, and a few others. Whenever one of them spoke, everyone else listened. They gave orders, and people came to them.

“This is Mrsha. I’m bringing in a Human—she’s on the level. An Architect of her own people—in a sense. Don’t raise a fuss.”

“Isn’t that girl the one who everyone was saying was kidnapped? Qwera! Are you involving us in something dangerous?”

A worried Drake was remonstrating with Qwera. The Golden Gnoll just gave him a look.

“She’s a white Gnoll, Hetrell. Find out what that means. She’s a child and there are Plains Gnolls with their knives out to kill her for having white fur. Sound familiar? I thought so. I thought we’d offer her shelter. Or do you all disagree? Is Beithstrel in the habit of turning away people or children in need?”

“Don’t bite my head off. I wasn’t sure!”

The Drake backed up, as if trying to fend off Qwera’s attack with his claws.

“Well, I don’t have time for anyone who’s unsure. Mrsha, come over here. Let’s attend to business since I’m moving off like lightning. I can’t stay as I planned.”

There was a furor of discontent. Instantly, a number of people converged, but Qwera wasn’t about to argue.

“Bring the issues here and I’ll do what I can. Vetn, get over here! How many Architects do we have? Four? It’ll do.”

Mrsha tilted her head. She was the only child here, and it attracted as much attention as her white fur did. She was given a glass of milk, and watched, bemused.

What was this place? Dancing for some, drinks and food, company in quiet. But it wasn’t just these things. If Mrsha had any context, she might well have expected more of the dancing, more dresses, and maybe cigar-smoke and whatnot.

Actually, someone did produce one and they were told to put it out before they were tossed on their heads. Gnolls hated smoke in confined places.

Nor was this a place to simply meet. Qwera had sat down, pulled out a ledger of all things, and a pair of reading spectacles, and was making notations with an abacus. Since that was instantly boring, Mrsha padded over and stared at a whispering Gnoll girl to what was apparently her sponsor.

“Is that really the Golden Gnoll? She’s a…”

“She’s one of us, dear. And remember. It’s secret to everyone.”

“Of course. I knew that!”

The amused Drake glanced at Mrsha as he caught the girl up to speed. Clearly a City Gnoll, and just as clearly a bit nervous about everything.

“What do I do?”

“Do? Nothing. Just be. You can sit here. If anyone tries to chat you up, just shoo them away or tell them you’re new. You don’t have to do anything, for as long as you want. Just remember: no one’s going to judge you here. And keep it secret, no matter what. Those are the only two rules. And no smoking.”

The Gnoll girl nodded a few times. She glanced at Mrsha, and the little Gnoll girl held up a card.

Salutations good Sirs/Madams. My name is Mrsha.

That was her standard greeting card, but she followed it up with a question.

What is this place for?

The older Drake snorted. Mrsha couldn’t tell his profession, but the slightest bit of incense hung around him. He gestured around.

“Well, what do you think this place is?”

“A bar for Turnscales.”

The City Gnoll murmured. Instantly, she clapped a paw over her mouth. The Drake gave her a look as a few heads turned.

“That’s their word.”

“But I’m…”

“You don’t have to say anything. Listen. Why don’t I take you over and you can talk to some of my friends? Just relax, dear. You are safe here.”

Such an emphasis on safe. Mrsha tilted her head. And that was because she didn’t know Drake cities that well. Liscor? A bit. But that wasn’t…

She attended a little lecture with the City Gnoll, whose name was Ikla, the older Drake, and to her surprise, Tesy. He kept glancing at Vetn, who was at home here. In fact, he’d dumped a pile of gold onto the table! Mrsha’s eyes opened wide, and some of the ‘new’ members were astonished as well.

“Leave the Architects be. That’s what we call them, Ikla. Architects. If you’re actually set on running this place, you’re not ‘Guests’ or ‘Citizens’ like us. That’s a way to say it without…saying it, if we’re talking in the open. Architects are few and far between. They come and go, from city to city.”

“Then there are places like this in every city?”

Ikla murmured, astonished. The bartender grinned.

“Hardly. You think this just pops up? It takes an Architect to make something like this, and Sentries to keep it hidden.”

There he nodded at the Drake by the door, who was chatting, at ease, but watchful. Architects and Sentries. The last group was Masons. Mrsha was pointed towards a third acting member of this…organization.

A young Drake, who’d been strutting around on stage, before she gave way to Qwera. She’d come down—and she was only Vetn and Tesy’s age—to talk to a worried Drake clearly in need of help.

“If it’s not money? I can do it. Give me a day to prepare, and I’ll head out.”

“And you can help? They’re on to me, I swear.”

“Not a problem. But we are going to have to practice how to look like a couple on the way over. Don’t worry. We just need a convincing kiss. The age difference works out. I’m your secret mistress.”

“I’m not married.”

“Secret lover?”

The [Bartender] nodded at the Mason as she reassured the Drake.

“She’ll pose as his cover. Poor fellow’s from another city. Someone’s onto his tail—the Watch or someone. She’ll convince them there’s nothing wrong.”

“So that’s a Mason? Why do they call them that?”

The two Drakes explaining laughed.

“Think about it like a wall. There’s always an Architect to build and organize. You have Masons to keep it maintained—or keep someone’s cover from being blown. And Sentries to keep everyone safe.”

“These are all terms for walls. Drake cities.”

Tesy murmured. He was uncharacteristically quiet. The Drake at the bar served someone a drink on request, and eyed him thoughtfully.

“Yes. Of course it is. The first bars started in the Walled Cities. New, are you? Vetn’s been here more than once, but you…I don’t know you.”

Sellme twitched his tail. Mrsha had expected him to be part of this place, talking about the injustices of the Watch, but he seemed as out of his depth as the new City Gnoll.

“I’ve…been here a few times. But I’ve never heard of a bar in a Walled City. Vetn travels to them, but he doesn’t talk about that.”

“Of course not. That’s where they started. These days? No one with half a brain tries to set up a bar there. It’s a world apart. The Watch is too good, and Walled Cities…no, you can’t just go in and out. I’m told there are places there, but it’s a nightmare. If here’s got a bit of danger, a bar over there is like dancing naked in front of Crelers. In Rhir.”

Mrsha and the inductees nodded. The two tutors conferred. What else was there to say?

“Just enjoy yourselves. Citizens get to relax. However, if you have a problem, come talk to us. Sentries or Masons will sort it out. If it’s a huge problem? An Architect will resolve it.”

“Are there…there’s dancing. Is the Golden Gnoll going to perform?”

The [Bartender] laughed.

“Perform? You mean like her speeches? No, she doesn’t do that. What would we do? This is just an underground tavern. It’s not organized enough for anything more than the odd play.”

Play? Mrsha’s ears pricked up. The incense-Drake pointed out the Mason who’d agreed to help the Drake in trouble.

“We have a few [Actors]. They’re all clamoring to hear about those Players of Pallass, but I keep telling them—it’s not the same. I think? Anyways, if it ever comes to our city, I hope they don’t make anyone suspicious…ah, I think the Architects have sorted their work out.”

Mrsha saw the last piece fall into place as Qwera finished her talks. She took a portion of Vetn’s gold as the Thief of Clouds, so stingy in every other regard, gave a small fortune over to the Drake at the door.

“That will sort you out for four months. Resolve the burnt house with that. I’ll put you in touch with a [Merchant] who has connections among the Builder’s Guild.”

The Architect, Qwera, had been talking with some of the people here. Not about being found out, but about more mundane issues. A bad fire that had left some of them homeless. They’d doubled-up with generous individuals, but her arrival had heralded a change.

“Thank you.”

“Just invest in decent fire-wards. Alright. Is that Ysara? Vetn, keep the rest. My work here is done. Onto Mrsha.”

Qwera was headed towards a Human woman who’d stopped just inside. Mrsha peered at her. Wow. Blue hair! She looked…not at all familiar. Must have been Mrsha’s imagination. No one whose name started with a ‘Y’ that Mrsha knew had a tattoo or hair like that.

She turned back to scribbling on a pad of parchment she’d been given. The [Bartender] frowned as Mrsha did her best and copied what she remembered.

 

Two species, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny…hold on. Sheiklessa! Come over here and look at this!”

 

As a crowd gathered around the girl who had heard the ‘famous plays’ so many times she could remember most of the lines, Vetn sidled up to Tesy.

“Hey. Enjoying yourself?”

The white-scale Drake jumped and sipped hurriedly at his drink.

“What? Oh—it’s fine. I’m just not uh, among my p—the crew.”

“To overthrow the walls.”

“Right. Right.”

The two stopped. Mrsha glanced up and saw how Vetn sat back, and Tesy fiddled with his own charcoal pencil. For that matter, Qwera, who’d pointed Mrsha out to Ysara, was watching her two younger friends as well.

“…I told them that you were Sellme.”

Tesy jumped, but Vetn had his paws in his pockets.

“I um. Told them what you did last time. Would you be willing to do it again?”

“…Sure.”

Vetn’s grateful smile made Tesy answer, but it turned a bit apprehensive as the Thief of Clouds beckoned the door-Drake over. The Drake was as anxious as Tesy, and they began to confer in hushed voices. Mrsha missed what was happening. She was scribbling as fast as she could, but there was no way she was going to transcribe all of Juliet and Romeo in one go.

She did her best, and the crowd, already wanting to recite it on stage, was delighted, but Qwera grabbed Mrsha despite the protests and towed her over to Ysara.

“Hello, Mrsha. Are you…Mrsha from The Wandering Inn? Of Liscor? My younger sister wrote to me about you.”

Mrsha’s tiny jaw opened wide as Ysara introduced herself. She backed up and the merchant of arms and alchemy snorted.

“That’s someone who’s met Yvlon and Ylawes, alright.”

She told me you were an arms merchant in the north!

“She is. A respectable member of House Byres in the north, an upstanding armor merchant. A filthy degenerate in the south.”

The two women laughed at the joke. Then Ysara turned back to Mrsha.

“You had better explain what happened. I understand some of it—but if you’re the reason armed Gnolls are waylaying people on the roads, this is serious.”

“I know of a safe place to take her, Ysara. We have to lose the trackers on her. Even if we use a lesser teleport scroll…we have four stashed, but they’ll pick up her scent. Unless we either get her so far away there’s no chance of them tracking her, like over sea. Or…”

Mrsha’s eyes went round as Qwera laid out a brilliant, and brilliantly dangerous plan. Ysara’s brows rose ever higher.

“That’s incredibly dangerous, Qwera.”

“Which is why it will save her. I won’t have Plain’s Eye tearing down this place or putting this city into chaos. We move out tonight. But it depends on you helping us. I need someone to be a ‘client’, and someone I can trust.”

The woman sighed, but looked at Mrsha and nodded.

“Yvlon knows her too. I can hardly refuse. Alright. What’s…”

All three broke off from the planning as a great cry ensued, and the attention around the plays, plans to spirit Mrsha out of danger, and the general hum of the bar ended. For there stood Vetn, smiling wider than Mrsha had ever…

No—smiling. Which she didn’t know if she had seen since he’d rescued her. The Thief of Clouds looked proud, too. Immensely, deeply proud. Because it wasn’t himself he was proud of.

It was the Drake with the magic brush, who shyly lowered it. He backed up. Mrsha didn’t understand, for a second, as a tall female Drake gasped and looked into a mirror that Vetn held up.

It was only when she saw the same dress that she did a double-take. Yet every line of the Sentry had changed. Even her face was different. Mrsha stared at Sellme and realized.

He had painted her. The Drake stood back, and tears sprang to her eyes.

“Careful. You’ll get it wet.”

Sellme muttered, awkwardly. He was taken aback by the hug, and kiss on his cheek. Then, the Drake stepped back.

A second person begged for the [Magical Painter]’s help. This time, Mrsha watched. Even Qwera and Ysara watched.

“Is that…Sellme?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know he could…?”

Qwera half-rose. She looked to Vetn, who was hovering, then clearly invited the Drake to a dance as someone produced an actual instrument, a violin, and began to play a song different from the peppy beat from the song crystal. The Golden Gnoll looked at Tesy as he began to work, swiftly, conferring with a female Gnoll in her sixties.

“No. But Vetn did.”

This time, Mrsha heard a song suited to a ballroom. It suited the magnificent Drake dancing with the charming Thief of Clouds, holding back tears, which would spoil the moment. Someone else joined her. A handsome Gnoll, his fur gleaming like silver, dressed in an old suit that fit him as only an artist could envision it.

More people turned, and suddenly they were out of place. For a moment. For it seemed like two figures had emerged from a painting of a royal court.

