It is a terrible thing for a child to exceed their parents. It probably happens to most children, if only in terms of physical strength or something as vain as beauty—when the child eclipses the adult. However, sometimes it becomes even more painful than that. The child accomplishes something truly extraordinary, and then their parents reveal they are not the all-perfect, superior force, but flawed people.
Even if you love them. No, especially if you do. The worst thing is when they see it that way and treat you like…something else.
She had known that feeling for a while. It was stronger now than ever, and not deserved.
“I have not done anything amazing yet.”
Which was an arrogant statement in itself, because she hoped she would. She dreamed of it, longed for the chance, and feared she had missed it—feared it would never come again. That she was famous now? It felt…undeserved. Borrowed fame. Illusory.
She turned the weapon around in her paws, a killing edge on a beautiful handle. She was deathly afraid of it, but she had already cut herself once with it by accident and her flesh had not mortified; her body had not begun to rot. Perhaps, as the owner, she was immune to its effects.
Nevertheless, there it sat. A strange, eerie metal formed seamlessly into a translucent blade, so fine and deadly it could cut through every material she had tried it on. So thin, glittering like someone had stolen a shard out of midnight.
Diamond. An onyx-colored blade, but not onyx in nature. One of the world’s most valuable minerals, smelted or forged somehow into this dagger. It would be a weapon worthy of any [General]. Yet it was more than mere ornamentation.
If she put the little carved sigil to her ear, Feshi could swear she heard it whispering. She told herself it was nonsense. But the Diamond Dagger of Serept did contain…
Souls. If she called for them, they would come. Great warriors, long deceased, guardians of Khelt who would protect and serve anyone who bore the blade. More than that, the edge could corrupt any wound it caused. Those struck dead by it would rot away and rise as Ghouls in service to the master. She had not known that last part until she had been told, and it made her fur crawl.
Here was a dread blade. Here was a weapon worthy of a warlord leading a legion of darkness. Yet it was hers. Hers and not hers; it would return to Khelt after she died, as she had promised. But she owned it, and it was hers because of her adventure at sea. But it wasn’t hers—not really. It was Wil’s. She had tagged along on their grand adventure, following his map. She had won this dagger entirely by chance.
It’s just more proof you’re meant to be the greatest Weatherfur of our generation. So her parents had claimed. They were beyond proud of her. The [Strategist] who attended the Titan’s Academy on scholarship. The genius of their tribe.
Feshi Weatherfur turned the dagger over again, then put it back in the magical sheath custom-made to hold it. She rose from her tent, festooned with books, maps, gifts, possessions—a yurt just for her. An honor for someone so young.
Everything was an honor. Feshi shook her head unhappily as she emerged from her tent. She looked about and saw some of Weatherfur’s guards spot her.
Feshi wasn’t tall by her people’s standards. Humans remarked on it, as did Lizardfolk, who were quite short until they became a variant of Naga. Feshi had white stripes mixed with russet fur, and that normal pattern of Gnoll fur was changed again by colorful patterns of yellow, blue, and even hints of green or purple. Mostly the first two colors, patterned on her arms.
Weatherfur’s Gnolls were more colorful than most you’d find at the Meeting of Tribes because they had access to plentiful dyes and loved to apply them to their fur. They didn’t come out with water, so Feshi only had to reapply them once a week. Plus, she wore long earrings, two links of beads dangling from her right ear—none on her left. That had a meaning too, although it was only here, at the Meeting of Tribes, that she wore them.
Earrings could be torn out in battle, so she had wisely removed them in Baleros.
She missed the Titan’s Academy. There she was a student among peers. Here?
“Honored Feshi, the Chieftain is meeting with Gaarh Marsh’s Chieftain and Shaman regarding what should be done about the Drakes. Do you wish to join your Aunt? We shall escort you if so—the Meeting of Tribes is hectic.”
One of the [Guards] addressed her, with even a slight nod of the head. Honored Feshi. She grimaced.
“I do not wish it just yet, no. Thank you.”
He bowed his head to her. Feshi cast her eyes around. The Great Plains of Izril looked beautiful by dawn, as light changed the color of the grasslands. Golden dawn’s light dripped over the landscape, like an inkwell slowly spilling over a world of green. It was not monochrome like the steppes, but had a bounty in plants fighting with the grasses, medicinal herbs, magical seedlings, forests and lakes—all interspersed across thousands upon thousands of miles.
So few cities, and only on the border of this land. It smelled like cooking, all the busy scents of a camp, hung mints and other odorizers to eliminate the bad smells from outhouses and such, but if you walked just a little ways out there, you would inhale a hundred different things, from Corusdeer herds to little rodents–this was home and Feshi usually smiled.
But she caught the sour note in the air where people dwelt. A lingering memory of anger—and anger was a smell, unpleasant, harsh. Anger and…she turned and looked around.
“Has anything else interesting happened?”
One of the other [Guards] snorted.
“Beyond fights and arguments all night? Everyone is finding out whether they have any magic and waiting for the Chieftains to make a full decision. Tempers are tense—but I would say ask your friend Honored Yerranola. She is breaking her fast there, yes?”
He gestured toward one of the mess tents and Feshi gave him a nod of thanks. She went in that direction, but it was a sign of who she was that they asked her and would have even taken her orders. Her parents? They were a [Gatherer]-[Fletcher] couple. Her parents were completely enamored with Wil, Venaz, Peki, Merrik, and Yerranola.
The two had a lot of respect in the tribe thanks to her. But it meant…well. Sometimes it felt like she was the responsible one, for all they had jobs. She could give their Chieftain advice, though at least Chieftain Torishi would take it as merely advice.
Here was a stupid fact that none of her friends had understood but that explained everything about Feshi’s complicated position in her tribe: the [Guards] had referred to Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur as Feshi’s Aunt. Which was completely true, and Feshi did use that term, and they were indeed close.
But technically, Feshi was Torishi’s first cousin five times removed. Not exactly ‘close in the tribe’, given that Weatherfur’s Gnolls shared a common bloodline. Most Gnolls could probably boast something like that of all their Honored members. Why did it matter? It didn’t unless someone said it. Then Feshi was the niece of the Chieftain, [Strategist] of the Titan’s Academy, as if he didn’t graduate countless [Strategists]…
She was obsessing, Feshi knew. It was a bad habit of hers. And of her tribe, really. She moped over to the open tent and seats where a somewhat silent, isolated…Gnoll…was taking her breakfast. Her arm trembled a bit as she ate some kind of toasted baguette. Her features were very pale under her fur, to the point where it was noticeable. But Feshi took that as a good sign.
“Yerra, how are you feeling?”
The Selphid grinned with some of her former vitality.
“Better. Now that I can’t hear Venaz snoring from two tents over. Although Peki’s worse. You know, every Gnoll moved their tent two dozen paces away after the first night?”
Feshi put on an air of mock-solemnity as she shook her head.
“We want to give you space as Honored guests.”
“Hah! I like that. My people would probably be too polite to do anything. No—wait. We’d just turn our ears off at night.”
Yerranola cackled, and Feshi was glad to see it. She gave Yerranola a quick glance, but the Selphid seemed like she’d had a full meal.
…Which was to say exactly half of what Feshi would eat for breakfast. But that was a bursting meal for a Selphid, whose body mass was simply lower than any other species but a Fraerling. The only times Yerranola ate large was when she wanted to taste something—or if her body was so freshly dead she could make its digestive system work.
“Busy day, eh?”
Yerranola carefully poured herself a cup of something strange. It looked like off-white tea at first, but it had a dark blue glow underneath the creamy substance at the top. Her medicine.
“Yes, though I’m not sure what my part is in it, no.”
Feshi sighed. She hadn’t been there at the Meeting of Tribes when Krshia Silverfang revealed that Gnolls could use magic. Or when Ferkr broke in to prove the truth of it before the disbelieving Chieftains. She had heard, of course: every Gnoll in the Great Plains had heard, though it was only a day since.
Some were making stories of it, a grand production, and the name Krshia Silverfang was on every Gnoll’s lips—along with Chieftain Akrisa’s and Ferkr’s. They were famous.
And I met Krshia Silverfang. She seemed…nice. Intelligent.
How strange for Krshia to suddenly become so famous and important. But then—it had happened to Feshi after Daquin. Yerranola too. Even now, after nigh on a month of resting at the Weatherfur camp, the Selphid got looks from children and adults. The wounded [Strategist], the Selphid who’d been at Daquin.
She bore it well, drinking her special medicine from Oteslia—a powerful painkiller—the antidote for the poison still eating at her.
Two very important people, international celebrities, if minor, at the Meeting of Tribes. And, Feshi felt, about as useful as ticks on a Stelbore’s ass.
Yerranola glanced at Feshi.
“Fesh, you’re spiraling again, aren’t you?”
“No I’m not.”
Feshi jerked her paws away from her belt, where she was fiddling with the diamond dagger. Yerranola rolled her eyes.
“Oh, sure. You’re not sitting in your tent, brooding over your dagger and obsessing over bringing ‘worth to the tribe’. Sure. I believe that.”
“I’m needed here. I should obsess a bit.”
Feshi turned red under her fur and crossed her arms defensively.
But Yerranola was a devious attacker, even socially. Like her strategy, she loved tricks and feints.
“Absolutely. Which is why I know you’ll do your best work when you’ve spent three days straight trying to crack the Professor’s latest chess puzzle, or when we find you hunched in the library, red-eyed and snarling at everyone who comes close while you’re reading books.”
Feshi wished she could turn her ears off. She coughed, flushing under her fur.
“I’m just focused.”
That was true. Feshi had a bad habit that was really a Weatherfur trait. It was that she…focused on something. A passion, a hobby, an idea. She never let it go until she succeeded or something else wrested her attention away. It was one of the reasons why she’d attracted the Titan’s attention; she’d learned chess by playing it to the point of obsession when it came out. Similarly, she could focus on homework or a problem to the point where even Venaz thought she was too dedicated.
It was a flaw, but it had led Weatherfur’s Gnolls to do great things. Garusa Weatherfur had been one of the few [Generals] ever to be employed by a Drake city, and Torishi was a [Shaman] turned [Chieftain] by dint of her amazing proficiency with weather magic.
Her friends took her out of such obsessive states when they saw her in them, but Feshi knew she’d been bad of late.
“I just feel like I’m not adding enough. Weatherfur can boast of our trade deal with Pheislant—or at least we can if Pheislant isn’t eaten by Ailendamus in that blasted war.”
“Don’t let Wil hear you say that. He’s already agonized enough. I’m glad they took him to find the Professor.”
“I wish I’d gone. Imagine if I brought him here? I should have. Why didn’t I go? You should have let me talk Chieftain Torishi into it. I’m just—”
“Hey. Relax, Feshi.”
Yerranola grabbed her friend’s shoulder. Feshi kept muttering.
“Hey! Relax, Feshi.”
Yerranola’s second admonition was accompanied by a friendly kick to the stomach. That snapped Feshi out of it. She curled up on the ground, holding her stomach for a second.
“…Thank you, Yerranola.”
“What are friends for? Want breakfast?”
“No, thanks. My stomach hurts.”
“Gee, I wonder why?”
The Selphid grinned. She was like that. Well, it was one of the reasons why they liked each other. Yerranola was friendly but could be blunt if she needed to, yet she always came from a good place. She was likable but adaptable.
Unlike Venaz. Even Kissilt was better since they could talk about Izril—but Venaz was a pain. Yerra pointed ahead.
“Let’s go for a walk. You can obsess and I can stretch my body. I’m feeling better.”
Feshi smiled a bit. Her friend couldn’t feel the agonizing pain anymore, but she still grew tired too fast. Too fast to go on an adventure with the mercenaries of the Wild Wastes tribe to find the Professor to the north. Still, Yerranola was chipper today.
“What shall we do? Enjoy more Gnollish festivities? Flirt with handsome or cute Gnolls? Demonstrate how much better at chess we are?”
Yerranola spread her arms wide, beaming, as the two left Weatherfur’s central camp. Feshi made a face.
“I’m not in the mood to eat or play games. My stomach hurts.”
“I wonder why?”
“There’s more to life than games and romance. Everyone else can do it, but I need—”
“Worth! So let’s find some rather than speculate!”
So they did. They made a good team that way. Yerranola directed Feshi’s focus, nudged it, then went ahead when Feshi found a good idea.
“Lots of fallout from yesterday. I couldn’t sleep, and I heard there were over a thousand fights.”
“Only a thousand?”
“Hyperbole, Feshi. Underbole, or whatever you call it.”
Yerranola pointed around the communal area, showing Feshi damaged stalls, denuded of goods and treats for sale, trash on the ground, torn fabric. Feshi could smell a bit of blood, alcohol, and the remnants of adrenaline—which was a smell, just as fear was.
Gnolls had been fighting. Of course they had—the news that magic had been suppressed by the Drakes for countless years tended to rile people up. But they had no concrete proof. Only the giant crystal that everyone knew was probably part of Fissival’s ancient teleportation network. The Drakes denied that it had any connection to the problems the Gnolls were having with magic or anything else.
Feshi, like every Gnoll at the Meeting of Tribes, wasn’t in the mood to have a nice discussion about it.
“It could be war, you know. Did you hear anything like that last night?”
Feshi had been up late, talking with Torishi about what it all meant. Yerranola shrugged.
“Hotheads howling about it—I’d be more worried about what your Chieftain thought.”
“She’s not pleased.”
“No. I thought she’d be high-fiving Drakes left and right.”
Feshi snorted at Yerranola’s dry look.
“She doesn’t want war. At least not all-out war. Weatherfur has too many ties to Drake cities. She’s all for putting it to Fissival, but if one Walled City fights—”
“The rest gang up and kick the Selphid out of you?”
“That’s how it goes. There are enough tribes here to fight every Walled City, but if other Drake cities get drawn in—”
“All-out war. Right. So what are we doing, stopping the war or getting ready?”
“I don’t know. I’m mad as a…as Venaz, Yerra. But I know what the Professor would say. Bide your time, wait for vengeance if it’s appropriate.”
“Mm. So why don’t you join your Chieftain and say that to everyone?”
“Because she can say it. She doesn’t need me. Anyone who listens to Weatherfur will listen to her.”
Yerranola skipped around a little Gnoll staring at a scrying orb with a group of others. They were watching as Drassi introduced two Gnolls on the orb—an Elirr of Liscor and a Gnoll of Pallass—to discuss the magic-suppression incident. Feshi wanted to listen, but Yerra kept them moving onward. She was glad they were getting magical coverage on the television, though.
“And we’re back to looking for worth again. All right, I see what you mean. You want to be special. Hit the Chieftains from the other side.”
“They’re not my enemy.”
Feshi snagged a stick of free goat’s meat since her stomach had stopped smarting. She gnawed on it, savoring the bite, and thanked the Gnoll minding the booth. Yerranola tapped her chin.
“Hit them politically. Where do we start?”
“Well, that’s easy. The most important Gnolls in the entire Meeting of Tribes would be the ones who can sway minds. And they would be…”
Ferkr of Pallass, Grimalkin’s apprentice; Krshia Silverfang, and Akrisa Silverfang. Yerranola knew the way to their tribe’s camp as well as Feshi.
When they got there, they found a sea of Gnolls all thinking the exact same thing as they were. The [Guards] at the Silverfangs’ camp were keeping a wave of them back, all of whom wanted to talk to the Gnolls in question. A Chieftain broke through the throng.
“Daemonbane’s tribe to see Silverfang’s Chieftain and Krshia Silverfang!”
The [Guards] let them through. Yerranola and Feshi watched as the Gnolls were admitted, the Chieftain and a small retinue. Yerranola shielded her eyes, smiling cheerfully.
“Well, there’s the Silverfang camp. Who’s Daemonbane? That’s not a Gnollish tribe name.”
“It was awarded to them. They went to Rhir.”
“What, all of them?”
Feshi twiddled her thumbs, trying to recall, before nodding.
“Yep. Went, fought for three generations, came back. They kept the name. They’re fairly important. Everyone wants to talk to Silverfang.”
“Hm. Well, unless you think we can rely on our names, how about marching up there? You go, ‘I’m Feshi from the Titan’s Academy! Let me in’!”
Some heads swung toward them even at Yerranola’s proclamation. Feshi groaned.
“No thanks, Yerra. Even if Krshia hears me first, we’re working at cross-purposes. Too many officers for a single battalion. Remember—hit them where you do the most good.”
“Professor’s words of wisdom, right. But he also says, ‘Kick them in the face sometimes just so you have their attention’.”
The Professor had a lot of funny sayings. Feshi and Yerranola circled the crowd, grinning and trading a few. Yerranola eyed the circular Silverfang camp and its hide walls.
“You know, if you really wanted to get in, we could cut a hole through the walls. It’s just hide and wood, right?”
“It’s probably enchanted, and it’s tough. Even with my dagger it would be a pain. And that’s destruction of property, Yerra.”
The Selphid stepped back and eyed the tops of the walls, far too high and steep to see over.
“Well, what if we jumped over?”
“It’s an eight-foot wall, Yerra. Who can jump over that?”
“I could. If I Rampaged, I think.”
“Well, I can’t.”
“That’s what ladders are for. I’m just saying, if you wanted a private word, we…”
The two were arguing, more for fun than anything else, as Feshi looked around for another way to meet someone important. They walked around the back of the Silverfang compound. Feshi heard some loud voices past the wall, pounding footsteps. Yerranola might not have heard, because she was inhabiting a dead Gnoll’s body with atrophied senses. But then Yerranola heard a shout.
“Gireulashia! Don’t you dare—”
A giant hurtled over the wall, from the inside, to land just past Yerranola and Feshi. In a single bound. Nine feet tall, her red-brown fur gleaming—the tallest Gnoll, save for one, that Feshi had ever seen. She leaped over the wall like a high jumper, arcing her body so it just cleared the top of the stakes hammered into the ground.
Feshi’s and Yerranola’s jaws dropped open. The giant Gnoll landed as light as a cat. She spotted the two on her way down and avoided Yerranola, who jerked back.
Gire muttered apologetically at the two, then sprinted. She barely stopped as she landed, but transitioned into an athlete’s run. She was nearly a hundred paces away before Feshi and Yerranola had even turned.
“Dead gods. She just—”
“She jumped over the wall! How did she do that? Magic? A Skill?”
“I thought you said you could do that!”
The Selphid grabbed at her ears.
“Yeah, but I’m a Selphid! Look at that body!”
Feshi saw the distant Gire racing across the Great Plains and knew which tribe she was from. Even if she hadn’t known Gireulashia—and she was hard to forget—she’d know an Ekhtouch anywhere.
Sure enough, her pursuers looked much like Gire herself. One was ‘only’ seven and a half feet tall, and he clearly had to use a jumping Skill to clear the wall. The rest had to climb over; one was boosted up, and the others, no less than six of them, swarmed over it.
“There she is! Gire, come back! This is the Chieftain’s order! Come—”
They raced after her. The last ones over the wall completely ignored Feshi and Yerranola. They cursed as they pointed at Gire.
“She’s running! We’ll never catch her without Skills. Stubborn—[Marathon Run]! The rest of you, get some horses!”
One of the Gnolls accelerated but barely seemed to break even with Gire’s pace. The two [Strategists] watched as the others sprinted with commendable form, off to get horses. Yerra turned to Feshi.
“What’s that about?”
The Gnoll hesitated, but before she could answer, she heard a voice.
“What are they doing to her, Tkrn?”
“I don’t know. Here. Let me just get ov—let me—uh…”
Someone smacked into the hide wall, scrabbled at it, and then jumped a few times. Yerranola and Feshi heard a grunt.
“Maybe you can get up there. Here, I’ll boost you, Inkar.”
“Okay…argh! Don’t drop me!”
“Well, it’s hard! Do you have a handhold?”
Someone pulled themselves up, red-faced. Feshi saw a Human face turn, nearly fall over the wall, and then try to haul someone else up.
“You’re too heavy! Let go, let go! You’ll pull me—”
Inkar disappeared back into the compound with a scream, and Feshi and Yerranola heard a crash as she fell on top of whoever was on the other side. Yerranola looked at Feshi.
“Hey! Anyone need a hand over there?”
That was the female Human. Yerranola did a little hop, then a big jump, and nimbly hoisted herself up onto the wall. Feshi knew her friend had Rampaged—exceeded her body’s natural limits, tearing muscle, but giving herself amazing strength. There was a voice, male and mystified.
“Who’s that? That’s not one of the Ekhtouch—”
From her position on top of the wall, Yerra reached down, hauled up the two figures with ease, and Feshi was once again reacquainted with Inkar and Tkrn.
“Don’t I know you? From the brawl…”
“That’s right! Inkar, and this is Tkrn.”
The Gnoll was a bit breathless from getting over the wall. He looked shamefaced as Yerranola helped Inkar down to the ground. He tried to jump down, but Feshi opened her mouth.
She heard the click and saw his face as the Gnoll [Guardsman] landed from a nine-foot drop onto his haunches. But the force of the landing had turned his squat into more of a rapid sit-down, so fast that he kneed himself in the chin. And all the weight and force of his hitting the ground went right into—
Tkrn rolled over.
“Healing potion! Healing potion! I just broke my legs!”
Inkar landed with Yerra’s help and fished out a potion. Tkrn sat up after she helped him fix the torn muscle in his legs, not actual bone. Tkrn sat up, panting.
“Okay—how does Gire do that? Where did she go?”
The two were clearly after the same Gnoll. Feshi and Yerra pointed, but the other Gnolls were almost out of sight, mere dots on the horizon. Feshi shaded her eyes, frowning.
“What’s happening? That’s Honored Gireulashia, isn’t it?”
“It’s Gire. But I don’t know what’s happening. She was just playing with—and then the Ekhtouch Gnolls came and said she had to pass a Trial and she ran for it.”
Yerranola’s eyes lit up, as they did whenever she found something interesting.
“Ooh. Feshi, what’s a Trial?”
She turned to her friend. The Weatherfur Gnoll scratched at her head.
“I have no idea. It must be an Ekhtouch thing. I can’t imagine that it’s pleasant if she ran away. What was she doing in the Silverfang camp?”
She thought Gire might have been there on Ekhtouch business, but Inkar and this Tkrn had made it sound different. Indeed, Inkar was worried.
“We have to find her! She sounded terrified! She’s only fifteen!”
Yerranola and Feshi started. But hadn’t Venaz said…? Feshi saw Tkrn look around.
“Let’s get some horses. Thanks for your help, um—”
“Yerranola. And this is Honored Feshi, of the Games of Daquin. Greatest Gnoll [Strategist] to ever—”
Feshi stomped on Yerranola’s foot. Since she knew the Selphid had no pain receptors, she also had to cover Yerranola’s mouth. Inkar and Tkrn recalled who their acquaintances were and did that staring thing, but only for a second.
Yerranola was beside herself.
“Can we come and see what’s happening? This sounds amazing.”
Inkar glanced about the area.
“Only if you can find horses.”
“I can do that!”
The Selphid dashed off with Tkrn. Which left Feshi and Inkar standing together. The Gnoll glanced at the Silverfang camp, then at Inkar.
Now, here was another interesting coincidence, like meeting that Lyonette at Oteslia. A Human who just happened to be a rather important guest of Longstalker’s Fang, in the Silverfang camp, and friends—or at least concerned—with Honored Gireulashia of Ekhtouch? There was an explanation for it, obviously, but the why of it made Feshi’s fur tingle.
“I’m Feshi of Weatherfur. Pleased to see you again, Inkar.”
She held out her paw, and Inkar took it.
“Thank you for your help again, Miss Feshi. We meet when people are fighting each other or running around, yes?”
