8.52 MN

[See that header up top? Book 5 on Audible. E-book’s also coming out on the 23rd. Consider buying it!]

 

(The Wandering Inn now has a fan-podcast! Read this Reddit post to learn about ‘No Killing Goblins’, which has an intro video here, and the podcast’s first episode here!)

 

The Meeting of Tribes had begun to lose its luster. After months, the tribes had, ironically, had enough of each other. There was a natural flow to the events; at first it was a twenty-year mega-reunion with all the celebration and fun you could want.

Then you got the traders, the pacts from tribe-to-tribe buying goods, making alliances. Lastly, and this was now, was the deliberation of Chieftains. The wrangling, the decisions, some great, others less so, and then the Meeting of Tribes would break up with good accomplished and, hopefully, benefits gained for all, even if some more than others.

Someone had thrown a hammer into that cycle, and it was called ‘Drakes stealing our magic’. To another extent, ‘Raskghar’.

Much had been said by important people on television. But the truth was that what was done had been done for a long time. There might be traitors. There certainly had been injustice, between two peoples who had been friends and mortal enemies. It was a complicated situation.

The end result, though, was that the adults had lost their cheer. They waited, sensing the worst on the horizon. Did they want war? No, for many reasons. But you looked around and realized that Drakes—maybe a few Drakes, but maybe quite a lot—had stolen your magic. Stolen your future, your children’s future. Engaged in the kind of treacherous actions…could you forgive it? You thought of other tribes, driven out of their homelands. A friend killed in a city, past wars…

And you wondered if one of your own people had helped them. That was…even worse. So the Meeting of Tribes was waiting, and that twenty-year gathering now sounded like, instead of a moment of unity and strength, the precursor to something terrible. [Shamans] looked up and spoke of this era.

The Waning World. Perhaps—one of the last ones? At least, one of the last to have even memories of great magic.

That was the conversation for the worried, the old. However, it was not all Gnolls. Some had done this before. The amateurs saw the sky falling and thought it meant the end of everything. Some people who’d had it fall on them before looked up and went to find a stepladder to prop it back up.

A laughing pair of children raced around the Meeting of Tribes, followed by an awed crowd of lesser children. In the pecking order of youth, they won, and so Cers and Gnoll cubs from every tribe followed in their wake.

Of course, they were careful. They stayed away from the biggest thoroughfares, and it was odd, because they were very different, from temperament to height and even age.

Nevertheless, Gireulashia and Mrsha raced about, often with Mrsha clinging to Gireulashia’s shoulders. Chieftain Torishi had a careful eye on them, even if she was busy, and she smiled to see it.

Feshi thought it was incredible, but Gire looked and acted younger. She still displayed hallmarks of Ekhtouch; for instance, she had already learned Mrsha’s paw-language and they often used that to talk.

“I’m glad you’re here, Mrsha. Things were so boring at the Meeting of Tribes until you came.”

Mrsha rolled about in some grass and then sat up and stared up at Gire. She had barely gotten started seeing all the Gnoll tribes and things to do. She signed back emphatically.

Nuh uh. Boring?

What about playing games? Sparring? The races on horseback, good things to eat? Amazing sights? Gire sighed.

“Boring. The games are, at least, and I’m not allowed to eat much. Sparring isn’t fun. Races aren’t fun. Things you can do easy are boring, right?”

Mrsha raised her paws to say that if she could become Mrsha the Legged and beat Ryoka in a footrace, she’d do it nonstop just to prove she could. But then she thought about it and had to nod.

This was true. It was no fun to play Ekirra in chess. Even Mrsha could beat him unless she closed her eyes—and only because he rearranged the pieces.

“Hard things are fun.”

It was odd to hear Gire, who was capable of the most erudite language, talking like that. But on the other hand…it was fundamentally true. Mrsha tilted her head.

What things are hard for you?

Gire searched for listeners before leaning in conspiratorially. Cers waved at her; he and a bunch of children from four entire tribes—Longstalker’s Fang, Greenpaw, Ekhtouch, and Silverfang—were following the two leaders respectfully.

“Kick the ball, Gire!”

Gire had one of Joseph’s footballs—not one of the autographed ones—but a nice, bouncy ball. She obligingly kicked it.

The Gnoll children stared up as the ball flew over the walls of the Ekhtouch tribe’s enclosure. Past the Meeting of Tribes. Over the heads of some Gnolls riding about on horseback. Cers stared at the ball, mid-dash after it. He glanced back, realized no one was going to race him for it, and, whining, went to hike to get it back.

The [Paragon] looked at Mrsha.

“Magic. Magic isn’t easy.”

Mrsha’s ears perked up. That was another thing they had in common. Gire leaned down to whisper to Mrsha so that even the other Ekhtouch children couldn’t hear.

“…I want to be a [Wizard]. I know I can do it, even if I have no magical talent. Or go to Pomle and learn more than just hitting things. Or be an artist. Or…”

Her face screwed up and she glanced towards the busy tribes. Ekhtouch and all the Chieftains were debating what must be done, what would happen next vis à vis the Drakes and all this international attention. Gire waved an exhausted paw at it.

“I don’t want to do that. I don’t just want to fight and lead. That’s boring.”

She turned back to Mrsha for a nod of understanding. What she got instead was a [Relc Kick] to her shin.

Mrsha bounced off and lay there, stunned. Curse your defense! Gire blinked down at her and picked her up and patted her.

“What was that for? Are you okay?”

Since violence was clearly not effective, Mrsha the Pacifist shook a paw at Gire’s bewildered face. She had to explain, because Gire looked hurt.

Don’t say that. You can do something. Don’t be a stupid Lism. You can do something to help. I envy you.

Gire’s brow furrowed. She glanced at Mrsha’s small frame, then her own. She looked at Mrsha, and her ears flattened a bit. She half-nodded, then stared at the card Mrsha had held up to use proper names.

“Sorry. I forget. Um…what’s a Lism?”

Mrsha tried to explain what the most objectionable form of creature in the world was to a bewildered Gire, who thought it was a kind of evil, money-grubbing salamander until she realized Mrsha was talking about a person.

Yet. That wasn’t why she listened to Mrsha alone. Not just because Mrsha was a white Gnoll or [Druid], or her connections with Liscor. That was all part of it, but she had a mysterious power. That was why Feshi watched her play.

Mrsha had brought something into the Meeting of Tribes. A perspective from home. Feshi watched as she waved her paws, puffing up her chest, swaggering about clumsily on two legs.

Don’t be a Lism. Be a Relc! Punching things hard was a very valuable ability! Ever seen a [Relc Punch]? 

“But I’m too young. Chieftain Firrelle says that all the time.”

Mrsha scoffed. She blew air out of her mouth and stuck her tongue out.

Young? She knew some people who were only one or two years old. And they were shooting Wyverns, taking names—literally—and chopping up Flesh Worms.

Mrsha slowed. Her ears drooped, then she met Gire’s gaze with determination.

You can do something. Something bad is happening. Isn’t it?

Gire bent down.

“Yes. It might be war. It could be—very bad.”

She grew somber, with uncanny perception of all that might come to pass. Most children wouldn’t understand that, not entirely. Yet Mrsha just sighed.

Then we should do something.

Gire looked astounded.

“What, just like that?”

Mrsha rolled her eyes. She reached up and Gire put her huge paw down and held her hand.

That’s how it works.

Gire listened as Mrsha told her a story from home. Feshi, sitting on a chair and watching Mrsha’s animated paws moving and Gire’s face as she listened, murmured to herself.

“…I really wish I knew what she was saying.”

She stood up to ask Mrsha to tell her as well—or Gire to translate. That was when one of the Weatherfur [Guards] trotted forwards. He touched her shoulder. Feshi looked over and saw a grim Gnoll’s face.

“What is it?”

“They’re declaring war on us, Feshi. Chieftain Torishi needs you.”

Feshi’s fur began to rise. Gire looked up, and Mrsha paused in her story. The first howl rose, breaking the other sounds in the Meeting of Tribes, followed by horns, other calls.

So it began.

 

——

 

Who began it first? No…before that.

Did you believe in synchronicity? A confluence of events? The same realization, or action, occurring simultaneously across the world? Just like how an invention could be realized by multiple people concurrently without them ever collaborating.

It was not random. There was a pattern, made of pieces that were connected and genuinely unrelated. Yet consider—

The Meeting of Tribes already had the potential to enflame tensions between Drake and Gnoll populations. The show of force made enemies of the Gnolls…or people who thought they might be enemies of the Gnolls…nervous.

However, it was also a time of weakness as much as strength. The authority of the Gnolls travelled to the Great Plains, but many tribes could not send everyone. Thus, they were actually weaker, split, with their most important Gnolls absent.

Yet who would make an enemy and invite the wrath of countless tribes? No one wanted to be the first to pop up. Not unless there were too many targets to count.

Or…you thought war was an inevitability.

There were other flashpoints. The city of Marwsh was one such city that flipped its traditional stances fast. It had seen a beloved Senior Guardsman stabbed in the streets—and it was not the only Drake settlement to clash with strange Plains Gnolls who left behind few survivors.

Add to that the Gnollish reaction. Gnolls across Izril had already seen tribes wiped out in Chandrar. Now it came to light there was a continent-wide Drake conspiracy.

“It wasn’t the Gnolls who threw the first punch, though.”

Grand Strategist Chaldion had convened one of the inner security councils of Pallass. He smoked on a puffer. General Dulm of 1st Army, General Shirka of 3rd Army, General Edellein of 4th Army…the regulars of these get-togethers had been joined by two more [Generals], several high-ranking [Senators], and other officials. One of the [Strategists], a Garuda, cleared his throat.

“You’re sure, Grand Strategist?”

Chaldion stubbed the cigar on the ashtray for a moment to respond.

“I’m confident in this: what you’ll see from the Gnoll side are fights, smaller raids, maybe, thefts, burned grain silos—nothing in the vein of actual military action. The Tribes have concentrated their strength in the Great Plains. No tribe will make war; young hotheads no doubt took matters into their own claws. That is quite different from a declaration of war. How many battlezones are emerging?”

“A lot are simply declarations, Grand Strategist. But there’s a few armies on the move. Mostly around the Great Plains region. After the Woven Bladegrass tribe’s sacking of cities…”

“Naturally. And how many Walled Cities have issued some declaration of war?”

“None. Yet.”

Edellein glanced up at the ‘yet’. The [Strategist] understudy to Chaldion looked up. The Garuda saw Chaldion nod.

“Then who’s pivoting?”

“Zeres’ army has moved the siege of Oteslia wider. Fissival’s army is moving faster, and a Wall Lord Dragial—ah, the former Wall Lord—was spotted en-route to meet them. I see detachments from Salazsar, but that might be in response to the Oteslian siege; the Gemscale family banners are in greatest proximity and they’ve called representatives of at least two Gem Regiments.”

“What about Manus?”

Chaldion puffed on the cigar again. The [Senators] listening shifted. Technically, Chaldion was under house arrest, and there would be a public hearing discussing his actions. He would not actually be forced to bear witness.

And if anyone wanted to protest outside of his guarded home, or throw things, they could. They could also demand he was removed from his position and the Assembly of Crafts would hear them out and vote on the issue.

None of that stopped Chaldion from being right here. He wasn’t ‘giving orders’; he had been placed on a kind of military probation. He was just listening. And speaking. And they’d do whatever he suggested.

“Manus has sent two forces. The first one is unrelated—I am bringing it up in case officers were not aware, and in light of possible maneuvers. However, it headed north weeks ago. Plural. A small group of high-level [Soldiers] led by none other than Spearmaster Lulv.”

General Edellein interrupted, suddenly tense.

“A strike on the Antinium? That’s the last thing we need.”

The Garuda [Strategist] ducked his feathered head.

“No, [General]. They skirted the Hivelands and headed north.”

“I’ve been aware of it. Possibly unrelated. They might do something—we’ll review the Hectval-Liscor war later. What is this second army?”

Chaldion’s eyes sharpened. The [Strategist] bowed.

“Breaking news, Grand Strategist. It’s…a large force. Under anti-scrying effects, they left the city fast. Our [Informants] believe it might be as large as eighty thousand alone, and if they pull from garrisons on the way…”

That was standard procedure for Manus. Chaldion stopped.

“Why would Manus send an army? They have as much desire as we do to not see this escalate. I can understand Zeres and Fissival taking a position against the Tribes. This?”

“Another thing, Grand Strategist?”

Chaldion’s one good eye glinted.

What?

“Dragonspeaker Luciva is leading the force herself. They’re bearing southwards; they’re skirting the Great Plains by our projections of their travel. Maybe it’s Zeres? Or Oteslia?”

The Grand Strategist just drummed his claws on the table. His eye flicked back and forth. Everyone else was guessing too, but did they have all the facts? Chaldion cursed under his breath.

Did he? What Chaldion saw, individual, conflicting motivations aside? He stared down at a glowing map of Izril.

Individual battle zones between Drake cities who wanted battle and had the most hostile relationships against Gnollish tribes in the region. Strike first if it’s going to be a fight.

“Idiots.”

But the thing about this kind of war was that other cities and tribes saw the fighting. And the potential for it to spread…he was watching a wildfire tossing embers into the sky.

“General Duln. I’m minded to pull the reforming 2nd Army into the city. I suggest the Assembly of Crafts votes to mobilize the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th armies. Now.

They were going to need…all of them. Of course, some of these battles had begun before this war council could even convene. Chaldion needed to put out fires in Pallass’ region of control.

Gnolls were dying. And if they died—Drakes would die too.

 

——

 

Six days ago.

 

It was as he dried his socks he realized a few things. Firstly, that it had been a while since he had to self-launder. Or that he needed a spare change of clothing; he had enchantments, spells, and a wardrobe under normal circumstances.

For that matter, his ‘socks’ were cut from a bit of linen meant for bandages. Hardly the kind of thing you really wanted.

Secondly? It was really hard to dry socks inside of a hat. Also, it didn’t do anything for the odor, or his good mood.

Niers Astoragon debated trying to make a fire to dry them, but he’d have to do it on Bird’s head. That aside, someone might ask why Bird’s hat was smoking.

Again.

It was amazing the kind of things you could get away with if you had Bird as your cover. He was so…unpredictable. For instance, Niers engineered strange situations. We’re running low on game? Oh—what’s this, a flock of geese? They just happened to be going that way? What a coincidence. Yes, how coincidental. Not like someone with [Battlefield Awareness] guided them towards that using Bird.

On the other hand…them nearly being found out by a suspicious Drake patrol who were beginning to see through the disguise Skill? Instead of a Niers-level solution, they were ambushed by a pack of evil geese because someone had shot their leader and it had landed on the patrol leader’s head—that was Bird.

There were a lot of bird-related deaths, was the point. Niers felt no sympathy for the Fraerling-eating bastards. He’d been nearly force-fed to baby hatchlings…

“Seven times in my life. That’s about three too many.”

Bird tilted his head and Niers went sliding across Bird’s smooth head. He kicked an antenna and Bird tilted his head back straight. The clothing line he’d strung between both antennae thankfully didn’t snap.

“I do not understand. Why is four an acceptable number of times to be nearly eaten by baby birds?”

“First time is for the experience. Second, you refine your crowd-fighting abilities. Third? You get to figure out your best escape tactics and you’re learning from your mistakes; how to fight off the parents, trick them, beat the children, escape the nest, and so on. The fourth time you deserve because it’s happened four times. The other three just suck.”

Bird nodded.