For a little bit they were like characters in the wrong world of the real. Then Tesy swept across the floor, creating a pattern, then copying it. The wood turned, becoming marble tiles. He swept across the plain furniture, adding gloss and gilding. For a second, the female Drake turned. Then the Gnoll gave her a bow, awkwardly, and gestured. She laughed and took his arm and they tried to dance like they were on that ballroom floor.

Sellme. Mrsha’s eyes were wide. The [Magical Painter] worked so fast. Not perfectly. If you looked closely, you could see imperfection. But only if you looked. He painted two more people, listening to their whispers, as people walked onto the dance floor.

“Ah.”

Ysara herself rose and walked forwards, like she was dreaming. To show them the dances she remembered. Not for her enjoyment, but to complete the scene. Qwera hesitated, half-rising herself, all plans forgotten for a moment. Then her eyes followed two figures.

Vetn and Tesy. The Thief of Clouds had been propositioned and he was swinging a partner around in a dance on the illusory floor, laughing with delight. The tune was picking up; no somber, boring waltz, this. Almost everyone was dancing and Mrsha felt like doing some herself.

Then she saw Vetn turn, and the panting [Magical Painter] looked up. Vetn strode over, paw outstretched, beaming with pride and admiration. He offered a hand to Sellme.

The Drake froze. Tesy stared at Vetn, and the Thief of Clouds hesitated. It was something only Qwera and Mrsha saw, amid the great cheer. After all—it was only three seconds. Then Vetn stepped back, was seized by another partner, and Tesy sat, fiddling with his brush.

Oh. So that’s how it is.

Qwera looked down at Mrsha. She nodded, sadly.

“That’s how it is.”

Even so, she rose, and carried Tesy herself into a dance, and applause from the rest for his work. Sellme did smile, then. A tentative…ally.

Mrsha took Ysara’s hand and they did a simple waltz to show the others how it was done in Terandria and Izril’s Human courts. She looked around the grand ballroom, the bar that existed across Izril that she had never known about. She smiled, for a while, until the paint began to flake away.

Then to reality she returned. But she never forgot.

Nor did Qwera. She approached Tesy as he helped remove paint, told the tearful Drakes and Gnolls he couldn’t make it permanent. That he was sorry. Qwera turned to Vetn, as Ysara waited.

“We have a plan to escape this net of hunters, Vetn.”

“A teleport scroll? They can track it.”

“I am sure they can.”

The Golden Gnoll replied. She swung her eyes to Ysara. Then she calmly, carefully, picked up Mrsha, and handed her to Ysara. The little Gnoll wiggled, but only a little bit.

“I have now enslaved and captured this Gnoll girl. I will sell her to you for two coppers, Ysara.”

“Hm. I’m not in the business of taking [Slaves], but I’ll make an exception if you take the rest of my products, Qwera. Dead gods, this is going to be a problem if I head north and they ask me about cargo in the last six months.”

“Sometimes you have to sell people.”

Qwera turned back to Vetn. The young Gnoll was blinking. Tesy looked outraged as he whirled around…then saw Mrsha waving. Mrsha the Helpless wiggled her ears at him.

“Vetn. Ysara is going to stay here for two days. I’m riding south at best speed; I’ve decided to amend my travel plans. In two days, I would like to hire the Thief of Clouds to steal something. To steal something, and to bring it to me, in secret, past all security and watchers.”

“Hm. And what would that be?”

The Thief grinned at the smart Gnoll friend. Qwera looked at Mrsha. The object of extreme value waved.

“Oh, I have an idea. I’ll pay you five thousand gold.”

The Thief of Clouds considered it. His eyes sparkled at the challenge. He looked at the object he had to steal.

“I think I can use my Skills on that. Make it fifteen thousand?”

Qwera grabbed for his ear and he ducked away. Mrsha held up a bit of parchment.

Make it twenty thousand!

Now that was how you cheated with Skills and meaning. The Golden Gnoll winked at her. Mrsha liked Qwera already. Vetn, Tesy, they were alright.

And she…she was going to beat those stinky Plain’s Eye Gnolls. Mrsha wiggled in delight at her plan. No one was going to expect this.

 

——

 

The Meeting of Chieftains had to be led. By custom, the hosting tribe, Az’muzarre, along with the eldest [Shaman], that of Gaarh Marsh, convened the event. The vast tent that the chattering Chieftains and [Shamans], introducing themselves, settling in clear groups or deliberately apart, gathered in, had been fashioned into a round bowl, so that someone could stand in the center and talk, or speak and be seen and heard across the vast place.

There were over two thousand representatives, from tribes big and small. A vast gathering. Dangerous?

Well, if all the Chieftains and [Shamans] and greatest members of their tribes were to perish in this one moment, certainly. But apart from Adetr’s paranoia, there was little to fear.

From Named Adventurers—although Lehra wasn’t among those actually attending because she presumed it was going to be boring—to the many warriors outside, there was no way anyone was getting inside.

Of course, Gnolls could be invited and they often were, to give testimonial, put forth ideas…Krshia heard a murmur.

“The Raskghar.”

Her ears pricked up. A growling Chieftain sat, bright-eyed, muttering down to Demas Metal’s Chieftain.

“Are they going to appear before us today? I’d rather get it over with. I can still smell them.”

“Today, unless a tribe brings up something of more importance still. I cannot imagine what that might be.”

The first Chieftain, that of Heshfur’s tribe, one Krshia didn’t know, far to the east, grinned and sat back.

“Then you’ve never been to one of these events before. Tomorrow, then.”

Krshia was vibrating with nerves. She was about to bring up something greater than even the Raskghar. Which would it be first? Akrisa noticed her younger sister’s nerves and leaned over to whisper, so quietly only they could hear.

“Gift first. Show them magic. Then tell them a key to it should not be slain. Leave Inkar for Eska and her tribe. First our gift, then Mrsha. Then Earth.”

Cetrule nodded imperceptibly. Krshia nodded. That was a logical way to do it. She had seen some of the other gifts of the tribes. Some were fine, others mediocre.

Silverfang’s? She didn’t know if even a great tribe could beat it. Mind you, not all had tried as hard. Krshia and Akrisa had planned and labored for two decades to make their debut here, and impress the others. She was almost positive the spellbook would be beyond others.

Even so, she waited as Az’muzarre’s Chieftain spoke. She was an old Gnoll, a [Warrior] to her core. The Gaarh Marsh Tribe’s [Shaman] was even more old still, and when she died, it would probably be Plain’s Eye’s Ulcreziek who convened future meetings—if he didn’t pass away as well.

Theirs was a huge gathering in the center, surrounded by Steelfur and other traditional tribes. Woven Bladegrass sat far opposite with the ‘young’ tribes, progressives, newly-formed. Some, like Demas Metal, were carefully neutral.

Silverfang was as well, to some extent. That Ekhtouch sat with them was already attracting notice. Krshia saw Chieftain Iraz glancing her way. Her stomach tightened, but his nod made her relax.

In exchange for knowledge about Rose, he had agreed to support Silverfang in speaking first at this gathering. It was a simple procedure.

Every tribe wanted to be first, but only a few would actually stand when the [Shaman] of Gaarh Marsh asked. Only those who thought they could have enough tribes stand to support them.

Chieftains only. That was how they voted. This was a communal affair, and they would work out every tribe’s issue, from first to last. Krshia had heard of Chieftains meeting every day for three months straight—although that was an outlier. She doubted it would take that long. They’d argue and discuss outside of the eight hour sessions, and you could actually come and go. But no one would do that on this first day.

Chieftain Xherw of the Plain’s Eye tribe himself glanced at Akrisa, and his look was intent. But then he glanced around the room.

Tribes of power. Great tribes. Krshia knew many.

Gaarh Marsh. Weatherfur. Plain’s Eye. Wild Wastes. Steelfur. Az’muzarre. Populations so huge that they could equal Drake cities in number, and make even the Walled Cities walk carefully. Tribes she had never even seen, only heard of, like Deskoit Travellers, who moved by night.

The three of them sat, fur dark as midnight, comfortably talking with the Wild Wastes Chieftain. Honored Berr wasn’t present for some reason; then again, not all Gnolls wanted to sit and listen, great moments or not.

Silverfang counted itself among the bigger tribes, not the greatest.

Brothers and Sisters of the Plains.

The voice of Az’muzarre’s Chieftain made Krshia jump, and she wasn’t the only one. It was a roar fit for a battlefield and echoed in this tent. The Chieftain moderated her tone.

“At last we gather. So again, twenty years ago I stood here. So, now. Let the cities of Drakes remember who we are. Now is the time to plan our future. To gather our strength for great deed and necessity. I will not speak long. I give this to Gaarh Marsh’s wise Theikha. We shall speak of our enemy soon enough.”

She had said far more with that speech, however. A reminder that Az’muzarre had hosted this last gathering. As always, a reminder that Drakes did not rule Izril alone.

Chieftain Xherw frowned a bit, as did some Chieftains who thought Az’muzarre made much, acting as the war-leader of any presumed host. However, the universally respected Honored Theikha, [Shaman] of Gaarh Marsh, was more diplomatic in word.

“As each tribe has many needs and wishes, I call upon each to stand and lay every issue they might before the Chieftains present. We shall return to some issues, but they shall all be heard in time. If you have a gift to share among the tribes, let it be when you speak. I shall oversee and silence the most furious arguments, but I am intermediary alone. I do not speak for my tribe. Let my voice be the one of reason if tempers flare. After all—some reason is needed in such times, yes?”

A chuckle. The old, grey-haired Gnoll smiled around as tribes relaxed. She was a good pick and had done this two times, a sign of skill and age. Krshia’s breath caught.

Now was the moment she had waited twenty years for. She saw Akrisa trembling, and Cetrule silently placing a hand on his partner’s shoulder. She nodded as the three Silverfangs waited. Theikha looked around, eyes knowing.

“Then. Which tribes will first lay their claim before the Meeting of Chieftains?”

A moment of humongous silence. Even Akrisa didn’t move, even though she had planned this. To stand was a sign. A sign you considered your message most important of all. She slowly began to rise, as another body shot to its feet.

Chieftain Reizet, of Az’muzarre. She had returned to her tribe, and stood. Krshia saw Akrisa freeze as Az’muzarre’s Chieftain barked.

“I do not stand for my tribe alone, but for all tribes! I say—I ask that we bring forth our ancient foe, the Raskghar, and deal with them first of all!”

Voices rose in surprise, murmurs of agreement—silenced as Theikha, frowning, looked at Chieftain Reizet.

“One Chieftain speaks. It is a matter of Az’muzarre, Chieftain Reizet, to claim Raskghar as the first issue of note. All tribes care about all issues. Who else wishes to speak?”

A moment of silence. Akrisa rose.

“I am Chieftain Akrisa of the Silverfang Tribe. I ask to bring forth a decision regarding our gift, which I find worthy to put forth before even the Raskghar. As well as a discussion on the traditions of our tribes.”

Hers was far more of an enigmatic statement, but it raised even more of a murmur. She thought her gift was more important than the Raskghar? Some Gnolls laughed, but others looked at Krshia and she heard a murmur.

Liscor.

From whence the Raskghar had come. Even Reizet frowned at Akrisa. Krshia was vibrating so hard she thought she was shaking her seat, but she saw the Wild Wastes Chieftain, Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur’s Chieftain—and Feshi—all looking their way.

“Two tribes wish to speak. Then let each Chieftain vote—”

Theikha began, but a third candidate rose. And this one neither Krshia nor Reizet expected.

“I am from a new tribe. Forgiveness, Shaman Theikha, I did not know how this gathering worked. I am Chieftain Werri of the Woven Bladegrass Tribe, and I bring forth a discussion fit to change all tribes. I bring to you our gift, and an offering to be decided on.”

Chieftain Werri rose, the young Gnoll and her tribe who had made war on the Drakes poised, grinning widely. Krshia saw Xherw frown, and the tribes looked at this third challenger.

Three. No one else rose. It was incredible; even the great tribes didn’t think anything was more important than Raskghar. So why these two?

“Very well. Three tribes ask to be heard first. We shall vote. Who stands for the Az’muzarre tribe’s request?”

Theikha didn’t waste time. Now Krshia’s fur prickled. They could, of course, always be heard after the Raskghar, but Mrsha was in danger and each deliberation could take ages or a short time depending on how long they argued. There was protocol for that.

But now—she watched as Chieftains got to their feet, rose, or, sometimes, looked around and sat down. Because this was factional, to some degree. Who voted meant other tribes might agree—or disagree if they had issues with the tribes supporting.

Plain’s Eye’s Xherw rose with great dignity, the force of his presence in the air. Instantly, other tribes rose with him. Decles, traditionalists, Az’muzarre, of course…

Not Iraz. Xherw turned his head, visibly surprised, and then looked around.