There was a twinkle in her eye as she used the Gnollish inflections, and Feshi grinned despite herself.
“Hrr, yes. Let’s find Gire. It shouldn’t be too bad—and then maybe we can talk? I’m interested in Silverfang, as everyone is.”
Perhaps this was her moment?
Tkrn and Yerra came back with four horses, including Inkar’s own horse, and Feshi and Inkar mounted up. They sped off to find Gire and discover what was so bad about the Trials.
But Feshi was more concerned with what they’d do after that. She completely failed to understand what Ekhtouch Trials meant.
During the Meeting of Tribes, even though the participants were angry, wrathful, talking, and full of unrest after yesterday’s drama, there was always fascination. Always delight and chaos.
In fact, perhaps more now than ever. Because all the Gnolls were so upset, the tribes had pushed together some festivities planned for later that week. So here came a rarity—a Gnoll [Performer], no less than one of Weatherfur’s own. She did a flip into the air and threw three daggers.
They hit three targets tossed up by helpers. She landed, laughing, and in swept a Gnoll band playing merry music on flutes and drums.
“Let’s have some cheer! Who wants to learn how to throw knives? How to balance on the very tip of a pole, like so? Well, if you can hold your balance for ten seconds, I’ll give you a prize!”
The [Performer] shouted down at the adults and children. She stood on a narrow wooden pole with one foot, the other raised behind her, arms outstretched, grinning with the light of a challenge in her eyes. Then she winked.
“If you can do this, I’ll give you my class!”
And with a laugh, she did a front flip from her standing position and landed again, in the same pose.
Children pointed and oohed and gathered around, because there were also traditional Gnollish sweets being passed out in huge baskets, along with more food and nonalcoholic drinks. The sights and sounds were all a welcome distraction.
Some Gnolls didn’t even have to try to be exciting. Garsine Wallbreaker just walked past the others, but the eleven-foot-tall Gnoll was enough to dumbfound a little Gnoll cub clinging to an adult Gnoll’s paw.
Some people hurried to eat or let the children play; many only drifted about, still furious, still talking. The air was tense, and as a result, more than one child and adult pitched a fit.
One big child in particular threw up her hands, lay down on the ground, and wailed.
“I don’t want to! I don’t want to!”
It was…something. Feshi felt embarrassed, astonished, awed, at the sight of a nine-foot-tall Gnoll, whom she had taken to be fully grown, throwing a tantrum, pounding her paws and feet on the ground, wailing, her nose running as the Ekhtouch adults tried to get her to be quiet and others watched.
She was a girl, and the tantrum drew no less than Firrelle, Chieftain of the Ekhtouch, to her side.
“Gireulashia! Calm yourself!”
“I don’t want to do a Trial! I won’t! You can’t make me!”
Gire had been hauled back by the time Inkar and the others caught up with her. Hauled back in a net, wailing. What was this Trial? Well, the other Ekhtouch Gnolls of their small tribe were already setting it up.
Firelle was furious.
“Gire, this is meant to be an exhibition. You are embarrassing all of Ekhtouch!”
To which Gire just sniveled.
“I don’t care! You do it! You can’t! It’s scary and I don’t want to!”
The Chieftain looked exasperated. Then a Gnoll couple came over. Well—a couple of Gnolls, as in ‘two’. They were not a married pair.
“Gireulashia, you are more than capable. Do not embarrass Ekhtouch. You must succeed—only then can you level. You know this.”
“Yes, do it for our tribe. Do it for us, Honored Daughter.”
A tall male and female Gnoll smiled down at Gire. She sat up, sullenly, and Feshi realized—they were her parents. But what an odd relationship. They coaxed Gire until she stopped crying, but not once did they give her true orders, only cajoled and pleaded. Even Feshi found it—disconcerting. Inkar pointed at the two.
“Those are her parents?”
Tkrn was watching, just as bemused. Gire bowed her head as the Ekhtouch tribe finished moving other Gnolls back, creating a kind of enclosure with what looked like a magical powder. One of them placed an odd-looking marker in the center…Feshi narrowed her eyes.
“Yerra, you see that? It looks familiar.”
Gire looked up when she saw the strange long strip of paper delicately laid out on the ground. She stood in one movement and ignored her parents. She looked around.
“Don’t I get anything?”
“Then I want a spear!”
An Ekhtouch warrior instantly went to arm her, but Firrelle didn’t offer Gire her own spear or any of the fine enchanted spears her warriors carried. Rather, someone hurried off and came back with the most plain iron-tipped spear that Feshi had ever seen. It wasn’t a training weapon…exactly…but that was all it was good for, in her eyes.
Yerranola was focused on the item Feshi had spotted. She frowned.
“Yeah. I’ve seen it before. What is that? I can’t remember where…”
Feshi had the exact same impression. Her eyes widened, and she clapped her paws together.
“Oh! I know! Venaz has some!”
The Selphid gave Feshi a look of comprehension and snapped her fingers.
“Yes! It’s one of those weird summoning things! He said they were from Drath, remember? The same things he used at the…games…of…”
Her voice trailed off. She and Feshi both slowly rotated and saw one of the Ekhtouch Gnolls make a gesture and speak.
The talisman glowed, and the magical paper unraveled. Something rose, glittering, taking shape as spectral energy moved to create a replica of the real thing. No less deadly, but made of magic. Conjured to create—
Feshi leaped backward, the Diamond Dagger out of its sheath before she processed anything. Gnolls fled backward, shouting in alarm as the massive Manticore—with the face of a lion, a tail like a stinger, and wings like an eagle—roared into the enclosure. It was far, far larger than any normal lion. Gireulashia made a whimpering sound.
The Manticore, even without the stinger, had a mane slightly taller than she was, and it outweighed her. It paced left and right, snarling.
Tkrn had his sword drawn but was trying to shield Inkar. However, she, Feshi, and Yerranola were all looking at the Ekhtouch warrior who had summoned the beast. The Gnoll was looking at Firrelle, and the monster didn’t attack.
The Chieftain called out, frowning, at the lone Gnoll with an iron spear facing down what Feshi knew was considered a Gold-rank monster. As in—no Silver-rank adventurer was ever expected to be able to handle one alone. A Silver-rank team could, but Manticore packs required Gold-rank teams, multiple teams, to quell. Firrelle surely knew this, but she only shouted to Gireulashia.
“Five minutes, Gire! Three blows!”
“I don’t want to!”
The [Paragon] howled. But Firrelle ignored her and lifted a paw.
The Manticore sprang forward at the Gnoll warrior’s command. It bit and struck with paw and stinger, all at once.
Feshi cried out. That was as vicious as the real monster! She had assumed—naively—that it would at least hold back or be a lesser copy. But it struck like a serpent, nearly as fast.
Gireulashia was too agile for it to tag her. She swung left, and her spear stabbed the Manticore along the shoulder, aiming for the place where the muscles were grouped. She swiped the spear left and backed up, circling. She was still sniffing, but she kept her eyes on the Manticore. And that stinger—
This was an Ekhtouch Trial, Feshi realized. She was not the only Gnoll to stride toward Firrelle, who was watching Gire do battle—striking from range, dodging back as the stinger shot forward again and again—with every sign of approval and calm scrutiny of Gire’s performance.
A panting Chieftain, Eska of Longstalker’s Fang, was the first Gnoll to appear, racing up with her bodyguards. She pointed at the contained battle within the circle the Ekhtouch had set up.
“Chieftain Firrelle! What is this madness?”
“A demonstration, Chieftain Eska. I told you we would keep training Gire and other warriors. They will go through the same, but she must be first, even if she throws tantrums.”
Firrelle replied calmly, nodding to acknowledge the other Chieftain. Eska looked appalled.
“Tantrums? She’s fighting a Manticore with an iron spear!”
“Yes. In the next Trial, she must climb a mountain in a day. Or, if we have time, swim up a river. If we find monsters of the correct type, perhaps she will battle them. Without weapons. She is doing too well, battling too easily.”
She turned to one of the Ekhtouch Gnolls analyzing Gire’s performance.
“You see, Gorekh? She does not try in sparring.”
Feshi glanced back and saw one of Ekhtouch’s veteran [Warriors] watching, arms folded. Gire had somehow kept out of range of the Manticore, baited two charges, and stabbed it repeatedly in the same place. The magical summoned monster was now limping on its right foreleg, and Gireulashia was keeping out of range, circling and striking.
“This…I would not ask the greatest warriors of Longstalker’s Fang to do this! And Gireulashia is a child, no?”
Firrelle looked overly patient as she replied, still in that maddeningly calm tone of voice.
“She is. But she is also a [Paragon], and her Trials must exceed any other. How else would she level?”
Eska stared at her, then at Gire.
“You put her in this kind of danger?”
“There is no leveling without some danger. Rest assured—we would step in if she looked truly in danger of losing life or limb, but there must be challenge. Please, Chieftain Eska. I understand that our ways seem difficult to you. But the greatest of Longstalker’s Fang’s warriors—skilled as they are—are not Honored Gireulashia.”
Now, there was a statement to take Feshi’s breath clean away. The worst part was that Firrelle didn’t even seem to think she’d given Eska an insult. Eska just stood there until her ears flattened. Then she moved toward Inkar. The young woman was watching with horror, looking for a way to stop the Trial, but Gire was winning. Even so—Feshi glanced at Gire’s parents, who were watching with eager approval. The [Strategist] noted Firrelle’s calm judgment and murmuring with her people about how to make the Trial more challenging.
And she had thought her tribe had terrible expectations of her. Feshi gripped the dagger at her belt.
So this was the Meeting of Tribes? She looked around at the Gnolls watching this exhibition of talent, arguing over the revelation from the Chieftain’s gathering—and watching the scrying orb, where Drassi was covering the news.
The news about them. In this great gathering, which came only every twenty years, somehow the news was all about them—and not about them. It was about Ailendamus, the [Knight] charging Ailendamus’ armies, and the Drake conspiracy—but not about here. As if the Gnolls, even at their peak, were a sideshow to the real events taking place.
That should not be. Feshi had to bring great worth and deed to Weatherfur. It occurred to her, in that moment, that it should also be Weatherfur, Krshia Silverfang, and even poor Gire whose names were called across the world. This was no less fascinating, for ill or good, than anything she saw on the scrying orb.
So why wasn’t it there?
While Gire’s Trial was going on, elsewhere in the Meeting of Tribes, Chieftain Mrell had an answer for Feshi’s question, though he didn’t know she’d asked it. They had simply come to the same conclusion.
“We are an insular people, Chieftain Iraz. We do not look like it, because we travel widely. But I tell you—Gnolls, in their way, are even more resistant to change and sharing than Drakes are.”
“Not a popular opinion, Chieftain Mrell. Especially given how sharing space has worked out for our people.”
Mrell had to own that was true. He sat in his small Chieftain’s tent. Small compared to some of the tents of the grand tribes. But it was his, and he was a new Chieftain. Not as famous for war as Woven Bladegrass, but the fact that his tribe was consorting with famous tribes showed everyone how far they’d come.
He was Chieftain of Demas Metal. The tribe that had risen by sheer dint of the new metal they had created. Mrell was young, in his late twenties. Yet he was Chieftain, having created this tribe by himself. For one reason alone. Because it would change this world.
Because it was the only thing he had left that mattered.
Demas Metal. It lay before them, a deeply blue alloy that had the magical luster that regular metals, even gold, lacked. Like Mithril, Adamantium—when processed and smelted—and other fantastical metals, it had a power to it.
But such metals were few and far between. Demas Metal? Iraz had the blade that Mrell had presented him with. He flicked it up and caught it, the light glinting off his own steel-gray fur.
Mrell admired Iraz. Here was a Chieftain that Mrell wanted to be like. Iraz too had created the Steelfur tribe by dint of his Skill, which gave them all fur like steel. In fact, Mrell felt a commonality, and Iraz clearly seemed to think there was some value in speaking with the new Chieftain, hence their breaking bread together—and dipping it in silkap—this early morning.
“I will admit, Chieftain Mrell, there is some weight to your words. But I assume you have a point?”
They were debating, as Gnolls did, although in private, without an audience. Mrell inclined his head eagerly.
“I would not say something so provocative without proof. And my proof is this: Demas Metal. It was not a creation I could have come up with alone. I did not, in fact; though the final creation I claim as a stroke of inspiration. But I learned my craft from another species.”
Iraz set the blade down. He admired the strange alloy.
“It is not purple, like Orichalcum. But it has the same qualities. Cloud blue to dark violet, depending on the weather. Hard. Strong—but that tells you nothing. Even steel can be sharp as can be with a great [Blacksmith] behind it. This, though?”
Iraz made a slashing motion, very quick.
Mrell was glad he didn’t jump. He stared at the fine line that followed the tip of the blade, then vanished a heartbeat later.
“Is it a magical effect?”
“Just the metal, Chieftain Iraz. If you strike a shield or piece of armor made of the stuff, it leaves the same…afterimage. It doesn’t harm, but Demas Metal has many qualities. It is superior to steel, heavier than Mithril, but just as strong. And as you know, it has another grand secret besides being beautiful when swung.”
Iraz grinned his warrior’s grin, and his eyes lit up. He put aside the blade and refilled his small bowl. They were eating from Mrell’s prepared snacks, and the Chieftain of the Steelfur Tribe did not eat silkap on bread or crackers—not when Mrell had treats out. Everything from pickled herring, cheeses, and even odd treats like roasted plums to fill voids in the conversation.
Yet it seemed Iraz had a fondness for Chandrarian dates; he had already eaten sixteen of the sweet fruits. Unlike regular dates, these were not a brown or purple, but remained yellow and even red or blue, despite being wizened. They also had a mix of drinks; in this case, Amentus wine, sweet and only a bit heady this early.
“Yes. I found out when testing it. I could have remained ignorant.”
Mrell smiled too, deeply pleased.
“I knew you’d discover it. And how else to show what a gift it could be in the hands of enough warriors?”
Chieftain Iraz agreed slowly, taking Mrell and his tent in. The younger Chieftain had a tent decorated with his research notes. Books, of all things; guides to blacksmithing; even what was akin to an [Alchemist]’s workbench devoted to metallurgy.
“It is not complete, though. You said there were improvements to be made.”
Mrell spread his paws helplessly.
“Steel has many alloys, many forms, Chieftain Iraz, and we have made and used it for countless ages. I cannot claim this is the perfect Demas Metal. But it is my alloy, and if it existed in times past? Well, the one who beheld it and helped me complete it told me that others—only the true ancients of our world—might know how to make it to perfection. That I discovered the making…he told me I would usher in a new era on the strength of it alone. And he was a Dwarf.”
Iraz was leaning forwards, hooked on the story, and caught himself, sitting back. He slowly lifted the sword he had been given and pondered it. Then, carefully, slowly, he took out a simple water flask and dribbled water onto the blade. Mrell watched, knowing what would happen.
Rather than simply dribble down the blade and onto his floor—carpeted with beautiful depictions of Gnolls in battle, tapestries of triumph and tradition, a careful nod to this Meeting of Tribes, which he’d paid for just this effect—the water pooled along the blade. Coating it. It formed a second edge, as fine as a razor. Iraz moved the blade, and the water rippled but did not fly away.
It would if he swung it hard enough, though.
“Fire does the same. Does lightning?”
“I haven’t dared hold it up in the middle of a storm, but a little shock spell—yes. Though it lasts for seconds at most.”
“Incredible. You said…a Dwarf helped you make it?”
“Yes. This is a great secret, Iraz. But I tell you this because I hope you will buy many blades from me, and our tribes might work together. After all, Demas Metal can be made far more plentifully than Orichalcum, which we put into it, but it will not ever replace steel. Perhaps, though…steelcloth and Demas Metal together?”
The Steelfur traded their fur, which could be laboriously processed into metallic cloth, to other places. Iraz nodded.
“It is rare that we offer trade concessions to any tribe but the large ones, like Plain’s Eye. But you have my full attention. So you met a Dwarf? When?”
Mrell exhaled. He chose his words carefully, telling only what needed to be told, though his face grew somber.
“On my journeys. I left my tribe, you see. I became a wandering Gnoll. Not Plains. Or City. It was not pleasant, always—I shall spare you the details. But the crux of the story is only this: I met a Dwarf on my travels. I never expected to meet him, for we both were seeking Orichalcum—the very vein my tribe uses for Demas Metal. Well, I say ‘we,’ but he had found it. He lived alone, in a cave, in misery, a master beyond compare.”
Iraz murmured, placing his paws under his chin.
“I have heard of such reclusive masters. Although they are the stuff of legend.”
Mrell lifted a paw.
“This Dwarf was not there out of some great training journey or because the isolation suited him, Chieftain Iraz. He was in exile. And…dying. I forged under him for three years, until he passed, and that was when I made my discovery. He did not give it to me, you see. He told me I had surpassed every expectation in discovering the alloy. Shortly thereafter, he passed.”
“A strange story. What was he doing there?”
Mrell stared back, leaning to look upwards at a memory.
“He never said. Only that he had betrayed the heart of the craft he and I both pursued. I named the metal after him. Demas. Demastel was the only name he ever gave me, you see. Without his guidance, I would have never had the skill to create this.”
“Honorable of you. So your tribe will work the vein, make more Demas Metal—and make it better still. What do you intend?”
Mrell lifted the blade Iraz offered him and smiled.
“Simply to redefine the world, Chieftain Iraz. I do not know if Gnolls will take my metal and create great tribes or armies. I am a [Smith]. I do not know if this heralds some great new era—but I do know this. Demas Metal will sweep this world. In ten years, it will be sought after by every Gold-rank adventurer. We have the means to make more. We have the resources. Unlike Mithril, Adamantium, and Orichalcum—of which there is enough only to arm a small group, or one person—Demas Metal will arm armies. And I will sell it only to the tribes, or let them sell it to others. But I do ask a fair price.”
Iraz was agreeing as he listened to Mrell.
“That is fair, Chieftain Mrell. And Steelfur will be honored to support and bid on your items.”
Indeed, this was what many Chieftains said, although Iraz was refreshingly direct. Mrell smiled and offered Iraz more food, but the Chieftain had already eaten his fill. Iraz took some to be polite, and Mrell saw him eying the blade. Everyone, from Greenpaw and Orelign to Steelfur, wanted Demas Metal. If—and only if—it could do everything Mrell said it could.
There had to be a catch. A plentiful metal exceeding steel? It had to have some weakness or flaw. That’s what they thought in private, where they tested Mrell’s gifts. But here was his dirty, dark secret:
There wasn’t one. Not one flaw that he could find. It didn’t dissolve if you sneezed on it right. It didn’t have a crippling weakness. Krshia Silverfang had upset the Meeting of Tribes with her announcement, and rightly so; Mrell himself was shaken by the news. But the announcement of his metal would be just as grand. Demas Metal was simply a revolution.
The two Chieftains toasted the success of Demas Metal. Then Iraz asked a pointed question.
“If I were to ask for…twenty blades, each custom-made for my best warriors, could you produce them?”
“I have the ingots here, Chieftain Iraz. I can have my best [Smiths] work on them, and I would personally forge your blade myself. They cannot stand up to the greatest artifacts—so I can offer you nothing worthy of a Chieftain’s blade. But perhaps armor?”
You could wear Demas Metal without it affecting other magical gear, which was a huge plus, and he was talking Iraz into commissioning some chainmail. Which was damned annoying to make, but if Chieftain Iraz wore it and when people saw how it worked in battle…
The two Gnolls were about to seal the deal with a shake of the paws when Mrell sniffed something. He closed his eyes as an acrid odor assailed him.
Dead gods, not now.
Iraz sat up, smelling the exact same thing and hearing what Mrell did. A faint…pattering sound.
“What is that? Some smith or…?”
No, it was not that, and he realized what it was just as any Gnoll would. Both stood up, and Mrell strode out of his tent.
He didn’t post guards around his tent because his tribe was too small to need them, especially during the Meeting of Tribes. But it occurred to him he needed them now, not because of the threat of assassination, but to deter…
A pair of Gnolls stood to the side of the tent. Both female, and both with markings on their fur from a tribe neither Iraz nor Mrell belonged to. One Gnoll had just adjusted her loincloth.
She was currently peeing on the side of Mrell’s tent. She and her companion froze when they saw the two staring Chieftains. They hadn’t expected Iraz.
“Uh-oh. That’s the Chieftain of the—Prha, run!”
The other Gnoll yelped, redid her loincloth, whirled around, and took off. Chieftain Iraz stared at the stain on the side of Mrell’s tent. The Chieftain of the Demas Metal tribe had his face in his paws.
“Why are two Gnolls from the Sofang tribe peeing on your tent?” Iraz asked. He recognized the markings of a distant coastal tribe. Mrell didn’t have the heart to answer.
“Hey! You two!”
One of the camp [Guards] finally noticed the two intruders and chased after them. The two Gnolls, one of whom was exactly Mrell’s age, shook her fist back at Mrell.
“Take that, you worthless furball!”
She fled with her companion. Iraz peered at Mrell, trying to hide his amusement.
“I take it you two know each other?”
“She was my partner. We had a falling-out. I’ll…make a formal complaint to Sofang.”
“I shall as well. Disgracing a Chieftain’s tent…”
“It’s complicated, Chieftain Iraz. She has a right to be—upset. Perhaps she’ll stop.”
Hugely embarrassed, Mrell led Iraz to the blacksmith’s tents, where they could finish their talks. Yes, that was from his past. He cursed running into Prha here. He wanted to just move on. But here they were.
Mrell turned his mind back to Demas Metal. That was all he could focus on. His great gift to Gnolls and the world.
It was all he had left. If he could go back in time, he would have saved what mattered. But he couldn’t.
Feshi was beginning to happen upon an idea, but it wasn’t concrete. She passed by some of the [Merchants] trying to buy and sell goods. Especially some of that Demas Metal, although most pieces weren’t sold as such; they were gifts.
But it could damn well change the world.
It was how two tribes saw value. Demas Metal put its faith in a change in the market, metallurgy; a new metal. Ekhtouch? They believed in one over all.
Gireulashia, a [Paragon] of her kind, had bested a Manticore in under five minutes, and with less than three blows taken, just as her Chieftain demanded. What could she have done if she had been equipped with Demas Metal?
Despite both amazing achievements, Feshi noticed something. There were no scrying orbs here. Rather, they were all showing images of other places. Wistram News Network had broadcast a few views of the Meeting of Tribes once and left it at that.
And that was because Gnolls and Wistram had been feuding, and Gnolls were insular, and so on and so forth. Yes, yes.
It did not mean that there were no non-Gnolls here. Look at Yerranola. Look at the truly intelligent [Merchants], [Traders], and emissaries who came here. Just…no movers and shakers.
“I’m sorry, none of it is for sale. Chieftain Mrell of our tribe sells it—but no pieces for non-Gnolls.”
“Oh, come on, now. I’m a reputable [Arms Dealer] across Izril and Baleros! This is your chance for your tribe to break into a huge market!”
An upset [Merchant] was trying to badger a Gnoll [Smith] into selling some he’d been letting passersby try out on practice dummies, but the Gnoll didn’t move. Feshi sighed. Apart from Demas Metal’s politics, she was bothered by how the [Merchant] was speaking to the [Smith].
This is me, doing you a favor. No wonder the Gnoll wasn’t receptive.
“I tell you what. [Name Your Price]. Just do it. Name your—”
The [Merchant] resorted to another bad but understandable idea. Which was using a Skill. The Gnoll [Smith] stiffened, and his mouth opened as he held out the shortsword he had been holding back. Which meant he’d have to sell it if the [Merchant] met his price, probably at a high markup.