“I shall bear this in mind. I have not yet been abducted by giant birds and transported to their nest, but I have high hopes on this matter. I am told Rocs are very big.”

Niers stood there, head in his hands, as he was wont to do after hearing a Bird-ism. Not exactly in pain or exasperation. Just…amazement.

It was actually kind of gratifying. Niers had fun with Bird. He also got angry, annoyed, and was sometimes shocked or impressed, and that was excellent. He felt good around Bird. He pinned the last sock up and turned.

“We’ve lost Mrsha.”

Bird stopped talking. He was riding along, and, ahead of them, Numbtongue was chatting with the Gnoll [Hunters] leading them to meet with their tribe.

“…Are you sure? I believe these [Hunters] may help us, especially if we communicate we are looking for Mrsha, as you said. They may also have seen her.”

Niers Astoragon shook his head. It had been three days without a major lead, despite their marathon-run across the landscape.

“Gna and Snapjaw have lost her scent, even with tracking Skills. Something’s happened.”

Bird was silent for a long moment.

“Is she dead?”

Niers checked his enchanted sword.

“If she was, I think we’d have heard about it. If she was, I think those damned Plains Gnolls wouldn’t be marching into cities. We may hear more from this tribe. My hope is the girl was clever or lucky and lost them. Bets from the top go: Magnolia Reinhart’s agents found her. She got in touch with a [Druid]. More white Gnolls or their allies rescued her. She was aided by some friendly, high-level individual like a Courier or…someone. Or Jexishe, the Friendly Creler, crawled out of the ground, defeated all the white Gnoll hunters, and carried her off to Smile-Land.”

Bird rode in dead silence and Niers counted the seconds until he replied.

“I think you made that last one up.”

“I said it was in order of likeliness.”

Niers waited. He smiled to himself. After a minute, Bird asked in a very uncertain voice.

“…Is there a friendly Creler?”

You could have fun. Bird still had his faults. One of which was that he sounded genuinely unsure about the existence of Jexishe. Niers smiled…then sat, pulling out a tiny copy of a map he’d made back at the inn.

“We’ve lost her, Bird. I’m not going to pretend or sugar-coat it. I’ve done this before. We’ve lost the quarry and you don’t always find the trail. We have to reconfigure our objectives.”

“What do we do next, then?”

“Go back to Liscor?”

Bird slowed his horse. Fierre glanced up; he was riding at the back of the group, since the Gnolls were guiding them, but only the Vampire knew exactly how important Bird’s odd muttering to himself was. Only her.

Ulvama cracked open one eye and peered at Bird as she lay on the wagon’s back. The Antinium, marching next to the Goblins, who were chattering and eying their strange counterparts from another tribe, all turned to stare at Bird. Then snapped forwards when he noticed them.

“We have come so far, Niers. We cannot leave now.”

“We can and we must, if that’s the most practical answer, Bird. I understand your feelings, but I teach my students this: just because you invest something in a battle, or take losses—you don’t keep pushing. Sometimes you walk away because you’re just adding to your losses otherwise. Sometimes you just lose. I don’t suggest that’s happened here. Rather—I think our next goal is taking me to either Oteslia to link up with this Lyonette or Reinhart herself—although that puts me in peril—or Zeres. I get to my company, and come back with reinforcements. But your role might be ending.”

Bird absorbed that slowly. He looked around. Niers modulated his voice, gently.

“It’s been a good journey. You’ve all levelled, I’ve seen interesting things, but let me be clear: we can’t take you to the Great Plains or any big city. Goblins, Antinium, and this group’s high-level, but not cut out for a mass battle.”

“We have not fought yet.”

“Good. Sometimes that’s the adventure you want. Listen, Bird…I’m keeping my ears open. We’ll visit this tribe, and keep moving. Either way, you’re stuck with me for at least a week or two more, so I can finish training you. I’m interested, especially in that Antinium with the aura.”

They were projects. From Snapjaw to Fierre to Ulvama, and Gothica especially—their new auras and abilities were interesting to Niers. But he had to keep moving. They’d lost Mrsha, and thus the band, the fellowship, was in jeopardy of simply losing their way. Better to send them back than get them killed.

Bird nodded slowly. He peered ahead as the Gnoll [Hunters] led them towards their tribe’s home, set around the foothills these alternative Goblins had come from. Niers put his bare feet up as his socks dried and decided to cut another ventilation hole.

“Bird, we’ll get Mrsha. Trust me. I think we’d know if she died. You can’t believe you’ll be the force that finds and saves her, though. It’s like I told Jexishe at the Battle of the Braves—sometimes you have to play second-fiddle to the real heroes of the day.”

“…I believe you are lying. Are you? Please tell me. I am getting confused…”

 

——

 

The Lomost Gnolls were strange. Numbtongue felt he could say that. There was weird like Bird, who was slapping his top hat for some reason…Numbtongue turned and stared at the Antinium, then back to his riding companion.

“Irry.”

“Hm? What’s up, brother?”

The Gnoll grinned at Numbtongue, who was another Gnoll as far as he could tell. It was amazing—and disturbing—how powerful Bird’s Skill was.

Numbtongue wanted it. He wanted it with everything he had—and he didn’t want it at all because he felt he shouldn’t have to hide. It was that kind of complicated feeling. Also, Numbtongue was fairly certain this wasn’t Bird’s power, and Snapjaw and Badarrow both agreed. Ulvama wouldn’t tell them what she suspected, but the senior Hobs weren’t idiots. Bird was Bird, but he wasn’t Erin.

“Explain it to me again. Why are you…fine with Goblins?”

Numbtongue glanced over his shoulder at the strange Goblins who had the white handprint on their clothing or skin. They grinned and waved at him. Irry eyed him.

“Why’re you okay with them, Numbtongue? I’m more shocked, frankly.”

“I…know Goblins. From an inn. At Liscor. They come in as guests.”

“Liscor. Liscor…oh, the northern Drake city. I’ve heard it coming up recently. That’s a strange inn.”

“You have no idea.”

Numbtongue smiled sadly, and Irry glanced at him, then gestured at his hunting party.

“It’s not my choice. Not that I think they’re more than pests—they will steal your supplies, and if they don’t like you, they’ll toss crap all over your tents. But these Goblins’re not like ones elsewhere, either. It was ten years back. The Second Antinium Wars. The Goblin King’s war.”

Numbtongue’s ears perked up. He glanced at Irry.

“He fought in the north.”

“And Goblins invaded the south. You must’ve grown up in Liscor. Humans like to talk about it. But brother, your [Shaman] never told you ab—ah, City Gnolls.”

Irry shook his head. He glanced at some of the other [Hunters] and one of them, a female Gnoll, grinned at Numbtongue.

“Don’t mind Irry. He’s never set foot in a city. A real [Savage].”

She winked at him, and Numbtongue resisted the urge to blush. Because he felt it was that kind of wink. But it was more surprising than anything else to see a Gnoll do that.

Irry sighed, but he went on.

“One of the Goblin Lords hit the coast. More Goblin tribes were joining the armies—they cut north, but they were massive. And the Antinium were attacking too, fighting Goblins, Drakes—our tribes were fighting too, of course. Most went to the Great Plains for shelter. Ours? We were cut off.”

The other Lomost Gnolls nodded. Most would have been children at the time, given their ages, but a few had been old enough to remember it. One of the older [Hunters] took over.

“Antinium armies fighting Drakes. Goblins wiping out entire cities. One tribe appeared near the Drake city closest to ours. That’s Bentill. Not that we’d have been that sad if they wiped out the city.”

“Honored Calar!”

Some of the other Gnolls were shocked. Irry just grunted. He whispered to Numbtongue.

“They hate our guts. Partly because of the Goblin thing. They also claim this is their land, despite our tribe having been in the region for ages. They used to be more friendly.”

Honored Calar went on.

“The Goblin Tribe knew where we were too. Goblin King rampaging—he hadn’t been killed by Arcsinger yet—and it seemed like they’d wipe us out too. Their Chieftain took the tribe forwards—we were backed into the hills, and Bentill was hiding behind their walls. Then…”

He spread his paws. Numbtongue waited, and leaned over his saddlehorn.

“Then what happened? Honored Calar?”

The Gnoll gave him a steady look.

“Nothing. Two more times Goblin armies came by; the Ghostly Hand tribe gave ‘em some warriors. They squabbled for four days, the second time. Later, when the Goblin King died—the Goblins knew it instantly. They packed up, vanished into the foothills—that’s the group there now. The rest split up. Into other tribes, I think. Most died.”

Numbtongue struggled to understand.

“So this tribe—Ghostly Hand. They didn’t do anything?”

“No. They never attacked. Our Chieftain and [Shaman] think what they were doing was protecting the city—or our tribe. From other Goblins attacking us. We did make contact a few times. There was fighting—Bentill still calls them monsters. We don’t have a treaty, but that’s how it works. We try to chase them away from roads and don’t ask for adventurers. They’re usually content to stay out of sight.”

Irry glared at the Ghostly Hand Goblins, who waved at him, grinning. They stared at Numbtongue. They knew he was a Hob. But they were patently confused and amused by the Skill disguising him.

“Hrr. I’ve never heard of that story.”

“No one believes it when I meet other Gnolls or travellers! But you must have one too, eh? How’d you meet Goblins at this inn?”

Numbtongue glanced past Irry as the other Gnolls riding with him perked up their ears. The female Gnoll gestured at his guitar with clear interest.

“You said you’re a [Bard]. Do you have any songs or is it just music, Numbtongue?”

The Hobgoblin looked at her. Then back at the long line of strange guests of the inn. Without a word, he slowly unslung the guitar. He normally hated to play on demand, and rarely, if ever, sang words to a song.

This time, unbidden, he began to strum as he rode along. He didn’t have a perfect song—and it occurred to him that more than the Redfangs, more than Liscor—this was the song he should have learned. How would you even begin? The Lomost Tribe and the Ghostly Hands…if you could believe that, it was strange.

His tale was a true story. It began something like this—and the Ballad of the Thirteen Redfangs was part of it. But—Numbtongue began composing something far longer. An epic. Which might start like this.

 

On the hill outside of Liscor sits an inn

Look up at the sign before you go within…

 

——

 

The music and Numbtongue’s voice floated down the line of travellers. Lady Salkis raised her head and frowned at him.

He sang so well, for a Goblin. He wasn’t like what she’d expected at all. He hadn’t drawn his sword once—nor had she killed anyone. And yet—she’d levelled.

And yet, this was slightly fun. If only she wouldn’t get in trouble once she got back. The Bloodfeast Raider sighed. She went back to poking an object with one claw, gingerly.

“Come on, work, damn you. I’m nearly out of charges for my [Repair] wand…”

The glowing…thing she had taken from the City Runner, who was now a famous Courier, stubbornly refused to unlock. Salkis was tempted to throw it, she was so frustrated. She shooed away a little Goblin.

“Damn. Also, someone tell Numbtongue you can’t rhyme ‘inn’ with ‘within’. It’s not poetic enough.”

“You can’t? It sounds good enough to me. What’s that thing?”

One of Salkis’ more permanent riding buddies was, ironically, Sergeant Gna. She still looked a bit gloomy about her new class, for all it sounded unique. She kicked at one of the Goblins who stuck out his tongue at her.

Salkis put up with Gna on the pretense of playing nice, but if there was any natural enemy for her, it was probably Gna, and vice-versa. She hastily tucked away the device on her belt.

“Some useless artifact. Trust me—I know about poetry and that kind of verse. I lived in Pallass long enough; you get people like ‘Sir Relz’ who tear you to shreds if it’s not all original and doesn’t have proper meter.”

She snorted. It was one of the things she hated about Pallass. Sergeant Gna glanced at her.

“You…never said why you left. Just tired of home? You fight very well during practice. They teach you how to fight like that?”

“I had good [Tutors]. And I levelled during the Wyvern attack.”

“Ah, right.”

Gna nodded, smiling awkwardly. Salkis wondered if she’d have to kill Gna before this was over. She wondered what would come next. She was in this for the long haul—if only because if she levelled even once more, it justified any duration of travel, bloodshed or not. Absently, she reached for the odd glowing device, the iPhone, it called itself—

…And groped at her side. She looked around.

What the—you little bastard! Give that back!

One of the Goblins ran off with the smartphone, cackling. The Gnoll hunters turned back as Numbtongue slowed in his playing. The Goblin tapped and stared at the glowing iPhone, agog, dodging as Salkis wheeled her horse around. He dodged through the lines of Antinium who slowed, Workers and Soldiers, some Painted, some not, his claws flashing. The Goblin leapt for the underbrush where he could hide and sneak away with his prize—

An Antinium caught him by the scruff of the neck. The Goblin dangled, staring at a Soldier with weathered armor. He waved, grinning uncertainly as Salkis herself halted.

The Soldier did not wave back.

 

——

 

He had no name.

Names were for Antinium who were Individual, or at least, Autonomous. They were the new Antinium. The ones who had come this year and the last; Antinium who levelled up and took names and had created the Painted Antinium, a new generation.

He was glad of it. But this Antinium, who held the Goblin back towards the Drake named Salkis, was no Individual. He had not been…what, lucky? Unique? He had not been whatever it was that made the original chess group, and that might simply be ‘chosen’.

Chosen by the [Innkeeper] who had made it all happen. He had seen her, you know. He had been there, when Klbkchhezeim returned and ordered the Soldiers to take the city as Skinner’s undead army overran the defenses.

He had killed a Crypt Lord there. Not alone; it had been filled with spears and other Soldiers had helped topple it. But he had killed it, tearing off its ‘head’. Later, he had seen Skinner die, by Goblins.

He had also seen the dungeon’s monsters, both below and above-ground. Face-Eater Moths? He couldn’t count how many he’d killed. Suits of enchanted armor? At least sixty had died in his presence, even if he hadn’t dealt the killing blow.

When the [Innkeeper] called, he had fought [Assassins] in the streets of Invrisil, following Xrn, the Small Queen. That had been an extraordinary moment, when he first saw the Small Queen. Even for him.

And he had lived longer than any other Antinium in the Free Hive that he had ever met, save for the Free Queen and Klbkchhezeim. Not that he talked. Not that they communicated.

He was six years old. A Soldier who had fought from the second day he had emerged from a Birther sac, till Belgrade had created his maze of traps—and even a bit after that. Despite that—until recently, until he had become an [Exemplar Warrior] and gained an aura—

He was only Level 15. That was because he was an Antinium with no name, and they did not level quickly. It was not that he had fought less than other warriors of higher level. In fact—the Soldier privately considered that he had more fighting experience than anyone but the little man in Bird’s hat.

He saw things. The others, Goblins and Antinium at least, noticed Bird was talking to someone. This Soldier? He noticed more. He was good at fighting. Soldiers were not actually good at fighting; that was just what other species believed. He was good at fighting because he had six years of nonstop practice.

But he was only Level 15. 17, now, with his class consolidation. It was the Soldier’s observation that the Free Queen was correct and the lack of a name and identity or maybe the Antinium’s nature meant they levelled slowly.

He could have vouchsafed this if she asked.

She’d never asked him. Klbkchhezeim had never noticed him. He looked for Aberrations, Antinium who expressed themselves. This Soldier just fought and obeyed. He had never stood out, never tried to do anything other than survive.

Then the [Innkeeper] had come and life had gotten better. He had eaten one of the first Acid Fly bowls and she had looked into his eyes and asked how it was. Soldiers and Workers stopped dying as much. Someone got rid of Klbkchhezeim. Aberrations virtually vanished.