Gaarh Marsh was seated. Wild Wastes, Weatherfur…Krshia’s heart leapt in her chest. Deskoit Travellers were completely caught off-guard. They and their allies had risen, but not even a fifth of the tribes here had supported talking about the Raskghar!

Some Chieftains had risen, taken a look at Iraz, who was pointedly staring at Akrisa, and sat back down. Even Theikha seemed surprised.

“Then, who will rise for Silverfang? And their gift?”

Iraz stood, as well as Ekhtouch, Greenpaw, Longstalker’s Fang, Akrisa herself…over a hundred different Chieftains rose to their feet in a moment. Curiosity, knowledge of Silverfang’s relationship with the Raskghar, following the great tribes like Iraz and Ekhtouch—

Krshia breathed. It was happening. She turned to Akrisa, beaming—just in time for Cetrule to inhale. She looked back at the [Shaman] and saw him looking around.

If less than a fifth of the tribes had voted for Az’muzarre, a fourth of the room was now on its feet. But—and this was some advanced math here—a fifth and a fourth didn’t even equal one half of the room.

The other tribes were sitting. And the greatest tribes, even Weatherfur, had yet to move. Theikha nodded. She sensed it too.

“Very well. Not all tribes will vote, so I ask. Who will hear Woven Bladegrass and Chieftain Werri first?”

Dead silence. Then Wild Wastes, Weatherfur, Gaarh Marsh’s Chieftains all stood in unison. Werri grinned. Gnoll Chieftains rose, glancing at her tribe, some nodding, others following the biggest tribes.

Half the room rose to its feet. Krshia choked and the other Chieftains, even Iraz, even Xherw, Reizet especially, looked aghast.

A new tribe had just beaten two old ones in presenting its gift and case first. Theikha let the murmurs run for a good minute. She lifted her paw.

“It is done. Woven Bladegrass will offer its gift and proposals first. Then Silverfang. Then Az’muzarre. Those who wish to speak afterwards will ask then. Chieftain Werri. You may speak where you stand or come to the center.”

She bowed, slightly, and Chieftain Werri descended. A small Gnoll. Very short by their species’ standards. Krshia had heard…she could grow.

The Chieftain stopped, a second, and looked around that gathering of Chieftains. She was unafraid. Like Reizet, she was a warrior, and she neither flinched nor hesitated. She grinned, with young bravado, with a passion to put age to shame.

“I thank you all for hearing my words first. Some of your tribes know what I plan to ask. Others simply agree with me. My tribe, from the day it was founded, has fought the Drake cities. We do not seek peace, with these overlords of scale who think to claim our lands, to tell us what to do with their armies. Woven Bladegrass will fight on behalf of the tribes. But, I think, we will not do it alone.

Woven Bladegrass makes war and brings us into conflict with the Drakes. We can ill afford it. Not all tribes hunger for blood like yours.”

A Chieftain leapt to her feet and shouted at Werri. Krshia was stunned, but apparently that was completely acceptable. Now a proposal had been launched, anyone could speak. Werri just laughed.

“Not all tribes have the strength to live in peace with Drakes! Or have all you, Chieftains, always felt Drakes were happy neighbors? Or did they tolerate us, make threats, make demands, treat our people like savages? Barbarians of the plains?”

The Gnolls muttered. She struck a chord, even with Krshia, who was used to Liscor. But a laugh came from lower down in the stands.

“Some of us are savages. [Barbarians]. Let them call us what they want.”

Wild Wastes’ Chieftain was reclining. Werri grinned, and ducked her head as a few people chuckled; others were disapprovingly staring at the pipe the Chieftain was smoking.

“Perhaps so, Chieftain Perale. But I ask—have you never heard of Paworkers? Do you not know of tribes that have disappeared because a Drake city objected to them being there?”

A slow nod was her reply. A silence that spoke volumes. However, then Chieftain Iraz rose. He glanced once at Akrisa, perhaps in apology, before glaring at Werri.

“Not all tribes make war to enflame the Drake’s fury, Chieftain Werri. They are quite capable of sending armies to attack us all because of what you do. What would you say to that?”

Her eyes glittered.

“I would say, great Chieftain Iraz, that your tribe is famous for fighting Drakes as well. But if mine has burnt cities of Drakes? What of Plain’s Eye, who, in their hunt for Doom, has set multiple cities ablaze! Who has provoked more, eh?”

Krshia sat bolt upright. Now, all eyes turned to Chieftain Xherw. He calmly stood, as Shaman Ulcre stood with him.

“We hunt monsters, Chieftain Werri. It must be done. I admit we have provoked the cities. Both our tribe and yours. We shall decide if censure is needed for both, here. Your point? I ask it, yes?”

The calm response made Werri scowl for a second. She gestured, without a word, and the Chieftains turned as Gnolls marched down, carrying huge chests, and unveiled their gift before the tribes.

This is what I offer.”

It was what Krshia had expected. She saw magical swords, shields, arms and armor being placed down around Werri. Not just enough for a hundred Gnolls to be geared up. Not just enough for a thousand.

Weapons for a small army, magical all. Lesser or greater enchantments; usually lesser. Looted, perhaps used and now recycled into gifts.

Spoils of war. It was an impressive gift, but not impressive, if that made sense. It was entirely what Werri would give if anyone thought about it, so while there were a few murmurs, even she did not stand long on her gift.

“I offer weapons and armor for battle! To each tribe!”

“Fitting. Enough to arm a warrior from head to toe in most tribes. Is this your gift that exceeds the Raskghar’s danger, though, Chieftain Werri?”

That remark was amazingly snippy and it came from Reizet herself. Werri turned and the look the two warrior-Chieftains gave was like lightning bolts meeting in midair. Then Werri bowed deeply, and, in this setting, it was the most insulting thing she could have done. Az’muzarre’s warrior and [Shaman] growled, and Theikha stirred. But Werri continued.

“It would be a poor gift, yes, Chieftain Reizet. A poor gift, say, to a weapon of Dragonbone. If Az’muzarre ever thought to share its great power with another tribe. But it never does.”

“Chieftain Werri. We do not provoke conflict. State your piece, please.”

The growling from Reizet’s throat was followed by Theikha’s warning. Werri nodded. She turned and shouted to the others.

“This is half of Woven Bladegrass’ gift, Chieftains. The other half is conditional! I did not think to offer it, but I accepted it on behalf of my tribe to offer you. A great offer, and a gift.”

Krshia’s eyes narrowed. What was this? This was what Werri had intended. What could be on par with their gift? What could…

“We claim the Great Plains, though few Drake cities ever acknowledge it as ours. We claim bits and pieces of land, and travel, for the Drakes put down their damned cities and say ‘all this is mine’. We never put flags and stone down, so we have no claim. As they say it. We have contracts. Some tribes have land, like Greenpaw—”

Werri turned and Orelighn jumped and went white under his fur as everyone suddenly looked at him. But he was only the point to her claim. Werri brandished something in her paws. It looked like a contract scroll, enforced by magic.

A good one. Krshia leaned in. Werri’s voice dropped. She was practically shaking with excitement, now.

“There is little land not ours. Some of our kin even went to Chandrar, and perhaps some tribes will say we should follow them—”

Weatherfur’s Chieftain jumped and Feshi inhaled as Werri glanced at them. Both glared, and some Chieftains gasped.

“Chandrar? Leave Izril?”

She had just given away their plan! Krshia sat back, having heard the same. What was Werri doing? Yet the Chieftain brandished the contract.

“I say—I say we do not need to go to Chandrar! Or go north! I know there are Chieftains who wish to live among Humans! I know there are Chieftains who wish to join the King of Destruction—perhaps even his messengers stand among us! But there is land here. I hold in my paws an agreement. An agreement that would give us, by contract, witnessed by magic, four hundred thousand acres of land. As a gift, offered freely! With more to come if we accept what is offered.”

Four hundred th—? Krshia’s gasp filled the room along with voices of sheer incredulity. That was…she tried to estimate. A square of over six hundred miles!

Multiple tribes could roam around freely in that space! Given? To Woven Bladegrass?

“This cannot be true, Chieftain Werri. Not even a Walled City would give that much as a gift.

Chieftain Xherw snapped. Many Chieftains barked agreement. Yet Werri’s smile was confident.

“I do not lie, Chieftain Xherw. The free land is a place, and this contract is true. It extends from Recles’ Ridge, all the way down to the mouth of the River Illel.”

She named Izrilian landmarks. The names were certainly that, but—Krshia’s brow furrowed. She thought she knew the names, but who had that much land? No Wall Lord, even. Not even Ilvriss could just…but where had she heard the names?

Cetrule’s mouth had opened wide. He knew where that was. Xherw turned to Ulcre—then the [Shaman] barked a hoarse laugh.

“…Chieftain Werri. That is a poor joke. Those lands are already…not occupied, but claimed. That? That is—no one’s land. Land that used to belong to Manus. It extends from their borders right up to…the Hivelands.”

Iraz’s neck whirled around. Then he leapt to his feet. Chieftain Werri grinned. Theikha had to actually bar the way of the Steelfur’s Chieftain as he descended, pointing a finger at her.

“Chieftain Iraz! Let Chieftain Werri speak!”

“Are you consorting with the Antinium, Werri?”

“I consort with no one, Chieftain Iraz! Listen to me!”

The shouting died down as everyone listened. Krshia was on the edge of her seat. Werri, turned, eyes alight.

“This is a gift. From no less than the Grand Queen of the Antinium. Before you shout—it is a gift unfettered. She contacted me, via the one known as the Small Queen, nearly a year ago. This is a gift—though we need not take it. I know it is near danger, but she assured me that we would never conflict with the Antinium. And this is the offer she asked me to present.”

Now, everyone hung on her words. Even Xherw, who had been prepared for revelations about another world. Even Iraz, Krshia, Akrisa…Werri spoke. To the tribes who had no love for Drakes, to their…

Allies. Who began to realize this Meeting of Tribes might be concerning indeed.

“She asks nothing of us. Antinium are not Gnolls, and we have shed blood with each other. We do not know each other. However—the Antinium and Drakes are bitter enemies, yet they left us largely alone in two wars. Drakes made war on our people for aeons. Should we come to the aid of these cities for lip service and a dagger in the back when they have no need of us? The Grand Queen asks nothing of us. Exactly nothing.”

“Meaning?”

Chieftain Perale’s whisper was quiet. Feshi’s head was raised, like someone hearing distant war drums. Or her Professor’s laughter. Werri’s eyes shone.

“If the Antinium should go to war with the Drakes—we will not take arms against them. A pact of non-aggression. Either way, an enemy weakens. We take not the Antinium’s side. We take not the Drakes’. Neither has love of us. So why should we die for the other? That is what I put before you, first.

Dead silence. Krshia’s mind spun with the implications. Xherw was on his feet. Werri waited, as even Theikha’s head turned with a look of consternation. Right before the roar of voices, even bodies surging down to argue with her in the center.

The Meeting of Chieftains had truly begun.

 

——

 

News about the first offer of the Antinium to Gnoll tribes was out and in circulation within the hour. From Grand Magus Eldavin and Wistram, to Drake cities, certain people heard the contents through various means and flipped.

Sometimes literally. But while Grand Magus Eldavin cursed again that Wistram should have taken more interest in the Meeting of Tribes, it was not to say that there weren’t representatives at that gathering.

Just not Wistram. Because Gnolls had ‘no magic’, or at least, none that included Wistram and there was a mutual grudge over some misunderstanding.

Which was an interesting thing, when you really got down to it. As for the news with the Antinium? Well, it was interesting, but it had no way of passing. Even the most radical tribes would hesitate before thinking about that kind of deal, which would make the Drakes hostile.

Whether they took the land was interesting. Still concerning, because it meant the Antinium were showing a level of radical cunning beyond what anyone had expected of them.

He only wished he could see, and have a voice in that gathering. Not for the first time, the Necromancer, Az’kerash, bane of the living and so on and so forth, regretted that Regrika Blackpaw had been exposed, right before this Meeting of Tribes when her identity had been neatly set up.

Then again, if she were revealed by the highest-level [Shamans], it might be just as concerning. It was not impossible. He had agents in the Meeting of Tribes, both direct and indirect, but he didn’t have anyone inside the tent with the Chieftains. It was inherently dangerous.

That was why Kerash posed as a travelling warrior, albeit one who had spoken with Chieftains. It was the logical move to influence events without putting him in any danger of being seen by someone who could break through the veils. Again—Az’kerash was beyond almost all living mortals, but specialists could match him in one area, especially if talents combined.

Of course that went the other way as well. He was privy to the frantic [Message] spells shooting out of the Meeting of Tribes, despite their poor attempts at concealment.