But it was a bad idea because every other Demas Metal Gnoll and others who’d heard the Skill being used were looking around very unhappily. Feshi wondered if she’d watch the [Merchant] and his nervous bodyguards being dumped out of the Meeting of Tribes in a wheelbarrow.
However, the [Merchant Armsdealer] was saved from being beaten senseless…by someone giving him a knee to the stomach. Feshi winced in sympathy. There seemed to be a lot of that going around.
“[Belay That], Merchant Equed. You know better than to force a sale. Especially when every Gnoll in the Great Plains will beat your caravan senseless and take the blades back. You’re tactless. Please excuse him.”
The [Merchant] doubled over as someone pushed him over, cancelling his Skill. Gratified, the Gnoll [Smith] bowed to the woman.
“Thank you. I’m afraid the Demas Metal isn’t for sale. Not to—”
“Non-Gnolls. Which I quite understand! Might I try holding the blade, though? I haven’t had a chance.”
Merchant Equed was pulled back by his bodyguard as he spluttered in outrage, but Feshi saw someone pick up the blade and then—Feshi turned—execute a marvelous cross-cut technique. Even the [Smith] was impressed, having seen a number of [Warriors] with varying levels of expertise try the blade.
“You have a fair hand with it, Miss Human.”
A woman with colorful hair tossed it back and laughed.
“Thank you! It’s a bit heavier than I thought, but it feels wonderfully balanced. Can I try that trick with the oil?”
“Of course. Hey, bring the pot over!”
The strange female [Merchant] dipped the blade in the pot and admired the odd oil-coating on the Demas Metal blade.
“I know people who would buy this just for that effect. You could sell little toys to children! I want some.”
The Gnoll opened his mouth, but she raised a hand.
“Yes, I know. No non-Gnolls. Well…would your Chieftain consider selling to a Gnoll? Another [Merchant]?”
The [Smith] raised his brows.
“I don’t see why not. He has many meetings at this time, but surely so.”
“Would he entertain an offer for a thousand pieces? Because I will back that price. And that’s just my order. Hey, Qwery! Look at what I found! And I just got here!”
Ysara Byres raised her voice and raised the blade overhead. And in answer…
Feshi glanced over and went momentarily blind as the most glittery Gnoll in the world whirled and dazzled everyone in a display of light off her golden fur.
The Golden Gnoll of Izril herself descended into the Meeting of Tribes like a lightshow—not a performance, but her caravan had come in and was in the middle of unloading. She strode over, ignoring the looks from other Gnolls.
“Ysara, what’s that?”
“Demas Metal, Qwera. Apparently sold only to Gnolls. But I want some. I think it’s a marvelous metal. I’ll have to put it through its paces, but I have a good feeling about it.”
“If you have a good feeling, I’ll buy it. And sell it to you at, oh, a 5% markup. How could you get a better deal? You can’t.”
“What if I threaten to kill you?”
Ysara held the blade out across Qwera’s throat, a bit teasingly. The Golden Gnoll gave her a grin that showed every tooth.
“Then you can get 3% off the regular sale. This Demas Chieftain can sell to me, and I’ll sell to you. You can take your half to Chandrar and stay out of my business.”
Ysara narrowed her eyes.
“I hate you. Well, let’s find this Chieftain. Just as soon as I do a few more tests with this. Does it work on anything other than oil?”
The Golden Gnoll turned back to the [Smith], but she kept her attention on something out of the corner of her eye. Qwera saw that, at last, the little Gnoll cub who’d been staring at the giant Garsine Wallbreaker passing by finally broke out of her stupor.
She yanked urgently at the paw of the adult she was holding hands with. He groaned, massaging his back.
“What now? Over there? Fine…Tesy, you hold her hand. My everything hurts.”
“Hmm? What was that, Vetn?”
Nearby, Tesy, a Drake with brass scales, stopped doing a quick sketch with charcoal and a bit of parchment. He held out the rather fine image to a Gnoll, grinning and posing in place.
“Three coppers. Here you go. Thank you.”
The Drake stood up as Vetn hobbled over to Qwera, clutching at his back, then his legs. He was obviously in a considerable amount of muscular pain, despite having taken one healing potion already.
“I want another potion, Qwera.”
The Golden Gnoll had lost her patience.
“Well, go get one.”
“I want you to pay for it.”
“Hm…no. I already paid you. It’s one potion. Don’t be stingy—use one of yours.”
“My own money?”
Qwera raised the Paw of Slapping-idiots-on-the-head, and Vetn hobbled away quickly.
Then the little Gnoll cub, her fur a plain, ordinary brown, just as it had been on the day she was born, spotted the Demas Metal blade. She raced over to Ysara and began jumping up and down.
Give me! Give me! I want to hold it!
Her meaning couldn’t have been more plain if she were shouting. The [Smith] chuckled as Ysara held the blade high overhead.
“Oh, no. I’m not going to have someone sever a hand on my watch. Qwera—”
“That’s it! Move back, you. Vetn, I said don’t let go of her paw. One of you holds it at all times—you or Tesy—or I make both of you do all the unloading for my caravans.”
Tesy hurriedly grabbed the little Gnoll girl’s paw.
The cub looked reproachfully up at Ysara but remained oddly silent. Then she lowered one paw to her side, pressed something hidden on her belt, opened her mouth, and spoke.
“I want that. Please?”
What a completely ordinary thing for a Gnoll to say. Ysara instantly refused.
“No, Mri. You cannot.”
“Absolutely not. Vetn, would you mind giving me some room?”
The [Smith] was too busy admiring Ysara’s excellent bladeswomanship to notice it, but something was off about the second time the girl said that. The little Gnoll girl said it…exactly the same way. Intonation, pitch, and volume.
Qwera noticed. She let Vetn drag the girl back, then bent down and grabbed an ear.
“Don’t be silly, Mri. And don’t think about touching one of those blades! I’m not explaining to your mother why you’re missing a digit.”
She added that for the benefit of the listeners, then went back to haranguing the workers who were unloading her caravans.
The little Gnoll girl with brown fur, a curious pattern on her arms and chest, and two gold-painted ears pouted. She was clearly in the company of the Golden Gnoll herself.
She took her paw away from the tiny activation runes she’d been given. No one would really think twice about the gaudy gemstone set into a fancy necklace hanging from her neck. It was still a risk to use, but if people didn’t look too closely, they wouldn’t notice that the ‘voice’ of the girl hadn’t come from her mouth but from a little bit farther down. Or that she could only say a few things.
“I want food, Vetn.”
The Thief of Clouds patted his stomach.
“I want food too. Qwery, can we have food money?”
Mri slapped her speaking rune.
Qwera spun with the wrath of…Qwera…and both Gnolls hid behind Tesy. Qwera pointed at Tesy, also known as Sellme, the Magical Painter, who looked around for someone to hide behind.
“Tesy, take these two children around the Meeting of Tribes. Not far—and if you get into mischief, I will break your favorite paintbrushes with my own two paws. Get some food. Buy it if you have to.”
“Can I have an allowance?”
“Make Vetn pay. I’ll pay him back. Five gold pieces.”
Mri brightened up, as did Tesy. Vetn just sulked.
“No, you won’t.”
“Damn right I won’t. Get lost!”
Tesy, Vetn, and the little Gnoll scampered off despite that, and Qwera went back to unloading her caravan. It was odd—she had publicly declared that she wouldn’t bother attending the Meeting of Tribes, but one supposed she had learned of something worthy of changing her mind. Demas Metal already seemed promising.
Ysara wasn’t much of a surprise, either, given her status as another [Merchant] who sold both arms and ingredients depending on her location and inventory. Vetn, Tesy? Childhood friends, just one Gnoll and Drake out of many in the Meeting of Tribes.
So there they were. A small gang to join the great, wonderful, eye-catching Meeting of Tribes. Qwera, Tesy, Vetn, Ysara, and Mri, the little Gnoll girl.
Or rather…Mrsha. She clung to both Tesy and Vetn’s hands, making them swing her off the ground rather than walk as they groaned and held her up. Beaming, eyes popping with everything to see, the interesting sights, smells…she was here.
She’d made it.
It was all part of Qwera’s master plan. With Plain’s Eye Gnoll hunters stopping everyone on the roads, ready to pursue even one child close to Mrsha’s age, even in her caravan, she had decided there was only one place to hide Mrsha.
Among as many Gnolls as possible. Of course, everyone had said it was dangerous. But Qwera had pointed out that their options were slim. More important, Mrsha had allies here. Krshia Silverfang, even her mother, had intended to come here.
To get Mrsha out of the city and past the checkpoints, she’d made Vetn do it. The Thief of Clouds had been hired to steal Mrsha away from Ysara. Which he had done. It somehow let him use his Skills, and so he had run with Mrsha in his arms on one breathless night.
She thought Wanderer was fast, but he was like nothing compared to the Thief of Clouds. The Gnoll had raced up a wall, leaped past two [Guards] while they were distracted in response to a little noise spell he’d used, and landed on the other side in a moment. Then he had raced across the grasslands.
He’d avoided the Plain’s Eye hunters too. Invisible, soundless, he had sped Mrsha low through the grass, leaving no trail, leaped over a gorge, shadowed a galloping City Runner on horseback at night, and run and run to deliver Mrsha back to Qwera, who was waiting to take her to the Meeting of Gnolls…
…And he had been confined to bed for nearly two days straight with muscle pain. He refused to take a potion for it, claiming that it would build up his body. Despite Qwera having paid him five thousand gold pieces to steal Mrsha, he wouldn’t spend so much as a silver coin on a healing potion.
Mrsha thought he was funny. She liked Vetn, even though he was cheap and whined about spending five gold pieces out of his fortune on snacks.
“Don’t be stingy, Vetn. Mri’s never been here. Neither have I! Do it for us—come on. Pwease?”
“Tesy, I swear…”
The Drake rested his head on Vetn’s shoulder and gave him a fairly good Mrsha-eyes impression. Mrsha copied him, and Vetn scowled.
“Fine. We’ll take four.”
He paid for some delicious-looking dough-fried meatballs in a small container and got an extra-large one for himself. Tesy and Mrsha began to gobble theirs, using a little toothpick to pop them into their mouths.
“Hey. Why’d you get more than us?”
“Because I exercise and deserve more food.”
“I paint all the time!”
“That’s your arms.”
“And my brain! You know how much energy this thing takes?”
Tesy jabbed his head repeatedly. Vetn muttered under his breath.
Tesy looked hurt as Mrsha nearly snorted meatball out of her nose. Vetn elbowed Tesy.
“I know…so give me a meatball.”
“Hey! You have yours; I have mine!”
It was amazing how outraged the Thief of Clouds could be about someone stealing one of his meatballs. Tesy rolled his eyes.
“Fine. Have one of mine. He’s going to sulk all day if you even steal one.”
Mrsha, who had been eying the big basket of meatballs, had been contemplating the very same thing. She saw Vetn glowering, but Tesy poked a meatball from Vetn’s own basket and pushed it at him.
Vetn chomped it down. Tesy went for another of Vetn’s snacks, and the Thief of Clouds slapped his claw down. They were having a good time. Mrsha beamed. She tapped one of the runes she’d been given.
“This is fun!”
Vetn and Tesy glanced down at her. The prerecorded message was in fact a little Gnoll girl in the city they’d left who, in exchange for some coin, had happily recorded all the lines in a song crystal, the kind Qwera sold.
“It is. Vetn, I don’t understand why you uh…left.”
The Thief of Clouds gave Tesy an angry wide-eyed glare, and Mrsha recalled that he’d actually stolen something from this very place. Vetn gulped down more food.
“Is that Velrusk free? No? How much for o—two? A silver and…? All right, fine. Two, please.”
He sipped from his drink as Tesy took one with delight. Mrsha reached out for one and glared when it was clear that she was not going to be the benefactor of either. Tesy snagged a cup of goat’s milk for Mrsha, which mollified her.
“I left because I have better things to do than eat and stare at things all day. Which is what happens here.”
“I thought the most important Gnolls made big decisions.”
“Maybe the Chieftains do. I haven’t heard it changes that much. At least—until recently.”
Mrsha thought he was a fool. A damned fool! There was food and drink that was delicious, plus amazing Gnolls—she knew the legend of Garsine Wallbreaker, and she had been right there! And a [Performer]! And some Gnoll had been poking a Manticore with a spear! And she was huge! And there was Demas Metal, which she was going to buy. And, and…
And she was here. She had been so worried and afraid for a long time, ever since Wer had taken her from the inn. Ever since Belavierr. Mrsha was still nervous, so she made sure Tesy held her paw, even as they moved along. Vetn had to juggle two mugs and his own snack tray. She knew this was a dangerous place, but she had Wer’s fur dye and Qwera’s gold disguise on, and she had the speaking crystal so no one thought it was strange that she was silent.
She was very proud of her brown color. She’d asked specifically for it to be the same brown she used to be when she was growing up, but as an added bonus, she’d had Qwera and Tesy help her do a very Plains Gnoll thing, which was apply the markings of her tribe.
Stone Spears. The gray pattern on her arms and shoulders was technically for older Gnolls, but who else but Mrsha could wear it? It made her sad, but Qwera had approved. She was the last of the Stone Spears in this world. Stone Spears should be at this Meeting of Tribes. Even in secret. And it made her look like a real Plains Gnoll.
Mrsha was proud, and happy to be eating, but she was also…tired. She just wanted respite. She wanted Lyonette to come here and to see Krshia and for the adult to say that everything was going to be okay.
“Why don’t we find a place to sit, Vetn? Or should we look into, y’know, the Silverfang thing?”
Mrsha had been thinking the same thing. Vetn shrugged.
“We can try, but I saw a huge crowd around the Silverfang camp. You know, because of the news.”
Mrsha frowned darkly. Oh, yes, the news. Tesy and Vetn circled back with Mrsha—but only after they picked up some nali-sticks being sold by the Gaarh Marsh tribe. And the news was on every tongue.
“They stole our magic. Stole it. The [Shamans] are saying that’s why no Gnoll can cast magic.”
“Well, now that the crystal’s gone, surely we can all be [Mages]…?”
“No. It’s deeper than that. See?”
Mrsha idly looked around. Then she dropped her meatball snacks. Vetn cursed, and Tesy bent.
“Oh, no. What’s…”
But Mrsha was staring, open-mouthed, at…of all things…a Gnoll standing there. Holding a magic wand. Then she looked around and realized. It wasn’t just one Gnoll.
“Do you have a spark, Honored Qwera?”
The Golden Gnoll of Izril put her hands on her hips.
“I have plenty of sparks. Which one are you referring to?”
One of her fellow Gnoll [Merchants] who’d come to visit gave her a grin and held out a wand. It had been dead in his paw, but the instant Qwera took it with a frown, it lit up.
A faint glow, but faintly orange. She blinked at it, and he sighed.
“You do! Congratulations.”
“Thank you. Now, for what and why should I care?”
“It means you have magical aptitude! For [Mage]-magic, that is. All of us could be [Shamans]—well, all those in a tribe. But our magic was suppressed. Inhibited. Apparently, if we were born close to one of those magic–anti-magic things, we might have lost our mana wells entirely.”
“Damn. That’s…beyond heinous. So they took away your magical capability? Not just your ability to cast it?”
The Gnoll glared at the wand as he took it back, which turned blank when he held it. He shook his head, face bleak with loss.
“Look. It’s just a reaction, they tell me. The wand draws out mana—a Grand Magus from Wistram developed the spell to test whether we have a mana pool. Apparently, most of us will not. Honorable Qwera must be lucky.”
“I wasn’t a Plains Gnoll growing up. So yes.”
Qwera brushed at her paws, then looked around. She snapped her fingers.
“…And that’s why every third Gnoll has a wand.”
Indeed, it was a craze. Every third Gnoll had a wand, or was trying out this test, or trying to cast [Light], or [Spark], or another Tier 0 spell. It gave Qwera an idea and she whirled.
“Hey! Stop unloading the rest of the cargo! Get me every magical object we’ve got! Wands! Staves! Orbs!”
Her team rushed to the caravan, and Qwera smiled like a [Bandit]. Ysara rolled her eyes.
“Don’t you have better and more important things to do, Qwera? Like help Mri?”
“I can be an altruist and make a profit, Ysara.”
“I think that’s actually impossible.”
“Well, then, forget the altruism. Besides—we have to be subtle about this. We’ll get Mri to the people she needs to meet. We just have to keep her out of sight.”
The daughter of House Byres nodded. She glanced around.
“And you did that by entrusting her to Vetn and Tesy?”
“You may think they’re idiots—and they are—but they haven’t stayed alive this long by being completely inept. Now…hello, my golden darlings! The Golden Gnoll is here, and I have wands to sell! Magic staves! Even spellbooks! Who wants to reclaim their magic?”
She began shouting, and Ysara rolled her eyes as a panoply of magical items spilled forth around her. Yet she had to admit—Qwera’s plan had made Mrsha one in a crowd of literally hundreds of thousands of children.
However, she couldn’t help but worry. Ysara set off to find the group, because she remembered the way Yvlon talked about The Wandering Inn in her few letters. Exasperating, wonderful, friendly…but it seemed like it drew events like a magnetic stone drew iron fragments. She had a bad feeling that Mrsha might have learned from the best.
Ysara was half right. She should have watched out for Mrsha, but she had forgotten that Mrsha wasn’t the only actor on this stage. And if Mrsha had learned from Erin Solstice, there was another student who had learned from this world’s finest grandmaster.
Feshi Weatherfur was striding around the communal grounds of the Meeting of Tribes, lost in thought. Obsessing—but only a little bit. She was on to something.
She hadn’t been at the center of the negotiations with Fetohep or the adventure at sea. She was not with Venaz, Wil, Peki, or Merrik, searching for the Titan. This was her hour, but she was not the leader of the Meeting of Tribes, far from it.
Nor was the Meeting of Tribes at the center of the world. Rather…
“And now, my next guest has an opinion about the Gnoll-Drake magic-suppression allegations. And I am saying ‘allegations’ because it’s not proved, and I’m letting people speak. Even if their opinions sound stupid. The Drakes did nothing wrong—is that what I’m understanding here? What—nothing ever? And we had no motivations for doing this, is this right, Wall Lord Dragial? Or should I say former Wall Lord of Fissival?”
A rather disgruntled Drake appeared on the scrying orb as Drassi gave her rather biased introduction to him. But that was why Feshi liked her.
Just then, a Gnoll standing next to Feshi and watching the orb began choking to death.
“Itgh hm! Ith hmm!”
Her companions had to save her from dying and get her to spit out the mouthful of popcorn that had been clogging her windpipe. Feshi saw that it was none other than the Stargnoll herself—Lehra Ruinstrider, who pointed as Wall Lord Dragial, her mortal pursuer and nemesis, began to defend Drakes for doing nothing to Gnolls.
“I nearly choked to death. Damn you, Dragial! You nearly killed me, but I survived!”
Lehra pounded the ground with her fist. Suxhel, her Gazer companion, stared at Lehra.
“You’re blaming him for the fact that you nearly choked on popcorn?”
Lehra coughed out another kernel and saw Feshi watching.
“Hey—Feshi, right? It’s Lehra. Haven’t we met?”
“I think we have. It’s an honor, Lehra. And Suxhel?”
The Gazer [Wizard] bowed slightly. Feshi eyed the scrying orb with renewed interest.
“That must be Wall Lord Dragial. The one who claims the Blade of Mershi is his.”
“Yep. Look at that smug bastard. He’s attacked more Drake cities, Gnoll tribes—and he has supporters. He shouldn’t be allowed on Wistram News Network!”
“Not even to voice his opinion?”
“Well, he’s lying, Suxhel! You know he lies! Unless he uses the truth to lie harder!”
Lehra threw up her paws as her friend rolled all her eyes. The Gnoll stalked off to eat something in a huff, tail furiously wagging.
Feshi sort of understood what Lehra meant, but it was a complex situation. Technically—and she didn’t voice this aloud—Lehra had taken the item that Dragial had paid her to recover. So he had some claim to it, although it was true that it seemed like the Blade of Mershi had chosen its owner.
Anyway, it just went to show that this place had as much to fascinate as what was on the news. So why weren’t they recording the Meeting of Tribes?
The answer: Gnolls didn’t like Wistram. They had no Wistram [Mages] here. Ergo, there was little motivation for coverage.
“But we need attention. We deserve it.”
“What’s this about attention we deserve?”
Lehra popped over, full of nervous energy after eating six nali-sticks in quick succession. Feshi jumped.
“Er—I’m sorry. I was just thinking out loud, Lehra. I was thinking that we need the spotlight. Why is Wall Lord Dragial talking—”
“Exactly! Shut him up! Arrest him!”
“—when Drassi could be interviewing Chieftains here?”
Lehra grabbed Suxhel’s shoulder excitedly.
“That’s a great point. Why can’t we be on the news? I’ll tell everyone what Dragial is doing!”
Suxhel gave Feshi an appraising look. By now, Yerranola had edged over. She’d run off for a second and had come back…with an armful of autograph squares.
“Excuse me, Lehra. I’m a huge fan. And I have family, cousins, friends…could I ask you to autograph these for them?”
Lehra happily began signing as Suxhel addressed Feshi.
“I believe you are right, Strategist Feshi, but television strikes me as being like the Clock of Eyes. It swings the world’s attention to whatever is loudest, not to what is most pressing. To swing the gaze here requires great urgency, which we have—but perhaps also something else. Something more.”
“The Clock of Eyes?”
Suxhel raised her oddly segmented fingers.
“Pardon. It’s a Gazer creation. A trap that stops all it sees. It is a simple thing, albeit deadly. I only meant that if you wish to have Wistram News Network feature the Meeting of Tribes, it must have an interest in the meeting. And Wistram and Gnolls are historically divided.”
“Yes, although one Grand Magus seems like he’s sympathetic toward us.”
An idea was taking shape in her head. She might not be Niers Astoragon’s most aggressive student, or fastest, but she was one of his best. And although she didn’t have a specific genius, like Wil’s in logistics, she had a talent that had bested Venaz more than once.
She remembered the lessons she’d learned and never made the same mistake twice. Now she thought she was internalizing a lesson he had begun to teach them, but in a type of war new even to him.
Yerranola gestured at Feshi as she overheard their conversation.
“You’re referring to Grand Magus Eldavin. If our group heads to Chandrar after this, we should try to stop by Wistram. I know it’s sort of an odd route, but it seems too good to miss, if they’ll let us in. I’ll sign autographs if it helps.”
Lehra nodded eagerly. She eyed Feshi, and leaned in to whisper, far too loudly.
“Oh, yeah! I forgot you were bound for Chandrar! Don’t you have the Diamond Swords of Serept?”
Heads swiveled, and people stared at Feshi and Yerranola, reminded of that bit of recent history. The Gnoll [Strategist] hesitated and put a hand on her belt.
“I only have one. The rest are securely locked away—aside from Wil’s and Venaz’s.”
The Named Adventurer looked excited; artifacts like these were what her kind lived for.
“They have the ones that make you move super fast and make copies, right? What was yours? The necromancy dagger?”
Feshi winced. There was a reason she wasn’t proud of the dagger. Gnolls did not like necromancy. Something about, oh, a certain Necromancer killing one of their beloved Chieftains, a general dislike of the undead, and so on.
Yet Lehra was fascinated. She held up the glowing armguard with the gem, the Blade of Mershi.
“This is my artifact. I can make it turn into a dagger. Well…I have to transform, then it turns into a dagger. Want to see?”
“Er—maybe later, Honored Lehra.”
Feshi was conscious that they were attracting a crowd. But now Lehra was staring at the hilt of the Diamond Dagger of Serept.