So when Bird asked for volunteers, the Soldier had done something that would cut short his lifespan and stepped forwards. For the cute little white thing that stole everything but his meals. For the [Innkeeper]. He had still believed he would die, nameless, filling the gap in the lines so the Hobgoblins or others could do what had to be done.

But the tiny man had seen him and given him this. So the Soldier considered…perhaps.

Perhaps something. He couldn’t even put a name to it.

He was so lost in thought he didn’t notice Salkis until she trotted over.

“Er. Thank you.”

The Ghostly Hand Goblin was twisting in his grip, desperately tapping on the device he held. Which was like the devices the other Humans had in the inn. You see, this Soldier saw that too. You learned how to spot gaps in the inn’s wall, just like how you dodged traps when you were sent into the dungeon. Secret walls, magical tripwires…

“You can put it down. Give me that.

Salkis grabbed at the phone. The Goblin refused to give it over. The Soldier shook him, mildly.

“Thanks. Just give him to me and I’ll hit him until he gives me that. Hey, which Soldier is…?”

Salkis hesitated, lowering her voice since she remembered they had the Gnoll guests. She pointed at him as Bird rode forwards. The Worker tilted his head and he looked at the Soldier with no name.

The little man in the hat was there too. Bird tilted his head, left and right.

“I do not know. This is a Soldier.”

“Yes, but what’s his name?”

Bird answered after a second.

“…He has none. He is not Painted Antinium. Nor is he anyone I know. Hello, you.”

The Soldier nodded. This was so. Sergeant Gna blinked and Salkis and even the Goblin thief squirming in his grip stared at him.

“What, no name? He’s one of the faceless bug b—the Soldiers?”

“That is so.”

Bird looked at the Soldier again. He tilted his head.

“A strong bug. He has the most highest levels of any Antinium here in fighting. Except for me.”

Grammar aside, this was also true. Salkis and Gna blinked. After a second, Salkis reached out and tried to prise the phone free of the little Goblin’s grip. He opened his mouth and she yanked her hand back. She made a fist—saw the others watching, and lowered it.

“You. Give.”

Badarrow rode over and snapped. The Goblin gave up the iPhone sulkily, and Salkis sighed.

“Thanks. Uh—you.”

She nodded at the Soldier. He nodded slowly. Gna glanced at him.

“That’s just like you Antinium. People should have names, you know.”

She half-addressed Bird, muttering. The [Bird Hunter] tilted his head.

“He can choose a name if he wishes. But he was not inducted into the Painted Antinium. Pawn could have done that.”

“What, doesn’t that make you lot stronger? If you’re on a suicide mission, you probably should.”

“Mm. Yes. Too late now. We don’t even have any paint.”

Ulvama raised her head slightly. Gna waved a paw.

“Yeah, or that weird Pawn-bug.”

“No, he is not necessary. I think.”

Gna turned back to Bird.

“What? What do you need for these, uh, Painted ants?”

Her eyes sharpened and the Soldier knew she was going to write down whatever Bird told her. On a strategic level…

He said nothing. No one asked him anything. To which the little man in the hat would have said, ‘that was the problem’. Sometimes you needed to…

Bird was counting on his fingers.

“Let me think. It is a complex ritual of the Free Antinium, the first of its kind. First you need an Antinium that has not been painted. Then you need paint. And then you need…”

He stared at his third finger. He lowered it.

“…A brush is optional.”

Sergeant Gna and Salkis—even Badarrow—gave Bird a slightly slack-jawed look. Gna hesitated, hand on her notepad.

“You’re messing with me. I thought that makes Antinium stronger. Individuals, or something.”

Bird smiled happily.

“It does. I mean…maybe. I am a [Liar].”

He waved all four arms. Gna looked around, at the Soldier, the other Painted Antinium like Touma the Great…

“Really? That’s it? Then give this Antinium some paint. I mean—just so we can tell him apart. And a damn name. If we’re going to be travelling with him.”

She folded her arms, caught herself, and glared at everyone with as much hostility as she could muster.

“I don’t care. I hope you all get shanked. But if I have to ride with you…”

Badarrow rode over. He put an arm around Gna’s shoulder—or tried to as she flinched away.

“You do care. Friend.

“Gah! Stop it! I’m not—”

She rode off with a gang of Goblins in pursuit, all saying ‘friend’. Salkis grinned, but she was fumbling with the reclaimed iPhone. The Soldier watched out of the corner of his eye as Bird trotted over to Ulvama, who had already begun grumbling, but was fishing out powders and water.

“If that little monster broke i—what in the name of the Ancestor’s assholes is—

The light had changed. The Drake held up the iPhone and stared at it. She whirled around and the little Ghostly Hand Goblin poked his head back up from under Badarrow’s arm. But how?

The [Lockpicker] grinned. He wasn’t quite sure either, but it was a lock. He picked locks. Salkis rode away from the Soldier, staring, tapping, as Bird rode back.

“Hello.”

The Soldier stared up at Bird. Bird stared back.

Antinium conversations being what they were, Bird eventually pointed to Ulvama.

“Ulvama has paints. Would you like to become a Painted Antinium? You should choose a name. And, um, you have worth. Pat, pat.”

He rode closer and patted the Soldier on the shoulder. Bird stopped. The two stared at each other for a while longer.

“Please do not become an Aberration. This is my first time doing this.”

On a lesser Soldier, maybe it would have provoked something. The Soldier with no name just stood there. He saw Ulvama slide off the wagon and stomp over.

“This the Antinium? I paint all of them?”

She made an exaggerated sighing motion as if this were a taxing effort, but she was keenly watching the Soldier. She held out a small tray with a bunch of colored bowls.

“You take colors. Go paint. You need wagon, you go. There.”

She waved at him. The Soldier stared down at the tray of colors. And, once again, he had been given something where no one had ever regarded him before. He walked obediently over to the wagon, sat down as Octavia edged over. She smiled at him.

“Um. Hello. I’ll give you some space.”

She edged over further as Ulvama flopped back onto her bed of pillows, but both of them watched the Soldier. He sat there.

Now he would become a Painted Antinium. An Individual of sorts, or, at least, Autonomous. All he had to do was…choose.

An identity. A name. Like all the other painted Antinium. The Soldier sat there. Ulvama and Octavia began to mutter, but they eyed him, waiting. Then they turned and looked for Bird.

The Soldier didn’t move.

 

——

 

Fierre watched the Soldier. Her fingers twitched on her notepad as she rode with the two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, at the back of the group.

“It’s worth nothing, Normen. I’m telling you, the Goblin clearly misjudged the mark.”

The younger man, who had served under Crimshaw and had a kind of triangle-hat, turned to Alcaz, the older Brother.

“But why did he take it? And don’t tell me it was just because it shone. Consider this, Alcaz. What’s more probable? Something that emits light—clearly magical—that has zero value, not even on par with a Wand of [Light]…or that it’s beating your Skill of [Ascertain Value]?”

Alcaz paused.

“…If that were so, it’s warded or it goes beyond even normal magical artifacts. Which puts the price at roughly four thousand gold pieces, upper bar.”

Normen whistled. Fierre’s ears perked up and all three eyed Salkis. Casually. As goodfellows or goodladies might. The two turned to Fierre and touched their hats.

“Would you happen to have an insight, as it were, unto the value of said object, Miss Fierre?”

Fierre frowned. She was in easy company with the Brothers, whom she liked, and could talk northern city-talk with, so she played their game of appraising various objects’ values, like Numbtongue’s sword.

“I think it’s worth quite a lot. Or why is a Wall Lady of Pallass holding it?”

“Ah, but she’s only the runaway daughter…”

“…Who steals the best objects before she runs away.”

Normen and Alcaz looked at each other. Normen tipped his hat to Fierre and grinned.

“Fairer words, Miss Fierre.”

She grinned back. Then she went back to staring at the Soldier with no name, but an aura. Fierre had no aura. She had no amazing class consolidation because she was a Vampire and she was still upset. Even so.

[Exemplar Warrior], Level 17. The Titan himself had said that he was outstanding, capable of gaining an aura, and Fierre had her Ring of Appraisal on. What did an [Aura of Battle] entail?

“I wish I was in a city. Then I could look up everything.”

Normen and Alcaz nodded, but Fierre meant that in relation to auras. She hadn’t ever needed to really research the topic, but she could probably buy a complete list of auras and their rankings in terms of relative power.

Same with classes—how ‘exemplar’ was an [Exemplar Warrior]? Was it close to [Peerless], which was literally based on geographical or national standards? It could be deceptive, but…

It was still very strong for anyone below Level 20. An aura plus a strong-sounding class on an Antinium with no name. The Titan was right, and Fierre was still dizzy thinking about her and the Titan knowing each other. Him sitting in Bird’s hat!

And yet, he was not the full quarry of her studies. Along with Fierre trying to learn how to use her own Aura—the Titan’s night-walk being a stepping stone for everyone who hadn’t gained an aura from that alone—she was observing the final outstanding member, the new talent.

Even the Gnolls were glancing back at her, although she just looked like a short Drake. But even under an illusory Skill…what did it look like?

Because to Fierre, it seemed like a grinning flash of teeth. Two crimson eyes flashing amid the darkness. The darkness…which extended downwards from her black parasol, lined with a bit of white and crimson cloth. Like shade amplified. Her clothing was dark, a copy of Fierre’s, and her hair was black, bangs hanging low over her face.

Gothica’s [Aura of Midnight] wasn’t a hypothetical. The Goblin rode under a shade of her own making, and the other Goblins kept sticking their hands in, or even faces, poking at her, clearly asking how they could do that.

She would swat at their hands or chatter back, but she was clearly pleased with herself. Not only that—Fierre watched as Gothica raised one hand.

Glove.

The Cave Goblin handed the Gnoll [Hunter] a few silver coins that Fierre had no idea how she’d gotten and he traded her some very small riding gloves made out of decent leather.

“Ah, gloves? Good luck in making it if you can craft that. Nice Skill.”

She nodded with distinct pride, and he rode forwards. Gothica set the riding gloves on her lap, produced some charcoal, and began turning them as dark as the rest of her clothing. She wanted gloves, dark boots, and, apparently, of a higher-quality than Fierre’s own clothing.

“Gothica…why are you dressing like that? Do you have to?”

Fierre rode forwards and couldn’t keep a peeved note from her voice. Gothica glanced up.

“Yep.”

“Why? Does your class demand it?”

“Mm.”

That wasn’t an answer. Fierre blew out her cheeks.

“You know, it’s my style technically. You’re just copying it. I don’t know how you got the class, but can’t you show some appreciation?”

The [Goth] Goblin glanced up. She eyed Fierre, and to the Vampire girl’s amazement, blew the bangs out of the way with her—Fierre’s trademark scoff.

“Peh. Your style? I do better now.”

Fierre debated picking up Gothica—no, Gothica and her pony—and throwing them off the side of the road. She snapped back.

“Well, I’m looking into your class, so do me a favor? Take off your, uh, clothes.”

She slowed down as she realized the implication of that last bit. Normen and Alcaz looked up and then away. Gothica raised her eyebrows. Fierre tried to clarify.

“I mean, get rid of the clothes. Put on some other clothes, brighter, and try using your Skills. Okay? Then we can establish if it’s related to the [Goth] class. How about it?”

Gothica considered the question amiably. She nodded, smiled, stared Fierre in the eye, and replied.

“Make me.”

Fierre twitched.

“Gothica, I know you’re being…but I could make you, so can we at least talk about it?”

Gothica thought about it.

“No.”

She began to ride ahead, smugly. Fierre heard the other Goblins go, ‘ooooh’.

“Fierre? You okay?”

Garia raised her head from where she and Fals were plotting more travel routes, to show Snapjaw when she returned. She gave Fierre a concerned look, because she had noticed a commonality in Fierre and Ryoka.

They both had a temper. Fierre smiled at Garia, waved, and rode forwards until Gothica was in arms-reach. Gothica eyed her. Fierre smiled like the sun—that burning ball of fire that turned your skin to blisters in minutes—

Her hand shot out and grabbed Gothica’s parasol. The Goblin yelped and Fierre felt a twinge of pain.

Fierre! She put blades on the—

Normen shouted. Fierre winced—she remembered that, but she tightened her grip and yanked up. What was metal or glass to a Vampire, a real Vampire?

Up Gothica came, holding onto the parasol and kicking at Fierre.

“Let go!”

“Up your butt!”

The Goblin shouted back, with an amazing display of colloquial language acquisition. She started kicking at Fierre’s face, but the Vampire girl shook her so hard that Gothica let go. She hit the dirt as her pony stopped.

“There. Now, will you listen t—”

Fierre turned and realized dominance had not been established. Because a furious Goblin leapt onto her own pony, and began to punch, claw, and bite. Fierre yelped and tried to ward her off as the pony panicked.

The sight of the two fighting over the parasol made Numbtongue sigh and stop playing again. He saw Badarrow riding over to break up the second Goblin fight, as the Soldier sat there on the wagon, paralyzed by the first choice he had to make himself, and just as Salkis opened the photos and videos app on Ryoka’s phone and began to really freak out.

Into this moment, Niers Astoragon, Titan of Baleros, saw it happen. He rose to his feet, staring. Bird stared too.

Give it back!

Say you’re sorry for mocking me!

Up your butt twice!

The two were fighting and the Vampire was winning. She was stronger, faster, even under sunlight, and she was taller and heavier than Gothica—a very rare experience. The enraged Cave Goblin wasn’t about to take this lying down, though—but as Fierre kept shoving her off, she realized there was no way she was going to get her precious parasol back by force.

So she stood back, as Fierre grinned mockingly, keeping the parasol high out of reach and the other hand blocking Gothica like the first [Footballer]—a class that had not been invented yet.

Yet. But Gothica’s eyes flickered and trailed towards the parasol, now devoid of its shade effect. The crimson glare narrowed. She raised her finger and Bird saw the faint shadow under it condense.

Like…rainwater. Droplets of shadows gathered. Fierre went cross-eyed as a little orb of shadow gathered around Gothica’s finger.

“What th—”

The miniature bolt of shadows shot forwards and Fierre twisted amazingly in the saddle to avoid it. It shot past the pony’s head and struck the rocks with a faint crack.

“Dead gods, what was that? A spell?”

Fierre was hanging sideways in the saddle. She stared up at Gothica.

“Gothica, that was amazing! Was that your a—”

The [Goth] leapt on her and brought her, kicking and punching, down to the ground. Fierre unconsciously threw a punch and Garia shouted.

“Fierre, don’t—”

Fierre punched the shadows from Gothica’s parasol as the Goblin grabbed it and felt like she’d hit a wall of slime. Her fist slowed—Gothica grinned—

—And sent the Cave Goblin flying. Gothica bounced once, and Normen saw her smack into a horse’s hooves. Fierre stared at Gothica in horror, and heard the Goblin start screaming fury. She shot to her feet.

“Gothica, I am so sorry—”

And yet it was the manifestation of an aura’s powers. A serious aura. Ulvama eyed Gothica in shock.

“That’s…high class. Isn’t it? I’ve only seen manifestations of auras twice back in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

Octavia whistled. Ulvama nodded slowly. Bird began to trot over, speaking to Niers.

“I wish you had given me [Aura of the Bird]. I am sure I would have gotten it. Then I would fly and find Mrsha. That Soldier is having trouble with a name. I vote we give him the name of Jexishe. She would not mind because she does not exist, is this not so?”

“Bird.”

“I am also in need of going poo. Maybe I can give this hat to Fierre? She is currently beating Gothica.”