“Peace with the Antinium. I did not consider that. However, even if I thought it had the remotest chance of passing—which it does not—I am not sure which would benefit me. Her vote will, of course, fail. Even Chieftain Werri understands that. This is a sign there is a growing rift between Drakes and Gnolls once more. Perhaps an opportunity to truly sow discord here.”

He mused. Kerash, who was roaming the outside of the Meeting of Chieftains, the very outskirts lest Chieftain Ulcre or someone else look at him, listened to his master’s voice.

Should I attempt to find the Chieftains if they leave the tent?

Perril Chandler paused but a moment, thinking.

“No, Kerash. Continue to circle. You will attend another Chieftain you have met tonight, and discuss with them the issue then.”

Yes, Master.

Some things were very curious. Az’kerash frowned. No—Archmage Chandler frowned, because this reminded him of his past.

“Gnolls were never the most populous species at Wistram. Did I perceive a—a decline in their number? Yes…I did. I mentioned it to Zelkyr, but only once. This narrative that Gnolls know no magic, however? Do you know what this is, Belavierr?”

He turned. Speaking of specialists beating the great legends of old…the Stitch Witch sat, her eyes locked on the representation of the world as through Kerash’s eyes on the scrying orb. She was furious.

She had come back, missing an eye, from her errand abroad, down on magic, time, and dignity. She had refused to talk about it. Now, she sat, hunched over. She did not speak to Az’kerash, but to his servant.

“There is a child there. Stare at her. Left.”

Kerash hesitated, but turned his head. He peered at a Gnoll boy, running along, laughing.

“Cers! Stop that!”

Kerash stared, but Belavierr had lost interest. She kept telling him to stare at random Gnoll children. Az’kerash did not know why, but someone had incurred her wrath. A dangerous thing.

Only then did the Spider address Az’kerash.

“Gnolls have become [Mage]-less?”

She was as oblivious as he was. Which wasn’t surprising, but the Necromancer had found that Belavierr either knew nothing of even obvious events, like Ailendamus’ rise—or she was hyper specialized and knew some knowledge about the secrets of the world that even he lacked.

“A strange belief, yes. Wistram Academy has no Gnoll [Mages]. Which is odd because their narrative is that ‘Gnolls cannot learn magic’.”

“…Odd.”

Even the Stitch Witch looked interested at that. Az’kerash continued.

“I have encountered Gnolls capable of performing arcane magic as opposed to spiritual magic.”

“I have as well.”

“Do you recall any in recent history?”

The two immortals thought. ‘Recent history’ was a loaded term for them. Belavierr twisted her neck left. Right. Az’kerash himself frowned. Then he had it.

“The [Druid] child. There was a Gnoll child with white fur.”

Belavierr twitched. Her ringed gaze slowly, slowly crept over to him. Az’kerash met it.

“Do you have something to add, Stitch Witch?”

“No. Proceed.

Az’kerash continued, speaking more to Kerash because he could tell Belavierr nothing she did not already know. Organizing his thoughts on a verbal level.

“She was capable of arcane magic. I sensed a reservoir within her. Or rather…her fur. She had white fur.”

“This matters?”

Belavierr tilted her head again. Az’kerash’s gaze flicked to her.

“Fur is a storage device, or can be. For power.”

More than power with their kind.

Belavierr’s comment made Az’kerash raise his brows. That was intriguing. He had no idea about white fur’s significance.

“I shall discuss it with you later, Belavierr. Perhaps in the context of an undead creation?”

“Yes. One made of fur.”

Her smile was deeply malicious. Again, the Necromancer felt like he was missing a piece of the puzzle, but he nodded slowly.

“Fur. I merely mention it as proof that she was capable of arcane magic. Gnolls are, of course, experts in the spiritual, collective magic of their people…I do not recall seeing many arcane vessels or mana wells. But they are hardly ‘magic-less’.”

“True. They have been [Witches], and [Shamans], and [Archmages]. Why would anyone doubt it?”

“Perhaps they’ve forgotten?”

“So soon?”

It was a fault of their kind that both saw a hundred years, or even forty, as a small amount of time. Az’kerash was ‘only’ two hundred years old, but the narrative had amazed him. Belavierr hadn’t even heard of the change.

“I distinctly recall Gnolls who were [Mages]. Now though…Kerash, I will overlay your sight. Inspect the Gnolls passing by.”

The undead Draug had been patiently listening to the discussion as he pretended to eat food, socialize, and whatnot. Now he obediently turned his head. Az’kerash and Belavierr peered through his eyes.

Odd.

That was what the Stitch Witch said at last. Az’kerash murmured.

“…That is odd. Perhaps there is some credence. What could have caused it, though? No—wait! I see some arcane magic. There. Kerash, that Gnoll.”

The impressive Gnoll warrior’s head turned. Az’kerash relaxed.

“You see? There are Gnolls with innate magical power. At least one. The others…I didn’t even sense a mana well. Did you?”

The Spider made no answer. She had produced a thread and was slowly knitting it into a shape. Her eyes were suddenly…interested. Not just wrathful.

“A strange Meeting of Tribes. I remember when they were only every hundred years. Why so soon together?”

“Were they grand affairs?”

Archmage Chandler asked, his interest piqued as a student of history. Belavierr considered the question.

“Monarchs came to beg favors. I went to trade. I saved my best works for that time. Yes. Yes, they were.”

Kerash approached the Gnoll they had identified as the two talked. Even moving casually, it wasn’t hard; she was stumbling around, eyes vacant. Az’kerash frowned…he sensed something, but he went on, like a professor to his students. He couldn’t help but explain.

“There, you see? She lacks for a distinct mana pool…but she too has an arcane reservoir. In her muscles, of all things. Physical magic. Have you ever seen it?”

“Mmm. I don’t recall.”

Belavierr stared blankly at Grimalkin’s apprentice. Az’kerash nodded.

“It is an esoteric school. But this Gnoll has converted her muscles into a distinct, separate mana environment, you see? Even lacking a mana pool…they all lack one. But she can clearly cast magic. See? [Mage]. Level 8.”

Interesting.

Belavierr peered at the Gnoll. Az’kerash was about to tell Kerash to continue looking around, object lesson done, but the Stitch Witch’s eyes were glittering.

“She is enchanted.”

The Necromancer’s head turned. He had missed it—only vaguely sensed it. Belavierr could somehow see it, even through his spells. But a [Necromancer] had to…

“[True Sight]. [Eye of Revelations].”

Kerash’s sight changed. The two undead saw what Belavierr had already sensed. Az’kerash frowned.

“Hexes. This…this is interesting.”

“I sense a pattern here.”

Belavierr smiled. Az’kerash nodded slowly. He began to decipher the spells. Not arcane magic, his purview, that of [Mages], but he could see what they did. Mind, confidence…someone fairly high-level had cast them on her. He glanced at Belavierr as Ferkr stumbled along, fur ragged, eyes blank.

Then he heard the second great gift of the Meeting of Tribes and his eyes opened wide. Interesting? He decided exciting was more appropriate.

“…Is that a spellbook of the Rihal era? A teaching spellbook in first-class condition? I think it is. A genuine Tome of the Rihal Imperium. It has to be three hundred years old! The market worth alone must have been—how did they find…?”

Belavierr glanced at Az’kerash. She was trying to pull the first thread of a very interesting web out, untangle it. She was distracted by the Necromancer as he suddenly sat forwards with a collector’s avid fascination and edged away so she could concentrate.

[Mages].

 

——

 

The vote was fast and simple. It still took nearly two hours, mainly to calm down the angry Chieftains. The debate had mostly been one of hot blood, but as Theikha patiently reminded the others, they could revisit the issue of new lands given to them by the Antinium.

“Who will accept supporting non-aggression with the Antinium?”

No one stood. A few Chieftains half-rose, looked around to make sure they were seen, and sat. But not even Werri supported it. She just returned to her seat, her smile self-evident, of a job well done.

“Next, Silverfang. Please, Chieftain Akrisa, present your gift.”

It was almost a relief after the raging debate, so much so that Krshia almost forgot all of her terror and excitement. Almost. Yet Akrisa herself helped Krshia bring down the tome. The Chieftains sat forward, even Xherw, who hadn’t heard of the gift, only Iraz’s part of it.

Ulcre, though, the Shaman of the Plain’s Eye, was already frowning before the magical blanket was removed. Other [Shamans] had sensed the power there too. But as the blanket was thrown back, it came out.

A treasure from what felt like ages ago. Brought by Ryoka Griffin, to pay a debt that Krshia had thought would ruin all.

Treasure of the Grand Magus Eldavin. A great, vast volume, bound in beautiful leather, bigger than Mrsha was, so wide across two Gnolls had to carry it.

Yet light as a feather. Enchanted with so much magic that Krshia had thought you could have dragged it behind the wagon, rather than kept it in secret and security, and it would not have suffered a scratch.

A shining tome of Rihal, bearing the signet of an imperium long lost. A spellbook of magic, glowing in the light, to teach young students every basic spell ever known to their kingdom.

A magic book.

The gasps and murmurs of appreciation were but a herald to what Krshia wanted. She waited, but Akrisa was looking at her. Krshia nearly swallowed her tongue, but then gulped and spoke.

“I—I am Krshia Silverfang! Sister to Chieftain Akrisa! In the name of the Silverfang Tribe, I offer the tribes of Izril a spellbook of magic! A Tome of Rihal, from ages past, to teach every spell from Tier 1 to Tier 4 to anyone who would learn magic! I offer it that Gnolls may once again claim their glory among the [Mages] of this world.”

Dead silence. Gnolls stared down at Krshia. She saw some look up. Feshi, with eyes alight with wonder. Some were approving, like Gaarh Marsh’s [Chieftain] and Theikha herself, smiling as she glanced at the book. Krshia’s back straightened—

Then she heard a laugh. A laugh, not mocking, but more…her head turned, and she saw the Chieftain of the Decles tribe shaking his head at her.

“Honored Krshia Silverfang. Is this the gift you bring before the tribes? A magic spellbook? No—let me not make light of it. Is a relic indeed, and will fetch a vast sum if Fissival or another city, even hated Wistram, buys it. But do you claim that Gnolls should be [Mages]?”

Her heart sank. Yet Krshia’s chin rose.

“I do. I have met Gnolls who are capable of learning magic! I have heard the story of how our apprentice was mocked at Wistram, but I have met two Gnolls that—”

“Honored Krshia. Chieftain Akrisa. I do not mean to be rude.”

Shaman Ulcre rose slowly. He looked at Theikha, who was disapproving. The [Shaman] bowed.

“And I do not mean to interrupt, Shaman Theikha, but to prevent misunderstandings—I have often heard the claim Gnolls can learn magic. Certainly, we sent an apprentice forty years back to learn magic and Wistram insulted them. But I have never once seen a Gnoll who truly cast magic as [Mages] do. Only those who mistook a [Shaman]’s magic for a [Mage]’s, or who lied.”

Krshia saw the Chieftains nodding, even Weatherfur’s. But Feshi was watching her, and Werri, who had come alight with interest. Firrelle, Eska, even Orelighn, all were looking confused; none had known this was Silverfang’s gift. Dismayed? Krshia knew they were wrong.

“Great Shaman Ulcre. I appreciate your knowledge, but my sister has seen Gnolls who cast magic. Even learned from this very book.”

It was Akrisa who spoke next. Krshia glanced gratefully at her sister. Ulcre dipped his head. Krshia nodded.

“I have, Chieftains. I say to you—it might be difficult, but I saw with my very eyes, a child who did not know our failing pick up a wand and began to cast spells.”

“Ah.”

Ulcre nodded. Understandingly. Even expectantly. Xherw leaned forwards, calmly. Waiting.

“Will you have them perform magic before us, then, Krshia Silverfang?”

The Gnoll woman hesitated.

“She is not here, Shaman. I had sent for her, but…”

Her eyes slid sideways to Akrisa. They should have led with Mrsha. But Krshia had been prepared. She straightened her back.

“…But there is another! I did not send for her because I knew that there was also a Ferkr, apprentice to Magus Grimalkin of Pallass! She cast magic and—”

Now the laughter came from a few spots. Chuckles—but only a few. Most Gnolls shook their heads, wincing. Krshia stuttered and Ulcre gave her a sympathetic look. Xherw as well, genuinely sympathetic.

Because she didn’t know.

“Honored Krshia. This ‘Ferkr’ you speak of? Was she the one who admitted she was a fraud in front of the others at the beginning of the Meeting of Tribes?”

“She did, but she was…”

Lying? Krshia Silverfang’s tongue went still. Ferkr, Mrsha, both mattered, but she had never wanted to rely on either. The proof was right in front of her. And the [Shaman] knew it too.