“Can I see the dagger? Do you die if you touch it?”
“There is a curse. I don’t think it’s on anything but the chest…here it is.”
Feshi drew the Diamond Dagger, and Suxhel’s eyes focused on it. Lehra oohed at the beautiful blade, and Yerranola smiled, but painfully. She had sacrificed the most of all of them for that adventure—and yet not one of the blades had gone to her. Feshi gave her a guilty look, but Lehra was already asking for another favor.
“You can summon the undead with it, can’t you? Would you mind summoning one for me? I want to know how strong it is.”
“Lehra, you’re being rude.”
Suxhel’s voice was stern, but Lehra didn’t let go of things easily. And to be honest, Feshi was tempted.
How strong is one of the undead compared to a Named Adventurer of Lehra’s level? It was the kind of battle data you’d rarely get. And if it meant a favor or two? Slowly, Feshi raised the Diamond Dagger.
Gnolls broke off from watching the scrying orb and stepped back. Yerra stepped toward Feshi, supporting her friend.
“I will summon one. Everyone, stand back. Lehra, are you sure?”
Feshi hesitated, then said the words Fetohep had taught her. Which one…?
“I call upon the defenders of old! From Khelt’s vaults, from the lands of the dead, a warrior to do battle in my name! Come forth, champion of forgotten fame!”
She felt silly, holding the dagger slightly up, reciting the ostentatious-sounding summoning oath.
“You’re going to have to practice that, Feshi.”
The young Gnoll woman’s cheeks burned, but then a hole opened in the ground. Gnolls raced away and pointed as a perfect circle opened, a chasm of blackness ringed by a dark circle of black magic, like the Diamond Dagger itself. And out of it rose…
Glowing blue eyes. A face of bone—not a Human’s but, of all things, a Minotaur’s. Ancient armor but still burnished, glowing faintly white. A long halberd with a wicked edge.
The Skeletal Champion rose, ascending out of whatever place it had been summoned from. It looked like a creature from stories or nightmares, but it was not malevolent. Not to Feshi. If anything, as it looked at her, she felt guarded.
Here is something that will die before I do. Feshi sighed in relief. And she realized she was the only one to do so.
Every Gnoll in sight had frozen at the appearance of the Skeletal Champion. A dread had come over their faces, and Yerra grabbed Feshi’s arm.
“Dead gods, Feshi! It’s terrifying!”
It was just a skeleton in armor. But Feshi realized—seeing that even Suxhel had readied her staff, though she knew the skeleton was under Feshi’s control—they were not seeing what she was.
Terror ran around the gathering. Lehra had gone still; the young Named Adventurer had stopped her excited wavering about. Now her eyes locked on to the Skeletal Champion’s, and a smile played over her face. Confidence. A challenge. She took a breath, then lifted the arm with the armguard over her head.
“My turn. In the name of the City of Stars!”
Then there was light. A blinding flash, as the Blade of Mershi’s gemstone glowed. It covered Lehra—and transformed her. When Feshi stopped shielding her eyes, there Lehra stood.
A figure covered in the strange metal of the Blade of Mershi from helm to tail. A Drake’s tail armor—scaled, flexible, stronger than any other armor. And in Lehra’s hands were a longsword and shield.
She saluted the Skeletal Champion. Yerranola gasped, and her grip loosened on Feshi. The horror of the undead seemed to have been blasted to pieces by the Stargnoll’s artifact.
“That’s how you use your artifact and look good.”
“Well, come on, you undead—uh—thing. Let’s see how good you are.”
The Skeletal Champion had not taken Lehra for granted. It had readied itself subtly as she used her artifact. Now its head turned, and Feshi got the sense it was waiting for her. She hesitated, then waved it forward.
Instantly, the halberd swung down, and Lehra tensed. But the long-dead champion of Khelt did not attack at once. Instead, the Minotaur champion saluted Lehra in return. The Stargnoll’s eyes widened, then she raised her sword and swung the longsword down, readying herself.
A second later, the skeleton leaped forward, and the Named Adventurer brought up her shield. The first impact sounded like a gong ringing through the Meeting of Tribes. Then they began to fight, and Gnolls spread out to watch a Named Adventurer doing battle with Khelt’s champion.
“Three gold on Lehra!”
Yerranola was the first to speak, as the Gnolls pushed out to create a very respectable semicircle around the amazing battle.
“Six on the skeleton.”
Lehra yelped, then ducked a two-handed swing from the halberd. She dodged back, rolling to avoid another swing. The Minotaur whirled his halberd, and she blocked a swing.
Indeed, the Skeletal Champion was swinging the halberd around, and despite Lehra’s magical shield and armor, the impacts were making her stagger. Still, she ignored a blow that Feshi thought would make Venaz fall over and lunged in with her longsword, stabbing. Against which the undead warrior spun his halberd, deflecting her sword with the shaft, then drew the blade back. Lehra spun left, swearing, as the tip of the halberd nearly struck her from behind. Then—the tip of the deadly shaft swung up in a precise chop under her right armpit.
Lehra blocked it with her shield and moved back, trying to get out of range. The halberd began to stab in a flurry of thrusts as the pike on the end aimed at her.
The first blow skated off her armor, even though her Skill knocked six previous strikes aside. Feshi blinked. Had she just seen the undead warrior…?
She had. He cut a dizzying zigzag in the air. So fast that Lehra threw up her shield, and a cascade of magical sparks or conflicting energies flew upwards. The Minotaur brought down a two-handed chop, then turned it into a horizontal cut halfway down, feinting so well that it caught Lehra by the side and tossed her several feet, though it never broke her armor.
“No, I’m fine! This guy’s sort of tough. I’ve got him.”
Lehra got to her feet, unharmed. She stared at the undead warrior. Suxhel and Yerra both saw what Feshi had.
The Minotaur skeleton was smiling. Of course, all skeletons grin. But this one was definitely…
Lehra’s eyes narrowed. She abandoned the longsword and shield. There was a flash, and Feshi saw in the next moment the Stargnoll holding a halberd.
“Let’s see how you like it.”
Suxhel shouted from the sidelines, exasperated.
“Lehra, you don’t know how to use a halberd!”
“It’s sort of like a spear! Let me see—aha!”
Yerranola watched as Lehra charged in and the skeleton blocked the blow, almost contemptuously. It seemed to know this was a spar, or else Feshi suspected it would have punished the huge overswing. Then the skeleton stopped smiling. Its one-armed block began to waver, and it grabbed the halberd with a second arm, forcing Lehra back. It seemed she was strong too.
Even so. The audience realized this was a closer match than they’d thought and began betting in earnest. Yerra anxiously turned to Suxhel.
“Uh…can I redo that bet on Lehra?”
Yerra winced as Lehra yelped and dove out of the way of a return chop.
“Halberds aren’t my style! Mace! No, wait! Greatsword!”
The Selphid addressed the [Wizard].
“He’s a lot better than her. She. Whatever this champion is.”
Suxhel nodded slowly, her eyes flicking to track the fight—both combatants at once, look at Yerranola, and survey the crowd, all at once. It made some people nauseous even to see, but Yerranola had met Gazers before and conversed as naturally as could be.
“She trains with Emper and Elgrinna, but she’s not at their level yet. If it won’t kill her, please have your undead beat her bruised, Feshi. It will be a good lesson in overconfidence.”
“I think I can do that, Suxhel. I’m sorry about this.”
“No. It isn’t your fault. Lehra thinks she can beat anyone just because she has the Blade of Mershi. She’s done this before.”
“And why, pray, is a Named Adventurer sporting against one of Khelt’s greatest champions? Poorly?”
Yerranola turned her head. She looked at a bouncing little Gnoll with gold ears, pointing with open mouth as Tesy and Vetn held her paws and placed bets with a nearby Gnoll—against Lehra. The girl was gaping at Feshi. The [Strategist] combed her fur, embarrassed. Yerranola replied absently, still looking around.
“Well, Lehra wanted to see if she could win, and we’ve never tried to use the Diamond Dagger and—”
Her voice trailed off. Slowly, one of Suxhel’s many eyes rotated downward. So did Feshi’s and Yerranola’s. They all had a thought.
…Who was speaking to them?
They all looked down at the dagger Feshi held. From there had come the voice. Now came the icy reply.
“I see. I granted you the words of greater summoning, Strategist Feshi Weatherfur, to call forth the greatest souls contained within the dagger when your need is most dire. You could have summoned a lesser shade of Khelt, but you have chosen its greatest warrior. I take offense.”
Feshi had heard that tone before. The dagger flashed—and sand billowed up. A figure appeared, and Yerranola backed away.
A skeletal monarch made of sand stood next to Feshi and regarded Lehra slashing and parrying the Minotaur’s blows. He slowly twisted his head, and even though he was made of sand, his simulacrum conveyed the flashing of his deathly eyes, his displeasure.
“My displeasure is not that the tools of Serept are being used for frivolity. He would…enjoy their usage, I think. Rather, it is a disservice to the great soul of this warrior to pit him against such an amateurish foe, even if she’s armed with a relic of her own.”
Lehra kept fighting as the figure appeared, summoned by the power of the diamond blade. Feshi saw the last glittering piece of the puzzle slide into place in her head. But for a second, she was just standing there, wordless. The Gnolls were frozen by this casual display of great magic.
The Stargnoll kept fighting for a few seconds until she spotted Fetohep of Khelt in the sand. Her guard lowered, and she blinked.
“Hey, is that F—”
The halberd caught her on the side and threw her, spinning, fourteen feet, where she crashed into the crowd. She lay there for a second before springing to her feet.
And there he was. Larger than life! Mrsha’s mouth was open so wide she could have eaten one of Erin’s cakes whole.
Fetohep of Khelt! He was speaking to Feshi, who was bowing, holding the diamond dagger out. And there, at her side but unharmed, thanks to her armor, was Lehra Ruinstrider! The Named Adventurer!
Mrsha’s heroes. Gnoll heroes. People she’d seen on the scrying orb! Feshi, Yerranola, Lehra—
Can we get closer? Please?
She had to hold up the card so Vetn would see her question. He eyed the undead with great apprehension.
“I think this is exactly the kind of thing Qwera wouldn’t want us to get near. Besides—that undead…”
Tesy shuddered. Mrsha stared blankly at the undead Minotaur, who had abandoned his duel to kneel to Fetohep. What? It was just one undead. Flesh Worms were a lot worse. Although she had to admit…it was a lot cooler than any of Pisces’ undead. Except the Frostmarrow Behemoth.
“Your Majesty, I apologize. I didn’t realize there was a distinction between the undead summoned by chant and…not. I will refrain from doing so again.”
Feshi was speaking humbly to the apparition of sand. Fetohep inclined his head.
“And I shall accept your apology. The blade is yours to use. Moreover, I shall not interfere with mortal concerns. This is but the last remnant of the enchantment upon the Diamond Dagger for protection. I took advantage of its activation to make certain inquiries of the Meeting of Tribes.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
Fetohep produced a list as Mrsha dragged Vetn and Tesy forward, and they dragged her back.
“I would like to obtain a rare reagent lacking even within Khelt’s vaults. It is my understanding the Plain’s Eye tribe and Gaarh Marsh, or another tribe, may have instances of it. I shall reward whoever secures it for me with great wealth. It is a specific mushroom known to possess ghostly capabilities…”
Mrsha’s ears perked up. She had no idea what this was about, but on general principle, she approved of the idea of traveling across the world and appearing out of a magical dagger to get your shopping list taken care of. She wondered if she could get this guy’s autograph.
“She’s strong. Vetn, help me hold her back!”
Tesy was dragging Mrsha away. Which was funny, because despite the fact that this amazing moment was sure to become a piece of history or an adventure, no other Gnoll was running over and asking for an autograph.
By rights, they would after Fetohep was gone, but no one could quite find the audacity to insert themselves in this conversation. Who would dare? Who would just stroll over, go, ‘Hey, I’m Erin, whatcha talking about?’
Well…Mrsha had a different perspective on what you ‘were allowed to do.’ But Fetohep was already departing. Except that Feshi had interrupted.
“Your Majesty, if I may…I wonder whether you might do me a favor. One that may benefit glorious Khelt.”
He reformed himself out of the collapsing grains of sand, raising one eyebrow on his emaciated face.
“How intriguing, Feshi Weatherfur. It would have to be something desirable indeed, for my time is limited.”
Feshi was bowing, but she had a glint in her eyes.
“Yes, Your Majesty. But I hope you might agree it is of interest. It’s…”
She began to speak, but then the Gazer cast a spell and Mrsha couldn’t hear! She strained forward, kicking at Vetn and Tesy’s hands, but they were too—
“Hey, where’d that Minotaur go? I’m up for round two! I’m not dizzy at all. The world’s just tilted a bit.”
Lehra stumbled past them. She stopped as a little Gnoll froze and was yanked off her paws by two adults. Lehra glanced back as Mrsha waved her arms frantically.
“Oh, hey, what’s this?”
“I like this! I love this!”
Mrsha slapped her magical gemstone and held up a card.
Lehra looked at the card, then burst out laughing.
“Why not? Who am I writing it to?”
Mrsha nearly wrote her own name. She hesitated, had an agonized moment, then scribbled.
“Ekirra? Is that your friend? All right. To Ekirra…my biggest fan! There! Hope you like it! Now, where’s…?”
Lehra winked at Mrsha. At Mrsha. The Gnoll wanted to ask her how she found the Blade of Mershi, if she had ever considered an apprentice, if she—but Lehra was already heading back to her group. Mrsha clutched the autograph, tucking it into her bag of holding. Ekirra owed her huge for this. He was almost as big a fan as she was.
Fetohep of Khelt was already disappearing. Lehra hurried over.
“Hey, you’re Fetohep, right? Can I ask…?”
The undead monarch swiveled his head.
“No. I shall also add, Lehra Ruinstrider, that the halberd is a superior weapon. You may wish to improve your training.”
He paused. His features began to disintegrate as the sand fell back, dissolving. But he got one last word in.
“Train at all, that is.”
Then he was gone. Lehra stood, cut deeper than she’d been by the blows she’d sustained in the brief sparring match. Suxhel looked at Feshi with great respect, and Yerra hugged her friend.
“Feshi, you mad Gnollwoman! You genius! Do you think it’ll happen?”
“Let’s find a scrying orb.”
Feshi was grinning with delight. Mrsha stared at them as Vetn muttered to Tesy.
“If Qwera hears that Mri nearly…with Lehra, our ears are toast. Let’s get out of here.”
The Drake nodded nervously, and they scurried away, dragging Mrsha, who was trying to cling to the ground.
Not that it mattered. Countless Gnolls and onlookers took this moment to flood forward, to ask, to be part of the moment—after the moment had passed. Lehra was also the right person for Mrsha to ask for an autograph, because of all the keen-eyed, intelligent, sharp people here, she gave no thought to a little Gnoll who uttered suspiciously few words and wrote her requests down.
It didn’t matter. It was all fine, and Mrsha was being spirited away by Vetn and Tesy, kicking and struggling, as Feshi turned. There were more acquaintances coming their way. Just a morning’s incident during the Meeting of Tribes.
“You can play on my phone all day, Gire. I promise.”
“You promise? Did we miss the fight?”
Two voices entered the conversation, drawing nearer. Feshi’s ears perked up. She smiled, spotted the group, and beckoned over two friends.
“Inkar, Tkrn! You won’t believe what just happened!”
Lehra broke away from Suxhel’s berating her to frown at the group and grin.
“Hey, is that Tkrn and Inkar? Didn’t I sleep with one of you?”
Mrsha stopped as a giant Gnoll, nine feet tall, wiping tears from her eyes and holding Inkar’s hand with her other paw, passed right by her. They were both followed by a rather plain, ordinary Gnoll in [Guardsman]’s armor bearing a familiar crest. He scuttled over as heads tracked him, embarrassed.
What a scene. Tkrn looked straight past Mrsha, the brown Gnoll with golden ears, not at all her familiar white-furred self, toward Lehra, Feshi, and the others. Inkar hurried over, still fuming at the way Ekhtouch…Ekhtouched.
“Feshi, what happened? Gire is a bit upset. She was—ouch. Tkrn!”
The Gnoll started. He’d just stepped right on Inkar’s heel with his big guardsman’s boots. He blinked.
“Well, everyone’s here. Except for Venaz. Where is he? Wait…wait. Wasn’t there another Human? And that Gnoll made out of metal who kept staring at me? Remember him, Suxhel?”
“He was using a Skill on you, Lehra.”
The Stargnoll was rubbing at her chin, having fun, in the thick of it. Feshi was whispering to Inkar about what was going to happen next. Tkrn? He sniffed the air. He frowned. He looked back and saw a brown Gnoll with gold painted ears.
Completely different. Unusual. Unfamiliar. Except for her face and body, which he recognized. And her scent, which was returning even with de-odor tonics. And her eyes.
Just as you’d notice someone who looked the same as a friend, with the exact same features but a different hair color. Tkrn stared. Rubbed his eyes.
“Is he flirting with me?”
He was walking into Lehra, blankly. Tkrn looked at her. Then he looked back at the wide-eyed Gnoll girl. He slapped his face. Stared at his paw. Rubbed his cheek.
And then he went tearing toward Mrsha. He lunged and grabbed her.
Vetn yelped. Tesy whirled, paintbrush in hand, and bonked Tkrn on the forehead.
“Let go! What’s happening! Mr—Mri!”
Lehra, Inkar, and the others turned. The crowd was confused; they didn’t see who Tkrn was grabbing, and all three adults and Mrsha fell down. Vetn was instantly alarmed. He grabbed Mrsha, trying to tear her away. Tkrn was breathless. He was speechless!
“Where’d Tkrn go?”
“Hey! Clear a path!”
“Gire, help me—”
Voices from behind. Mrsha was lost for words herself, but that was how Tkrn knew who she was. He held on to her, squeezing her tight. Him? Silly, stupid Tkrn? Mrsha from the inn, stealing food?
Them? The cells with Calruz? The right thing? Two rats.
The Wandering Inn.
His voice cracked. Mrsha reached out to him. Feshi spotted the little Gnoll girl that Tkrn was holding on to. Her brows snapped together as Gireulashia reached down to clear the knot of fallen Gnolls.
Then Vetn, understandably, lamentably, and with perfect aim, cursed, pulled a little pouch out of his bag of holding, and hit Tkrn in the face with a smoke bomb.
Tkrn let go with a shout of pain. Vetn lost hold of Mrsha too, and so did everyone else. She hit the ground as smoke billowed up.
That fool! The Thief of Clouds had thought someone had spotted Mrsha. Which Tkrn had, but Vetn thought it was someone bad. She moved left, dodging out of the press of feet trying to stomp her. Well, she’d explain everything. And Tkrn! He could take her to Krshia! He knew she was here! She hoped he wouldn’t say anything.
She heard a babble of voices.
“Mri! Where’s Mri—”
“Tkrn! What was that?”
Mrsha backed up from the stomping feet. She was in the press of Gnolls now, cursing silently, and it seemed like half the Meeting of Tribes was coming over here. Why not, after the Stargnoll, famous people, and Fetohep himself had been sighted?
“It was—I saw M—I s—Inkar, I have to find—my Aunt—”
Tkrn was babbling, unable to make the words come out fast enough. Everyone was focused on him, not the other voice lost in the babble.
“Hello. Hello. Hello. I’m Mri.”
Mrsha slapped her voice-necklace, trying to jump up and be seen. Damn you tall people! She was waving her arms as the smoke cleared when someone spoke and the ground shook.
“Stop. We shall have calm.”
A tremor, but then it was like the world grew still, and everyone stopped babbling, and it was all…peaceful.
Mrsha looked about. The crowd broke up, and she backed up. She peeked out of the tangle of legs and saw two Gnolls standing there. They must have heard the commotion, and like the multiple Chieftains and Shamans in the mix, had decided to restore order.
The Gnoll who had tapped his staff on the ground was a [Shaman] with a normal brown eye and a strange other eye. It had a depth to it, a winding maze of the kind Mrsha had only seen once before. That eye seemed to see all things.
Yet it missed her because it was aimed at Lehra, Feshi, and the others. The [Shaman] spoke, and Mrsha, who had been about to jump out into Tkrn’s arms, or find Vetn and Tesy, froze when she heard the name.
“Chieftain Xherw. Your words?”
Standing before her was Chieftain Xherw of the Plain’s Eye tribe, the same tribe that hunted white Gnolls, Doombringers, one of the most powerful [Chieftains] in the world.
“Thank you, Ulcreziek. Honored Feshi, Lehra, and the guests and friends of the Meeting of Tribes. Is all well? We saw the commotion.”
Lehra’s ears drooped.
“Chieftain Xherw. Sorry. It was my fault. Again. I just had to challenge Feshi’s dagger thing. And then Fetohep of Khelt appeared!”
“Did he really?”
The Chieftain raised an eyebrow. His fur was dark, with lines of silver—rather nice looking. He wore the Raiment of the Plains, a light artifact made with beautiful colors faded by time, despite the enchantment. It bore the Plain’s Eye’s motif, which included eyes, among other symbols.
None of this was bad. In fact, if she had not known him, Mrsha would have thought he was a bit ordinary, although she would have known he was a Chieftain. He was not super tall, but he did look like a warrior, or a former one.
However, as every Gnoll who had ever stood near him knew, something walked with Xherw. A presence.
It hung in the air, hundreds of feet wide, making you feel its weight, unseen. Not on your shoulders but somewhere else. It was not necessarily unpleasant, though it felt that way for some; for others it was inspiring. A shadow of something in the world; a mark of power.
It was not an aura, though. And, like Feshi’s undead, it had only a small effect on all those in attendance, reminding them that they stood in Xherw’s presence—all those in attendance, that is, except one.
Xherw’s eyes roamed the Gnolls, who looked variously abashed, impressed, amused by Lehra’s antics, annoyed by the incident, and everything in between. Of course, he looked around at head height.
So he completely missed the little Gnoll girl, lost amid a sea of legs, cowering and hiding her head with her paws. She didn’t know why, but she stopped jumping up and down, and suddenly hid herself deeper in the mix of people. She didn’t have a good reason. Only that, suddenly, without even needing to remember he was the Plain’s Eye’s Chieftain…she was terrified.
Don’t see me. Don’t look at me. She hid her face, as if not seeing him meant that he would not see her. She was shaking so badly that she missed what was being said.
“…moment like any other. Spirit is well, but disturbance…”
“Yes, Shaman Ulcre.”
Lehra was being lectured. It was so ordinary. Xherw smiled, and the crowd was laughing, already beginning to break up. Yet as he looked away from Tkrn, who had gone as stiff as a statue, Xherw paused.
“Where to, Ulcre?”
Xherw glanced over his shoulder, looking around as if something had distracted him. The [Shaman] sighed.
“We are due to meet with Wild Wastes next. Then Daemonbane. We shall not have war, and at least Silverfang agrees. Their words could push us into it.”
“We must not. Some censure, but…a moment, Ulcre.”
Xherw laid a paw on Ulcre’s shoulder. He frowned, his head dipping, his eyes searching.
“Something the matter, Chieftain Xherw?”
Mrsha was frozen. It was as if a spotlight were roaming the crowd. It kept missing her because it was at the wrong angle, but if he saw her…
She began crawling away, hoping to find Vetn so he could steal her away. Or Tesy, so he could hide her! Someone! Someone…
But Vetn and Tesy were desperately looking around for Mrsha, unable to slip away so close to Tkrn, who had a grip on Tesy’s arm. They were not enemies, but they didn’t know that!