“Bird. Shut up. Stop the group. Now. We’re about to enter a battlefield.”

Bird froze. He heard Niers’ tone, turned his head, and raised his voice.

Everyone! Halt!

Fierre stopped at the odd note in Bird’s voice and Gothica stopped trying to bite her fingers off. The Gnolls, Numbtongue, everyone glanced at Bird, first in amusement. Until they saw him draw his bow and put an arrow to the string. Bird spoke, pointing with another hand.

Irry rubbed at his eyes. How did…? But then he saw the way the finger was pointing. Heard Bird’s voice.

“There is fighting over the ridge line. Two miles ahead of us. Gnolls versus a Drake army.”

The Lomost [Hunters] stared at him. Sergeant Gna looked away from the teasing Goblins. Salkis glanced up from the iPhone.

Inside Bird’s hat, Niers Astoragon put on his still-damp socks. His nerves sang. He heard it. He felt it. A familiar calling.

“You idiots. You stupid, shortsighted idiots. You did it. Well done.”

Irry galloped up the hill, and came back just as fast. He shouted, and half the Gnolls went to charge down the hill before Numbtongue and some of the others yanked them back. The Lomost tribe was under attack from an army from the Drake city of Bentill.

 

——

 

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Niers Astoragon listened to the argument, but he was speaking to Bird and Fierre, who were huddled with him.

“It makes sense. It completely makes sense with the Drake mentality. You saw what happened at the Meeting of Tribes. The Drakes have been implicated in the worst scandal in living memory.”

“But they want to attack the Gnolls and make it worse?

Fierre didn’t understand. But then—for all she was a ‘Vampire’, she was young. The Titan smiled tightly.

“If you know you’re going to fight with someone in a bar, do you wait for them to get themselves psyched up and ready? Or do you attack them when their back is turned? When they’re in the lavatory? Me, if I wanted to win, I’d stab them as they were having a drink. This Gnoll tribe and Drake city have already been at odds. This was just the excuse.”

It would be the first of many conflicts in this region. Niers could see it. His mind was racing ahead of this, considering the implications. For the Antinium, the South, other forces…

But then he snapped back to reality. The others had never left.

Below the ridge, along the foothills of the Lomost tribe’s territory, a Gnoll tribe was under attack. They’d clearly been retreating and possibly hoping to head higher, but outriders had cut them off.

Niers understood a few things instantly: the Drake army from Bentill had certainly caught them unawares. No Gnoll tribe went to war with their young and non-combatants.

They were in the center of the semi-circle formation. Defended by a wavering line of Gnoll [Fighters] and [Warriors] while their [Archers] exchanged shots with a steady Drake line slowly advancing.

“Classic Drake attritional warfare. It favors them. Do you see, Bird? The Gnolls could flank and attack, even hide in an open setting. This army is making them protect their tribe. The [Commander] down there isn’t a fool.”

Bird said nothing. He was staring at the blood. The fighting. The Titan heard the suppressed shouting.

—go down there and die. Don’t be stupid.

Numbtongue was holding Irry back. The Gnoll was shouting at him.

“Our tribe is down there! Our people.

“I know. Shut up. You attack like that, you’ll die.”

The Gnoll calmed slightly, because Numbtongue was staring down at the fighting. His grip on the other Gnoll’s shoulder was so strong it was beginning to bruise. Badarrow spat.

“Bad fight. Cornered-death.”

One of the older Gnolls whispered.

“They can’t be intending to slaughter the entire tribe.”

Salkis just grunted.

“Maybe not. They don’t have to. Wipe out all the fighting adults and the tribe’s a goner anyways. They’ll have to leave.”

She had less of an emotional reaction than almost anyone else there. Garia stared at her, shocked, and opened her mouth, but it was Gna who spoke. She was practically vibrating.

“Don’t focus on the future! They’re losing Gnolls every minute, even with potions! Are we going to get down there or what?”

The [Sergeant] was staring down at the battlefield. Numbtongue watched Badarrow as the Gnoll looked up. Then around.

The two City Runners, Garia and Fals, appeared horrified, but they were almost as surprised by her suggestion. The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings exchanged bleak looks and adjusted their hats. Fierre and Octavia both seemed sick and shocked by turns.

However. The Goblins and Antinium were both silent. Bird was talking to himself, watching the battle, Pivr and Xeu were both watching in dead silence from their sections, while Numbtongue and Badarrow glanced at each other. Ulvama silently watched the Soldier with no name staring at the powdered paints. She was slowly, slowly pouring the red and silver dyes into basins of water. She watched the fighting narrow-eyed.

What were they thinking? Gna’s pointing hand lowered slightly. These two species though…this was not their fight. And—she looked down and cursed.

“Thousands of Drakes. Lots of Gnolls. We are a force substantively in the dozens. As Revalantor of the Flying Antinium, I must add my strategic insight and say we will most likely perish in any maneuver.”

Pivr clacked his mandibles open and closed. He saw Normen glance at him.

“…But in the interest of being likable, I will support any suicidal action, in theory.”

Xeu glanced at him. She shook her own body side-to-side.

“Impossible. Death is certain. Gnolls perishing. Let us move on.”

She scuttled sideways, glanced back—no one followed her, not even the Antinium. Xeu scuttled back, poked the nearest Worker, scuttled off. The Worker, Infinitypear, stared at her. Xeu stared back, nonplussed.

“Brother, you’ve got a magic sword, don’t you? At least help us get them up the slope. We can lure the Drakes off.”

Irry pleaded with Numbtongue as the other [Hunters] drew their bows, arguing about attacking or setting up on one of the cliffs to shoot down at the archers. Numbtongue was still counting.

Yep. Thousands of Drakes. The Gnolls outnumbered them—it might have been ‘only’ four thousand [Soldiers] down there versus a larger tribe. But in terms of fighting adults…he saw children slinging rocks at the Drakes, but the [Hunters] here had iron arrows at best. Those Drakes had proper armor, proper formations.

His grip tightened on his sword. Numbtongue looked over and saw two—no, three—Goblins standing to his left. Not the physical form of Badarrow, or Irry pleading with him.

Gonna die today?

Shorthilt stared down at the fighting. He raised his head. The Ballad of the Thirteen Redfangs seemed to play around him. By his side, Pyrite grunted.

Death. Probably.

He agreed, but he looked up at Numbtongue. The [Soulbard] silently spread his claws apart. What should I do?

Pyrite grunted again. He tried to pick up a stone and bite it, and his claw passed through. Shorthilt was silent. Pyrite glanced at the third figure, torn, only partly there, silently staring down, almost as if he didn’t see the fighting.

Reiss, the Goblin Lord. Pyrite turned away from Numbtongue.

“Why are you asking?”

Indeed, Numbtongue—already knew the answer. But he looked around and saw the other Goblins. Young Goblins, and Antinium. Octavia too—and she was no warrior. She was less of a warrior than…Erin.

He could not ask them to do something like this. He had promised to save Mrsha. However.

Badarrow was looking up. Snapjaw was flying low. They heard her cursing before she leapt off Icecube’s back.

Bad-bad battle! What’s happening?”

She landed hard, and the other Gnolls recoiled from the Frost Wyvern. Numbtongue eyed Icecube. He turned to Badarrow.

“Badarrow. We need a plan.”

“Hm. Shoot and run? Hit [Commander] and run away?”

The [Sniper] was trying to find the Drake in the enemy army, but he was unsportingly making the tactical choice of not wearing fancy armor or a helmet or sitting in the center of a clear command formation. He glanced up as Numbtongue put a hand on his Dragonblood crystal sword hilt.

“You do that. Keep Octavia and others back. When the Drakes come—run. I will go with Gnolls.”

Irry looked up. Numbtongue glanced around.

“Only those who want to come with me.”

“Numbtongue?”

Octavia seemed shocked, then horrified as she saw the Hobgoblin staring down at the battle. Salkis began to grin.

“Are you saying…?”

“Absolutely not. That’s a death mission right there. I’m no [Fighter], but they’ll mince you up in seconds. You won’t even get to them before they shoot you dead!”

Fals looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin gave him a level stare.

“Maybe. Maybe we’ll be smart and sneak up.”

“Brother—Numbtongue. Are you serious?”

The Hobgoblin pointed down the slopes.

“There. Along rocks and bushes. Hit them there—then you get your tribe up here.”

He was pointing to the Drakes’ left flank, comfortably secure. But if someone started carving them up, the Gnolls might be able to push the other way and break through—

Ulvama was staring at Numbtongue. Slowly, she produced a brush and drew a slash across a grinning Redfang Hob’s arm. Dirtmouth, who was nodding.

“Stupid Redfangs. You die. Stupid plan.”

She snapped, eyes flashing. Badarrow looked at Numbtongue, deeply disturbed, and Snapjaw glared.

“That’s right. Bad idea. I take Icecube, we distract. Everyone fights there, Gnolls run.”

That was almost as bad, and Badarrow instantly began protesting.

“Not you.”

“You hush. Or no sex. I have Frost Wyvern.”

They have Oldbloods.

A flash of light caught everyone’s eye. A tiny figure had been flying above the fighting. Practically hovering. Now—it exhaled a plume of fire and the Gnolls shouted and ran, trying to put the fire out as the Drakes pushed in harder. The fire was followed by a few balls of fire before the Drake flew higher.

“Oldblood [Mage]. That would be one of the Flying Antinium’s specialty targets.”

Pivr observed. Gna looked at him and her fur rose.

“That bastard isn’t alone. They have five Oldbloods in the air and I see riders. They can run down any group making a break for it.”

She had her own shortbow aimed down at them. Gna was a [Captain], though, a veteran of 4th Company. She knew a terrible battlefield when she saw one, and Liscor’s army wasn’t here. Yet Badarrow had a hand on Numbtongue’s arm.

“Erin is waiting.”

“She’d understand.”

The conversation between the two was the focus of it. Gothica, Touma the Great, the other Goblins and Antinium looked at each other. The Ghostly Hand Goblins shifted. Most had run off at the sight of the fighting, save for a group of three.

Garia exhaled hard. She was trembling, and the [Martial Artist] City Runner was opening and closing one hand. She shook her head at Fals.

“We can’t do nothing.”

“We can’t die either. To what point?”

Fals looked around. Normen tapped him politely on the shoulder.

“Sometimes a fellow has to make a stand.”

Fals looked disbelievingly at Normen. The Brother saw Numbtongue’s head turn. He touched the tip of his tricorn.

“If you need someone watching your back, I’m your man, sir. But the thing about stands—sometimes they’re your last. Bearing it in mind.”

The Redfang [Bard] bared his teeth. He didn’t have to tell him that. But he nodded at Normen.

A little bee buzzed past his head. Apista had woken up from napping in a jar. That’s right. Sometimes you had to sting someone right in the eye. Who were they stinging? She spotted the giant army below her and buzzed back a few paces.

…That was a lot of enemies. Maybe they needed a bigger hive?

Drama and confusion. This conversation was taking moments, and the voices were overlapping. They were so…interesting. The desperate Gnolls even realized it. The [Hunters] stared at a group of strangers, which to them were Drakes and Gnolls, arguing over helping.

Not—the traditional reaction of most bystanders, which was to be horrified and helpless. They were gazing down into the heart of this battle and weighing their deaths on a scale. But it would be their deaths.

Unless…Bird was speaking.

“You can stop this. Stop this. Use a big Skill and make them…go away. Please?”

Niers Astoragon sat on Bird’s head, listening. He examined them. What a motley band. What a strange fellowship.

“Even that [Shaman] cares. Look, you can see that, Bird. Your Antinium look ready to fight.”

Bird’s head turned to the Workers and Soldiers. They just stood there, but somehow…he slapped the side of his hat, hard.

“They are dying. You can do something.”

“Not if I’m not part of that battle. Those Gnolls aren’t under my command. I can throw a Skill at them—but to change a battle decisively, you need a moment.”

Bird didn’t respond. He was watching Numbtongue make up his mind as he stared up at the figures breathing fire, frost, and even what appeared to be living shadows, down at the Gnolls. Tiny bird-people.

Evil bird-people. He had known wretched birds before. Horrible things that didn’t deserve to be eaten. But birds were good. They flew.

These were evil birds. Niers Astoragon was frowning around. The Titan saw Numbtongue arguing with Badarrow, jerking his arm away.

“I am going.”

“Numbtongue!”

Normen stepped up in an instant. After a moment of hesitation, Pivr scuttled after him, muttering about ‘establishing social credibility’. Two Goblins followed. Rasktooth and Dirtmouth. But even the Antinium waited. They were watching Bird.

“Bird, talk some sense into him. This is madness. I don’t want this any more than you do, but we can’t just all risk certain death.”

Octavia was pleading. Bird opened and closed his mandibles. Then…the [Liar] listened to the voice inside his head. Or rather, hat.

 

——

 

Fierre’s head rose slowly as Bird began to speak. The others started, because as Bird whirled around, the stupid top hat with his antennae poking out perched on his head, his voice changed.

It grew…different. Another cadence, another depth, not just from the mere vocalization, but from the way he spoke. So knowingly. The same way he had when he led them on the crazy run that had swept an entire army up behind him.

“I hear you. Do you all see what’s happening below?”

He pointed with one arm, as if they could not. The Gnolls were howling, crying at the army to stop, blowing horns for allies they had no hope of finding.

“Certain death. This is so. Only an idiot would think they could save anyone without paying the ultimate price. You may be over Level 30, Numbtongue, and you might have a Frost Wyvern, Snapjaw, but that is an army. You’re not children or new warriors. So why fight? Let us ride on and find Mrsha. That is what we came here to do.”

Numbtongue’s eyes narrowed. But it was Fierre who burst out, looking at Bird strangely.

“Bird! I—you—if we can help—”

“Don’t be stupid, Fierre. I am Bird. And I see things clearly. Or don’t you? The instant we go down there—these Gnolls will know who we are. So will those Drakes. Unless we slaughter every single one—and even if we do, the Gnolls will know. You might not be in danger. But they are. I am.”

Bird nodded at the Goblins. Irry opened his mouth, and the older [Hunter] hushed him and focused on Bird. Clues coming together. Bird went on, a smile in his voice though none was on his face.

“They will hunt us without mercy. Antinium and Goblins, this continent’s greatest threats. Our hope of finding Mrsha—already slim—will vanish. Is that worth the cost of almost certain death? Sometimes we must let people die. They are not your people. They are not mine. Why fight for them?”

“Did he just say…?”

Bird ignored the others. He was waiting for a response. Salkis was just gripping the hilts of her daggers.

“I came here for a fight. Near certain death? What are we waiting for?”

She grinned, but even she licked her lips as she stared down at the overwhelming odds. The nameless Soldier looked up. Slowly, Ulvama was adding a line of silver to her arm, her face. Warpaint. She eyed him.

“Choose already.”

Numbtongue faced…Bird. He bared his teeth, but spoke after a moment. Holding the crystal blade Pelt had made for him.

“Bird. Erin would do something.”

“We are on a mission to help her. To save Mrsha. Erin is smart, but, I think, she is also foolish. She has made mistakes. Good people died for her battles. Do you want to die here?”

Numbtongue’s hand tightened on the hilt. Badarrow’s eyes focused on something. Snapjaw glanced at his gaze and her own gaze focused.

“I’m going. Not arguing. Those aren’t my people.”

Numbtongue pointed down. Irry looked at him as the Goblin strode past him. He shoved past Bird, who called out, almost mockingly, after him.

“And?”

The [Bard] whirled. The ghosts he carried watched him. One of them slowly raised his head, listening. Numbtongue jabbed Bird in the chest.