Ulcre looked at her, and at the book.

“Can anyone cast magic? Can you? Once again, as we have in times past, let us bring forward the question of magic before the Chieftains of Izril. I am willing to let anyone cast magic from this spellbook, which I have no doubt is a relic of old. But…”

He looked around and there was silence. Desperately, Krshia opened the spellbook. The magic swam in front of her eyes, but she had never quite managed a spell. And even as Cetrule came down the steps, he stared at the words, put his paw on the page and…and…shook his head.

“I cannot do it. I have no power here, Krshia.”

Akrisa’s head turned, as her skin blanched under her fur. Krshia desperately looked around. Some Chieftains just didn’t look at her, politely, to avoid compounding the moment. She searched for words in her dry mouth as Xherw stood.

“Let us hear whatever Silverfang has to say. Magic aside, they have brought a Relic to us, and we shall not take that lightly. Honored Krshia, Chieftain Akrisa, proceed.”

They tried, or rather, Akrisa did, but it had all gone wrong. All…according to someone’s plan. Deeply laid. Krshia Silverfang felt the world imploding around her.

Until the shouting. The argument at the entrance to the Meeting of Chieftains. Shaman Theikha’s head rose and Chieftain Reizet bounded to her feet. Yet she did not throw out the intruder. She looked down, eyes alight. Then shouted down.

“Shaman Theikha. Here comes someone to put truth to claims, or lay it to rest. Will you let someone in, by Az’muzarre? She dared to challenge even my warriors. I say—let the Gnoll come forth!”

Krshia’s head rose, as the voice cut through the roaring. Shaman Theikha nodded, interested. And down she came.

Shaman Ulcre’s polite stare away from Krshia suddenly turned. Chieftain Xherw’s sympathetic smile shifted. He looked up, as a figure came down the stairs.

Young. Well-muscled, even for warriors. Stepping, well, shaking like a leaf before a storm. Yet she did walk down, despite it all. Freed. Apprentice to the Sinew Magus of Pallass. And he did not train cowards.

Ferkr. She came to a rest, in front of Krshia, Akrisa. Her eyes lingered on the spellbook. Then she bowed to Shaman Theikha, and in a trembling voice, spoke.

“I…I am Ferkr of Pallass. Apprentice to Grimalkin the Fist! Sinew Magus of Pallass. By his bidding, my master asked me to present myself here and prove that magic can be cast by Gnolls. I was intercepted by Gnolls who convinced me I was wrong. But they were wrong. It can be done.”

She looked sideways, straight at Shaman Ulcre and Chieftain Xherw. The Plain’s Eye Gnolls looked at each other. Now, Krshia’s pulse roared in her veins.

Now.

 

——-

 

The Spider sensed it. A weave across time and space and lifetimes. She followed the thread. She did not have to hear what was going on in the Meeting of Tribes. She didn’t have to.

The arguing Gnolls, the accusations that a group of Gnolls had abducted Ferkr, convinced her to avow her claims to casting magic because it was false, messed with her mind? Oh, she smiled as she saw how it knotted and tangled the Meeting of Tribes.

But it was the wrong thread to pull. The right thread to find the true one, but not the thread. She and the Necromancer had put it into motion. He had not known, nor she, whether the Gnoll apprentice would flee or confront them if released from her magic.

It had never been a question, apparently. She stared at Az’kerash with ill-concealed curiosity.

“You released her.”

“It is a poor thing to keep [Slaves] by magic or metal. Though the hexes might have worn off.”

A pair of white pupils in dark eyes met Belavierr’s ringed ones. The Stitch Witch was…thoughtful.

“The days when you made war on Roshal are long passed, Necromancer.”

“And?”

He stood, with a surplus of emotion. As if some things had to be done. Belavierr saw him study the orb, then swing back to her.

“Do you not find it abhorrent?”

She shrugged.

“I have never cared. They praise me. They hate me. I have always done as I please.”

“Really. Then I am disappointed, Belavierr. For one of the legends I always admired about you is what you did for peoples across the ages, in cages, in chains. Yet you do not think each one should be free?”

She smiled at him, almost mocking his convictions he had remembered. But then. He was young.

“Is it poor for all, Necromancer? Is it without gain? Those who suffer rise higher from depths no one in comfort could ever sink to.”

Perril Chandler’s voice was steady.

“They should never have to climb.”

A curious voice. Rings of immortality, blinking in dissent.

“Then. How ever would they learn? Look. She has become more of herself in this moment than a year, three years could give her.”

The finger pointed and Az’kerash saw it trace the place where the young Gnoll had gone. The Archmage of Death looked at that marching back. Like the students he had ever had who made something of themselves. For all he and Belavierr disagreed on fundamentals—they agreed on this.

Ferkr had never hesitated. Outside the Meeting of Chieftains, Kerash was reclaiming his blade. He’d backed Ferkr up, but she’d won Az’muzarre’s respect. She might not have their weapons of power, or levels. But she did have a right hook backed up by the Sinew Magus’ muscle-training.

Ferkr had won her audience. Now, she stared at the Tome of Rihal. Belavierr could hear her, though Az’kerash could not. For she could see and pluck threads unseen, following the skein.

I was told by my master about teaching spellbooks like these. All I have to do is channel some magic into one of the pages and the spell should activate for me, to practice.

Krshia nearly ate her tongue. No one had provided an instruction manual! Not to Ryoka or Mrsha! Belavierr fumbled with the needle she held. No, something was off.

I would like to know why Plain’s Eye interrogated this young Gnoll! Chieftain Xherw, will you respond to that, first?

Chieftain Perale’s sharp voice. Yes, a good thread to pull, but Belavierr saw how it wouldn’t go anywhere, even before Xherw spoke.

I regret to say, Chieftain Perale, I honestly have no knowledge of which Gnolls seized Ferkr of Pallass. My tribe will investigate this matter—no, I invite other Gnolls to do so. We will make amends, this I promise, but Plain’s Eye has been used to charlatan’s claims before.

He honestly didn’t know about Ferkr in particular. A false thread that looked like it went to the right place. The argument Belavierr tuned out. Az’kerash was trying to get more information as well, but she was probing the true tangle. Why did that Chieftain sound calm? Something…

This will be investigated. Yet, Apprentice Ferkr. Can you not cast magic to show us a spell, tome or not?

A pause. Belavierr’s eyes glanced sideways at Az’kerash. He had seen part of the thread.

…I can’t. I’ve been feeling as though my magic’s disappeared. I can cast [Light], but not [Fireball]. Something’s wrong.

“Even [Shamans] can cast that spell.”

“Yes, Chieftain. But if I put magic through this spell tome…anyone can do it. Even a [Shaman] can learn [Mage]’s spells, my teacher always said. Magic is magic. Converting it across disciplines is the challenge.”

The spellbook. Such a valuable, worthless thing. But its thread was laced by a familiar wind-blown thread. Ice. Ice and fire. Belavierr’s eyes narrowed.

It was all connected. Now, she sensed the [Shaman], Cetrule, approach Ferkr, who had placed a hand on the spellbook.

“If it is magic you need, I channel Silverfang’s magic through me. I will give you some…”

He placed his paw on her shoulder. Ferkr had the spellbook open to a single spell. It should have been so easy. But as she pushed with both magics, it entered the spellbook…circulated through her body…

And nothing happened.

There, you see? Gnolls cannot perform magic.

Yet. She has the class. Will you call this Sinew Magus a liar?

Perhaps it is simply a sign she cannot ever exceed her level. Level 8?

Ferkr stood with Krshia, who had joined Cetrule, trying to call on the communal magic of Silverfang, give her the power to cast the magic suddenly lost to her. Belavierr’s head tilted this way and that. She didn’t have all the pieces.

But they were there.

 

——

 

Krshia, through the roaring in her ears of her blood pounding, looked up. Plain’s Eye’s [Shaman] watched her, seemingly genuinely encouraging. Not worried. One of many.

“How long do we have to wait?

Decles’ Chieftain was impatient, but it was Xherw who gave him a glance that silenced him. However, after nearly five minutes, the other Chieftains were shaking their heads. Once again, it was proof. Cetrule was sweating.

“It’s like a block. I can’t change my magic. I’m sorry, Ferkr.”

“But—it was like this for me, until I was through the first months of Magus Grimalkin’s program. He said I was the slowest student he’d had, but not because of my mind or effort. It was…”

Ferkr was sweating too. She couldn’t make the magic…come out! She didn’t know what was wrong.

Az’kerash had observed that her magic lay in her muscle. An esoteric type of magic practice. Like a Gnoll’s white fur. External storage from what was natural.

It was [Shaman] Theikha who interrupted. She was looking at Cetrule. At Ferkr. Now, her head rose and she looked at the Chieftain of Gaarh Marsh.

“By your will, Chieftains, my Chieftain. I ask to intercede. If Silverfang’s magic is not enough, one apprentice…I believe there is something to this claim. If there is [Mage]’s magic among us, Gaarh Marsh’s power will uncover it. By the will of tribes.”

“Let it be done.”

Gaarh Marsh’s Chieftain was on her feet. Now, two Gnolls stirred slightly. The Chieftains sat forwards as one of the greatest Gnoll [Shamans] living approached Ferkr. Cetrule backed away, but she gestured for him to join her. Both [Shamans] placed their paws on Ferkr’s shoulders.

In the Meeting of Tribes, every Gaarh Marsh Gnoll stopped for a second, as something tugged on them. They turned, lending their energies towards one cause. Krshia felt the air suddenly change, and her own fur stood up on end.

Nevertheless…

Nothing happened. No spell was cast, but Theikha was frowning.

“Something strange is happening. You are right, young Ferkr.”

Nothing was happening. But that did not mean nothing was there to see.

 

——

 

“…What is that?”

Archmage Chandler walked through Kerash’s body. As one, servant and master turned. They looked at the power gathering across the skies, into a single locus. Any fool could see that a [Shaman] was casting magic of great power. Or…trying to.

Shamanic magic. He didn’t even sense the weak arcane magic’s glow next to that burning sun. Yet—it wasn’t moving, not unleashed. It was strange. Was someone preparing to use it? But if so—it would be flowing out in some way.

It was like a cork in a bottle. But why that analogy? Then the [Archmage of Death] saw it. He was the greatest [Mage] of his era. And he saw it. The Stitch Witch, in the castle, looked at him.

“What do you see, Necromancer?”

Kerash and Az’kerash’s lips moved as one.

“Something. A counterforce. But it is…why there? What have they done? Zelkyr. Did you know about this?”

He walked forwards, in a dream. Finding pieces to connect.

All things faded. The Gnolls called this era the Waning World. Great magics of old had begun to end, like the Gnoll [Archmages], a distant memory. The Walled Cities’ power, like the Gnolls, had reduced.

There. There…the Gnoll came to a stop in the middle of the Meeting of Tribes. Almost directly down.

 

——

 

Inside the tent with the Chieftains, [Shaman] Theikha’s teeth were grinding.

“Shaman, do not hurt yourself.”

There is something there. But what? I do not know. I call upon Gaarh Marsh’s wisdom! Let there be truth, one way or another! Let the will of Izril decide! Khoteizetrough! Khoteizetrough!”

It was searching, too. A vague…vague sense. A head turned, and Gnolls glanced up. It looked around. But for another [Mage]’s genius, it might not have found it until it was too late. But there stood a helpful figure, right there.

 

——

 

Az’kerash, puzzled, unable to throw even his insight down so far, was so absorbed he didn’t see the mountain until it moved. A hill lurched. He stared up. Kerash, the mighty Draugr, Chosen of the Necromancer, undef—he backed up.

He feared no mortal. But Khoteizetrough? The Earth Elemental, guardian of Gaarh Marsh Tribe, legend of old?

That was no mortal. With a roar like the earth quaking, it moved from its resting place. Gnolls fled, screaming. The Earth Elemental had gone berserk!

No. He came to a stop in front of the Necromancer. One arm rose. The Necromancer was ordering Kerash to back up fast. Because he knew Earth Elementals and this—

The crude ‘fist’ touched the ground almost lightly. A feather’s touch. Yet the ground reacted. With the tremor that shook the Gnoll Plains, a fissure opened in the ground. The kind of thing that could suck an army screaming into the deeps.

Or uncover something. Az’kerash stood, staring down.

You know, Fissival always had a hunger for magicore. It was a reliable trade good.

A hand reached down. Grasping.

The Stitch Witch laughed as she saw the web unravelling.

 

——

 

He never moved. He was, in fact, sitting. A rare drink in his hand. Alcohol did the body no good, and he needed less of it, since fat and Grimalkin of Pallass weren’t friends.