Mrsha was alone. Now Gnolls were noticing her, but to them, she looked like just another young Gnoll refusing to walk on two legs. They gave her room, which was the last thing she wanted. Mrsha was panting wildly. Xherw’s gaze was swinging downward. She heard an exclamation.
“Whose cub is this? Ah—excuse me.”
“Did I miss the fight? Is that Lehra Ruinstrider?”
“Chieftain Xherw, no less. I might have to excuse myself…”
The last few Gnolls broke up. And now Xherw was homing in. He paused for that little moment in time when a single look could change everything. So many people, all coming here.
Drawing together. Xherw glanced down as Ulcre, his [Shaman], waited.
The Chieftain of Plain’s Eye blinked, shook his head. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. He thought—for a second, he’d thought he’d sensed something, but it had vanished. And he had experienced tricks of the mind like that before. It wasn’t even intuition. It would have become intuition if he’d laid eyes on…
“Never mind, Ulcre. Today will be a busy day, and I am beyond distracted. Where were we?”
He walked on. He had missed Mrsha. Somehow, incredibly, his eyes had alighted on her for a fraction of a second and swept past. But she had been shielded.
Mrsha was frozen, terrified, but she wasn’t on the ground anymore. Something had blocked her from Xherw’s sight for that fraction of a second, which changed everything.
No. Not something. Someone.
In a gathering of countless Gnolls, someone had picked the little girl up. Not Tkrn, who was arguing fiercely with Vetn behind a magical shield, drawing in Gire, Feshi, Inkar, and the rest. Nor was it Krshia, who was far away elsewhere.
Someone had recognized Mrsha’s face, as Tkrn had, though it was only possible for someone who, like Tkrn, knew Mrsha. Who could see past the painted gold ears, past something as transitory as the color of her fur, and look at her face. Her features. Even her build, her eyes…and hesitate. And recognize her.
Mrsha was unsure how she had been saved. She looked up, and someone recoiled and breathed out a single word that no one else heard, and it made her start. It was just a word. But the one holding her knew it.
Recognized. Not because she had brown fur instead of white, although that helped. Because that was how she had looked, once. The eyes stared down at the markings. The markings of a tribe…
And that was how, through many coincidences, an adventure, a flight, travails, the bravery of friends, and her own luck and determination, her parent finally found her, though it had taken so long and it had nearly been too late. At long last, her father finally found her.
Mrsha stared up into Chieftain Mrell’s eyes, blankly, and wondered why his face seemed so familiar.
It all began to draw together.
It began with Fetohep of Khelt.
You needed Fetohep of Khelt for it to work, even if you had a great idea like Feshi’s. She was arguably in the right place to make it happen.
She had seen variations; she had studied with a master at grabbing people’s attention—the Titan himself—but even so, she didn’t have a chance without Fetohep.
Because of two things. First, once you had Fetohep’s approval, you had his expertise in making things happen. Monarch of eternal Khelt he might be, but he did not like waiting around.
Second? Fetohep of Khelt was a name to respect, especially now. When you had Fetohep’s name, you had—paradoxically—a fairly neutral party, but one that made everyone sit up. They could ignore Feshi, even if they recognized her name. They could rebuff Chieftains, depending on how much they respected Gnolls.
But Fetohep? His name opened doors. And he was part of what Feshi was trying to create. Or, rather, in this case, what she was trying to re-create. Which was why he’d agreed, of course.
Drassi’s segment in which she cleverly gave Gnolls and a few Drakes a voice on the contentious issue of magic suppression had been going strong all yesterday and today. But it was suddenly, abruptly, and instantly cut short. She had five seconds to interrupt the interviewee, Wall Lord Dragial, her most controversial speaker yet.
“I’m sorry, Wall Lord, I’m being told we’re being kicked off the network. Stand by for—I have no idea—”
Feshi was hard at work, still, practically shouting into a speaking stone. Multiple stones.
“Yes, this is Feshi. Um, in the Professor—that is, Niers Astoragon’s class? I’d like to speak to Professor Perorn on a matter of great urgency. Or Commander Foliana! It’s highest priority.”
The [Mage] was surprised but agreed to relay her request. Feshi breathlessly spoke into the next stone; sweat was dripping down her fur.
“Yes, if I could put in a [Message] for His Majesty? No? Okay…Yerra, call another!”
“I’m trying. Most don’t even want to hear it. Hey. Priority [Message]. That’s right. It’s me—Yerranola. What do you mean you don’t know who I am? I got poisoned by a giant blowfish!”
The Selphid was arguing with a [Mage] on the other line. But then the scrying orb lit up.
It began. It was simple. Iconic. Despite not being ready—no, he must have anticipated that, because Fetohep began the process in order to help Feshi complete it, if that made sense. He had everything Niers would want in a student. A flair for the dramatic, an understanding of how to move people.
The ruler of Khelt appeared, eyes flashing dramatically, in a world of blackness on the scrying orb, replacing Drassi. His eyes shone bright gold, and his undead features were alarming. He sat there on his throne, with his great throne room as the backdrop, poised, a goblet hovering by one hand.
He sat there as Feshi and Yerranola turned, astounded. He was in the scrying orb, but not full frame. Rather, he was in only part of the scrying orb—the center, but his image was small, as if someone had shrunk him into that section.
Why? Well, the first thing that sprang to mind was that they were looking at a picture-in-picture, as they were when the commentators showed a battle but wanted to have themselves in the background. Or…Fetohep conjured this because he had been there, the one other time this had happened.
He just sat there, patient, eyes dancing with golden flames, unmoving. With such poise that even his fellow undead rulers had to give him a grudging seven out of ten. He didn’t move. Said nothing. And that was more fascinating than anything he could have done, especially since the audience wondered if someone had made a mistake. In which case, this was even better.
His silence only lasted a few minutes. Then someone else appeared, in another part of the blackness.
A square of light opened into the world, and there stood a figure surrounded by stars and the whirling ether of magic. It was an impressive effect, yet he, like Fetohep, held still. But he was not undead, so the impressive figure, the Half-Elf with white hair and mismatched eyes and shimmering robes, spoke.
“It appears we are early.”
One of Fetohep’s brows arched.
“Indeed. Grand Magus Eldavin, I greet thee in the name of Eternal Khelt.”
The Grand Magus inclined his head.
“From the halls of Wistram, I offer you the aegis of magic, thou immortal scion. So long as sand shifts, let not Khelt’s deeds slip away. For every grain of sand called Khelt, every breath of air and drop of water is magic and Wistram’s blood.”
He never wavered in the address. There was an infinitesimal pause, then a sigh. An approving sigh.
“Ah. Now, that was worthy of a magus of Wistram. We are well met. Greatness conducts itself with due dignity.”
Eldavin’s lips moved upward in a ghost of a smile.
“On that, Your Majesty, we may well agree. I believe the next to arrive will be one of the Chieftains. Whom else may Wistram expect?”
Fetohep lifted a finger as the audience began to catch on. Casually, he captured the floating goblet and sipped his ethereal drink.
“That would depend on the discretion of one Strategist Feshi Weatherfur, who requested my presence. I believe we shall not wait long, although it would not become me to let fellow attendees wait without refreshment. Grand Magus, will you take a vintage? A bouquet of any vineyard in the last thousand years, perhaps? I shall teleport it to Wistram directly, if the delay does not distress.”
The Grand Magus stroked his beard.
“Though Wistram has fine wine cellars, I confess that if you had a bottle of Gelath’s Depths—a genuine Drowned Folk vintage from around a hundred and three years ago—I would be quite able to teleport it here directly.”
“I believe so.”
“Then I am in your debt, Your Eternal Majesty.”
“A trifling matter. It shall appear forthwith.”
Indeed, in the time it took for the next person to appear, Eldavin casually murmured a few words, and a wine bottle, glowing with preservation runes, popped delicately out of the air. He made it hover and poured himself a fine glass of a deep blue, almost black liquid. For there were kinds of grapes undersea that landfolk had never even heard of.
Two more attendees. Then, abruptly, four. A Gnoll appeared in front of a tent, looking rather nervous. Someone else hurried out of frame, and a second later there was another.
Gnolls. Two of them. One was no less than Torishi Weatherfur. The other—and Feshi felt a bit bad about this, but she’d accepted the invitation, of course she had—was Akrisa Silverfang. She had her [Shaman] standing next to her, and it seemed there were more Gnolls all waiting in the background of both frames.
Fetohep inclined his head.
“Khelt greets thee, mighty Gnolls of the Great Plains. For as long as sand endures, your people have trod every land. Wayfarers, the great travelers of Izril. It is my pleasure to meet Chieftain Akrisa of the Silverfang tribe and Chieftain Torishi of Weatherfur. I also note Shaman Cetrule of Silverfang.”
He was good. Feshi hadn’t even told him who was attending. Grand Magus Eldavin wasn’t any slouch either. He made a gesture.
“Indeed. Upon Wistram’s name, I invoke the Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands, Archmage Kishkeria, and the second, Archmage of Izril fifteen centuries past, Archmage Dreosh. Let Wistram never forget that Gnolls have shaped magic across the ages. I greet the Great Plains and let them sing the names of their magical kin forevermore.”
He leaned forward as the two Chieftains waited.
“And may I offer, once again, my deepest apologies on behalf of Wistram for our part in this debacle? I take responsibility for Wistram’s culpability in this…manipulation, intentional and ignorant by turns. It does not behoove Wistram. It will end. This is but a poor gesture, but I shall personally ensure that all wrongs are righted.”
The two Chieftains exchanged a glance. Akrisa opened her mouth, then Torishi spoke. She drew herself up. She was no immortal or half immortal, but she was as dignified as Feshi could have hoped. Even indoors, the sun shone around her, her permanent aura. When she was wrathful, the air was charged; when she was sad, it rained. Right now, the sun shone, but it was expectant. A prelude to something else.
“Your words honor us, Your Majesty Fetohep, Grand Magus. The tribes of Izril know your names. They shall echo across Izril. This day shall not be forgotten so long as memory endures.”
“Of that I am sure.”
The Grand Magus bowed his head. Then his tone became a hair more casual.
“Might I offer you His Majesty Fetohep’s fine vintage? It does quite the honor of the occasion…unless you would care for something else? Courtesy of Wistram, by delivery, and great Khelt’s limitless largesse, naturally.”
He toasted Fetohep, who smiled.
Akrisa hesitated. She seemed a bit mesmerized by the grace and impeccable class of the speakers. Her open mouth finally moved.
“Wine? I, ah—ah—wouldn’t mind some.”
Feshi thought someone had tossed something and bounced it off her legs just out of frame to prompt that response. Perhaps her sister? But even Krshia Silverfang surely didn’t expect Eldavin to smile, gesture, and port a floating bottle into their frame. Akrisa nearly leaped into Cetrule’s arms, and he nearly leaped into hers. They gingerly looked at the floating vintage, which had recently been in Khelt, then Wistram.
Now, this, as even Drassi would agree, was television. This was the kind of display that would glue everyone to their scrying orbs. If all Izril had been watching the events being covered before, the entire world was watching this now—or being told, ‘Drop what you’re doing and grab a scrying orb!’
If you still didn’t get it, you either missed the last broadcast or had a memory like Swiss cheese. Eldavin was calmly conversing with the two Gnolls.
“…at least two from Chandrar, I believe, but this is a global affair. Hence a global discussion.”
“Ah, then…more from Wistram?”
Fetohep managed to convey a nuanced interest that indicated a hint of disapproval. Eldavin was quick to shake his head.
“I was personally invited by Strategist Feshi, but Wistram shall simply host this august meeting; we are fairly culpable, as I shall admit readily. I believe at least two from Baleros…two from Terandria, and the rest of the seats will be given to Izril. Or perhaps to a few other parties? I cannot imagine the Blighted King has the time for such frivolities.”
“No, indeed. Well, then…ah.”
Incidentally, simultaneously with this discussion, the smart ones had begun answering Feshi’s calls. The really smart ones had begun calling her. But Feshi had a list, and it was first come, first served.
Everyone watching realized what this was when the fifth personage appeared. She did not fit. Or did she? If she fit, and if Feshi had asked for her specifically, it was because of recent deeds.
Jecaina of Jecrass sat on her throne and stood to greet the others. Fetohep was smiling, and the Chieftains saw it, as did Eldavin, who had sounded quite approving when he agreed to this.
The Arbiter Queen and her council of judgment ride again! Only this time, the crime was greater. The personages weightier.
You could not hold the excitement in the Meeting of Tribes in any container. Feshi was kicking people, telling them to shut up as she organized the rest. All she had to do was speak a name and Eldavin made it happen—or, rather, one of his aides did.
It was an intoxicating amount of power. And here they came.
What was noticeable, and what made an entire continent nearly flip, was who wasn’t part of this council. For instance…no Treespeaker. No Flos Reimarch.
Not even Femithain.
Flos, the King of Destruction, would have attended if he had not been a crisped piece of bacon incapable of speech. Feshi had called, and someone young and female had told her, over the sound of some furious, incomprehensible noises, that it was impossible.
She did bring Queen Yisame into it. Because Nerrhavia’s Fallen had been in the last one, they were hugely powerful, and Yisame was the most important of the other rulers. No Orjin—much to his relief—and that was all of Chandrar.
Three from Chandrar.
Two from Baleros. Feshi invited two, and two came. She had a hard time at first, but then—
“I see two of the Great Companies have elected to send representatives. Greetings. Nerrhavia’s Fallen has always heard of Baleros’ might. Might and wisdom personified, then.”
Queen Yisame spoke behind a fan, as two groups appeared. The first group Feshi knew well, and it was with a pang that she saw not Niers Astoragon, with his huge hat, striding into frame but…well.
A giant squirrel-woman with eyes to match Eldavin’s and a bushy tail. An aghast Centauress grabbed her.
“Foliana, this way!”
The Three-Color Stalker, Foliana of the Forgotten Wing company, was the Orjin of this council. She was unapologetically chewing on a raw clam, dipping the meat in sauce. Queen Yisame faltered on the rest of her address, and Akrisa did a double take.
“The Three-Color Stalker herself. A [Rogue] of unsurpassed ability. From Khelt, hail.”
Fetohep had begun addressing people less formally, but there was a way to do that in style. Foliana stared into the camera blankly.
“Why am I here?”
Perorn whispered furiously as Yisame collected herself to finish her greeting; she had elected to make the next address after greeting the others and receiving the bottle of Khelt’s wine that was being passed around. But she never got the chance.
The figures in the other frames arranged side by side across the projection were two of the same species, unlike Perorn and Yisame. However, they were not alike in size. One was a gleaming figure that made Feshi feel a cold flash run up her back. One of the greatest [Strategists] to walk Baleros, including the Titan. His armor shone with a light beyond silver.
Tulm the Mithril. Yet he, who had his head in his hands, was nothing compared to the giant of metal whose head rested on a pedestal. The figure waved an armored hand.
“HELLO. CAN OUR VOICES BE HEARD? THE IRON VANGUARD COMETH.”
Everyone went temporarily deaf as Eldavin hastily lowered the volume. The Seer of Steel, the leader of the Iron Vanguard, spoke, but even turned down, his voice was a shout.
“APOLOGIES. I SPEAK WITH THE WEIGHT OF DULLAHANS, BUT THE LACK OF TACT IS MY OWN. TULM IS THE BETTER VOICE, YET I ATTEND FOR THE MOMENT AND OFFER MY RESPECT FOR THE GNOLLISH PEOPLE. THREE-COLOR STALKER, I GREET YOU.”
Foliana glanced up. She had wedged two fingers in her ears and was trying to eat the clam out of the sauce without the use of her hands. She unstuck one ear.
“It’s you again. Didn’t I stab you one time?”
“IT DID NOT WORK.”
That was for Baleros. Of course, Maelstrom’s Howling was not happy, but Tulm had beaten their representative and told Feshi they could get both in one room faster than anyone else. So…that left two places.
Izril and Terandria. For Izril had one last representative to field. That one was a while in coming, but Terandria got its showing.
By now, there were so many people that the screen had to flick between them, holding on a speaker before changing to another point of view.
Jecaina, Eldavin, the Iron Vanguard, the Forgotten Wing, Silverfang, Weatherfur, Fetohep, and Yisame.
Eight, and two more continents left to go. But while there were too many to speak at once, it was important that they each have a chance to speak. More important? Their being here added so much weight.
Every continent except Rhir represented in power. And for Terandria? Well, Feshi had to admit…she was a tiny bit spiteful.
None of the Terandrian monarchs save one had given her the time of day until this had begun. So she got a spot—although Krshia might have had something to do with it, since she had suggested the man who relayed the unusual request to her. As for the other—well, she thought Wil would thank her.
Pheislant’s [King] had done his best and was among the last to arrive, mainly because he had made the odd, and unfortunate, choice to array his royal court around him. They looked impressive, waiting upon his regal words. But so many people had to stay in frame, and you could see them fidgeting, coughing, or whispering every time the image changed to them.
Nevertheless, Pheislant spoke, whereas Ailendamus was too late to join in. And the last Terandrian was…
Queen Geilouna of Desonis, who arrived third to last. And after so many impressive entrances, it seemed she could not upstage any of them; even Pheislant looked good. However, she had some of Foliana’s genius. Or Orjin’s madness.
She appeared, legs folded, reclining horizontally on a royal couch, a slice of cake on a plate in one hand, a fork in the other. On top of the couch rested one of her cats, idly staring at the people. And there, by her feet, was a sweet little Sariant Lamb, who made adorable eyes at the camera.
Fetohep, Tulm, and Eldavin stared so balefully that the little lamb fled, shivering, behind the couch, mewling cutely. It kept poking its head out, stealing the focus, until Earl Altestiel nearly kicked it accidentally as he stood behind his Queen. Because he was naturally in the frame. Queen Geilouna lifted one hand, lazily.
“Hail. Desonis rests with me. I wonder, shouldn’t you all find a seat or somewhere delightful to rest? I cannot imagine this will be a short discussion. I would love some wine, if it’s being offered. Would anyone like cake?”
Geilouna waved her fork at Eldavin, who was standing, and at the Dullahans and others. That was almost as charming as watching the Earl of the Rains sweep a bow to Perorn and Foliana.
“May I trouble you with a compliment, Lady Foliana and Strategist Perorn? I am a deep admirer of your campaigns and of the Titan himself. I hope you will remember me to him?”
“A greeting to you as well, Earl of Desonis. I have heard of the war commander who strikes like a storm.”
Tulm inclined his head a touch frostily at the Earl, who begged his forgiveness for the slight. The others were chattering, sometimes together, sometimes apart.
“Yes. An invitation to any Chieftain and tribe! Nerrhavia welcomes thee!”
Yisame tried to raise her voice, speaking to the Chieftains. Meanwhile, Pheislant’s King had the misfortune of speaking to Fetohep and Jecaina, because Fetohep was in a nostalgic mood.
“…And while Pheislant’s spires of light no longer exist, murals still stand of that great edifice. So for war, victory. For wave, smoothest sailing. For sky, clarity.”
Fetohep was reminding Pheislant of their glorious past, and their [King] was trying to signal his court to find him a [Historian] who could remember the fallen lighthouses rather than the ones that had been around here forever.
What a magnificent disaster. What a triumph! But the audience members, who were already on board with this gaggle of personalities and places, were not to be disappointed by the last two to arrive.
After all, when the second-to-last frame was filled, it was no ordinary monarch who appeared. No ordinary monarch could lift the ax that sat next to her throne. She wore no crown. Nor was her throne made of anything but simple carved stone.
Yet when the King of the House of Minos stood, she silenced all.
“The House of Minos has been called to stand for judgment. I am the King of Minotaurs. These are not my people. Yet I shall stand witness and judge the alleged crimes against the Gnolls by the Drakes. I shall take no side but truth and law and hold every person present to that standard. What say you?”
The thunderous address had a gravity apart from its sheer volume. The other rulers and leaders fell silent. Then Fetohep rose slightly.
“King of Minotaurs. Your Majesty, Inreza of the House of Minos. I greet the Arbiter of Minos. Your house has made war on this world’s enemies. It has marched to every shore. Brought low kingdom and wall, battled Dragon and Giant, Archmage and Djinni. No more fitting ruler to judge and speak can I name. Strategist Feshi has chosen well.”
The King of Minotaurs, despite her gender—since it didn’t matter—did not seem uncomfortable for her first worldwide appearance. It was the first time Feshi had ever seen her, though she had known the King was female.
Even so, Inreza was striking. She was a warrior, just like Flos and Fetohep. But the difference was that she was a living one. She was old, for there was gray in her hair. But what you saw most were the scars.
A massive one ran across her chest and down her side. Even as she breathed, you heard a rasp. And yet the giant ax by her throne was a copy of the one Feshi had once seen. The one she had thrown from the House of Minos. The one her [General] had borne into battle and returned to her at his end.
The King nodded to Fetohep, her eyes unwavering.
“I thank you for your address, King Fetohep. Pardon me for insult caused. As to your words…there are other rulers more eloquent. Others with fairer minds. Deeper understandings of morality and law. Yet you have the heart of it. The House of Minos has made war on great aggressors as we deem them. We have battled Creler and Goblin King. We have gone to war against the King of Destruction and Khelt when its ambitions grew to conquest. We have stemmed Baleros’ armies and sieged Wistram. We have fought across Izril and doomed Terandrian kingdoms.”
Her eyes flicked across the frames, and the rulers went silent. Fetohep’s eyes shone in their sockets. He spoke, slowly.
“Yes. King His-xe of Khelt would…remember the House of Minos. As would Queen Akhta. Would you like to know the words of the dead, if they could but speak, Minotaur King?”
She looked at him.
“I will ask them when I see them, Your Majesty.”
Fetohep sat back. The Minotaur King inclined her head, and now there was a sense of expectation. It was Eldavin who spoke into the silence.
“To those who do not yet discern the crux of this gathering, it is simple. As before, a Gnoll, Feshi Weatherfur, has petitioned those gathered to make a ruling upon a great crime. The details shall be laid out, evidence given, and debated, as the Arbiter Queen once did.”
He indicated Jecaina, who inclined her head slowly. Eldavin shifted his gaze to the last panel, hanging silent and dark.
“But every judgment, in fairness, requires both defense and prosecution. Two Gnolls speak for this crime. One from Izril will defend these actions and allegations.”
Everyone leaned forward. Who would it be? Who had the wherewithal, the courage, and the understanding to stand in front of this decidedly unfriendly audience and defend what seemed very clear? Feshi had debated the names in the brief time she had, then the clarity hit her.
She had seen only one fit name. Well, a few, but her first choice had obliged her. He appeared without fanfare, sitting in, of all places, an empty bar.
Tails and Scales, the beautiful bar that had seen grief and desolation, but rallied. Pallass’ most famous bar no longer looked empty. It had been cleaned top-to-bottom, re-varnished, and the perfectly-worn seating inviting you in hadn’t been touched, but the menu and bar had been reorganized. It looked like it was waiting. For new and old customers.
For a new start. Yet only one person had rented it today. The Drake sat amid style, yet had refused to let anyone light the place up. He looked like the last customer after midnight into dawn, hunched, a single [Bartender] in the background.
He had a curious drink in front of him—one named after him. A strong spirit with a floating ice cube of sour liquid. If anything, it was impressively calculated. But the most impressive thing was that Rufelt hadn’t spit in Chaldion’s drink.
Chaldion of Pallass, the oldest Drake Feshi had ever seen, raised his glass slightly. Akrisa stiffened. Torishi glared, and the other rulers murmured. Someone clearly whispered in Desonis’ frame.
“Who is the Cyclops of Pallass?”