And I don’t have to explain things.”

He began to stride down the hill, the small group following him. Fierre hesitated, eyes darting from him to Bird with disbelief.

I’m going with you. That was what she didn’t say. She tried, eight times, but the words didn’t come out. She was a Vampire. An immortal. She…gazed down at the Drake [Soldiers] and the words died on her tongue.

And Bird—no, he was laughing.

“What about all of you? Are you just going to stand here or leave? The most practical choice is to leave before you’re found. If that army finds you, they’ll encircle this position and run you down. You can’t just shoot arrows and run away.”

Ulvama was glowering at Bird’s hat. Pivr scratched at one antenna.

“Something is off about Bird.”

Normen nodded. The others shifted. The Antinium, who had been waiting for orders, stared at Bird. Grass Shell, Infinitypear, Touma, and more. The [Shaman] nervously clutched at his walking staff, the focus of his new powers.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do anything, it’s just that…it’s an army.”

Fals muttered. Normen and Alcaz glanced at each other as they lined up next to Numbtongue. The younger brother muttered.

“Crimshaw. Crimshaw…”

Like a prayer. And, abruptly, the others were angry. From Octavia to Gna. Bird was right. But he sounded so…contemptuous. Goading.

“If we could do something, we would! It’s just—there’s no chance. Numbtongue, come back!”

Garia clenched and unclenched her hands. Apista buzzed around Bird’s face. Yeah, yeah! Don’t mock us, small man! I’ll sting you!

Bird brushed her away from his hat. He looked around.

“So if you could do something, if you had a 50-50 chance, would you? Is your excuse that you ‘can’t do anything’?”

Irry cried out. One of the Gnollish fighting lines had buckled at last and the Drakes were threatening the non-combatants themselves.

Yes! Alright, yes! What are you doing, Bird?

Octavia shouted at him. She saw Ulvama hop off the wagon. Eyes narrowed, she stepped forwards. Badarrow was cursing at the other Goblins and pointing.

“That cliff. There!”

They were moving. Fierre opened her mouth to say—she twitched as someone walked past her.

Grass Shell. He halted behind Numbtongue and lifted his head. A second later, Infinitypear, Touma, and two other Antinium joined him.

“You’re mad.”

Sergeant Gna glowered at them—as she kicked her horse forwards to join Salkis, who was grinning with real insanity in her gaze. Garia—Fals grabbed her shoulder as she took a step forwards.

“Garia—”

“I’m going with Numbtongue. You—you guard everyone, Fals. Okay?”

Her voice was trembling. Rasktooth held out a hand, grinning, and Infinitypear touched his fist to it gently.

Xeu looked around as the Antinium slowly walked past her. She hesitated, staring at Bird. Fals hung back, Octavia, Fierre…everyone else watched Bird. Gothica adjusted her parasol and drew a shortsword; Apista landed on top of the parasol, fanning her wings defiantly.

“Madness.”

The Soldier with no name didn’t know who said it. He agreed. Orders were one thing. But this? This? Even he knew he had no chance of surviving going down there, and they were not all fools. Why risk their lives to no end? He knew there was another force at play, but the others made this choice without understanding it.

Why? He peered down at the paints, paralyzed. Ulvama was going down the line of Goblins, Antinium, even Garia and Gna, applying her magical paints. Even Ulvama.

“Madness? Madness.”

Bird stood there, like he had lost his mind. He turned to face the others. Numbtongue glared at him as Snapjaw pulled herself onto Icecube’s back. But the Frost Wyvern didn’t move when she kicked his sides. He was…staring.

Not at her. Not at the battlefield below filled with meat and blood and danger. The Wyvern was focused on Bird.

Pyrite’s ghost grunted. Numbtongue’s eyes finally found the spot most of the others were gazing at. Normen fixed blankly on the others. Why were they all focused on…

Madness? We’re all mad. Standing by while someone’s killing someone else? That’s madness. Risking your life for someone you don’t know? For gold? Madness. There’s no one sane in the world.

Bird’s voice was changing. Deepening. Desyncing with Bird’s mandibles. It went on, as the others started, as even the Lomost [Hunters] caught on.

“Helplessness is one thing. Bravery is moving. Doing what you believe in. You have conviction. You have no power. Not enough power. And yet you’ll still go down there.”

He laughed at them. He clapped his hands. He was grinning. Almost dancing.

“That is what makes you different. That is what separates you from the rest. Madness. Righteousness. I knew I liked you all from the start. You have only your convictions, you stupid little children.”

“Bird?”

Garia blinked at him. She saw Bird reach up with two hands. He lifted his hat up. He cast a mocking glance over his shoulder at Xeu, Octavia, the soldier with no name, Fals, and the others. Everyone else? Even those who’d suspected something. Even the ones who had seen the worst and best of what Erin Solstice could conjure.

They stared up at the laughing man. Salkis’ mouth opened wide, then wider. Gna fell off her horse and hit the ground with a thud. Badarrow, Numbtongue—glanced at Ulvama, whose eyes were bulging. At Pivr, whose wings were fanning with clear disbelief. Garia choked.

The—the Titan of—

His eyes shone. He laughed, that little legend. He shouted down at them.

“Now—will you risk it all? I will give you the rest.”

 

——

 

They came down the slopes in a blaze of sudden light. The Drake [Soldiers] stared up at the sunburst of color, the flash of magic.

Enemies spotted!

The [Commander] of Bentill’s army glanced up, hidden behind the lines of [Soldiers]. To prevent Gnolls sniping her.

“It must be one of their hunting parties. Looks like a [Shaman] in the mix.”

The odd display of colored magic was no [Light] spell. The idiots had given their position away. She thought she saw [Archers] heading up across the ridgeline.

“Superior vantage. Send an Oldblood after them?”

“And get them shot? You idiot. Two mounted wings and [Shield Warriors]. Flush them out and keep them off our backs.”

“Yessir.”

Close enough. The Drake rolled her eyes. She turned back to the folding Gnolls. They’d held the breach, but they were losing ground.

This was a distasteful battle, but the Lomost tribe would lose its warriors. Then they’d remove that Goblin tribe the Gnolls allied with. Savages and monsters working together.

Surrender or perish!

The Drakes at the front had orders to avoid a slaughter. Once they reached the tribespeople past the warriors, the Lomost tribe would have a stark choice. Almost…

Something made her scales prickle, though. Something felt off all of a sudden. The Drake [Pursuit Commander] looked around. Then she spotted the second group charging down the slopes.

Enemy [Swordsman]! Group of…three dozen!

“That’s not a threat. [Archers], turn and volley!

The entire rank of [Archers] turned, pivoting, and their bows came up. They focused on the distant figures. The [Commander] glanced at them. What was…that wasn’t a Gnoll. But her officer was shouting.

Volley—Ancestors!”

The scream came and the [Commander] saw two hundred bowstrings simultaneously snap. The [Archers] recoiled, some screaming as their bows exploded, striking them.

Enemy attack!

“No, Skill! Replace those bows! Heal up and—

The [Commander] shoved forwards, restoring order. Like any good Drake army, Bentill began to pivot. The front lines of Drake [Soldiers] created a spear wall, facing the newcomers. Archers or not, they were outnumbered by the first rank, and the Drakes were set, dug in, and had mages, archers, and Oldblood support. As the [Commander] caught another clear sight of the figures charging down the hill, she stopped and stared.

“What is…”

 

——

 

The Soldier with no name saw them go down the slope like a lightning bolt. Indeed, the sky was changing. Although the Goblin had put away the guitar for the sword.

The Drake army pivoted towards them, but they didn’t see them at first. The Drake [Captain] in front finally got a view of them. The glowing red sword of crystal was one thing, but then you looked at them and realized—they weren’t Gnolls. At least, not all Gnolls.

And that green skin wasn’t scales. The Gnoll [Hunters] on the cliffs stared down. Some shouted in horror, but the Goblin with the longbow snarled at them as he drew an arrow. Bird himself put an arrow to his bowstring.

The [Captain] stared ahead. Then shouted.

Goblins! Goblins! The damned Goblins are coming to—

He hesitated. Because that wasn’t quite accurate. The group slowed slightly as they came to flat ground. The Drakes saw roughly three dozen fighters. One of them blinked.

“A Goblin. A-Antinium?

The shouts of horror came from the other Drakes. There were Antinium behind the Goblin. The [Commander] of Bentill’s force shaded her eyes in disbelief.

For there they stood. At the front was Numbtongue, Fierre, Salkis, Sergeant Gna, and Pivr. The Drake [Commander]’s mouth went dry.

“A Goblin, a Human, a Drake, a Gnoll and an Antinium? And another Antinium. And…a bee?

Apista buzzed around Numbtongue’s head as he charged forwards. The Drakes looked at each other. Were they dreaming?

Hold your ground! [Counterspears]! Ready!

The [Spear Captain] bellowed, and the spears aimed as the Hobgoblin charged forwards. Behind him ran the others. Fierre, heart pounding out of her chest, ran after him. Infinitypear ran with his spear as Sergeant Gna, on horseback, shouted.

Follow Numbtongue into the breach! Watch those spears! Get in close or you’re dead! [Swarmblades]!

Her own sword was buzzing and a cloud of strange insects was buzzing around it—Gothica’s parasol was folded, but the tip was a dagger point.

From his vantage point, Bird carefully aimed downwards. He saw Numbtongue charge at the Drake lines. One Goblin. Running ahead of the others. But so few—

Now.”

From high above, on the cliffs, a dancing [Shaman] cast her spell and cackled.

[Lava Orb].

Ulvama pointed down. Numbtongue saw the flash of orange. The Drakes in front of him looked up and screamed. Shields rose as a burning orb of molten rock landed among them.

Fill the gaps! Find that [Mage]! Don’t—

The [Spear Captain] screamed desperately. He opened his mouth and Badarrow’s arrow hit him in the back of the throat. The Drake collapsed without a word and his Skill vanished.

Numbtongue saw the Drakes jerk as their poised spears wavered. He grinned and ducked a thrusting spear. The Hobgoblin cleaved upwards, and six Drakes recoiled, staring at their severed spear hafts. The ones behind them aimed at Numbtongue and saw the crystal sword turn.

Shorthilt’s ghost slashed across the first line of Drakes. They collapsed without the blade slowing. He dodged a sword and sundered another with his own.

The Dragonblood crystal blade never halted. The tip of it pierced a shield and another Drake’s chest. The Hobgoblin was still moving forwards, soldiers collapsing around him. His momentum barely slowed as the Drake line wavered—

And then the others hit it. Fierre surged into the gap and someone stabbed her. She ran onto the sword and gasped.

Fierre!

It wasn’t a deep cut. Her skin was like iron. Fierre grabbed the sword as the Drake recoiled. She bent it—then punched the face through the helmet. Someone else tried to bring an axe down on her shoulder. She recoiled—but a flying kick tossed the Drake into several of her friends.

Garia landed, and followed the kick up with a roundhouse punch that dented the chestplate. She whirled.

Fierre! Are you—

Keep moving! Forwards, and don’t stop!

Gna thundered past them. Garia whirled as Infinitypear rammed into a [Soldier] with a spear. He grabbed the shield and mace as the Drake shouted.

Antinium! Antinium! Someone—

Rasktooth darted under the struggling two. The smaller Cave Goblin stabbed hard at the other Drake’s groin. The [Soldier] screamed and the two were on him. Gna saw a blur hit the wavering [Soldiers] on her left. She barely even caught a glimpse of Salkis; she whirled through eight [Soldiers], slashing from one to the other, transferring her momentum from strike to strike.

She was laughing. Yet the Drake paused to look at her blades. They indeed had a cloud of spectral insects around them. As Gna locked blades with a Drake she picked out as an officer, the insects landed, biting, stinging, making the Drake cry out and waver. Gna rode past him and caught him on the backswing.

“Amateur. Rally! Rally—

She was the [Captain] on the ground, pulling Fierre and the other warriors back, focusing them around Numbtongue.

 

——

 

The entire charge took seconds, and Bentill’s entire right flank dissolved into pure chaos. The [Commander] couldn’t believe her eyes.

Those were high-level fighters! Some [Mage] had cast a powerful spell from above—and they were taking arrows.

Oldbloods under attack! They’re—Ancestors!

Someone pointed up. A screaming Drake was descending. She had two arrows in her wings. Even as they watched, the [Soldiers] saw an arrow go through a second Oldblood’s wing. Then the hand holding a wand.

Dive! D—

The [Pursuit Commander] saw one of her Oldbloods doing just that. She dove towards the ground—then twisted—and hit the ground without levelling out. Someone had hit her in the wing as she dove.

“Surround the flanking force! Wipe them out!

The army was trying to do just that. Highly dangerous combatants or not, they were outnumbered by a huge margin. The Gnolls saw the pressure abating and pushed back, but once the attack was dealt with…

Something was wrong. The Bentill Drakes saw the new group pushing in…and they weren’t falling. What was…?

 

——

 

Dirtmouth spat a cloud of dust into the face of her first foe, and ran them through. But she couldn’t pull that trick more than once. The Redfang was no Numbtongue with a magic sword. Hers was just steel and she had chainmail—

But the next warrior who she met was some kind of veteran. He charged into her.

“[Bull’s Ram]!”

She went flying backwards as the others fought around her, running into [Lineholders] and other classes. This Drake was huge and he or she was fully armored. They tried to bring an axe down, armored gauntlets flashing.

On her back, Dirtmouth desperately raised her arms. She wasn’t going to be able to bl—

The battleaxe touched her chest and she forced it back with a roar. The Drake staggered as she shot to her feet.

Damned Goblins—

They whirled their axe. Dirtmouth saw the slash and leaned back. She blinked. Then she raised her sword and slashed. This time the Drake staggered.

Stronger. [Hob’s Strength]? Behind the Drake, Dirtmouth saw one of the Workers overpowering his opponent, raining down blows with a maul and shattering the other’s guard.

[Hob’s Strength] plus…

The axe on the backswing nearly hit her again, but she twisted and it cut into her side, tearing the chainmail—but not deeply. Why? The Drake backed up, confused.

The glowing silver paint on Dirtmouth’s skin flashed. She grinned at the second layer of magical armor. The veteran soldier swore. Yet even that didn’t explain why…he saw Dirtmouth blur at his neck and raised his guard too slowly.

 

——

 

“[Unit: Speed Raid].”

The sudden increase in speed caught them off-guard. Niers saw Fierre misjudge her timing and slam into an opponent before recovering. He lowered his finger.

“Keep up the pressure. Ulvama. Throw an invisibility spell on Numbtongue!

She glared at him, but then began to chant, waving her claws. Niers switched focuses.

“Gnoll lines are reforming. Bird, one more Oldblood over there. Hit her. Bird? Bird?

The Antinium still had Niers on his head. He lowered his bow slightly. Four Oldbloods, all downed. Bird stared down at them.

“I have killed them.”

“Hit the last one. Force coming up the ridgeline! Riders and infantry! Alchemy 1, hit them!

Aaah!

A scream answered him as Badarrow’s archers pelted the advancing Drakes. Octavia and some of the smaller Goblins rose from their cover—before Badarrow shouted at them to stay low—and tossed their alchemical vials.

They were safe. The Drakes were caught completely off-guard and the Tripvine bags and sticky vials slowed them. Badarrow drew an arrow and downed one [Soldier]—then another—with pinpoint shots through the eyes.

Snapjaw, the archers are readying a volley. Drop.