Sometimes, though. One had to drink. The pieces spun into place as the Sinew Magus watched the scrying orb.

Fissival’s teleportation network used to span all of Izril. But it began failing in recent times. No one transported people anymore. Things could go wrong. It could have been flaws in old spells decaying.

Or…

He didn’t look up as someone compromised his mansion. The Eyes of Pallass, the spies that each Walled City had in some form or another, were very good. However, Grimalkin had trained them and learned their methods. And he was very good too.

He had only one way they could sneak in through his home, and that was the front door. He glanced up.

“I know you’re there. You may be wondering if I somehow, covertly, sent a [Message] to my apprentice. I did not. As I’m sure you’re aware, I have sent no [Messages] other than to inform others that I will not be making a trip.”

An invisible figure said nothing. Magus Grimalkin’s huge claw tightened on his cup. He went on, tersely. Watching as the Earth Elemental dug something up and began to lift it.

“I have done nothing. Absolutely nothing, as ordered. I simply…”

He looked at the scrying orb. In the background, the huge tent with the Meeting of Chieftains rose. Grimalkin whispered.

“…I simply chose my apprentices well. I tried to uncover in them the same qualities I find best. Logic, discipline, reasoning…”

Testicles? The Sinew Magus considered it. Then he shook his head. His voice rose.

Grit. My master told me how melancholy it would be, how extraordinary, but I never observed it myself. He told me to wait. For surely, one day they would astonish me, the day I saw my apprentices rise.

The cup shattered as he gripped it. Grimalkin didn’t pay any attention. He was on his feet. There it was. For all to see.

A gigantic, glowing crystal. Formed out of nearly pure magicore, shaped. Connected. Probably to others. A gigantic network. The kind that had once spanned all of Izril.

Repurposed. It was shining with so much magic that Grimalkin thought he might have seen it. Trying to contain—

The enraged Elemental knew too. It raised a huge fist, roaring, with the sound of all old plans breaking.

Deeply laid plans. They were contained in the single crystal as the fist swung down. It struck, and the explosion turned off the scrying orb as the backblast of magic obliterated every low-grade magical artifact in ten miles.

It was genius, really. The Sinew Magus had never considered that you could repurpose a teleportation network to…counter natural attempts at magic. A blanket across southern Izril, maybe even parts of the north. How much magic had Fissival poured into it?

He’d studied in Fissival. But he would ask more later. And now everyone would ask. It was done, and no one would be able to hide what had been done. The scrying orb winked out.

Yet not before Grimalkin saw the jet of fire blast straight up, from a Gnoll’s finger. A [Flame Swathe] spell, shooting into the skies of the Meeting of Tribes, fuelled by the magic of two Gnollish tribes. His greatest apprentice’s triumph, burning in his eyes.

Magic.

 

——

 

It was broken. The crystal that had been suppressing all natural magic but Ferkr’s unique training, the magic of Gnolls apart shattered. And magic returned to the places where it had been exiled.

For Gnolls. They all felt it. Even Krshia, who had been so far from southern Izril proper she’d been on the edges of the effect.

Like a bit of your soul you had never realized was missing. A door in your head that had been artificially closed every second since you were born.

Ferkr of Pallass lay on her back, grinning at the flaming hole in the roof of the tent. Shaman Theikha lay in Cetrule’s arms, a smile on her face. Bitter, but triumphant.

Truth. Chieftain Xherw and Shaman Ulcre stared, as did all the Chieftains, at the shattered crystal lying before the great guardian of Gaarh Marsh. There was nothing to identify it. No helpful sigil.

But it was there. And because it was there…Chieftain Xherw was first to speak.

“It seems there is much to answer for. Plain’s Eye will lead this hunt for facts. This—this is indeed worthy of taking precedence over the Raskghar.”

“Indeed.”

Ulcre managed. Krshia didn’t see that. She was just weeping, looking at the spellbook. It was done. Let truth come to light.

The Spider laughed at someone else’s web coming unravelled. Somewhere, the Archmage of Death sat back. For he had changed and fallen and hated the living. But once upon a time, he had been [Archmage] of Wistram. Not one people. So he smiled.

Drake cities prepared to answer the Gnollish aggression displayed of late. The aggressive Gnolls looked down at the broken link in a conspiracy under their very feet.

They decided the Drakes might be right. They had a reason to be aggressive after all.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Big chapters. Y’know, I said, pirateaba, I said, this is going to be a good 26,000 word chapter.

In fairness, it’s ‘only’ about 4,000 words more, but that’s a LOT! Each additional thousand words actually is a lot more than the first uh, 20,000.

Which I realize is a crazy thing to say, but this is why I need breaks. Anyways, it was an ambitious chapter. I wasn’t fully rested because of…lawnmowers…but that’s a web serial for you.

Imperfect, but out consistently and with hopefully a minimum bar for quality and you don’t wait like two years! Publishing books takes forever. All I do is clackity-clack and there’s words.

I’m not making much sense. Hope you enjoy and I’ll be back in a few days for the next one! Maybe a bit shorter. I do tend to run out of energy if I write big chapters in a row. But is it worth it? You tell me.

 

The Unmarked Coach by Enuryn!

 


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100 thoughts on “8.42

  1. Trading a continent spanning teleportation network for anything is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. The Drakes messed up big time.

    Looks like we’re heading to a war between Drakes and Gnolls.

    • Basically every Drake leader we have encountered is either incompetent or moronic.

      This tracks with how batshit stupid Drake society seems to be. Even Chaldion seemed on board with this. What a fucking idiot, no wonder he needed to cheat with skills to beat a normal damn human at chess.

      • In defense of Chaldion, I wouldn’t say he was approving of the plan, just merely carrying out his predecessor’s plans out of pragmatism and discipline.

        “Old plans. All of which, foolish, successful, revealed or not, are to keep this city, our continent, safe.”

        He admits as much that some of this predecessor plans (which he didn’t create) may be foolish. It seems like this plan to modify the teleportation network was before his time, and if so, what was he supposed to do? Reveal to the gnolls that they were screwed over, losing face diplomatically and making their sacrifice of the teleportation network completely for naught? I don’t believe he had much of an alternative than to continue the foolish plan.

        • If that’s the case, why did Chaldion allow Grimalkin to take on a Gnoll pupil. That way the danger of the plan being exposed or at least failing was increased exponentially. And if he wanted the plan to fail while pretending to not oppose it at the same time, then why forbid Grimalkin to go to the meeting? That doesn’t make sense to me. Still, a great chapter, as always.

          • Because, as he said, to give an order presents a narrative. Basically, ordering Grimalkin not to take a gnoll apprentice was deemed more likely to reveal the conspiracy than simply letting the gnoll go and allowing other failsafes to deal with it.

    • It makes sense if you think about it.

      The drakes as shown by Zelkyr likes to horde power.

      A teleportation network, great as it is,is mainly something used diplomatically, to enhance trade.

      The fact they created a mass magic suppressor means they want to be the only superior race.

      They hardly then need a teleportation network.

    • I doubt it’s Drakes. I bet it’s almost entirely Zelkyr’s project. He stole the Heartflame Boots and put them on his secret murder golem to make sure no one would ever get into the upper floors. Remember, at the time Wistram had decent teleport network too, and Zelkyr was effectively running the place. Ruining Fissival’s network, screwing over more people he resented, and hoarding yet more power for himself is right up his alley. Might have been a condition for him helping them drive back the Nagas and their Archmage.

      • No idea how it started but it does make sense.

        1 it only affected one Drake Walled City, but at the benefit of ensuring the rest of the gnolls would be crippled. This was before the ants became a player… And maybe the humans?

        2 it affected a wall city… Remember not all Drakes are allied with one another. Crippling a rival city for your own benefit is not too strange. Even the Garden Walled City has problems with other drake cities as they are stuck doing all the gardening and being undercut.

        3… Gnolls might have had a hand in crippling their own species… Gnolls attacked a [Mage Gnoll] and used Hexs to prevent her from acting. Gnolls are hunting white Gnolls as we found out that their fur can store magic.

        The would it not be too far of a stretch to attempt to cripple your own species ability to cast non-Shamon magic to prevent new “Doom Bringers” from being made?

        The King of Destruction has a lot of white Gnolls and usually you only get one after an entire tribe died… But multiple child survivors came as they were also an ocean away.

        Some Tribe Gnolls might have helped out in this scheme.

        • The thing that really seals the deal for me is that it didn’t cripple the Gnolls. Even before the Antinium they weren’t losing ground to the Walled Cities. If anything, it’s the opposite: a Gnollish society that relies on Fissival for its magicians and magic is a Gnollish society that is far less of a threat to the Walled Cities, same way that Liscor has to listen to Wistram. Someone like Chaldion would never in a million years have gone along with it even if hadn’t cost the teleport network.

    • I don’t think it’s that bad.
      Continent-spanning teleportation network is incredibly valuable, but when there is an entire species of people continually at war with you for the continent, suppressing them in such a substantial way so that they essentially become a non-threat is also incredibly valuable.

      It especially makes sense for drakes, who never want to give anything up, to sacrifice something on their own in order to prevent the rest of their stuff (cities & land in this case) from being taken.

      • Does that actually suppress the Gnolls such that they become a non threat though?

        Conceptually, denying a category of classes to an opposing faction may be very useful. Or not useful at all if they just level up in other valuable classes instead. Shamans and their class offshoots may not have the exact capabilities of normal Mages, but they still seem to cover a wide variety of magical skills and utility, such that shamans seem normally able to fill a lot of the duties mages would perform in other lands. It kind of seems like the main weakness of shamans is that they are weaker at independent action since they’ll be at their best with a bunch of their tribe.

        The big advantage from neutering Gnolls mages would be a temporary one, since it would create a window where their non-natural magic is neutered but before the society and individuals adjust to focus more on shamanism or other abilities to compensate.

        And in practice, we’ve seen numerous recent successful attacks by Gnolls (bladegrass raiders, Plain’s Eye doom hunters) on Drake territories of late even though the Gnolls don’t have mages. And many Drakes got antsy about the threat posed by the gathering of tribes. So neither the Drakes nor Gnolls seem to think that Gnolls without mages are a non-threat.

        Moreover, it’s not like all Gnoll and Drake interactions are strictly zero sum since we see plenty of examples of both races cooperating to mutual benefit, just as there are many historical and present day conflicts.

        It seems to be that the actual purpose of suppressing Gnoll magic is not to prevent the Gnolls from being a powerful threat to Drake cities. Pressuring Gnolls to stay in their tribes so they get their Shaman powers means that the big tribes still have effective magic for their military. Their threat is only slightly constrained (after the adjustment) – a big tribe going against a Drake city has plenty of population to fuel shamanic magic.

        However, what about the gnoll populations living in Drake cities? City Gnolls don’t seem to have shamans. We know the Silverfangs in Liscor have them, but that was a planned emigration that kept a critical mass of their tribe. Suppressing non-natural magic basically locks those city gnolls away from all magic, making them a more easily controlled underclass for those who would exploit them. :(

        It also helps to reinforce gnoll traditions too. So yeah, there are probably complicit tribes like Plain’s Eye.

        And of course wasn’t part of the point of the Fissival teleportation network that it rendered the Wall Cities resistant to siege (on top of their inherent defenses) since any city under threat would be able to draw logistical support from every other part of network. That is a pretty huge military advantage to give up if you’re thinking of “Drakes v Gnolls” instead of “drakes v drakes with a side item of fighting gnolls occasionally.” Plus since it seems like this suppression is relatively recent (in a big picture sense), it was done after Drakes and Humans started fighting too, which means that even successfully weakening the gnolls at the cost of the teleportation network just increases their vulnerability to the third party in the conflict, or any other intercontinental threats like Flos and the 7 trying conquer the whole world.

        —————————–

        I wonder how stuff like the repeated references to how Gold ranks used to be so much badass back in the day, Zelkyr kneecapping high level mages with the test locking out the good stuff, the walled cities trying to suppress an entire class cluster from the gnolls, the accelerated leveling rate of most Earthers, and the stuff with Ryoka about the suspect nature of the system all fit together.

        Could the lower levels be explained not just in terms of threats, but because there are things (like something in those related mega dungeons?) similar to gnoll suppressor out in the world sucking away a percentage of the power people born there would get? Does something like Zelkyr locking away the upper levels of Wistram potentially fit as part of a general hope to further starve g–s by keeping people from being tasty [archmages] or other high end classes?

        • Rather a unified drake plan to weaken the Gnolls, I’m thinking it’s more an act of a few powerful yet narrow minded extremists. We know, for example, that Zelkyr hates Gnolls. And I think it’s pretty significant that he’s mentioned in this chapter.