Everyone was silent as Chaldion slowly lifted the cup to his lips. He took a sip; no wine bottle was passed around here; it was long empty, and two more had already been decanted and passed out anyways. He spoke in his low, gravelly voice without even the pretense of looking happy to meet everyone.
“Hail, salutations, and so forth. Need we stand on ceremony? Or shall we retread evidence? Let’s begin.”
His eye patch was off, and a bright cloudy white gemstone eye stared at the audience before he calmly lowered the bit of cloth back into place. He never flinched as he met every gaze—his peers’ gazes ranging from hostile, impartial, and curious to amused.
If there was anyone who could defend the Drakes, Feshi had to admit, it was Chaldion. She might have done the Walled Cities a favor. The Dragonspeaker of Manus might have tried diplomacy. The Serpentine Matriarch would have certainly lost her temper, and Fissival was too close. Salazsar, a [Senator] from Pallass…but Chaldion was a [Strategist]. Did he see a [Path to Victory] here?
But here it was. Feshi sat back, shaking, as Yerranola massaged her shoulders and gave her a hug.
“You did it. There we are.”
Gnolls. They were in the Meeting of Tribes. Akrisa’s frame was moving, showing the Meeting of Tribes, Gnolls who wanted to get a word in. Very clever, that. Had Krshia thought of it? Finally, the world was doing what it should. Focusing on the Meeting of Tribes, rulers debating what had been done. Laying it out. Passing judgment.
Was it real? Was it just glorified attention with no real effect? No—for once, Feshi believed that this would be drama colliding with reality. Consequence meeting news and artifice. She bared her teeth.
“The Professor had better give me a good grade for this one.”
She was sure that, if he could see this, if he was alive—somewhere—he was watching all this, swearing that he wasn’t part of it.
There was a war going on across the television networks. A war, but no amount of [Soldiers] would save you, no relics. Countless Drakes and Gnolls and people around the world watched a brutal battle in which the enemy was gutted and left to rot.
But what an unfair war! [Messages] were storming Wistram—only a fraction of them read—complaining that people had no voice. Which was always how it worked. But the Drakes, as a species, were accused of having manipulated magic and having suppressed the Gnoll population for generations.
And it was an ugly battlefield for them because they looked incredibly guilty, and popular opinion was part of this war as much as fact was. Also, Feshi had chosen her battleground and set it to the Drakes’ disadvantage.
Of course she had. She had invited one member of their population, two Gnolls…and a bunch of species and nations across the world who had every intention of being fair. Which meant they were probably not going to take the Drakes’ side automatically.
One defender. One Drake had to take on everyone else, defend his species’ actions—the magical crystal that just so happened to be there, and then, when destroyed, let Ferkr cast magic. You could make a stupid argument—and the Drakes had—that it was coincidental, Gnolls casting magic. That it was correlation without proof of causation. Gnolls might have been able to cast magic before that shiny rock was destroyed. How can you prove it?
Well, that kind of argument played well in a sympathetic crowd, but it got the Drakes slaughtered here. Grand Magus Eldavin proved that in the opening salvo. He adjusted some reading spectacles, held a scribed [Message] out like it was a bug, and spoke.
“I see a ‘Sir Relz of Pallass’ has the courage to dignify this twaddle with his name. Regrettable, that. How can we ‘prove’ the two are linked? Perhaps with something as simple as our minds, you imbecile. I do not need to prove every single thing beyond a shadow of a doubt. If you breathe, you can infer there is air. Arguing for complete proof is a child’s gambit.”
He burned up the [Message] with a flick of his fingers.
“Furthermore, I, as Grand Magus of Wistram—and I will call upon no less than four Archmages to lend credence to my words if you like—declare that the magicore crystal located underground, as observed, was, to the best of my knowledge, generating a magical suppression field. That is my testimony as magus, bolstered by the historical fact that Fissival has long had a network of such stones buried across Izril.”
Earl Altestiel raised an eyebrow.
“You could make the argument that, er, someone else buried the stones to implicate Fissival, Grand Magus.”
“Under Az’muzarre’s nose?”
That sneering remark came from Chieftain Torishi. Eldavin—he was in charge of giving those who asked for it time to speak—looked at Altestiel. The Earl bowed slightly to Torishi.
“I wouldn’t hide a single [Archer] behind an excuse that foolish, Lady Chieftain. But I am speaking for all hypotheticals.”
Eldavin conceded the point.
“We will consider it. But I will say, in my opinion alone, that the rest of these ancillary arguments are idiotic and should be ignored.”
The half-Elf swept back toward Chaldion, who had been silent as those ancillary arguments, sent in by Drakes, were laid out. The lone Drake with a perspective had merely grimaced when some of the really stupid arguments were read.
“We’ve set the stage, debunked foolishness. What say you, Grand Strategist of Pallass? Will you deny this, as some of your people do?”
Yisame was in full sway, fan open, expressing her opinion by expression even when it wasn’t her turn to talk. The Grand Strategist sat there, his one good eye glinting as Izril held its breath.
How could he defend the Drakes? How could he explain this? When Chaldion spoke, he revealed why they called him the Cyclops. Like Tulm the Mithril, like the Titan.
The Drakes’ great monster.
“Proof is an onus that’s a pain to produce. A judiciary will struggle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Gnolls’ claims are true. I’d question that. But as a bit of propaganda, for public perception, why not?”
He waved that off, insolently. Yisame’s fan snapped open to cover her nose and mouth. Not to be outdone, Pheislant’s [King] snorted and sat back, arms folded. Which didn’t mean he wasn’t outdone, but he tried.
Chaldion ignored both of them. He looked quite deliberately at Torishi, then at Eldavin, then at the King of Minotaurs, eye steady. He took a sip from his glass, exhaled softly.
“Proof is such a tiresome thing. You will never get it fully, and even if you do, I assure you, the Walled Cities will deny it. Drakes will not believe you, and they will not be wrong. They didn’t have a claw in this. Drakes in cities far from Pallass, Fissival, Manus, and the rest will rightly say it wasn’t their doing. So let’s reframe the question. Why was it done? And now, ask yourselves this: By whom? Because let’s just say that one Walled City would not be enough.”
Dead silence. Yisame dropped her fan. Jecaina sat forward, and Fetohep waved away his goblet, looking as if even the immortal drink had soured on him. Torishi’s eyes widened. The Queen of Desonis gasped.
The sound was cut off a second later by thunder. The Seer of Steel had slammed his gauntlet down on the table. The babble of voices was so loud that Eldavin silenced it all.
And there sat Chaldion. If Feshi, watching, had ever doubted he was a monster like the other great [Strategists]—well. She had just watched him throw part of Izril to the wolves. And so brilliantly that she almost wanted to applaud him.
“Grand Strategist Chaldion! Are you implying that you know for a fact this was orchestrated by the Drakes?”
Chaldion raised his eyebrows as the King of Pheislant rose to his feet. He didn’t answer immediately—because someone was hammering on the door to the bar.
“Excuse me. It seems someone objects. That may be Fissival’s ambassador. Or a mob. Keep them out. Send for Magus Grimalkin and General Duln if they attempt to break in.”
He gave orders to an off-screen person, then focused back on the scrying orb.
“Excuse the noise. I am here as Grand Strategist of Pallass, Your Majesties. In the interest of Drakes, I must keep my people’s best interests at heart…”
He took another sip, from the second glass in front of him, water, and grimaced.
“But it occurs to me that saying nothing is worst of all. So—I am under truth spell. Skills, I have no doubt. Hypothetically, if I knew about any plot—”
Chaldion waited, sipping his drink, and Eldavin silenced her section, though she began hurling things.
“Chieftain Torishi, you will have your moment, I promise you. Grand Strategist?”
“Thank you, Grand Magus. Let’s say I knew. Or uncovered it. Under truth spell…let’s say I knew of some foolishness. Something I would go as far as to say was the most idiotic plan—and I know idiotic plans. It is not in my interest to unveil it, even if I could do so without waking up with a dagger in my chest.”
Chaldion played with his drink.
“But if it came to light, and I sat before a grand jury, I might be able to admit I knew. Certainly that one Walled City maintained…something. And another Walled City, not Pallass…led the co-venture.”
Waxworks. The Minotaur King was leaning forward. Foliana actually picked up her orb to give everyone an unparalleled view of her ear.
“Which two cities?”
“Now, that would be a military secret, Chieftain Akrisa. But then I might tell you that every Walled City knew, or learned. After all, this is a grand enterprise. An undertaking, a plan that takes decades to set up. It would require the cooperation of local Drake cities—the Walled Cities with the means to do this and finance such a powerful network, as I’m sure Wistram could tell you.”
He glanced pointedly at Eldavin. The Grand Magus was just waiting. Chaldion sipped his drink one more time—the ice was melting, and its green melded with darker colors.
“And help from groups in starting the deception and keeping it going. Which, to be clear, under truth spell, wouldn’t be Walled Cities. Or Drake cities. Or Human.”
Feshi suddenly felt like she’d been stabbed by her dagger. Her paws flew to her chest. She had just realized something, seconds before he said it.
“You clever old…”
Torishi stopped bellowing curses, and suddenly her head rose as if she were hunting.
“Did you just imply…”
“Excuse me, I’ll have a refill. I can’t say anything, Your Majesty of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I am Grand Strategist of Pallass. Excuse me while I cough and look away. If I point as I’m doing it, think nothing of it.”
A few heads followed the Drake’s claw, which was pointed at a very sweaty monarch of Pheislant, despite his having done nothing wrong. Until they realized that Chaldion wasn’t being literal.
Somehow, uncannily, Chaldion had gone from being put on his back foot and outnumbered to having everyone waiting on his words. He was on the offensive.
“If you are aware of who is to blame, speak, Grand Strategist. Or damn Pallass by omission. You have already indicated that the City of Inventions knew of this action, admitted what has been done. You prevaricate to throw blame askew. Well done. The House of Minos shall remember all that is said.”
The King of Minotaurs’ hand tightened on her throne’s stone armrest, and Chaldion’s eyes narrowed for a brief second.
“Well, then, Your Majesty, I will be as straightforward as I am able to be in my position. Injustice was done. A conspiracy, some might call it. Analogous to the Circle of Thorns in the north. Hah. Every powerful entity makes plans in secret.”
He waved a claw, but the Seer of Steel interrupted.
“YOU MAKE A TOPICAL COMPARISON LIGHTLY. BUT IT SUGGESTS SOMETHING. DOES THE NORTH HAVE ANY INVOLVEMENT? OR DO YOU MERELY PUT THE IDEAS TOGETHER? ANSWER DIRECTLY, CHALDION OF PALLASS.”
Again, the Drake grimaced.
“Merely comparative. Very well. What I am sure about is this: no Walled City could do this alone. As I said, holding the Walled Cities as a whole, or Drakes as a whole, responsible for any actions taken is impossible. Misguided, though understandable. They had no role to play in orchestrating or implementing anything that might have been done. In the same way…there were beneficiaries of even ostensibly hostile actions against the Gnollish people at large.”
Chieftain Torishi choked, barely able to speak.
“You are suggesting…tribes were culpable in this?”
Chaldion flicked a claw back and forth, as if swatting at a gnat.
“I am not suggesting anything. Merely illustrating, Chieftain Torishi. Let me rephrase my statement. There was a benefit. To whom? Drakes alone? I can say definitively—no.”
“You are muddying clear waters. When a crapfish stinks up the catch, I do not blame it on shrimp.”
Queen Geilouna narrowed her eyes at Chaldion. Some of the others winced at her metaphor, but Chieftain Akrisa was quick to agree.
“You must offer proof, Chaldion. You cannot simply…hint. Who benefits? Why?”
Her eyes flickered. Tulm the Mithril hadn’t said a word, but he was holding his head, and his eyes were distant. He was thinking. So was Perorn, who had gone uncannily still, especially given the way Centaurs usually move around.
“Sounds tricky. I think she knows.”
The voice was a mutter. Eyes snapped sideways. Foliana blinked. Chieftain Akrisa’s fur rose.
“I don’t know what you…er, Three-Color…”
She trailed off, unsure how to address Foliana. And, moreover, because she was caught.
The giant Squirrel Beastkin chewed on her raw clams, inspiring paranoia in every person who loved clams. She stared back at Akrisa as she replied, that disconcerting stare of three colors.
“Yes, you do. Suggesting. You have something in mind. There. I was clever. Can I go now?”
Akrisa paled, but another voice interrupted, for the first time since this had begun. Despite her name, the youngest member of this group had been still, listening, and she chose her moment to voice her opinions well.
“I do not know this Grand Strategist. Nor am I as gifted in diplomacy as some of my peers. But it seems to me this is quite cunningly accusing Gnolls of conspiring. It astonishes me, frankly, Grand Strategist, that you would dare.”
The Grand Strategist raised an eyebrow at Jecaina.
“Your Majesty of Jecrass. Is the truth limited to your personal feelings?”
She flushed slightly, and lifted her chin. Fetohep’s golden eyes flashed a moment, but he waited. Jecaina could take care of herself.
“I do not think it is my personal feelings that change the truth, Grand Strategist. We have seen Gnolls slaughtered on Chandrarian ground without mercy, and a nation burned for it. I do not even know if the King of Destruction was wrong in his wrath—only how far he took it. We have seen innocent tribes slaughtered, a people deprived of magic, and clear culprits. Only, you have the gall to turn the blame back on Gnolls? Without proof? Let us have some, or we should call every statement into doubt. As well as your feelings, if any, on the people you share this continent with.”
Chaldion’s expression was unreadable, but he didn’t look quite as sanguine as before. He danced like a striking viper, but the others had nets, and some were experts at this.
“Proof. If I said a name at this moment, it would be war.”
And like a [Magician], everyone was back to listening to Chaldion again. The Grand Strategist pursed his lips. It was on the tip of his tongue, but he refused to speak.
“Let’s say there was a plan. There were names. I remind you all that everyone who took part…initially…would be long dead by now. I advise you to think historically. Let me also be up-front. There have been times when the facade cracked. Actions were taken.”
He forestalled another furious outburst.
“Here is one such point in time. One moment.”
Chaldion had pulled something from his pocket. He slowly lit a cigar and blew out some smoke.
“We have no involvement in a Gnollish conspiracy. I will swear on behalf of every current Archmage and have each one attest to that. No faction in Wistram was aware of this, and I have conducted an internal purge and review.”
The words were out of Eldavin’s mouth in a second. So fast that most people failed to check his words fully. Chaldion gave him a slight nod.
“Yes. But Wistram was involved. Four decades ago. The Wistram-Gnoll rift.”
Queen Geilouna muttered darkly.
“Which hampered magical trade and made it harder for Gnolls to—”
Chaldion raised a brow again.
“There was groundwork before. The idea that Gnolls couldn’t become [Mages] was already quite prevalent. Rather, if you recall history, that was an attempt to send a Gnoll to become a [Mage]. It failed. Why? There is a secret here, isn’t there, Grand Magus Eldavin?”
“Yes. It seems so. And it seems that it behooves anyone curious to investigate this incident.”
Eldavin flicked his eyes to the side. Chaldion let the cigar heat up; it would not last as long as it was meant to. It didn’t matter. Now he spoke more quickly.
“So. A conspiracy long laid. Walled Cities…other parties. You don’t know how. And you don’t know why. Something was gained. There was a larger reason—well, I suspect the Walled Cities saw it as straightforward. But what would someone else gain?”
Queen Yisame could hardly contain herself, eyes flashing with what could be read as fury or excitement.
“Tell us already, and spare the secret! No mystery lasts forever! Skip to the end!”
Chaldion paused. He seemed to take umbrage with Yisame above all others; as if her lack of a concise verbal jab was more offensive than her pressing him.
“Your Majesty. I am protecting the interests of the Walled Cities. Should I be more direct, it would be dire for my people and cities.”
The Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen threw back her head. Her eyes opened, and behind her, six [Handmaidens] snapped open their fans like the wrath a small hurricane.
“Dire? More still than everything you have admitted? Do not presume, Grand Strategist. You are here before a council of judgement.”
“In what court? I see only arbitration. There is a difference between public opinion and law, Your Majesty. Nerrhavia’s Fallen does not command Izril.”
Chaldion was turning away when Yisame spoke.
“No secrets lie buried forever, [Strategist]. Tyrants die, even if immortal, even if we must claw and tear them from their thrones, and kill them a thousand times. This is the very truth my kingdom was founded on. So speak your truth. Or else Nerrhavia’s hordes will pry it out. Not as invaders, but because we were invited by the rulers of this land. Just so as we march shoulder to shoulder with the House of Minos, Dullahans, and Humans.”
The Grand Strategist of Pallass stopped, a claw on his cup. He looked back, and a light shone from under his eyepatch. Yisame looked straight past him, fanned idly by an attendant.
“…Forgive me. That overreaches. After all—I did not ask those with the authority, nay, the right. Chieftain Akrisa, Chieftain Torishi. What will you? May I offer you an armada?”
She smiled, as the other leaders looked at Yisame, and her vainglorious nation cheered their [Queen]. Yet of the two Gnolls…Torishi spoke.
“Your Majesty. Not yet.”
Chaldion saw Torishi rise. The Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe looked at Chaldion.
“Grand Strategist. You play with words well.”
“Thank you, Chieftain Torishi.”
She gave him a bitter look.
“You hide dark truths well, until it becomes convenient for you to tell all. I wish I could say this was Pallass, and turn the wrath of empires on you. But it is not Pallass, as you so carefully say. You throw other Walled Cities on the pyre, and hint. I expect no great revelations—not in common words from you. Nor can I ask for armies and war, because my heart does not want these things. Not now. Not until great decisions have been made, and you will not guide us far, only hint.”
Chaldion frowned, because there was no direct opening there. Torishi just looked at him.
“Would that I could say this was Pallass’ way. Crafty and manipulative. But I know Pallass. My tribe will not forget this day, nor your part. You are not Pallass, though, because we have shed blood with Pallass. Our great daughter, Garusa Weatherfur, fought with Thrissiam Blackwing against the Goblin Lord and perished there. She did not run. Nor did her last letter to me ever say she found Pallass’ [General] wanting. We have known Walled Cities as enemies and friends. This day? I say the Cyclops of Pallass sullies its name in my eyes. Speak.”
It stuck. Everything else had slid away. Water on oil. Arrows bouncing off a magic shield. Save for this. Chieftain Torishi sat, cross-legged, and looked at the old Drake with the hope of exactly nothing in her gaze. He frowned. Choosing his words, displeased. Perhaps it changed nothing in what he said next. Perhaps…everything.
Across Izril, Drakes were waiting. The High Command of Manus, the Serpentine Matriarch, Wall Lords and Ladies of Salazsar, Oteslia’s First Gardener—and far more—appraising Chaldion. Was he selling them out? Or doing the only thing that could be done?
He hesitated, and it seemed to those watching that this was the moment when he was truly conflicted.
“The Walled Cities have known many things for a long time. They buried this secret. Quite literally. Other groups helped them. Something was lost. Something was gained. Even I’m not sure of the…exact price. So when you go digging, ask yourself what was traded. Gnollish magic for centuries. A suppression field can hold it back, but the energy still went somewhere. Where? Perhaps someone hid something. Perhaps it’s needed. Used. Every Walled City has a secret.”
His one eye swept across the camera. Someone quietly breathed an oath.
“Traitor’s scales. Does he know?”
Dragonspeaker Luciva rose slightly. She looked around the High Command of Manus.
“Does he…? Is he referring to Rafaema? Or…”
She swung her gaze around. Was it this? How far would Chaldion go? But even the other Drakes and Gnolls looked at her. What was he talking about? Manus? Or something else?
“Too many secrets.”
The Drake grinned like a devil in the dark bar as he spoke. Light shone from under his eye patch, and his scarred face twisted. He looked at Torishi and nodded once.
“Let’s have some come to light. We’ve known too much. Leaders. It’s coming out. We have always known of things like this. Now you see a buried crystal. But you already had the first hint. Or haven’t you looked into it? They were right there, too. Buried but never forgotten. One after another. You found them first. The greatest enemies of Gnolls. Greater than Dragons. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Heads tilted. For once, no one did know. Akrisa and Torishi slowly blinked, then grew visibly uneasy. You could see their fur beginning to stand on end.
Geilouna whispered to Altestiel.
“What is he talking about?”
The Earl of the Rains glanced up and realized that if he spoke, it would be to the entire group.
Fetohep knew. He focused on the others, seeing who else did.
Tulm the Mithril was nodding, like someone watching a masterpiece being completed. Perorn got it with a quiet snap of her fingers. Outside of Izril, the only other person to put it together in a flash was Eldavin, who cursed. The rest didn’t know because it wasn’t yet a word spoken aloud. Chaldion drew it out, a single word, in an exhalation of smoke.
Someone dropped a mug. The sound of shattering glass was the perfect note to fit that moment. Chaldion nodded.
“Ask yourselves who forgot they remained. Gnollish memory is a famous thing. Someone has taken a quill to it, which I quite applaud. I couldn’t have done so well myself. That is my testimony. Now, if you will excuse me, I believe I may soon be court-martialed or summoned before the Assembly of Crafts. Good day.”
He cut off the image of himself before anyone could speak a word. Then it was madness. Then everyone was speaking, demanding that Chaldion be brought back, demanding that other leaders of Drake cities, who were suddenly very reticent, be put on. It was done. Some people watching—even enemies, people who found the entire business as reprehensible as could be—still felt the urge to stand up and applaud.
Earl Visophecin of Ailendamus and the Blighted King even did. Applaud a craftsman on the stage, an artist of intention. That took all the momentum in the world and trained it…
Where? Drake plots. Lack of magic. Traitors?
Somehow…he had thrown water into the air. And now they saw it. Like the Stitch Witch of Terandria, who decided she had an interesting project as well. Who smiled. They all saw it. Glittering drops of water on a tapestry of very different things.
All…somehow…connected. Now tug at one string and find out where it led.
If you dared.
Every Gnoll in the Great Plains was practically glued to the drama unfolding between Chaldion and the council Feshi had convened. It was about them. It was a clue to a greater story. Treachery and betrayal and mystery.
And why not? It was the most important thing that could happen today. For almost all of them. What could be more important than that? What could be…?
It was just one word. A question. A name.
Mri was her name. The little Gnoll girl wasn’t too attached to it, but no one had actually said her real name since they had come to the Meeting of Tribes. Her real name was dangerous. Who knew it?
Well, anyone who’d heard Drassi’s broadcast, maybe. But Mrsha wasn’t that spectacularly rare of a name for a Gnoll. Why apply it to her?
For that matter—who could recognize her? Tkrn had recognized her face because he had visited the inn where she stayed for a long time, saw her face every time she was there, up close. He was an exception. With her brown fur, the Stone Spears tribe markings, who else could…?
The strange Gnoll had picked Mrsha up. She’d been so terrified of Chieftain Xherw that she hadn’t moved, just grateful that he shielded her from Xherw’s gaze somehow.
Because…he was a Chieftain himself? The Gnoll had the appearance of one, though she didn’t recognize the blue dye and markings of his tribe. But he had a bodyguard, and he’d been right next to another Chieftain—the famous Chieftain of the Steelfur tribe, who’d gone off without giving Mrsha a second glance.
Yet this Gnoll had gone pale.
He had picked her up, spoken her name—and now he grabbed her and hurried her off. Mrsha didn’t know if she should fight back or not.
How did he know her name?
She began to squirm as she realized she was getting farther from her protectors, Vetn and Tesy, but the Gnoll had her firmly in his grip.
“Excuse me. I have to go. Please. Please.”
The Gnoll Chieftain started. He almost dropped Mrsha, then swiveled her around.