Niers barked through a Skill. He saw below him, in his mind’s eye of the battlefield, Numbtongue suddenly vanish. Ulvama wiped at her brow, panting with the effort of casting through her magical paints, but now there was an invisible Hobgoblin with a crystal sword slashing through the Drakes.

“Timer on the invisibility spell?”

I don’t know! Fifteen seconds?

“Excellent. [Hear Me]! Numbtongue, strike forwards and clear those [Lineholders]!

The Hobgoblin charged and Niers swivelled so fast he preempted Snapjaw’s drop. She came out of the skies with Icecube, and the Frost Wyvern exhaled a deadly freezing mist over the back lines of the army.

The shock of the attack was almost as valuable as how many [Archers] and [Mages] it got. Niers’ eyes narrowed.

“Snapjaw, fly! You’re under [Arrowguard]—evasives, now!”

The Goblin [Eater] pulled away with notable reluctance, but the arrows swerving before they hit her or her mount wouldn’t do that forever. Niers was grinning.

The enemy [Commander] had no idea what was happening. This wasn’t even a chaotic battlefield on Niers’ end; he had a very small group to micromanage, but it was a hundred, a thousand times worse on the receiving end. Still—Niers was managing personalities, not trained soldiers.

“Bird. Hit the final Oldblood.”

Bird had shot one arrow and clipped the Drake’s wing. The Drake was descending, and, as Niers watched, Bird clipped the other one right on the edge.

Precision shooting. But he knew those were not near-misses.

“Bird. What’s wrong?”

“Bad birds. Bad birds…they don’t look like bad birds.”

Bird was muttering to himself. Niers stared at him, then down at the fighting. Ah. Damn.

Badarrow was erasing [Soldier] after [Soldier] and the other Goblins were doing a fine job. He saw Pivr, the two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, and Xeu all fighting without reservations. They simply put themselves on one side of the attack ground and carved in. Xeu’s scythe-arms were almost as unstoppable as Numbtongue, and she appeared and slashed her foes, skittering away as Pivr leapt and launched himself about, attacking with mandibles and his own scythe-appendages.

He was in more danger, honestly, but under so many Skills and Normen and Alcaz’s protection, he was surviving. The two Brothers weren’t showy, but they were deceptively good. They just waited for an opening and a club would descend with perfect brutal precision.

However. Niers saw Garia, Fierre, and even some of the other Antinium slowing.

“Civilians. Bird, shoot them through the head. Don’t worry about casualties!”

They were afraid of killing the Drakes. It would be different if it weren’t so one-sided. Bird hesitated. Salkis was wiping out the Drakes, and she and Numbtongue were pressing in, but they’d be lost if the others couldn’t back them up.

“Gna. Get them moving!”

“I…”

Bird’s hesitation hung in the air. Niers swung himself towards one of Bird’s earholes.

Bird! This is a battle! Your friends will die if you don’t fight! They’re not even dead!

The Antinium’s head rose.

“What?”

The Fraerling shouted as Ulvama turned.

I am the Titan of Baleros! Do you think I don’t have Skills? Look!”

He pointed down and Bird focused on the first [Soldiers] Numbtongue had cut down. The dead [Soldiers], cut into bloody…chunks?

Where was all the blood? For that matter—Bird frowned down at the Drakes who’d been hit by the [Lava Orb] spell. Ulvama blinked.

“What.”

They were covered in soot, immobile. But not charred. Their armor was burnt away or actually melted but—Bird turned and saw Badarrow catch a Drake climbing up and slash across the [Soldier]’s shoulder.

The Drake fell, crying out, as a sharp blade cut through metal. He clasped at his arm.

My arm! He got my—

He stared at the limp limb. Tried to move it.

“I can’t move my—it’s still there. But he cut it—”

Some kind of Skill! Get a healing potion! Get a h—

The other [Soldier] went down as a boulder tossed from above mashed his head. Or…he lay there, dead to the world, as his companions shook him, completely immobile. But his head wasn’t pulped.

They’re alive, Bird! [I Left the Carrion None of Their Due]! So shoot the b—”

Bird raised his bow and the last Oldblood fell in the distance, an arrow between their shoulders. He began loosing arrows like five archers combined. Ulvama stared at Niers.

“A Skill that doesn’t let one side kill the other?”

The Titan swung himself off Bird’s head now he was unsteady. He whistled.

You damned bee! Get up here! I need a command vehicle!

Apista flew up to him, a wing slightly crushed. Two soldiers down from a stinger to the eyes! She let Niers swing up onto her back. He buzzed towards Ulvama.

“Recharge your mana. I’m giving you a [Boost Spell] next.”

The [Shaman] just looked up at him.

“You can make us not kill them? You never said. You never used.”

She was fairly certain she would hear about the Titan of Baleros never killing a foe in battle. The Fraerling stared at her.

“What’s the point of always fighting a bloodless battle? It’s a strategic Skill to bleed a foe of resources or take prisoners. When you crush your enemy—”

He looked over his shoulder at Bird and made a sound.

“—Pick your battles. Bentill will get a lot of wounded, useless [Soldiers] they have to tend to. And these civilians will fight harder.”

Bird’s head slowly turned as he somehow kept hitting targets. He spoke, once.

“I do not know if she will hate you or like you. You are everything she wants and does not want. You confusing person.”

Niers Astoragon blinked at him. Then he shook his head and turned. The battle wasn’t over. He grinned, his eyes flashing.

Home. Ah, this was home.

 

——

 

This is what the Drake [Commander] felt. Shock of this new force aside. The Frost Wyvern—Goblins. Antinium?

The soldiers were reacting to all of that at once. Another Antinium had made his choice. He accepted the paint and went streaking down into the battle. That great warrior—

Aura Skill! It’s not working! It’s not—

A screaming Oldblood Drake had tried to kill some of the attackers. She had exhaled deadly, choking shade at her foes, and some of them had gone staggering away, unable to breathe, attacked by the cloying darkness.

But it hadn’t killed any of them. Why? Someone was advancing on her.

Crimson eyes in the darkness. A shade wrapped around her, so thick that a cast javelin slowed and stuck in midair.

An aura of midnight. [Goth]. On her other side, Grass Shell was conjuring…grass. And painful burrs that hurt even if you stepped on them with boots.

Not everyone had an equal impact. Fierre was throwing Drakes around; Garia had kicked and punched down several foes, but they had also cut her, and the [Martial Artist] was realizing she needed to single out foes in the melee.

But Fierre—she was going berserk, and the Drakes saw a short Human picking up and hurling foes in full armor. Ignoring cuts to her; they seemed to heal within an instant, as if she had a permanent low-grade healing potion! She leapt onto the back of an officer, and the screaming Drake ran around, trying to yank her off until they collapsed. Fierre raised a bloody mouth and Drakes backed away.

They didn’t even recognize they weren’t actually being killed. Even so—the [Commander] of Bentill’s forces could have still rallied. Still forced three dozen fighters and that group on the hill back with unacceptable casualties, but won.

If not for that monster. She tried—the Drakes forcing the Lomost tribe back were attacking full-on, rather than slowly wearing them down.

“Now! Advance the spears! [Barbed Charge]!”

The [Soldiers] thundered forwards at the Gnolls. Then—their momentum slowed. The [Commander] saw the Gnolls accelerate in a howling attack. They hit the Drakes coming at them and it was her forces who vanished in a melee.

“[Countercharge].”

Her Skill vanished as someone not only ate, but reversed it. It wasn’t a rare Skill. She knew she was up against some kind of commander. Some kind of—

“[Granite Formation]!”

Another line turned into a holding action as the Gnolls tried to move forwards and attack it. In response? She saw Drakes staggering as the Gnolls’ clubs, axes, and their own weapons suddenly began to glow. Each blow sounded and looked like a bolt of lightning.

“[D-Defiance To The Last]! [Unit: Razor’s Edge]

She ordered a stand. No Gnoll fighters would pass beyond that killing ground. In response? The Gnolls pulled back and a flight of arrows showered the empowered Drakes.

Someone was reading her tactics and casually, even contemptuously, beating them! And it was so fast—she was maneuvering an entire army with the aid of her command staff.

Somehow—they were all losing. Who could do that? Some great Gnollish [General]? A [Strategist]? Who…

She thought she saw him in her mind’s eye. A giant, laughing down at her. The [Commander] wobbled around, terrified, trying to see her foe. If she had thought of the name, realized who it might be, she would have instantly had it.

A giant.

The Titan of Baleros. 

But what good was the world’s greatest [Strategist] without an army? The Lomost Tribe was rallying, healing its wounded, and surging forwards. Still, the Bentill army was reforming. Beginning to close and dangerously encircle Numbtongue’s position. The [Commander]’s terror and losing the war of Skills didn’t account for the numbers difference. The Titan needed Numbtongue to keep fighting. To multiply his Skills and put the enemy into disarray.

He needed…

 

——

 

The Soldier left the wagon. Ulvama spun around; she had forgotten he was there. Paralyzed, he was the only fighter who hadn’t joined the fighting. She almost cursed at him—then stared.

What. What did you do?

He didn’t answer. The Antinium halted. Ulvama waved her arms, eyes bulging. Even Bird turned.

“Oh. That is new. What is your name?”

Niers Astoragon looked right. He saw the [Exemplar Warrior], the Free Antinium’s forgotten warrior, gaze up at him. Ulvama screeched—then he opened his mandibles.

“I. Hkve. Nne.”

Ulvama froze, arms raised. Bird’s mandibles opened.

“Soldiers don’t speak. I…how did you do that?”

It wasn’t speaking like Bird did. It was clicking, barely audible as a proper language. From vocal chords that were never configured for…

Khere? W-kre?

The Titan stared at the Soldier. He spun, pointed.

There. The Gnolls are faltering. Hit them there and don’t let them overwhelm it!

“You—”

The Antinium leapt down the hill. Ulvama stared at him. He charged down the slopes, so fast the Drakes fighting and pushing into the Gnoll lines despite Niers’ Skill saw him only as a blur.

Unlike Numbtongue, unlike the other attacks, they saw him. They began screaming.

Antinium attack! Prognugator attack! New Antinium attacking!”

Their lines wavered in the face of him. Pivr, Xeu, Flying and Silent Antinium, the Painted Antinium—all looked around. The terrified Drakes pointed up, completely missing Bird the Hunter, at the horror of the Hivelands.

The newest breed of Antinium. After all—he could be nothing else. Forget that he had the body of a Soldier.

This Antinium was crimson. From head to toe. The blood-fire of the Redfang’s paint. The Drakes screamed as he surged towards their lines and the Gnolls ran back, yelping.

Crimson Antinium! Don’t let him close! Don’t—

Ulvama was hopping up and down and screaming.

My red paint! He stole all my red—

Crimson. He liked that name. Maybe? The Soldier raised a fist as he charged towards the first Drake. The spear shot at his stomach—and he pivoted. The Drake stabbing saw the Soldier rotate, twisting as he caught and moved along the spear’s length with one arm—and then at the elbow flying at his f—

The [Exemplar Warrior] crashed into the line of Drakes alone. They tried to kill him, stabbing. He swung left, knocked two Drakes down with two fists moving, caught a spear aimed at him, hit another Drake with an uppercut, spun, threw a Drake in front of the others to stop the attack on that side.

The other Antinium stared at him as the Soldier fought. Here was the secret. Soldiers did not know how to fight. The other species thought they were great warriors from the start. Soldiers knew how to kill from the moment they emerged from the Birther sacs.

But fight?

Touma the Great had punched down six Drakes. But they had stabbed him and the healing potions kept him alive, as had Gna, who’d been guarding her squad. Yet this Soldier—this old one—

He moved like Garia and Fierre. No, better than them. Garia had explained, but Touma the Great hadn’t understood what she meant by shifting her posture because she did it like a Human.

This Soldier, the Crimson Antinium, rotated with his punches. He swung with all his momentum, all four arms moving, blocking—independent of one another.

Even Soldiers and Workers had trouble commanding all four arms separately. They tended to move them together, especially in the heat of battle. Touma had never seen any Antinium fight like that. He raised his fists and the Antinium around him, Soldiers and Workers, watched.

Then—they began to copy him. It was almost like—a current running through them. Pivr and Xeu glanced up. The Soldiers and Workers were growing sharper. Pivr looked around and Xeu spoke.

“A…Queen…?”

Not yet. Not—she turned, scuttling, and a Drake ran a spear through one of her eyes.

 

——

 

Xeu! She’s down!”

Numbtongue spun. The Silent Antinium’s Prognugator was under attack. Pivr leapt at the [Soldiers] and Infinitypear led a counter charge. No sooner had they driven off the [Soldiers] and tried to tend to Xeu than someone screamed.

“Snapjaw!”

Badarrow nearly left his cliff as he saw the Frost Wyvern spiraling, wings shredded by arrows. The Drakes advanced as she emerged, fighting. Numbtongue immediately began trying to fight to her, but Niers roared.

Push in, Numbtongue! If you leave, they’ll wipe out your group! Badarrow—

His voice thundered to the [Sniper] via his Skill. Badarrow snarled, in no mood to listen, but the Titan bellowed into his head.

Protect Snapjaw! Bird, shoot them down! Ulvama, boost Snapjaw! Defensive spells! Snapjaw, get that Wyvern to those rocks! I don’t care if you have to drag it! Go!

They were beginning to falter. Niers began using more Skills, but—the Ghostly Hand Goblins looked at each other. One stopped throwing rocks at the Drakes still trying to make it up the pass. They stared off into the distance. Then one plucked at Badarrow’s sleeve.

Hob. Hob!

Shut up and fight!

The [Sniper] was trying to place one of the longest-range shots he had. He saw an entire column of Drakes advancing on Snapjaw, who was urging Icecube up, but he had clearly wounded his legs. She had a sword. She was strong. But—

“Not that arrow. This.”

Badarrow nearly punched the Goblin yanking on him, but he saw it was one of the first Ghostly Hand Goblins he’d met. She had something.

A strange assortment. Octavia, hurling a Pepperspray Potion down, stopped, and stared as the Goblin hurriedly mashed a semi-transparent…

“What is that? A mushroom? I’ve never seen…”

The Goblin ignored her. Carefully, she coated the paste onto a simple steel arrowtip, and jabbered.

Quick, quick—

She had coated nearly the entire arrow with it when the strange glowing paste on the little stick she was using to slather it on…suddenly dropped off the stick and melded into the ground. The rest of it slowly sank through the little stone bowl and into the ground. Octavia’s eyes bulged.

“That’s some kind of ethereal effect! What in the—”

Then she focused on the object the Goblin held out to Badarrow. He stared at the glowing arrow.

The [Sniper] rose to his feet. He aimed out, mind suddenly clear.

[Eagle Eyes]. [Farshot Mastery]. [Doubled Range]. [Two Mile Shot].

He was building Skills. He felt his consciousness zoom in. Bird was pelting the Drakes, but they had shields and thick armor up. Badarrow thought of the best Skill to use. When he was younger—he had used this Skill.

[Shattershot]. Today? The Goblin [Sniper] spoke as he drew back, aiming for the center of them all.

[Splintershot Arrow].

The arrow arced up, a glow lost to all but Octavia, Badarrow, the grinning Ghostly Hand Goblin, and Niers. He watched it land, but couldn’t even see it as it sped through the air. He had to rely on his [Battlefield Awareness]. But he felt the effects as it landed.

The threat indicators of every Drake in a fifteen foot radius—

 

——

 

Snapjaw saw a glowing arrow land. It shot downwards, and a Drake [Shieldguard Warrior] cried out.