        • Mages are very useful. Even with the full resources of her tribe, Krshia couldn’t even do something as simple as sending a message over to call Mrsha to the Meeting of the Tribes, and had to discover she was kidnapped the hard way. Shamans are also powered by their tribe, this implies a limit to the amount of magical power, while the number and power of mages is not as dependent on sheer population. Not being able to produce mages and having to rely on shamans is probably a huge deal.

    • This really makes me wonder if the upper ranking Drakes have sabotagers in their ranks like the Circle of Thorns did. Like I can see moronic Drakes disabling a transcontinental teleport network to cripple Gnolls (especially after Merish almost united the Gnoll tribes) but we know from Teriarch that this also destroyed their anti-teleportation shielding for the Walled Cities.

    • We don’t have all the facts yet. who knows how powerful white gnolls could be? Also it seemd even some gnolls helped with the conspiracy. There must be a reason.

  2. Also is plains eye actually in league with the drakes on this? Unless it was city gnolls from manus or something that hexed felkr disguised as plains eye? Plains eye is allied with pallas I think. And agree trading a sure to be discovered magic stealer for a teleportation network seems weird… unless they are using the power for something specific?

    • I’m wondering if it has anything to do with preventing Doombringers from appearing? It seems like Doombringers have a powerful ability that if used poorly can lead to a tribe’s downfall.

      Perhaps this luck-ability is similar to [Mage]’s magic in that it’s individualistic and if used selfishly can bring down a tribe, unlike a Shaman’s collectivist magic system. That said, it still doesn’t explain how they could coordinate with Drakes with this, and how they would have been brought into the plan.

      • Plains eyes are a shaman tribe so not having any mages makes the a big important power to the Gholls. They might not have been in on it but went along with it anyway if they figured it out.

    • Plains eye are the Drake supported tribe that is meant to keep the other gnolls in line. They host the gnollmoot conveniently right on top of the crystal. They are also tasked with hunting down white gnolls since white gnolls have magical ability that bypasses the crystal drain on gnolls magic. By killing off white gnolls they allow the lie to continue that gnolls only have tribal magic.

      Even when the Chiefs mentioned the fact there would be strife with the walled cities due to doomsayer attacks, the plainseye chief simply waved it away due to lack of concern. They are obviously working with the cities. Also, they are a traditionalist faction and encourage the divide between city and plains gnolls, probably a task by the cities to discourage gnolls from living in cities so drake’s will maintain their majority.

      • This also tracks with real world history. Best way to maintain power over a group is to find a subset of that group amenable to co-operation and empower them.

        Generally a racial or religious minority who will then become dependant on your support.

      • This was my take-away, as well.

        The Plains Eye tribe *knew*. Way back when. That’s their only thing; they can “see”, and could see the crystals that did this. And I bet they were a little weak tribe, and the drake’s gave them a deal…and now they are the biggest, strongest tribe. And they push hard for the “old” ways. That the gnolls can’t do magic. That anyone who pushes otherwise is “removed”. *That any white gnolls, who have magic power to bypass what has been done, are “Doom” and must be exhaustively hunted and killed.*

        They literally betrayed their people for a deal with the drake’s, way back when.

      • Maybe. Chaldron calls them allies, but maybe he means that as manipulated allies.

        “That is why you are not leaving for the Meeting of Tribes. That would be…a complication. And our allies will not suffer your presence. Do you understand?””

    • Seems like it’s a secret now, but I imagine that a lot of the Gnoll leadership at the time was in on it. There are more reasons for them to want it than for the Drakes. The Gnolls were always heavy on shamanism and to all appearances have not been at all inconvenienced by the lack of arcane magic, whereas the Drakes have been severely inconvenienced by the loss of the teleport network.

      As to why the Gnolls would want it, there are two big reasons, one for the traditionalists, and one for everyone in power. For the traditionalists, the problem with magic is that you have to go to an academy to learn it properly. Plains Gnolls view City Gnolls as traitors to begin with, but these City Gnolls would be coming back (some of them, anyway). And when they come back from Fissival or Wistram or wherever, they’re going to bring strange, foreign, downright unGnollish ideas, like “hey guys, murdering children is a bit iffy” and “you know what’s cool? Indoor plumbing.” You can ignore someone like the [Mathematician] and fob off someone like Krshia, but if an [Archmage] comes back to a Gathering and starts talking about things like laws and governance and roofs? You either listen, or you get crushed.

      The second reason and the one that applies to every tribe on top of the pole is that in Gnollish society, with its almost complete lack of institutions and emphasis on personal worth, mages are inherently destabilizing. Shamanism ensures that the powerful stay powerful; levels and skill can change things on the margins, but there is fundamentally no way that Silverfang can produce a shaman to challenge Gaarh Marsh or Plains Eye because there just aren’t enough Silverfangs to draw from. Mages, on the other hand, are luck of the draw. The big tribes still have the odds on their side, but it’s no longer a certainty; it’s entirely possible that the Silverfangs show up with an [Archmage], and then overnight they’re the new head honchos.

      It helps and is probably not a coincidence that there is an enormous degree of overlap between the powerful and the traditionalists.

  3. Great chapter as always. Quite lucky that the magicore was’t placed like a kilometer (or hundred) away. Considering the radius of it’s effect that wouldn’t make much of a difference. Qwera is such a lazy name, qwertzuiopa would be much better.

    • I pretty sure there is no luck on the matter that the magicore was buried just next to the heart of the traditional meeting of the tribes

  4. ‘Truth. Chieftain Xherw and Shaman Ulcre stared, as did all the Chieftains, at the shattered crystal lying before the great guardian of Gaarh Marsh. ‘
    How are all the chieftains looking at it through a tent? (a voice echoed in there earlier so presumably it worked.

    “The two immortals thought. ‘Recent history’ was a loaded term for them. ”
    Perhaps ‘relative term’ would fit better? Loaded term kind of means something else.

    Also, ‘getting propositioned’ doesn’t mean getting asked for a dance generally, it means something more raunchy.

    • Also, the Golden Gnoll bit I found quite jarring because it seemed like it was part of the chieftains procession to the chief’s meeting.
      And having just posted a comment on this in the discord it seems i wasn’t the only one

  5. Good fucking chapter.

    I’m ALWAYS in favor of more underground gay bar scenes, and while I love Onieva, having it completely unrelated to her and Mirn really emphasizes that these are universal, they’re everywhere, it’s not just those two.

    Qwery’s speech to Mrsha made me cry. Really good.

    And finally, of COURSE Zelkyr was involved in the suppression of Gnoll magic (and by extension, the magic of almost all of southern Izril?). He’s such an awful bastard.

    • Oh also, I really wasn’t expecting Tesy to be straight, good job pulling the rug out from under me like that. I was so sure they were exes or something.

  6. I really enjoyed this chapter Pirateaba , this is the first time I have commented on a chapter but I would like to say that I love your story and the world you have created and with every new chapter you make an even more intriguing story , I look forward to the next chapter :D

  7. 400,000 acres is actually fairly small by nomadic tribe standards. It’s 625 sq miles, or a 25 mile by 25 mile square.

    Going by how the world is supposed to be much larger than earth and most drake population is settled in walled cities, that leaves a ton of land that’s open space. A 25×25 mile square would not be a jaw dropping amount to the tribal chiefs. With so much open space that would be like how the US forced natives onto reservations.

    • That is land they own without anyone else stepping on it… Without having to pay anything for it. For our world standards it is not much.

      For Innworld where you have Skills that enhance areas of land you own… Remember living on land not owned by a Noble or big class name is considered risky.

      Also remember that this is for not joining A side in a possible up coming war… With the added bonus that most races in this world “Claim” something by sending an army to grab it.

      Doing nothing and getting both legal, magical, and written agreement to say “Free Land” is a big deal in this world. It would be like healing potions being sold to our world.

      Not a big deal to them since they are common, but a major deal to us.

    • I agree that 400k seems a bit low.

      Yosemite national Park is 750k. Innverse is supposed to be larger. The Black Hills that the Sioux clan are suing for now comprises of 2 million acres. There are 56 million acres held in trust for Native Americans in the US presently. If you hammer out a rough # of how many gnolls are in a clan, the old metric of 160 acres per tribe member was what was initially granted by feds under the Dawes Act.

      • I think Pirate might have gotten miles and acres mixed up. If it were 400k square -miles-, then you’d have a square of land about 632.4 miles on each side, which fits Krshia’s mental math of it being a square of over 600 miles.

        That would come out to 256 million acres, and using the aforementioned Dawes Act figures for how much land to give each person, then that would be enough for 1.6 million Gnolls. (Which would be a pretty substantial gift, but not a game-changer for their entire race either, since there are individual tribes with more members than that)

        That would make a lot more internally consistent with it’s narrative presentation as compared to 400k acres, which would only be enough for a mere 2,500 Gnolls going by the Dawes Act figures.

  8. *Ahem*

    Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

    This was such a cool chapter, so much going on!

    It’ll be really interesting to see what the fallout is, especially when people realise Wistram must have been in on it to suppress the Gnoll mages who went there.

    It doesn’t quite explain why people have forgotten about Gnoll archmages though, stuff like that which would be in history books shouldn’t be forgotten within 150 years. There’s still going to be half elves who would remember Gnoll mages.

    And with the pic of the Unseen Coach, and it mentions it no longer served Southern Izril, is that linked to this magic suppressing artifact, something which could affect a Djinni driver?

    • The [System] censorship of belief in gods shows that worldwide intellectual blindspots can be created. It’s not much more of a stretch that a grand ritual/hex can mess with the mind of all Gnolls, just like it can suppress their magic.

      I mean, the omniscient narrator did beat us over the head how strange it was that Gnolls themselves had no memory of their archmages, that’s proof it wasn’t just an oversight by the author.

  9. My question is-what other forms of magic were being suppressed by this? What’s going to come crawling out of the woodwork now?

    • Well the suppression seemed to be tailored to Gnolls cause Drake [Mages] are able to cast magic perfectly fine. The main thing to worry about is whether this just gave the Raskghar mana wells.

      • Maybe not perfectly fine. It might not be a coincidence that the one really good Drake mage we know about uses his magic in the same way that let Ferkr get around the suppression.

        • I’d imagine that Grimalkin’s practices would have become much more widespread if Drakes were also experiencing some magic suppression, rather than just being looked at as his weird deal by the mages of Fissival. Although Drakes are very traditionalist…

  10. A plan that’s been in motion for a 50 to a hundred years. Yeah If I was in power and knew about it I wouldn’t want to be the one who messed that up.

    I don’t blame Chaldion for not wanting to rock the boat on the plan that’s been on going for as long has he has been alive.
    Especially as he would never have been the one to propose it.

    • Eh – we know Chaldion is extremely old, and also that he has been a regular beneficiary of potions to slow and even reverse that aging. The plan probably does pre-date his becoming grand strategist, but not necessarily by very much.

      • The conspiracy has been in place since the portal network failure and long enough for no gnoll mages to have existed in living memory.

        Chaldion’s age has been stated and he is a little over one hundred.

        he also as he stated became the grand strategist thanks to remaining healthy and active abnormally long letting him level more so it’s not like he became a main leader of the city at his twenties or anything like that, the conspiracy was several leaderships before him.

  11. Such good conspiracies, vampires and now this. You know, I was rereading old chapters and talk about ‘well seeding’ was made incidentally a year plus before we really heard about it. I’ve been really enjoying reading older chapters because things are setup so far in advance.
    This explains why the meeting of the tribe could be every 20 years, so they can sap the major gnolls anew. It also seems like wistram may only be incidentally involved but, since this network wouldn’t extend to wistram, that gnoll *could* have learnt magic there, so they had to kick them out

    What I want to know is what plains eye got out of it. I can believe they would be ok with it, bc they’re all about old shamanic ways, but they wouldn’t do it for free. Maybe it’s to hurt white gnolls even more. They can always store it in their fur but they lost out on using their usual body’s magic. Maybe there were famous, high powered white gnolls their shamans couldn’t beat, so they more-than-halved white gnoll’s power in exchange for buffing their own shamans

    I don’t want to nitpick and it really doesn’t take away from how good the chapter is. But same for vampires and this, why couldn’t foreign gnolls (like gnolls under the king of destruction) and foreign vampires keep their powers and then visit, making this more obvious

    • The gnoll now under Flos just got there. Gnoll shave basically been an Izril exclusive race over all. There are some gnoll adventurers, but no gnoll was really trying to learn magic abroad except the one who went to Wistram 40 years ago and was turned away. If that story is even true. Seems there have to have been gnoll working for the Walled Cities influencing all of gnoll-kind for generations.