“That’s impossible. You can’t—”
He almost let go of Mrsha, but then his eyes focused on the speaking-crystal necklace. He stared at Mrsha’s fur.
“You can’t speak.”
Mrsha’s eyes widened. She definitely didn’t know this Gnoll…did she? He wasn’t from Liscor. But how did he know she couldn’t speak? She hesitated, but if she triggered her speaking crystal, her canned speech would be obvious.
Twice confused by her ‘voice’, Chieftain Mrell stared at Mrsha. And again, his eyes darted to her face, with faint recognition but no true certainty. He saw something, but he wasn’t certain.
What he looked at was…her fur. Her brown fur. And more than that, the gray markings on her shoulders and arms. Mrsha saw the look and went still.
Slashes of gray, arrows in stylized patterns across her fur. Any Gnoll of age could apply them, though most only did as a matter of rank or for special occasions. Mrsha had thought it would be an honor, a Good Thing. No one else knew what they meant exactly. Perhaps someone might recognize them, but the markings were those of her tribe. And her tribe was dead.
“Stone Spears. It’s Stone Spears’ markings. And you…”
Yet he knew it. Mrsha stared wide-eyed up at Chieftain Mrell. He looked at her, then recoiled.
“You’re the runaway child? You w—”
He recognized her at last as the kidnapped girl! Mrsha squirmed harder, kicking at his arms, but now Chieftain Mrell’s head snapped around. He whirled, largely unnoticed among the Gnolls chattering about seeing Fetohep of Khelt and the Stargnoll. Then he began to run.
“Chieftain Mrell? Something wrong? Who’s the child?”
One of his guards spotted him as the Gnoll hurried with Mrsha still struggling in his arms. The Gnoll was panting.
“I—nothing. I know this…send a messenger. I’m returning to my quarters. No meetings with other Chieftains.”
“A famous [Merchant]—”
“Later. This is important. I need you to send a runner to the Sofang tribe. Now. Tell them I demand that Prha come here now. To me.”
Mrell. Prha. Those were stupid names. Mrsha…thought they sounded familiar. But how?
Something was stirring in the back of her mind, but she was reaching for it and…not. At the same time. What a curious thing. It was almost as if she knew. But she didn’t want to.
Was that why she let him carry her out of danger into a foreign tribe’s camp? Gnolls greeted this Chieftain Mrell, and he answered with strained casualness. He was clearly well liked, and it was a fairly prosperous tribe, from what Mrsha saw. Smallish, but it looked pretty wealthy. She heard a lot of hammering, smelled smoke and metal—a crafting tribe?
“Seal the camp. No visitors. I’m—working on a change to Demas Metal. Tell everyone I will see them later. Tonight, if I can. This is a…guest.”
The Gnoll strode into his tent, issuing rapid orders. The guards stared at Mrsha, but they didn’t question the orders. Mrsha found herself in a Chieftain’s tent, carpeted by expensive tapestries depicting Gnolls in battle. There was a single rolled-up cot and samples of that strange Demas Metal stuff.
Was this the Chieftain behind the blades? She sat there, staring up at him. The Gnoll went to the tent flaps, closed them, fumbled with something, and hung it up.
A [Silence] charm. Mrsha thought she should be worried. It was likely he had realized who she was somehow and was now going to kill her.
Except that he knew her tribe. He knew her name. And she knew him. He looked back at her, at last, and she saw Mrell flinch.
He wore a band of Demas Metal around one bicep, a Chieftain’s loose garments over his top, and a loose kind of kilt open at both sides, made with cotton and richly dyed. He smelled like coal and fire, and he was young.
Older than Erin and definitely older than Lyonette, but younger than Relc. That was how Mrsha thought of it. A Gnoll man out of his true ‘young man’ years but as young as Chieftains got.
He had brown fur, like trees in a forest, and ears that were forward and a bit pointy. Mrsha thought they looked familiar too. His eyes were brown, like every Gnoll’s. No odd rings or quirks. But they were wide.
When he spoke, his voice was a growl, and sometimes he slurred his r’s a bit more than usual, but he enunciated with care.
“Are you…Mrsha of the Stone Spears tribe? Child? Girl? You—I know you.”
He hesitated. Mrsha had hold of her speaking charm. She raised one arm to cover her mouth, pretended to cough, and triggered it.
He started. Oh, how he jumped! He did not expect that, but then he stared. He crouched, slowly, at the other end of the tent, near the flaps.
“No. Did you say that? Please, say it again. Are y—do you know me?”
His voice was so strained. Mrsha bit her tongue.
Again, she hid her mouth. Chieftain Mrell squinted.
“You’re not saying that. You can’t be. Not unless…it’s not coming from your mouth. What is that?”
Mrsha bit her tongue. Darn! He was a Gnoll, and his hearing was too good. Even a Human could probably have understood where the voice was coming from with this much scrutiny. Yet…
“I’m Mri. Hi. I have to go. Excuse me.”
This time, he saw that her lips didn’t move in sync with the ‘voice’ coming from her speaking stone. He straightened, slowly.
Mrsha glanced around the tent. She could run. She could tunnel under the tent if she had to—and Qwera had given her an emergency wand. Heck, she could howl and probably receive help if he didn’t stab her within five seconds.
Why did he look even more afraid of her now? This Chieftain Mrell hesitated, took one step forward and two steps back. It seemed to Mrsha that if she could but speak, he might bolt for the hills.
There was a funny feeling in her stomach. Chieftain Mrell was speaking. He kept starting, stopping. Mrsha stared at his face. Was he handsome? Nah. She didn’t care, and that wasn’t it. His ears. Now, where had she seen ears like those?
“Please, listen to me. You’re from the Stone Spears tribe. You’re…Mrsha Stone Spears. Your name is Mrsha. Did you change it to Mri? When I heard there was a white Gnoll named…I’ve met Gnolls named Mrsha. I didn’t think of it. I didn’t want to think of it. Stone Spears is dead. They were wiped out.”
He knew her tribe. Mrsha’s eyes opened wide. She stared at him. This time, without opening her mouth, she touched one of the runes.
Mrell jumped. He went on after a second, swallowing.
“Th—your Chieftain was Urksh. Chieftain Urksh, [Mining Chieftain]. He was in his sixties. A good Gnoll. He had a scar along his chin here. He was Chieftain of your tribe. He…raised you.”
Yes. Yes. Mrsha’s chest began to hurt. She remembered Urksh. Oh, it felt like it had been every day she cried and remembered him. When had she begun forgetting? When had she stopped thinking of him every second?
She was exactly who he said she was. It came back to her, living along the High Passes, being scolded by Urksh, going hunting, the tribe moving from place to place. And then had come winter, and out of her boredom had come the most interesting person ever. A young City Runner, rescued out of the snow, followed by Winter Sprites…
Then disaster. Goblins.
“Stone Spears died. A Goblin Lord’s army wiped them out. Almost all of them. Zel Shivertail fought the Goblin Lord, but they all died there. That’s…that’s what I heard. From the last survivors.”
Mrsha’s eyes widened. Survivors? Mrell hadn’t blinked. She stared at him. Survivors…?
But now he was speaking.
“I know this. I’m…from the Stone Spears tribe. I was. I’d know those markings anywhere. I thought the only survivors were a handful of children, and I met every single one. Believe me. I never thought—Liscor? I saw a white Gnoll and never looked close—they only had a sketch of you on that Drake’s report. Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you…know…?”
He was waiting for something. It was building behind Mrsha’s eyes. Something pounding in her head. She just held still. Sitting there in the center of his tent. Why did everything he say ring a bell? Ears?
There was something in his tent that made her look around. Since it included a workshop, he had a number of things. Tools for creating powders, tools for working on the Demas Metal stuff, even books. And because he was at the Meeting of Tribes, he had formal clothes laid out ready for use, and, of course, a mirror.
No vanity like one Lyonette would consider proper, or makeup—just something to remove bad scents, shampoo, a brush tangled with hair, and a mirror. A big mirror for a Chieftain. Mrsha looked into it.
There were those ears again. She stared at them, quite puzzled. Now, how could that be? Her ears were smaller than Mrell’s, but they had the same shape. Gnollish ears had more variance than silly Human ones. And these were tipped with gold paint. They twitched as she looked at them.
Her ears. Slowly, the little Gnoll in the mirror reached out. Mrsha felt her paws touch her ears. Then she looked up.
Chieftain Mrell stood there. Like he’d seen a ghost. Like he was incredibly afraid, incredibly…guilty. Mrsha looked at his face. His fur looked familiar. Normal for a Gnoll. She stared down at her dyed fur, a copy of the fur she’d had growing up. It was close.
His ears looked like hers. Now she listened to what he said. He was from her tribe. Stone Spears. He…wasn’t anymore? It was rare for a Gnoll to leave a tribe. But it happened.
If you wanted to go your own way. Or, sometimes, if you were exiled.
Stone Spears had always been good with stone. Mining. Mrsha looked at Mrell.
“Urksh cast me out. You were too young to even walk on all fours. Me and Prha.”
What stupid names. Mrell? Prha? Why did they sound odd together? Almost like…
Slowly, the [Last Survivor] of the Stone Spears tribe, or so she had always thought—the girl who had received white fur for doom deferred, who had lost her people, her home; who had gone to faraway Liscor and found her mother, another home, friends, magic—looked up.
Mrell stood there, pale under his fur, looking at her but unable to meet her eyes. She listened to what he was saying and finally, finally understood what he had not said.
Was too ashamed to say.
Slowly, Chieftain Mrell of the Demas Metal tribe, a new tribe started by a single Gnoll who had discovered a fantastical new metal, walked forward. Not directly at Mrsha. He sat down in a chair, legs collapsing under him. He was shaking.
He was an outcast. From the Stone Spears tribe.
Urksh never talked about it. He had only told Mrsha about it a few times, and the others, even the children, didn’t bother Mrsha about it. Urksh only told Mrsha, once, when she was very little, that her parents were gone.
She thought that meant they were dead. The second time, he told her they had done a bad thing and been exiled.
She thought that meant they were dead. Mrsha had never thought of them again. She had her tribe, Urksh. Later, she had Lyonette, the inn, Ryoka, Erin, Numbtongue, Bird, Apista. When Stone Spears died, so had every connection to the old Mrsha with brown fur, Mrsha of the Plains Gnolls.
That was that. Never once had she expected…never had she dreamed of finding someone like the strange Gnoll standing here. Yet. Here he was.
“You’re Mrsha. My—”
Mrell spoke at last, and she didn’t know how long it had been. He didn’t say it, either.
The little girl looked up at the Chieftain sitting in his chair. She stared at him. Then, at last, she moved. She stood up on two legs, and he flinched.
Words failed him. Disbelieving, Mrsha took a step forward. She looked around.
Chieftain of the Demas Metal tribe. Chieftain of a tribe she hadn’t known, but a growing one. Come here to become famous. An important Gnoll. Here.
Urksh hadn’t known about him. She was almost certain. This…he was just here. Out of nowhere. No warning. No signs. And now?
She looked at him. Walked over to the chair. Stared up at him. Mrell looked down at her and didn’t smile.
He looked pale, shaky, like he was about to be sick or run. And as Mrsha looked at him, his head jerked to one side. He had stared at her so fiercely before. Now, up close, as he saw the light of comprehension in her face—suddenly Mrell turned into a statue.
She waited. Saw a brown eye flick her way, then skitter away and stare right at the tent flaps. Mrsha waited. But he didn’t look at her.
Like Ekirra when he was being naughty. Mrsha reached for her speaking rune. Then she dropped it. She stood there, waiting.
He never moved. He was frozen. Outside, Gnolls were watching the scrying orb where Chaldion spoke. Neither Mrell nor Mrsha moved. It didn’t even matter.
Mrsha waited. She counted ten seconds. Then twenty. Then thirty. Then…she slowly spread her arms out.
It was not a hug. It was a gesture.
Here I am.
Mrell didn’t move. Mrsha stomped her foot, and he jumped. He almost glanced at her. But he didn’t.
Now she was angry. The little Gnoll girl grabbed hold of another chair and yanked herself up. Now she stood there, right in front of him.
I’m right here.
She couldn’t say anything. But she knew he could see her. Yet those eyes didn’t swing her way.
Mrsha clapped her paws together as loudly as she could. Mrell started again. She pointed at her chest.
Look at me. Look at me when you speak!
“Your m—Prha is coming. I sh—”
He began to rise. Mrsha lunged forward. He jerked, and she grabbed his clothes. Now she was touching him. He looked down—jerked again, like he was being zapped by a spell. He stared right over her head. She twisted the clothing.
And he did not. He tried, but it was like a magnetic force was dragging his head up. His gaze darted around. Mrsha punched his shoulder. And still, Chieftain Mrell never looked at her. He glanced at her face. He tried to say something.
He refused to meet her eyes.
He didn’t want to meet her eyes.
He was afraid to meet her eyes.
He couldn’t meet her eyes.
Which was it? Whichwasitwhichwasit? How dare you? Her mouth opened and closed, but the adult sat there, unable to hear a word. Only a frustrated half sound. A coughing growl. She clawed at her own throat, trying to make the words.
He saw that and almost reached for her. But when she looked up, he flinched away again.
Mrsha had never…not Tkrn in the prison. Not the worst Drake. Not Lism or anyone else.
She had never met such a coward. Him? He came here and just picked her up and—
Her head swung around. Now, now she saw it all clearly. She looked. Saw.
What a fancy tent. How rich it was. She knew rich. She stared at his clothing, letting go of it. The armband, a signal that this was what he was selling.
Demas Metal. Now, there was a name that screamed pride. Confidence that the name would one day equate to fame and fortune. Not ‘Stone Spears’. Her tribe had never been rich.
She had never really cared, but she had known what it was like to want a bit more in the food pot, to have Urksh worrying about where the tribe would go. They had lived along the High Passes with dignity and pride. They had laughed and life had been fun at times, hard at others.
This Gnoll? He was rich. He had a growing tribe and a special metal. He had come here, to the Meeting of Tribes, to be richer still. After he had left the Stone Spears tribe. Been exiled.
She sniffed the air. It smelled like metal and burning and soot. Even that was like home. Stone Spears had always had a knack for minerals and mining. These were talents he had learned from her people. But he had no right to them.
Urksh had cast him out. He had said Urksh’s name, and he had no right. This Gnoll had been cast out of his tribe. If other Plains Gnolls knew, would they want to join his tribe, buy his metal? He hadn’t even…he’d left…
Suddenly, Mrsha didn’t want to be here. She looked at Mrell and let go of his clothing. She backed up. She stared at him—then bolted for the exit.
Mrell moved. He was out of his chair and after her in a flash. Mrsha was almost out of the tent flaps when he grabbed her by the sides. She whirled, punched, kicked.
Let go! Leave me!
She wanted out! Begone! She wanted to find Vetn and tell him to bring her to Oteslia. Now! Nownownownow!
“Wait. Don’t go. I’m sorry. Mrsha, I’m—”
Mrell was desperate all of a sudden. He picked her up, and she bit him. She sank her teeth into his arm, and he cursed. Then—stopped.
Mrsha looked up. Mrell had almost yanked his arm free, but he stopped. She felt his muscles tense—then relax, and his face took on a pained, reserved expression. As if it didn’t hurt. As if he was going to just take it…
She bit with all the strength in her jaws and saw his face contort. Mrsha sank her teeth deeper, gnawing, as if she were trying to tear his wrist in two—
He tore his arm free. She tasted blood and spat a clump of fur out. Mrell stared at his bloody wrist.
She snapped again, and this time he jerked his arm away. Mrsha kicked and punched, and he held her back. He had to drop her or she’d have bitten his other hand. She landed hard, and Mrell moved toward the door. He already had a healing potion out.
“Please, listen to me. I don’t know what to say, but—”
Mrsha spat on his carpeted floors and watched the dribble of bloody saliva give the image of a Gnoll on the beautiful carpet a funny face. She snarled and looked for the entrance. She darted left, and he blocked the way. She could slip past him, but then the damned Gnoll spoke.
“Prha is coming. She’s your mother. Mrsha. My daughter…”
Her eyes widened with outrage. What did he just say?
My daughter. Someone else had said that. And she had every right. Lyonette, her mother, said that. What did he just…
“Mrsha, I’m your f—”
She stopped going for the door. Mrsha put her paws over her ears. She saw his lips move. Saw him looking at her.
He walked over. Mrsha got to her feet, tried to walk around him. She still had her paws over her ears. He blocked her way, said something.
She couldn’t hear. She would not hear. Mrell bent down. Desperately, he made a gesture.
Mrsha tried to run left, but he was too quick and was blocking the way. He stopped her. The Gnoll man took her arms and tried to pry her paws from her ears. Mrsha began to kick at his groin, and he held her up.
“Stop it. Enough! I know you have every right to be angry. Let me explain.”
He had both her arms in his grip! So Mrsha twisted and kicked him in the chin. He dropped her with a cry of astonishment. [Relc Kick]! Relc—
He went to grab her again, and she tore a wand from its hiding place under her fur and aimed it at his face. Mrell’s eyes widened, and he ducked as a single arrow of stone shot past him. It hit the wall of the tent, but the thick fabric only tore a bit upon impact.
Chieftain Mrell dove sideways, wide-eyed.
He went to tear the wand from her paw but then yanked his paw back. Because Mrsha had just slashed at him with a huge, sharp thorn protruding from her paw. She snarled, slashing, and he took a step back.
They were frozen like that. With one paw, Mrsha menacingly waved the thorn she’d conjured. She dropped the wand to fumble at her side.
Mrell was unmoving, watching her. He saw the little girl fumble for her belt pouch. Her hands were trembling because she was so angry, but when he tried to move, just a bit, she slashed at the air.
She’d drawn blood. A slash across his shin was leaking red into his fur. Mrsha ignored it as she dropped something on the ground.
Mrell saw the little girl spilling an assortment of strange objects. Crumpled paper, a roll of parchment, a bottle of ink, a quill…she grabbed the quill and unstoppered the inkwell after two tries, all while holding her other paw out. She wrote as fast as she could, but so neatly. So…well.
In a cursive script. It was a laborious process that took nearly five minutes, handicapped as she was by one paw. But what she finally threw at him—or tried to—was a single slip of paper.
Paper didn’t fly. Mrsha had to blow on it, then crumple it up and toss the small wad at Mrell’s feet. She glared at him as the Gnoll hesitated. He bent down and unwrapped it as she edged sideways.
He read the beautiful calligraphy, albeit in smudged ink on crumpled paper.
I have no father. I have a mother, and her name is Lyonette. Leave me alone, stranger.
Mrell stared at the piece of paper, then the girl moving for the exit. Mrell spoke, and now it was without hesitation, desperate.
“We—didn’t know what to do. We thought you were dead at first because you never cried. You couldn’t. You howled—but the [Shaman] thought it was ill luck.”
She had been about to leap past him. Mrsha hesitated, every muscle tensed. She looked back at him, eyes wide.
“Prha and I were young. I was successful. Rising in the tribe. We didn’t know what to do, and the [Shaman] suggested—there is a custom.”
“I was a fool for even dreaming of it. But we did. Almost. Urksh found out right before it happened.”
The words spilled out of Mrell like a confession. Not one Mrsha wanted to hear, but she heard it, as if it were filling the air with poison. Faster and faster.
“He cast us out. Me. Your mother. The [Shaman]. A few other Gnolls who went with us—I never went back. Your m—Prha and I split up. We couldn’t stay together. Not after that. I only met her later. I was wracked with guilt. I was. But I didn’t deserve to go back. I became a wanderer, took up smithing. I founded this tribe.”
Mrell pointed at the ground, at the tent.
“It was luck. I thought of you—wondered—but Prha wanted nothing to do with me. Urksh wouldn’t acknowledge me, even when I sent him a [Message]. I never went back. I meant to, after the Meeting of Tribes. I planned on meeting Urksh here, maybe even…then I heard of the Goblin Lord.”
Mrell was panting now. Shaking.
“I was too late. I didn’t sleep or eat for nearly a month. It was my fault. I looked for the other survivors of the Stone Spears tribe, but they thought you were dead, and Urksh…they told stories about a City Runner who brought the Goblin Lord and a blizzard and…if I’d known you were in Liscor, I would have found you. Mrsha. I am so sorry. You’re…the white Gnoll, aren’t you? The one all the tribes are hunting?”
She stood there, across from him, at the entrance to the tent. Just staring as his words came out, until there was nothing left, until they stopped. Mrell looked at her, reaching a paw out, but afraid to draw near.
“Mrsha. Just wait. Prha will come, and then…I don’t know how you got here, but if one of the traditionalist tribes finds you—wait. I failed my tribe and you and Urksh. But wait. Please.”
He looked at her, straight in the eyes.
“I will protect you.”
The little Gnoll girl stood there, staring up at Chieftain Mrell. Neither one moved or spoke. Then, abruptly, there was a voice that broke the bubble of magical silence.
Mrell whirled, and a voice began speaking, higher-pitched, angry. It had an unusual cadence to it. Slower, then faster near the end of a sentence, especially when the speaker was angry. Which she was.
“Mrell! How dare you summon me here! I won’t answer to you. Leave Sofang out of it. You—”
A Gnoll came storming into the tent, a warrior of a tribe Mrsha didn’t know. She was leaner than other warriors Mrsha had known and had a bow on her back, a shield and short-spear too. She had eyes only for Mrell, so she missed the girl standing there.
If there was something familiar about her, it was probably her paws? No—her fur was the exact same color as—
Prha strode toward Mrell. She was snarling, furious. She saw Chieftain Mrell’s face and hesitated.
“What’s your problem? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Did I ruin one of your precious deals?”
“Prha. I found her. Look over…”
“Found who? Don’t bring my tribe into this. You shouldn’t have flaunted your famous Demas Metal tribe if you didn’t want to see me. I hope your metal shatters in the forge. You…”
Prha glanced behind her and finally saw the girl with the gold-tipped ears standing there. She had been staring at Prha, face blank.
She turned to Mrell, but he just stared at her. Like he’d seen a ghost. The female Gnoll lost some of her bluster. Prha looked back, focused on the girl, but it wasn’t as if she could suddenly figure it out.
Her mind focused on what was easiest to put together first. Her angry look turned to puzzlement. The little girl was doing something with her bag of holding, but what was that on her fur? The gold ears were one thing, but…
“Are those Stone Spears markings? How…is she another survivor? Did you bring me here to—”
The word was so strained and so intense that it stopped her again. This time, she looked. And like Mrell, she went completely still.
She had the same look on her face. The one of sheer disbelief. It played across her features. Shock, disbelief, and guilt were all there, too, just as they were on Mrell’s face. But Prha displayed a simple emotion above all.
“Her spirit haunts me.”
Prha whispered. Mrell jerked—because he had not expected that. So did the girl. But then Mrsha moved, made the thorn disappear, and rubbed at her left ear. Because it was itchy.
That broke Prha out of her trance. She looked at Mrell. Then she cried out.
The girl flinched. But she looked at the two adults. Two parents. Someone else’s parents. Slowly, she brought out the object she’d reached for. Looked at Mrell. That Gnoll woman.
“I can protect you.”
What audacity. What a terrible twist of fate. Mrsha was shaking. Her ears were filled with the sound of blood roaring, and she saw Prha saying someone’s name. She looked at Mrell, then lifted something.
Her wrist. Both Gnolls looked down and saw Mrsha pour a single drop of something onto her wrist, onto the fur there. From a little bottle Qwera had given her and told her not to use unless she needed to change something.
It sank into her brown fur, the fur she had had all her life, which she had inherited from those two. And, before all three’s eyes, the fur on her wrist changed color. The brown of the forest turned pale. Then white.