Incoming enchanted! [Stonewall Shield]!

His shield rose confidently. It was even enchanted. The arrow went straight for him, in the center of the formation. Snapjaw cursed—saw the arrow pass through the shield—the Drake’s chest—then explode into multiple copies which shot through the other Drakes and into the ground.

The [Eater] watched as, slowly and without a sound, every [Soldier] collapsed like puppets with their strings cut. The other Drakes backed up.

“They’re all—retreat!

Icecube rose to his feet, whining. Snapjaw urged him to cover as more arrows from the enemy army sang down. But she stopped to blow a kiss up at her lover.

 

——

 

Niers Astoragon sat there for a second.

“I want that damn arrow. How did…?”

Then he refocused. The last act of the battlefield was taking place.

 

——

 

The Gnolls were fighting with the newcomers. Avoiding the Crimson Antinium, but clearly aware he was on their side. They actually covered the Goblins, shooting arrows into the Drake melee.

However, the [Commander] refused to retreat. To retreat was to invite a counter from the enraged Lomost tribe. It was to lose everything Bentill was counting on. Better to invite a slaughter on both sides.

Especially because her [Soldiers] weren’t dying. She had realized it and the flaw in Niers’ Skill revealed itself. This was why he didn’t use it.

If they had slaughtered even a fifth of the ‘dead’ fighters…

Gothica was next. Numbtongue saw a Drake club her from behind. Her aura wasn’t—he spun, slashing, but Pyrite had given his minute into the battle to take out an enemy [Officer]. Shorthilt had led the charge—

“Damn. Damn, damn, damn—

Salkis retreated. She was bloody; someone had gotten her in the latest scrape and she was moving behind their lines, clutching at her guts. Numbtongue whirled around.

There was no time for a song. Perhaps he should have sung, called down lightning with Ulvama, but someone needed to be here.

Here he was. Infinitypear fell down. Rasktooth stopped, eyes wide.

“Infinity…?”

Smoke rose from his back shell. A [Mage]. The second blast of fire hit the Cave Goblin.

Were they dead? The Titan—Numbtongue raised his sword, reaching for the guitar. Lightning. He had to use his Skills before it was too late. A dirge for—

“[Snap Throw]!”

Numbtongue tried to duck, but the hatchet struck him across the head. He went down, Niers roaring in his ears.

“[They Fought Like Imm—”

Numbtongue was on the ground. Now he was surrounded as the [Soldiers] closed in. The Titan was trying to rally them; Sergeant Gna was leading the others, pulling those she could back to safety. But Numbtongue. They wanted Numbtongue.

“—it: Selphid’s Rampage!] Don’t—”

A Skill was worth nothing if it had no one to affect. The quality of [Soldiers]…he had a bunch of talented individuals.

Numbtongue drifted off. He saw Gnolls fighting near him; he had been trying to connect their lines. Almost. Almost.

Gnolls. Trying to reach him. Goblins. A tribe that didn’t want to slaughter them.

“A vision of the future. What might have been. They still remembered. I never forgot. Again and again, even this much is taken.”

Who was speaking? Numbtongue turned his head as someone tried to thrust a spear at his chest. Garia leapt over him and kicked them away.

Amid the fighting, the sea of legs, the dizzy world fading to blackness, someone sat there. A third ghost. He appeared…tattered. As if parts of him had been forgotten. Like a painting eaten by moths.

A warning. A battle on the longest day of the year. He had barely spoken. Barely done anything. Lost…forgetting even his own name.

Until now. Two vacant eyes focused on the Gnolls. On Numbtongue. His head rose.

“Once. I grew up in this tribe. Ghostly Hand. My name…someone gave me my name. And they called me…”

Numbtongue’s lips moved as a Drake with a crossbow shouldered her companions aside. It rose, tracking his face.

 

——

 

Niers Astoragon saw Numbtongue vanish. He was shouting orders, using his Skills—but he couldn’t see Numbtongue and the Hobgoblin was down. He saw only confusion, Garia struggling alone—

Then a flash. No—the opposite of a flash. A searing bolt of darkness, anti-light, shot upwards. Niers Astoragon saw Ulvama, chanting spells, freeze. He frowned.

“That’s…”

A figure rose up to his feet. He had lost his sword. For a second, Niers feared he was concussed, but then a Drake unit charged him. The Goblin swung around slowly, almost dreamily. He pointed a finger—and another bolt of blackness punched through the [Soldiers]. Two fell over, and the other two fell to their knees, tripping up their companions.

Two more [Deathbolts] followed. The Drakes stared at their companions. One bent to check a pulse.

They found none. Niers’ Skill…the Goblin looked up. Then he stretched a hand upwards to the sky.

Arise!

The dead Drakes began to rise to their feet. Niers saw Ghouls animating—not mere zombies—and they fell on the horrified Drakes around them.

He didn’t know what he was seeing. He had a number of guesses—but as the Hobgoblin wearing Numbtongue’s face turned, his answer came for him. The Goblin began shooting more [Deathbolts] around, and the Drakes died. He pointed his fingers and a swathe of flames lit up Drakes who ran screaming. These ones didn’t die—but the agonizing fire and powerful spell?

A Drake ran at the not-Numbtongue and the Hob slashed across his chest with his claws. Like some kind of [Clawfighter]…

The Drakes fell back from this threat. A higher-level threat. The Goblin turned. He blasted the Drakes around the others. Then, as Garia stumbled back, he opened his eyes and bellowed at the sky.

Goblin Lord!

The [Soldiers] of Bentill gazed up in horror. Their dead companions began to rise as undead. A wall of bone cut off their attacks on Fierre and the others. And that Goblin—Reiss—stood in the center of the army. He pointed up, at the foothills.

Death!

His voice grew louder. Echoing. It was just a volume spell, but Niers himself felt a chill run down his arms.

“What am I seeing, Ulvama?”

She didn’t respond. She’d gone pale. Niers traced the route of Numbtongue’s finger. It wasn’t at him…

“Ah. At last.”

The Titan sighed. The Gnolls of the Lomost tribe stared up at the Goblin Lord, who stood on a dais of bone, a barrier shielding him from arrows and spells. They looked up, and the Drakes of Bentill cried out. The Goblin Lord bellowed a third time, and the answer came from the foothills, from the glowing eyes and pointed teeth of the army, the tribe who wore a handprint of white. The Chieftain who rode on the back of a spider and pointed down.

“Goblin.”

The Ghostly Hand tribe began to race down the hills, some shooting spectral arrows that went through all but the greatest Skills or enchantments. At last—Niers whispered.

“[Fear Me, Your Mortality].”

The Drakes’ nerve broke. They began to flee. Niers stood there, bellowing down.

Encircle them! Force them to surrender! Don’t let up! Tend to the wounded and—

The Goblin Lord had the exact same idea. Entire walls of bone rose, and terrified Drakes surrendered—to the Gnolls they had been trying to kill, rather than the dread Antinium or Goblins. Niers Astoragon finally began to relax.

Apista came to rest next to Bird as he lowered his bow. The bee saluted Niers Astoragon as he stood there. He shook his head.

“I hate irregulars. We did it. But I hate—”

Apista waited for a ‘thank you’, a congratulations, or even a high-feeler. After a few seconds of the Titan grumbling, she did a surprise aileron roll and dumped him off the edge of the cliff.

 

——

 

[Adventurer Level 11!]

[Skill – Slinger’s Whirl obtained!]

[Skill – Deny Parry obtained!]

[Combination Skill – You Go Low, I’ll Go High obtained!]

 

Infinitypear thought that was quite something. First he was Level 3 at the start of this journey, he gained another level from finding the treasure with Rasktooth—then he jumped to Level 8 after the Titan’s dramatic run. Now three more levels for surviving…

Ow.

“Infinitypear? You okay?”

Rasktooth saw the Worker begin to sit up, then lie back; his back shell was burnt and he was lying on his front, a rarity. The Cave Goblin saw Infinitypear nod, then shake his head, and hugged him, laughing.

“You okay!”

Infinitypear realized Rasktooth was also scorched when the Cave Goblin swore. He had…no eyebrows, and most of his hair was gone.

Fire spells. But they were alive, in no small way thanks to Gna, who’d pulled them out, Ulvama’s magic paints, Niers’ Skills, and Gna’s command. Numbtongue distracting the others too, of course, but an expert had given them the longest odds for survival.

In fact, the expert was speaking in a loud, carrying voice as Infinitypear rolled onto his bottom.

“…Enchantments, local leader Skills, and high-level [Strategist] Skills. Throw in some high-level fighters against what are uniform [Soldiers] of a lower level, and you can get a one-sided battle. It was closer than I’d have liked. Most of the Antinium and Goblins weren’t actually higher-level than the [Soldiers]. But thanks to that…transformation, and a few other variables, we made it.”

Infinitypear tilted his head. He saw a tiny man, the one they called the Titan, standing there, assessing the damages. Then Infinitypear realized he was alive. He was alive…

They had made it.

 

——

 

Xeu lost her eye. Since she had two, that was something, but Pivr had lost a wing and the other was damaged beyond repair. He could still glide, but far less quickly than before.

Fortunately, or rather, amazingly, that was as bad as it got.

As bad as it got? Icecube’s wings are shredded! Look!”

Snapjaw cuddled the whining Frost Wyvern, who snapped at Badarrow as he went for his hug.

Touma lost his hand!

Garia shouted back. Snapjaw focused on the upper right arm of Touma’s…which was gone.

“Oh.”

“It’s just a hand. They grow back.”

Bird waved his limbs for emphasis. Touma let Octavia fuss around him, but it was true that injuries were…light.

Healing potions had saved the worst wounds, and the people who’d gone in hard, like Fierre, Numbtongue, Salkis, all had either the levels or healing power to come out the other side. And potions saved lives.

Like, for instance, the Antinium that stood apart even from the others. Ulvama eyed him balefully, but Dirtmouth and Numbtongue both had to grin and clasp hands with him.

“Super Antinium. He all red. Biggest target. Best Antinium.”

Dirtmouth announced. The other Goblins even seemed slightly in awe of him. You had to be something to dye your entire body red.

“So what is your name? His name?”

Numbtongue glanced around, unaware this Soldier could actually make sounds approximating speech. However, Grass Shell turned his head and replied, the first time he had ever spoken.

“The Crimson Soldier.”

Numbtongue blinked.

“Yes, but what is his name?”

“The Crimson Soldier. Are you being silly, Numbtongue?”

Bird looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin opened his mouth and then got it.

That was a name for a Soldier who had none. But how did the other Antinium know that? They had not talked—and The Crimson Soldier had not told them…

Pivr was staring at the other Antinium as Normen leaned on his side. After a while, Pivr spoke.

“Have I regained my social capital, Normen?”

The Brother looked up and grinned.

“If you didn’t from this, a fellow only has to do it until he’s liked.”

“Hm. I find your methods of gaining endearment dangerous, but perhaps effective.”

After all, he was wearing a little bouquet of flowers. Admittedly here, Apista had buzzed over and dropped it on his head, but you had to start small.

 

——

 

Fierre was panting. She was…sated. She also felt like she’d lost her mind for a bit. She licked her lips, trembling slightly. No one had seen her, right? No one had…?

Salkis sat down on a rock next to her. She appeared almost as pleased as Fierre, which was to say half-dead. She nodded.

“Hey. You’re crazy. I saw you tearing out their necks with your teeth.

“What? No, I just—I—I—”

Fierre saw Garia look over from getting her cuts checked. Salkis just grinned at her.

“You’re awesome.”

“Um. T-thanks?”

 

——

 

That was the scene. The fellowship of the ‘we didn’t actually die’, sitting around on the elevated ridgeline, reclining on rocks, fishing food and supplies out of the wagon and packs, chatting—being alive.

Some, like Gothica, were recuperating. She had been healed, but the nasty knock on her head meant she wouldn’t be walking around any time soon. Others, like Ulvama, were eating, literally face over baskets of food.

To be fair, she’d earned it, since she’d cast so much magic, and those not tending to urgent needs, or processing what had happened like Infinitypear, stood with the little man who had perched himself on top of a rock close to head-height.

To this moment came the Gnolls of the Lomost Tribe. A Chieftain, limping, supported by Irry and another Gnoll, slowed as she saw the short Goblin and the Hob regarding each other.

“Chieftain Shaik.”

The Lomost Tribe’s Chieftain looked at the Goblin who’d ridden the spider. She glanced over.

“Chieftain Orni. You alive? Good.”

“And this is…”

Both Chieftains stared at the tiny man. He gave Chieftain Orni a formal bow.

“Niers Astoragon, Titan of Baleros. At your service, Chieftains Shaik, Orni.”

He gave the Goblin a sardonic glance. She blinked at him as her tribe of Goblins of the Ghostly Hand tribe surrounded Badarrow, whom they recognized—and Dirtmouth, a Redfang too.

…And they kept as far away from Snapjaw and Numbtongue as possible. For different reasons. They glared at Snapjaw.

Numbtongue? Some of the Goblins regarded him with a kind of respect. But Chieftain Shaik stared at Numbtongue and the [Soulbard] shifted.

There was a lot to unpack. Yet Niers Astoragon stood at the center of it all, watching. Assessing. He had not gone back in Bird’s hat. You couldn’t put the Fraerling back in the hat. They’d stab you. It stank in there. Mushrooms were beginning to grow.

“I…I feel as though I am dreaming. A terrible dream. First the news of the Drakes. Then an attack—Bentill has betrayed us. Yet we were rescued by…the Titan of Baleros? And our allies.”

Chieftain Orni had to sit down, heavily. She was wounded across the shoulder and either there hadn’t been enough potions or…

“Chieftain Orni. Please. A healing potion?”

“Give it to my warriors, please. We used up so many…and many died, but it would have been a true massacre had you not intervened. You…Goblins. And…”

The Chieftain glanced at Bird and flinched. He smiled, and the Gnolls rustled. Even the Ghostly Hand Goblins eyed him.

“I am Bird. Hello. I am friendly. Like Jexishe, the Friendly Creler.”

Niers covered his face. Orni and Shaik eyed Bird, and even his companions had to look at him. But then the Titan spoke.

“Do you need more guards to mind the Drake prisoners, Chieftain Orni? Thank you for complying with my requests.”

She blinked at him.

“Of course. I…I do not think we can hold so many. Bentill is too close, and we are too few, now.”

She pointed below, at where a huge prisoner camp of the surrendered [Soldiers] and the ‘dead’ had been compiled. Niers had assured the Gnolls the Drakes who’d been killed while under his Skill would wake in exactly twenty four hours from the moment the blow had happened. They could still die of lack of oxygen, though, so they were lined up on the ground.

“Good. I don’t intend to keep them. But I hope you’ll hear me out. The first thing that will happen once Bentill stops being in shock is that they’ll immediately shout that an Antinium-Goblin force attacked them. Before that, I’d like a few things.”

Niers hopped from the rock onto Apista as she flew by. She buzzed past them towards a map Niers had had laid out. The Gnoll Chieftain opened her mouth, clearly overwhelmed, but Niers was talking slowly—for him—and decisively.

“Thank you, Apista. Now, Bentill will try for reinforcements or a counter attack. I’d like us to preempt them. Firstly, by sending word to the Meeting of Tribes and every Drake city and power in the region, telling them exactly what happened. Every tribe needs to be warned they’re in danger. Secondly—informing Bentill that any retaliatory measures means the death of half their soldiers.”

Orni blanched.

“You mean execute them?”

Niers shrugged.