    • Vampires everywhere else were hunted to extinction. We saw Fetohep’s reaction, and that’s probably representative: everywhere that had an infestation went with the sort of all-out extermination campaign usually reserved for Crelers. The Izril brood only survived because the Byres found a way to remove most of their vampirism.

      • We don’t know for certain that the extermination campaigns were 100% successful, it’s possible that they only led vampires to go into very deep cover instead of outright ruling over kingdoms and trying to conquer the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if we meet a [Vampire-pact King] later in the story.

    • Xherw was shown to be positively thrumming with magical power, enough that a mere touch from him imbued Merish with a few days of depression-free vigor. Instead of that simply being a Skill of Xherw, for a while I had been wondering if the Plain’s Eye tribe were somehow funneling all of the magic of Gnolls towards their chieftain.

      This bit with the massive crystal conspiracy definitely through me for a loop, but I still strongly suspect Xherw is somehow being empowered by the underground magicore network. Otherwise I just don’t know how to explain the absurd amount of energy he seemingly has to dispense at his leisure, at least not when one compares him to other powerhouses in this series.

  12. I’m starting to think Zelkyr was ordered to seal Wistram’s Upper Floors rather than doing it for his own reasons.

    We know Zelkyr was a hardcore patriot and he had suffered a ‘disastrous defeat’ against the Demons. Plus we know that the Drakes are willing to give up top tier Relics (ie their teleportation network and possibly the Heartflame Boots) if it means crippling possible threats to the Walled Cities.

    Wistram would certainly count as a threat considering there was an Archmage that fought them when the Lizardfolk invaded and another species Archmage could appear while the Walled Cities weakened their defensives to deal with Gnolls. Not to mention that Zelkyr apparently damaged a Walled City himself so that’s another possible threat removed from the board by Zelkyr sealing himself.

    • Good thinking. Yes, it makes sense. Whatever the case, The gnolls were tageted, because they dont go to wistram. See, one immortal mentioned that the gnolls had their own academy. So there was a threat of the resurgence of the gnoll academy and gnollish archmages with it.

  13. Thanks for the chapter! Cool relevation and as always loving the journey!

    On a sidenote, I tremendously enjoy the journey Az’kerash as a character has undertaken … He becomes more and more this concerned granddaddy, who cannot help but admire people who exhibit his own (former) values, which is endearing in its own right.

    Also the next chapter seems to be the moment of truth when the populance at large (through spies and such) will be informed of Earthers.

  14. Good chapter. Your ability create entertaining characters continues to amaze me, the golden gnoll was terrific.
    The reveal of the gnoll magic conspiracy was well done.
    It does leave one wondering how powerful the psi ops side of this operation must have been to cause the gnolls themselves to go along with the loss of magic so relatively recently. One imagines that some of the tribes must have been relatively easy to manipulate and pulled the others along with them, especially with a nexus of control under their great gathering.

    I wonder what Cognita will think of this news as it surely must have been masterminded by “dearest Zelkyr”

  15. Hit me right in the feels when Grimalkin reflexively reached for a notepad when he was heading out, and then remembered he didn’t need it anymore.

  16. No one is talking about the fact that now the gnolls have a spell book, that effectively allows them to cast in a massive linked casting formation for huge spell output. With this they could literally channel ask the shamanic power of multiple tribes and thousands of gnolls through a single user paired with the book for devastating results.

    What happens the first time they aim that at a walled city and send a 10k siege fireball hurtling towards the drake’s? If they go to war, they’ll be functionally carrying around the nuclear option.

    • That was partly a reason for the consporacy probably. The shamans can gather enormous power, but mages can utilise it in a more destructive form.

  17. Reminds me of the silver poison for vampires. Well, I guess nobody actually saw that coming. Was teleportation failure mentioned before?

    • I think it was mentioned previously that sometimes stuff during teleportation to fissival just got deleted and that it didn’t have as much range as it used to. In a prev chapter, don’t remember which one.

  18. So things we now know for certain from this chapter relating to the Gnollish ritual:

    1. At least one Gnoll mage lived in the past 200 years. (Chandler knew some whilst he was at Wistram)
    2. Gnolls used to be an actual relevant world power. (See Belaviers claim)
    3. This plan has been going on for far more then 200 years we know this as whilst there were Gnollish mages they had been decreasing steadily as well as Chaldions comment on this. (Chandler + Chaldion)
    4. When Peril Chandler was alive there were no living Gnollish archmages (Chandler)
    5. At least at some point the guardians of the Gnollmoot must have known about it. The fact that this nexus point has appeared directly under their noses in the grounds that they guard suggests this to be a fact. (Location)
    6. This plot was put in motion by the drakes at some unknown point in time and the legal and political entities of at least Pallas have been kept in the dark by their generals. (Chaldion)
    7. The plot has some major flaw such that Chaldion would call it foolhardy. (Chaldion)
    8. This weakening effects gnolls in places outside of its own effects to at least some extent. Either permanently sealing magic from them or something else but may not be permanent (Chandler + Wistram)
    9. This is the major cause of the Gnolls decline. (Mages are important)

    Things we can presume/guess at:
    1. To some extent some power within Wistram is complicit in this plot.
    2. Ghaar Marsh are unlikely to have been complicit in this activity Earth Elemental + Shamans actions.
    3. The majority of gnoll clans were not complicit in this activity the indepth search for magic artefacts suggests this.
    4. This was probably covered up after being done and not passed on except for those whom absolutely had to know.
    5. This was done by the Gnolls and the Drakes though it seems to have weakened the gnolls more in the long run. (Frequency increase of Gnollmoots, location of nexus, consequences if found out.)
    6. You don’t actually have to head to the nexus for it to be effect (Modern city Gnolls)
    7. Chaldion is actually an humongous fucking idiot.
    8. Doombringers hunting was exacerbated because of this. But this could not have been the primary cause. (Not all Gnolls could have been in on it.)
    9. The best living plotter is either Erin Solstice or Niers and it seems to be leaning towards Erin Solstice at this point.

    Crazy Conspiracy Theories:
    1. The relatively ancient Plains Eye clan are not related to this at all. The groups whom they are friendly with are the actual current leadership of the drakes these groups are not in the know anyway and hence don’t really matter in regards to this plot so far as we know. They are also Gnoll traditionalists as far as we can say and this does not really mesh with the traditionist vibes that they have given off and is most definitely and clearly weakening the gnolls they wouldn’t follow through with this if they knew about it. The final nail in this in my opinion is that they are okay with a war with the drakes. Plus whilst this may have intensified Doombringer hunting is so unlikely as to be impossible for it to be the cause of it.

    2. ​The event is actually linked with the arrival of humans on Izril (It weakened Drakes hence they could not protect cities from the arriving humans and the effect of it on the Drakes would likely have been more immediate comparatively) This comes into question with the end segment of course but it’s not too insane. That they limited it to a certain area to test its efficacy but then that was busted when the humans came and colonised. We know that invading other continents is insanely hard and costly. (Flos Reirmarch failing on all continents, Izril nobles and thoughts on Terandria, Terandria not wiping out the drakes on Izril despite taking half of the continet, the slow grind that is Rhir. Antinium excursion vs threat on Rhir). But at the same time the north not being the more weakened area is still incredibly weird in this case.

    3. This ritual has had some effect on the afterlife weakening the defences of Terandria. We can sort of guess at this because of the fact that Izril is the only place that has actually fallen in the afterlife despite the fact that it has the walled Drake cities fallen or not the human nobles, the dragons who decided to stay their after their death and a whole host of other groups whom all very likely would have defended it to the last and yet it fell so easily along with I think Baleros (Baleros is probably the weakest of the continents in terms of history at this very moment.) whilst Terandria and the others have still yet to fall and we know that magical artefacts have consequences on how things happen in the afterlife and can defeat the ancient beings(Terandrian heirlooms). ((Included in conspiracy zone as it needs more details then the rest of the guesses))

    • I’m wondering if the effect was slow and insidious. Possibly the initial network deliberately taxed gnoll mana to power itself, but someone (maybe Zelkyr) later turned up the power of the effect to repurpose it as a full block once gnoll mages had already dwindled a tad. This might not even have only targeted gnolls – if the effect also targeted lizardfolk, this would help explain how the drakes were able to achieve total victory in a conflict they had initially been losing, beyond the battlefield heroics of Chandler, Cognita et al.

      In which case, it’s a little odd that the effect didn’t also target humans, but maybe it could only be stretched so far. Or maybe Zelkyr deliberately made an exception when repurposing it because of Perrin Chandler then being a friend and ally.

      • The network is probably incredibly hard to change hence not effecting humans and the lizardfolk, also they probably lost at that point as they were invading a foreign continent who finally rallied to push them back and that is ridiculously hard as well as counter levelling equalising the field whilst the logistics favoured the drakes more then the other ideas around that at least in my conspiracy ideas.

        I also very much doubt it wouldn’t have been targeted at humans if they could and the effect has to have been setup prior to Perrin Chandler stuff and we know that for a fact so they likely would have used it to push the humans out prior to this if they could do so. As well as that would arouse massive suspicion in the actual lizardfolk ranks if they rapidly lost magical ability for an extended period of time.

    • In one of the afterlife chapters, it was explicitly stated that the dragons gathered on Baleros and that that was the reason the continent hadn’t fallen. The fact that the dragons had dominated Izril for a very long time, but then didn’t stick around in the afterlife might be why Izril was weakened.

      I expect that in truth Baleros has every bit as much history as any of the other continents, it’s just that we haven’t seen it. Heck, we’ve had barely half a dozen ‘mentions’ of the fourth great company, and Gazers are frickin’ weird. I imagine there was a time before the whole continent was in perpetual war, though, and we know of at least one empire that has existed there.

      • Yes you are entirely correct. I’m being dumb the only place that has fallen to the gods in the afterlife is indeed Izril. Terandria is protected by it’s noble houses. Baleros by the dragons. Chandrar by Khelt + Erin stuff and Rhir by the fact that it was lifeless already or whatever wasn’t it.

        However still at this moment it’s the weakest in regards to history we know for certain around it. Which is more what I meant. Chandrar is probably the strongest we know.

        • Rhir’s protected by the fact the gods are scared shitless of whatever’s sleeping there. Well, protected from the six, anyway; the thing sleeping there appears to have free rein.

  19. Interesting – thanks for the chapter! I wonder now, is white fur on gnolls an indciation of their magical power perhaps? In some magic systems, using magic bleaches your hair; it’s noted in here that Gnolls fur is where this power is ‘stored’, their mana resevoir (i should re-read and actually get the right language, but…nah) This is what was being suppressed — with the gnoll mage exceptions being Grimarlkin’s apprentice (who learned to use his body / muscles to store energy), and Mrsha (with white fur, indicating a far greater potential, one that could not be suppressed.).

    They are called ‘doombringers’ because they tend to be born of, or lead to, the fall of a tribe or some other kind of major cataclysmic event. BUt, this world awakens classes and skills based on struggle and strife. Conflict breeds power, and the eradication of a tribe .. would result in similarly powerful classes. And if that class is a magic one? Boom, white fur. Along with the stigma – helped along by the Plains’ Eye tribe – of ‘causing’ said doom, and needing to be killed. (to protect their power, as others have suggested.)

    I dunno, just throwing idea pasta at the wall to see what sticks. Anyway, what this comes down to is: Mana bleaching for gnolls. White fur is a sign of great power. Sub-classes within mages can vary – such as the Wanderer’s luck-based skills (a luck mage?) – but i submit that all white fur mages are mages of some sort; they never get training because “everyone knows” gnolls can’t be mages, and their power bleeds through in different ways.

    Back to work – can’t wait for the next chapter!

  20. I’m guessing the plains eye leadership is going to go full scapegoats on this, probably have a standing contingency defining who is going to take the fall as an “isolated radical faction” or few bad apples or whatever depending on what is revealed and who is too clearly implicated.

    Probably the people who authorized the mrsha hunt are going to be tossed to the wolves since it is another mess to clean and with her being a gnoll mage who learned from the book enough people would believe the hunt for her was about magic suppression instead of doomhunter righteous mission.

    (Amusingly it seems likely the whole magic book thing was not known and doom hunters are just complete psychos if the prey evades them long enough but good luck proving it)

    obviously the cover up is dead and enough other gnolls who were hexed and such likely exist to implicate enough different plains eye people once an investigation starts pulling threads that short of the most staggering naivety or complete complicity by most of the tribes’s leaders there is no way to hide that at least parts of the leadership knew they were working a decades long attack on gnoll power and ability to oppose the drakes.

    (If only because no lying skill is going to be enough when the full weight of gnolldom and their skills is taxing those lying skills for a month long interrogation with rotating skill using interrogators if need be)

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