Pure white. Prha stared at the patch of white on Mrsha’s arm. Then she recoiled.
She stopped herself. Mrell himself stared at the white patch. Mrsha looked at them. She covered the spot with her paw.
“Mrsha, wait. We’re your—”
Mrell began. Mrsha whirled.
Too late. She ran. She ran, and a second later both her parents burst out of the tent after her. The Gnolls of the Demas Metal tribe saw a little girl running, racing into the Meeting of Tribes, as fast as she had ever run. Away, away from these impostors and this lie.
Revelation. Chaldion had spoken and put into motion an inevitable event. Nudged it in the direction he thought would be best.
The tribes were full of voices. People stood around, stunned, arguing, disbelieving. They barely noticed the little Gnoll girl racing through the midst of them—until a Chieftain and hundreds of Gnolls followed after her.
At first, she just ran. Away from that thing. Then she ran for someone she knew, anyone. But she didn’t know this place, and she was terribly afraid that she’d run into a hunter.
“Get her! Grab her!”
She heard Mrell’s voice. Desperate. Afraid. For her? She didn’t care. Even knowing the danger, she didn’t want to be anywhere near him.
But it seemed that more Gnolls had heard and seen the chase and were coming after her. She dodged left as someone whirled.
“There! That one!”
Someone dove for her. She saw an adult warrior. No. Mrsha leaped over him, and now she was fleeing for her life.
Another tribe had found her! She looked around for the one thing that would keep her safe. Silverfang. Or the Golden Gnoll. She had to find them.
“That girl. Grab her, on the Chieftain’s orders!”
And it was not a Demas Metal Gnoll who spoke, but another warrior from another tribe. A stranger. Mrsha ran left, wide-eyed. This was her end? She looked around for that glitter of gold. She saw something bright. Golden. Was that…?
No. Not Qwera. Mrsha desperately raced past Gnolls forming a wall and signaling others who joined in. She raced left, saw she was headed for another tribe’s camp, and saw more Gnolls running to block her in. She frantically spun around.
“There she is. Get—”
Mrsha leaped as someone raced toward her. She bounced, pushed off a chest, and vaulted over the Gnoll’s head. For a second, she did a flip through the air, just as Wer had taught her. The [Grasshopper’s Run]. She strained, though she had not the Skill. Fly. Back to her mother. Let me l—
A pair of paws caught her. Someone leaped and yanked Mrsha out of the sky. Paws dragged her to earth, and it was not Mrell—who stopped, suddenly afraid—or Prha, or any Gnoll Mrsha knew. A Chieftain calmly caught Mrsha and held her up.
“Is this the one?”
Mrsha went still. She looked for that golden glitter, but it was only fake gold on fur. No Qwera.
Why, then, is there still gold? She looked up and, through the clouds, saw something shining down.
A golden ray of light. And the Chieftain who held her was illuminated by it. It played over her dyed fur, and she smiled as she turned.
“Is this the girl, niece?”
Feshi Weatherfur exhaled. She looked at Mrsha and the little white patch, quickly blocked by Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur’s paw. She nodded toward their camp and all the Weatherfur, Ekhtouch, Longstalker’s Fang, and Silverfang Gnolls who had come searching for her.
“Demas Metal’s here. I recognize Chieftain Mrell. Signal our people. He cannot shout, or it will be dangerous.”
Torishi murmured. She lifted Mrsha up, into the ray of light.
“I found the troublemaker! All’s well!”
Mrsha stared around. Troublemaker? Me? She saw a figure starting toward her, face filled with relief.
Vetn? And there was Qwera, pushing through the crowd, and Tkrn, and that Human girl, and…Mrsha looked at Torishi, and the Weatherfur’s Chieftain smiled.
“Hello. Don’t worry. You’re safe. Are those Gnolls after you?”
She looked past Mrsha at Mrell and Prha. Mrsha didn’t know what to say, so Torishi nodded in answer to her own question. She looked tired. Worn from her duties on the scrying orb council, though it was still ongoing. She jerked her head at Feshi.
“Let’s go, Feshi. Come, child. You’re safe now.”
Mrsha didn’t know if she was. But then Weatherfur Gnolls were around her, escorting their Chieftain to their camp and her private Chieftain’s tent, telling the others all was well. And…escorting Chieftain Mrell and Prha forward. They stood in her tent as Torishi spoke.
Feshi, standing behind her Chieftain, Mrsha, sitting just behind the impressive Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe. Warriors standing outside, and an audience behind them, lined across the entrance and walls, her friends, Vetn, Qwera, Tkrn, strangers like Inkar, all of them listening, trying to understand what was playing out before their eyes. Torishi knew. She looked at the two Gnolls standing in front of her, almost as if they were on trial.
“Chieftain Mrell. I trust you will listen first. Speak after. I do not know what you may think—but this child is under Weatherfur’s protection. Weatherfur, Silverfang, Ekhtouch, Longstalker’s Fang, and Liscor’s.”
Chieftain Torishi had Mrsha right next to her. She did not know everything. She looked at Mrell warily, and he didn’t know what to say. So Torishi went on.
“Before you say anything—this is a time of great change. Everything is unrest. If you declare her…anathema, as some tribes might, I will not stand idly by. I would not have tribes do battle. So I ask you to listen.”
“No, Chieftain Torishi. That wasn’t…”
Feshi glanced at Mrell, who was lost for words. She was behind Torishi, eying the Weatherfur warriors who were far back…but would notice any slight gestures she made. Vetn had run off somewhere to tell Krshia, who was still with Akrisa, debating the issue worldwide.
Krshia didn’t know. Torishi didn’t know, because the sun shone down as radiantly as the intense smile on her face, ready for trouble, a warning glare. Such powerfully bright light. Her wariness was because she had no idea.
And what could Mrell say? He looked at Mrsha.
“It is not that, Chieftain Torishi.”
“Really? Then what?”
Qwera looked straight at Mrsha, bending down to whisper.
“Mrsha, are you all right? Did he do anything? Or are we gutting him?”
Mrsha shook her head, but she didn’t know…
Mrell looked at Mrsha. He looked at Prha, who was shocked, unable to process it all—the tense Gnolls, Tesy with his paintbrush held in a threatening manner, Torishi’s intense readiness…and then looked down at his paws.
He still held something. A crumpled bit of paper. He stared at it…then, without a word, held it out. His paw shook.
Torishi frowned. But she stepped forward, took the paper, and read it. The Chieftain of Weatherfur stared at the words.
“I hate cursive. What does this…?”
Her brows furrowed together. She looked up at Mrell, twisted her head to Mrsha. It was not a hard thing to put together, but the message needed to be understood. Then she got it. She nearly dropped the bit of paper.
Qwera didn’t know what Torishi now knew.
Ysara was here, and she had none other than the Demas Metal blade aimed not so casually toward the very Chieftain who made it. What a funny coincidence. Ha. Ha.
Qwera addressed the child.
“Mrsha, tell me what happened. Why are you shaking? Ysara, get ready to stab him.”
Qwera was watching as the little Gnoll child wrote. Trying to explain. Trying to encapsulate all that had happened in such a short amount of time.
Mrsha looked up as Torishi sighed. Slowly. Painfully.
“Lower your sword, Merchant Ysara. This Gnoll is not…an enemy. I think.”
Mrell looked up as Ysara hesitated. The woman raised a brow, but for answer, Torishi passed her the bit of paper. Feshi walked over.
You couldn’t understand until you saw the clue that put it all together. But the paper was one of the fastest ways to get it. That, the message…Mrsha felt her shoulders shaking. She heard Feshi muttering, a gasp.
“Who are…? You mean…?”
Tkrn and Inkar walked over.
Gireulashia arrived, striding through the knot of guards like a giant. One drew their blade on her, and she flicked it out of the warrior’s grasp.
“Peace! Ekhtouch is here to help. Where is the girl? What’s happening?”
She stopped, spotted the paper, read it backward through the transparent paper in Torishi’s spotlight, and looked around.
“Hm. You and you.”
Gireulashia looked at Mrell and Prha. She seemed pleased with herself…then realized she was going to have to wait for everyone else to catch up. She tapped Inkar on the shoulder and whispered to explain.
“That’s this girl’s…”
Lehra Ruinstrider barreled into the tent a second later with Suxhel, who did the same trick, immobilizing a guard before they could block her with one huge eye. The rest of her team slowed, but Mrsha heard none of the explanations, the chatter.
She was trying to write something to Qwera, but she couldn’t. She saw Torishi walk back toward her and crouch.
“Mrsha Silverfang? Or is it…Mrsha of The Wandering Inn?”
Tkrn must have told her. She had it wrong. It was Mrsha du Marquin. That was all she wanted, though she could do without the ‘du’.
That was all she wanted. And now…Mrell was looking at her. Prha was beginning to reach out but was held back by a wall of Mrsha’s friends and protectors. Torishi glanced at them.
“I take it you two have never met.”
“Chieftain Torishi. The story is…”
Tkrn gasped loudly.
“He’s the father who got exiled? I thought he was dead!”
Mrsha flinched. Inkar looked at her, then instantly she and Lehra stomped on Tkrn’s feet. Gireulashia raised her foot as well but decided against it.
Now it came out: Mrell and Prha were in the center of another kind of spotlight. What else was there to do but explain?
Mrsha didn’t hear it. She heard him speaking, in a shaking voice, saying it less coherently than he had said it in his tent. She didn’t listen.
She had a quill in one paw and a bit of paper in the other. She was still trying to say something. She had dropped her activation rune. And that wasn’t her voice anyway, just some prerecorded messages. Only what should she say?
Her…parents—the Gnolls who had brought her into this world, rather, and then abandoned her—stood here, in Torishi’s tent.
Chieftain Mrell, who had saved her from being seen by Chieftain Xherw. Who looked guilty in his successful tribe. Prha, who had thought Mrsha was a spirit.
I will protect you. Words many people had said, that Chieftain Mrell had said. The thing he called himself. Which he had no right to say. Lyonette had earned the right.
Mrell was staring at Mrsha. Longingly. Desperately.
Mrsha refused to meet his gaze. Now. Now, only now…she began to write. Her paw began to shake. Her shoulders trembled.
Tears fell out of her eyes. Only here, only now, as Chieftain Torishi, basking in the sunlight coming through the top of her open tent, bent. She did not know Mrsha, but her face was kind.
“You have traveled a long way, Mrsha. Even here, much has happened. Too much in one moment. What is it you wish to say?”
Mrsha wrote, hand shaking. Tears rolled down her face, dripping from the fur around her chin. She held something out to Torishi. The Weatherfur Chieftain read it, slowly.
Now—at last, this was the only thing Mrsha could think to write.
I want to go home. To Liscor.
She was done. She wanted to go home, now. With her mother. She wanted to go home, go back in time, lie in her room, and erase this place from ever having happened. Even if it meant that she never would have met Qwera, Vetn, and Tesy.
Torishi sighed. She looked back, and the sunlight was not the harsh light of warning. Even so, Mrell and Prha flinched. Urksh had looked like that once.
It was the look of a Chieftain. But Torishi did not shout at them to leave. She looked at Mrsha. Then she walked around the tent, to the scrying orb that still broadcast the arbitration council, now engaged in arguments, debate about what should be done.
There was dissension in the Meeting of Tribes. Confusion. Anger. Could there truly be traitors among them? Torishi looked at the white patch on Mrsha’s wrist. And there lay an entire world of knowledge.
When Torishi spoke, she sounded very tired. She did not address her words to Feshi, or to Mrell, or even to Mrsha alone. Just to herself and the tent. The world and no one.
“We are a bitterly cruel people. We put tribe in front of person. We quarrel, and we diminish in our smallness, our shortsighted pride. We have descended into madness. And we are hated, hunted by other species. We hate and hunt each other. There is little good, on those dark days, that I can say about Gnolls.”
She looked up at the sun, which vanished behind a cloud, then turned her head. Mrsha saw the light vanish. Rain did not fall. Torishi shook her head.
“But that is what I can say of every people who has ever lived. We try. Sometimes, in the trying, we succeed. And we are glorious. Right now? I look at a brave girl who survived killers coming after her. Who traveled across Izril and survived, despite all odds. Who has a story that stretches before and after her and already makes her something of a legend.”
She looked at Mrsha, then pointed to Mrell and Prha.
“Over yonder, I see two very small, very petty Gnolls who did what the worst of us have always done.”
One of the two stirred. Prha opened her mouth.
Torishi’s single glance made her fall silent. She walked back over to Mrsha. The girl did not want to look at either of her parents, and Torishi knelt.
“I know this is a painful moment for you, Mrsha. So listen to me. Close your eyes.”
Mrsha did. That was easy. Torishi murmured, very gently.
“There sits Chieftain Mrell of Demas Metal. And, I think, Prha of Sofang. You know what they are. What they claim? You know that too. I do not know all of what they said. But you sit in my tent, in my tribe. So I say this: as you close your eyes, you do not need to open them and see them again.”
“Be silent, Mrell. Weatherfur is speaking.”
Chieftain Eska snapped.
“If you do not want to, Mrsha, when you open your eyes, you will not see them. If you do wish to—and I believe someday you should—Chieftain Mrell will be there. You will speak with him and he with you, if you so desire. But remember. No matter what you choose—you do not owe either one of them anything. You do not need to love them. You do not need to listen to them.”
Mrsha listened desperately as that kind voice went on. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Neither of them can take you or force you to do anything. They can hurt you, by kindness or thoughtlessness or cruelty. What you take, and what you give, is your choice. I only ask that you think. You do not need an answer for all these troubles. Just tell me when you are ready. What do you want, right now?”
Mrsha trembled. Because that was exactly what she wanted to be asked. She reached out, and a big paw let her squeeze it. Mrsha cried. She wanted to go home. And she wanted her mother.
She knew what she wanted right now. Slowly, Mrsha wrote and gave Torishi a bit of paper.
Feshi Weatherfur saw the others talking in her camp. Such an unlikely alliance. Ekhtouch, famously reclusive; Silverfang; Longstalker’s Fang—and Demas Metal.
But not their Chieftain. He had left, as had Prha, to their own tribes, silent. Neither had the words yet to begin to comprehend this moment.
Only three Gnolls remained in the tent. One was Torishi, the other Feshi. The last was the Gnoll girl with white fur, albeit covered by her fake brown fur. Feshi couldn’t take her eyes off her.
Tkrn had only said a few things. But his remarks had been like the Professor’s stories—here was a girl who had survived Goblin Lord and Raskghar.
Doombringer…no. Feshi listened. That was what Torishi had done. Feshi had been afraid of what her Chieftain would do, but now Torishi sat with Mrsha, who had stopped crying and was blowing her nose. Torishi was speaking, softly.
“I was once told there was a time when Doombringer was not the name they called you. But we have forgotten…I know part of why we began hating your kind. Such terrible days—but it was not your kind’s fault, nor was it ours alone. It was a tragedy, and we must not let it repeat itself.”
Torishi had been a [Shaman]. Yet Feshi had known with every fiber of her being that Torishi would not kill a child, white fur or not. So she came over as Torishi stroked Mrsha’s head.
“But you shall not die. That is my promise. And it is written twice, because we were wrong about magic. Silverfang showed us the truth. So when Krshia Silverfang and Tkrn shout that we have been fools, I listen. Here is my niece, whom I trust. Do you know her?”
Mrsha looked up. Feshi bent over and smiled.
“My name is Feshi. You’re Mrsha, aren’t you?”
The Gnoll looked at the famous [Strategist]. Yet Feshi didn’t think Mrsha was the one most impressed by the meeting.
They had much to tell each other. But not now. Today was a day of great revelations. Great news. Things coming together.
Too much. So when Feshi took Mrsha’s paw and led her from the tent, the others blinked at the strange girl.
She had…brown fur. But someone had dabbed green and red on her and other colors besides. She had gold ears, courtesy of Qwera and Weatherfur.
Inkar clapped her hands together.
“Oh! How smart!”
Feshi had covered Mrsha’s white patch.
Torishi came out of the tent.
“We have much to do.”
“You have never said truer words, Torishi.”
Eska walked over. Torishi smiled.
“But not we as in, we here. You and I, Eska, we have much to do, yes? This child will go with Feshi. And I entrust her to her guardians, who will not let her out of their sight.”
Vetn and Tesy flushed, and Mrsha was amazed they still had their ears.
“I won’t let her out of my sight.”
Tkrn promised too.
Torishi raised an eyebrow.
“All of you might be just enough. But I think we have less to fear now, yes?”
What? But Mrsha was right there, and she had her magic wand, her true nature hidden by paint, but…everyone looked at Mrsha, who rubbed one red eye. What did Torishi mean by that?
As if in reply, as the light faded over the Meeting of Tribes, Torishi led Mrsha and Feshi out of the Weatherfur camp. And there Mrsha saw a sight to take her breath away.
The Gnolls had stopped watching the council on the news. They had broken up, but they might reconvene tomorrow. Certainly Walled Cities and tribes would shake and tear apart over this. Something had begun.
But anger and rage could only last so long. Right now, there was a feeling in the air. Solemnity. A quiet. But not silence.
As light faded from the sky, and even as Torishi’s place in a permanent spotlight of her own weather turned quiet and still, darkness fell over the camp.
Yet no one lit torches or braziers. No one reached for a magical lantern or asked a [Shaman] to illuminate the darkness. Instead, Mrsha saw, in the crowd of gathered Gnolls, someone lift something up.
It was a wand. Bought at a markup from the Golden Gnoll or donated by Wistram, found, and held in an uncertain grip.
A Gnoll with a wand. Slowly, the tip began to glow with a faint green light. Not the green of any color Mrsha could name. Not the green of any artificial screen but a color mixed in a shade only produced by magic.
It filled the darkness, touched the silent figures. One light. Others held wands. But there was nothing.
Then…someone lifted a staff. They raised it high overhead, planted it, and a shimmering small fire of blue insects, beautiful little insects that flew and melted, rose upward. Mrsha saw another Gnoll, standing on a platform, lift a crystal ball that began to glow from no power but the one in its holder’s hand.
So few. So far between. Yet the light shone all the brighter because it was so dark.
Mrsha saw more lights appear, each one different. And she saw a Gnoll looking down at her.
Feshi smiled encouragingly. Mrsha hesitated—then plucked something from her side. A hidden object that no Gnoll could use.
Or—at least until a moment ago. She raised it, slowly, as in the center of the Meeting of Tribes, Ferkr of Pallass raised her paw skyward and conjured a vast globe of light.
Mrsha’s wand—well, the wand she’d stolen from Pisces, but technically he had given it to her later—rose into the air. It produced a green-yellow light, like blossoms in spring. Torishi looked up and smiled as the tendril of light grew upward, like a plant. She called out as she and Feshi lifted Mrsha to their shoulders.
“Look upon this child of Weatherfur! Look and know the truth of it forever! Let them never lie! Never shall we forget this injustice! Never!”
Some Gnolls took up the call. Others just looked at Mrsha, many with tears in their eyes.
In the distance, a Gnoll, a Chieftain, stood and saw the distant girl. Chieftain Mrell’s eyes fixed on her. Right there. So far away, yet so close.
A little Gnoll girl. With a shining light from the tip of a magic wand.
She gasped, and he heard it in that quiet moment. A small intake of breath, wondering.
Mrsha du Marquin looked around, and there they were. So many faces smiling at her. For having magic. Despite everything that had happened, as she sat there on the two shoulders, she felt it. A beautiful connection with everyone here. Mrsha looked at Tkrn, at Vetn, standing next to Tesy as the Drake painted the scene and showed it to Gireulashia, who was leaning over to watch, and Lehra waving Suxhel’s wand and grinning.
She was among her people. Mrsha breathed out. And then she finally saw it.
Gnolls, a group of them, pushing through the crowd. Led their way by a pointing Gnoll. One of them cried out and began running, pushing other Gnolls aside, racing toward her. Mrsha felt herself being lowered, and she ran forward so Krshia could sweep her up in her arms and kiss her and hug her properly.
That was how Mrsha found Krshia. That was her first day in the Meeting of Tribes.
That night, she ate with Krshia and Feshi, who were listening and reading the notes she passed around, as Vetn clammed up about his real profession and Gireulashia played with Inkar’s iPhone, listening to ‘computer’, ‘movie’, and ‘inn’ with ears that twitched.
But everyone listened, putting together a story to bind all other tales together into one, connected by a common thread. And though there was much more that happened that was good—and she knew she would have to see Mrell again, and there was more to worry about and do—for today, this was enough. Mrsha fell asleep in Krshia’s arms.
Not before she had done one last thing, though. One last super-important thing.
She sent a simple [Message] this time. No games. No plots. No cursive. It had one recipient, and it was something only that recipient would understand. To Lyonette, in Oteslia, her daughter wrote:
I’m here. Find me with everyone, Mother. I miss you.
There exists a guidebook of grammar rules. I believe it’s Perdue or something. It indicates, among the many rules, that you should end quotations with punctuation inside the quotation marks. Like ‘I write like this.’
…It is disgusting, I refuse to do it, and I will not bow down to the tyranny of some random people who sound like a weird cheese you put into a fondue telling me how to write. Similarly, I do other things that are not grammarly correct, but are my style.
Ahem. All this to say that I felt bad when Barbara got her edits back to me, because the one thing I did have to disagree with in her first draft was her notes on dialogue. And that’s my fault because I have not told any of the three editors that I use a stylized dialogue with no tags. That’s not her fault; it’s on me and I’m going to remember with those in the future.
I also feel bad, sometimes, because when I write these edited chapters, I’ve felt like I’ve flipped a coin. Either it needs huge work and substantive edits on a plot/narrative level like Interlude — Pisces or it has really good bones like this one and Erin’s chapter.
I don’t write a ‘meh’ chapter, I guess. But each editor has done something rather different and this time, I was introduced to an amazing line edit job. I don’t know if that’s the term, but if you looked at the original chapter and this one, I think you’d find more differences on a line-by-line level than the other two chapters combined.
It had to be at least a thousand comments, I think. So many that when I uploaded it to Google Docs, it actually started crashing the browser. It was a huge amount of work and I wonder if you’ll see the changes because I think it tightened up prose and changed comprehension immensely.
Which is a lot of what I learned. More than anything, I have a problem with a staccato narrative and I sometimes forget to clarify when I write for like 7 hours straight. That’s…honestly something I don’t think I can fix on a first draft, but I will keep it in mind. And that’s why editing is so useful.
A huge amount of effort, such that I think that this kind of chapter would go really well with someone like Andrea reading it in audio because it’s just improved. Tightened up, things fixed. Except for the names. Nothing will save Andrea from Klbkchhezeim. Or Nalthar…Nath…I’m going to introduce his cousin, Androitixc’uleoum-adus.
The point is that I found that I could ‘trust’ Barbara’s edits, which was really good given how many there were. Signs of a good editor is that you can re-write in my narrative style, which she did. I was very pleased to work with her! However, I think the process had to be a killer for both her and me—I spent four hours going through the edits and I cannot imagine how long it took to write.
More than anything, this is what I want for a chapter that matters. And I think this chapter does matter. I hope you agree, and also remember—I wrote this exactly one week ago. This was fast editing, and good stuffs. Get an editor. Maybe don’t pay them at a contest rate. I hope you’re now looking forwards to the next edited chapter—they make me push harder and I think they’re all some of my best. Thanks to Barbara, me, and me and Barbara and not you because you didn’t write this or edit it. But maybe thanks for reading.
Unedited Chapter and Cover Letter are combined in the following link.
Lyonette by quenesu!
Fetohep by Dr.replig8r!
Imani and Palt, Elir and Hexel, and more by ArtsyNada!