“Tell them the Goblins have them prisoner. That tends to work. Issue an immediate ransom to the tune of one silver and nine coppers per soldier.”

One of the Gnolls looked outraged.

“That’s low. That is—we’re ransoming them? These murderous bastards? They were going to kill all of us!”

Niers snapped his fingers.

“I don’t suggest we forgive Bentill, [Shaman]—I presume that’s your class. However, we must be practical. Request at one point nine per, delivered in the form of potions, then food, then gold for priority. Ultimatum—”

He glanced at the night sky.

“—By sunrise. Not that ‘you’ll’ do anything, but the Goblins will do whatever they do by sunrise. Sunrise for an agreement—they should deliver within the hour, though, via a City Runner and bags of holding. Don’t give them time to do more than react.”

He glanced at Chieftain Shaik who raised her brows. Chieftain Orni was frowning.

“Ransom them.”

“Yes. It’s just for whatever you can gain; as you said, we cannot hold the prisoners, especially once the ‘dead’ ones begin to wake up. Nor can we press Bentill for proper redress, as much as I’m sure you would sorely love to. We have the real value anyways.”

“Which is?”

The [Shaman] snapped. Niers pointed down at the army.

“Arms and armor. Potions too. Strip the [Soldiers], take everything. Horses, any gear they had—Bentill will have to replace it all. They won’t be able to pursue for at least a few days. By then, we should be at least a day out. Of course, that depends on whether Chieftain Shaik is joining us with her tribe.”

The silence that statement provoked was the silence of people catching up. Chieftain Shaik eyed the Titan.

“Go? Where are we going?”

The Goblin watched Niers. He nodded at her.

“Your tribe might be able to hide, although they will come after you, Chieftain Shaik. I honestly can’t promise you it will be safer with Lomost given the situation. However, I will be leading this joint force and the more tribes we can gather, the better.”

“More tribes. Titan—Lord Astoragon, you must slow down.”

Chieftain Orni spoke, shaking her head, dazed. Niers nodded to her, not unsympathetically.

“I know you have lost many of your people, Chieftain Orni. But let me be clear. I am the Titan of Baleros. Chance has led me here. Chance and providence, and, thanks to the bravery of this group—Goblins, Antinium, and other species—we managed to avoid catastrophe. Given the situation, I am requesting command of your soldiers and tribe. Because in a week, or less, this entire region—maybe this entire damn continent—will be a warzone with Drakes versus Gnolls.”

He looked around. The others stirred. Bird’s antennae waved at Niers.

“This is a very big jump. And I would know, I have watched Pivr.”

The Gnolls shuddered and jumped back as Pivr scuttled forwards.

“Hello. Pivr, socially friendly Antinium.”

Niers went on, ignoring Pivr.

“It will be Gnoll tribes versus Drake armies. Maybe some Gnoll tribes or cities will flip, but I think I am looking at a huge species war. I don’t think you’d disagree after this. Any rivalries—any excuse—and both sides will march on the other. To survive, we need to find other tribes in danger and link them up into a fighting force no group of cities will tangle with. And the more [Soldiers], the more dangerous I become.”

His eyes glittered.

“Then we break for the Meeting of Tribes or simply a port. Put our backs to the sea or a cliff. Hells, if it’s truly all Drakes starting the Third Antinium Wars the most idiotic way possible, we’ll have to take a harbor city. Carve out a nation and see how fast we can build walls until the Antinium come calling.”

Everyone was open-mouthed, listening to him. The Titan knew he was getting ahead of himself, but he had to take charge. He strutted along.

“Don’t mind the Antinium. Don’t mind the Goblins. Or rather—do mind them. Yes, I know they’re Antinium and Goblins, but they just pulled you out of the fire. That Goblin in particular was adamant we go down there and fight for your lives, not that I disagreed.”

He pointed at Numbtongue. Orni saw Niers look at her.

“You’re a sensible tribe. An interesting one. You can shake hands with Goblins—these are Free Antinum, by and large.”

Pivr lifted a feeler and opened his mandibles, and closed them slowly. Normen gave him a thumbs-up. He was learning.

“This is too much. Lord Astoragon, we will listen. But this…”

Niers nodded, and turned to the [Shaman].

“Take all the time you need, Chieftain. But I will do what we cannot wait on. Do you have [Message] scrolls, [Shaman]? We need them now for those warnings and that ransom.”

The [Shaman] hesitated, but Irry raised a paw.

“I could—”

“Go. Get me every [Message] scroll you have. Do you have a [Chief Warrior]? [Hunting Leaders]? Every Gnoll who’s not on guard—no, the Ghostly Hand tribe can watch them—get every one of them not grieving, wounded, or unconscious. Shaman, you stand there and think of every Gnoll tribe in the area. Chieftain Shaik.”

“Hah?”

She saluted, a bit mockingly, as Niers whirled to face her. His lips crooked and he gave her a salute in turn.

“Do you want to fight with us? If not, I’d advise you to think of a route away from here. Drake retaliatory armies will be on the way, adventurers too. I’ll split some of the things we took, arms and armor, but we need that ransom.”

The Ghostly Hand’s Chieftain was more up-to-speed than the shocked Gnoll Chieftain. She folded her arms.

“You’re the big [Strategist] from Baleros.”

Niers didn’t even blink.

“The biggest, the best. Accept no Tulms, Perorns, or Bannermares, with respect to all but Tulm. I’m away from my Great Company, as you can tell, but I’m up for side projects on the way back, and that might include saving as many tribes as possible from this disaster. Goblins too.”

She cocked her head, thinking. Then she pointed.

“You’re a funny little man. I like it. Thinking…maybe. Lots of danger, but Drakes attacked Lomost, so we fought.”

She shrugged.

“Good time. Decade of peace. Now time to die again.”

Shaik sighed. Scratched at her head. She was rather young, Numbtongue thought. Not like Rags-young, but…she glanced around.

“Goblins here. Big-important Goblins. So maybe we come. More survive if Titan keeps word.”

“We can make a pact and swear by important concepts.”

Niers was watching her. Shaik shrugged again. She glanced sideways.

“Yes. But one thing before. That Goblin.”

She pointed at Snapjaw, who was tending to Icecube. The other Ghostly Hand Goblins glared at her. Shaik’s finger pointed then to Numbtongue.

“…Is something wrong?”

The Ghostly Hand Chieftain grinned at Niers Astoragon. She nodded.

That Goblin was a Chieftain who served the Goblin Lord. And that Goblin has ghosts.”

Niers’ head turned. So did the Gnoll [Shaman], and everyone in earshot. Numbtongue started as Shaik gave him a knowing glance. She stared pointedly past him, past Pyrite and Shorthilt, at the Goblin staring at her. Her eyes narrowed.

“He has the Goblin who became Lord. The traitor of my tribe. She served him. He carries the ghost. It is small thing. Just for me and my tribe.”

Shaik stared at Numbtongue.

“The Goblin Lord killed the last Chieftain. Mother. We did not go with him.”

Some of the Hobs following her calmly put their hands on their weapons’ hilts. Shaik waved a claw at them. She stared at Numbtongue.

“So, small problem.”

 

——

 

Niers Astoragon let Numbtongue walk away with Chieftain Shaik. If she tried to kill him or he her…it was a risk you had to take. She didn’t seem vengeful, which was good.

“Ghostly Hand tribe. Good tribe. Strong magic. Not just [Shamans]. Good mushrooms too. And spiders.”

Ulvama whispered to him. Niers Astoragon grunted.

“Yes, thank you. I can see their rideable Shield Spiders.”

He eyed the giant, flat insects and shuddered. Nests of those bastards. The one thing he was glad he hadn’t run into on his journey to The Wandering Inn.

“Can you tell me anything strategic?

“You don’t boss me.”

Ulvama narrowed her eyes and went to poke him. Niers half-unsheathed his sword and the finger stopped.

“I boss everyone. Poke me, go ahead. You get ten tries.”

She hesitated. Niers Astoragon pointedly re-sheathed the sword.

“I know you’re not stupid, Great Shaman of the Flooded Waters tribe. I’m here to rescue Mrsha, so let’s not play idiotic games.”

She thought about it, folded her arms, and sighed.

Fine. The Ghostly Hand tribe refused to fight for Velan the Kind. They are…a power among tribes. In the south. I don’t know them well. But they could probably have killed Bentill’s army themselves.”

Niers nodded.

“Nice mushrooms. I saw their effects. I want them. Can you make sure that Numbtongue isn’t in trouble for…harboring ghosts?”

Ulvama shrugged. She eyed Numbtongue with interest.

“I can try. What can you promise Ghostly Hand? They know they’re in danger, but better to run than get caught up in Gnoll civil war, eh?”

“They’ll have a hard time finding anywhere safe with all eyes on us. Tell them…well, tell them you could take them to your tribe in the High Passes.”

The [Shaman] recoiled slightly, then caught herself. Niers traded another look with her.

“Don’t worry. If I wanted anyone dead, they’d be dead. Right now I’m playing, ‘let’s save Mrsha and keep the Gnolls from being wiped out’. Your Goblin tribe is not my job. Not unless I think I see another Goblin King.”

He went back to studying the map and notes on other Gnoll tribes. They were going to have to move like spit. Ulvama saw the tent flaps open and Bird entered.

“Niers.”

The tiny man sighed.

“What, Bird? Now that you’re no longer my cover, you know that you can do whatever you want, right?”

Bird nodded his head.

“I could always do that. But I am still in charge.”

Niers and Ulvama slowly blinked at Bird. The Titan coughed.

“…I’m the Titan of Baleros, Bird. I’ve revealed myself and taken charge of at least the Lomost Tribe. We’re organizing to link up with other tribes.”

The Antinium smiled brightly.

“Yes, but I said I was in charge at the start of this adventure.”

“That was at my behest, Bird.”

“Yes, but I said so. Therefore I am still in charge. So what are we doing? I will tell you if you can do this. Which is probably yes because you are smart, but I am in charge.”

He walked over and put all four hands on the table. Niers looked at Ulvama.

“Hex him for me.”

The [Shaman] grinned. Niers walked around the map, sighing.

“The goal’s not changed. The method has, but the goal has not. In fact, I regard this as a net positive since we lost Mrsha’s trail.”

Bird frowned with his mandibles and antennae. So did Ulvama.

“What do you mean? We are now joining Gnoll tribes. That is not saving Mrsha. We cannot move fast, you said.”

“Oh, we’ll move fast for an entire tribe. Just not at the pace I want. And we’re still doing that. Saving Mrsha, that is. Keep up.”

The Titan had a twinkle in his eyes. Ulvama looked at him as more figures entered the tent. In came Shaik, Orni, who appeared more composed after a rest, Numbtongue, Badarrow, and Snapjaw, who stood well clear of Shaik. A few more Hobs and Gnolls walked in.

“Welcome to the first war council. I’ve outlined the basic course we’re going to take as soon as that ransom rolls in and we’re patched up. We break camp, we take everything, find other tribes, and go. But as I was saying, this is to protect the Lomost tribe and Ghostly Hand tribe…but also to accomplish some selfish goals.”

The Gnolls and Goblins exchanged looks. Niers explained.

“This band came together to go after a little Gnoll girl who was kidnapped. It comes from Liscor and it’s the reason so many disparate factions are working together. I will be honest; that will still be our mission, but I promise you that I will not endanger us all unnecessarily if I can. But that is my goal.”

“A Gnoll child?”

Orni started. It was Shaik who narrowed her eyes.

“Ah. Mrsha. Little cute white Gnoll.”

Everyone made fish-eyes at her, but she just snorted.

“We watch scrying orb. Liscor? You have soccer balls?”

Niers snorted.

“The scrying orbs? Wistram has them bugged.”

He ignored Shaik swearing in alarm, but went on.

“Yes. A white Gnoll girl. Who is not a ‘Doombringer’, and I would dearly like to talk with a [Shaman] about that. But our mission is to rescue her from whoever’s got her, or find her, and certainly protect her from a bunch of [Hunters] who have made it their job to kill a little girl whose only fault is that she steals people’s food. If you have reservations, kindly state them now and I’ll stab you and get it over with.”

His audience looked at each other, mostly the Lomost tribe. Orni shook her head slowly.

“There are…reasons. And danger, Lord Astoragon. But this is greater than one Doombr—we would not object to that.”

Niers smiled tightly. Excellent. From the way the [Shaman] shifted, intelligence was present. An army—he glanced at the Goblins. Two armies, with unique abilities, and it furthered his goals of investigating the Goblins anyways.

This was what he needed. But as Ulvama and Bird had said—Numbtongue fixed Niers with a look.

“I don’t know you. You were in Bird’s…hat. You’re the Titan of Baleros.”

“And you’re Numbtongue. I saw you back at the inn, but only Mrsha knew about me. We can reminisce later. Do you have a point now?

The Hobgoblin hesitated. Then he pointed at the map.

“This isn’t saving Mrsha. This is an army. This is…important, but…”

He struggled.

“…Mrsha is in danger. We need to help her. Maybe you lead the army, we go?”

Niers shook his head.

“Go where? Without me you’d never have gotten this far. Stick with me, Numbtongue. We’ll have [Trackers], information, and other tribes on our side. But mostly, this is the best way to save Mrsha. I would know. I am a [Strategist].”

He tapped the side of his head, ironically. Then folded his hands behind his back. His eyes began to twinkle.

“Besides, now we’ve got her, we do need to keep her safe. Her and her companion. I really want to know how those hunters go after her with a Gnoll tribe guarding her, but I want it put out—no one harms Mrsha, got it?”

Ulvama looked blankly at him. Numbtongue’s brows crossed. Bird tilted his head.

“Niers has lost his mind. We do not have Mrsha. I would notice.”

“Shut up, Bird. Didn’t you see her in camp?”

“…Is this like Jexishe? Is she invisible? Why am I being lied to?

Bird ran outside, angrily. Then he stopped. Uttered a swear-word Niers had no idea he knew. Ran back inside.

Mrsha is out there.

Numbtongue nearly bowled him over. He ran out, stared at the white Gnoll sitting there, stared at the adult white Gnoll, and ran back inside.

“That’s not Mrsha.”

Bird paused from running around screaming to poke his head out. He walked outside, and came back as Ulvama blinked. Then she realized what was going on and looked at Niers with something like respect.

“No, that is not Mrsha.”

Niers Astoragon chuckled. Ulvama glowered at him.

“That’s my paint.”

“Well, I’ll damn well pay you for it. Yes, Numbtongue. We have Mrsha. And if anyone wants to kill her, well, they’d better bring a real army.”

The [Bard]’s eyes widened as he caught on to what Niers was saying. The Titan smiled tightly.

“If you can’t get to her to save her, you might as well take the heat of the pursuit, eh? The official stance of every tribe who links up with us, along with ‘Drakes are not going to kill us’, is ‘Doombringers are fine’. And we’ll let our volunteers walk around safely away from any [Snipers] or [Assassins].”

Orni stared at Niers, and Shaik cackled with delight.

“Ah, chessmaster!”

Niers gave her another salute. Who needed chess when you could play on this many levels? He exhaled, slowly.

“Alright. I’ve finally got a good position. We’ll keep my name hidden for now. Nothing like amateur [Armchair Generals] for overconfidence if they have a simple numerical advantage. Now let’s go kick some heads in.”

 

——

 

That was six days ago. Chaldion of Pallass stared at the map of ongoing conflicts. It was just a hunch, which no one else was privy to.

Connect the dots. The Titan of Baleros was on Izril, but like someone of his size, people forgot about his presence far too fast. As if a Giant stopped moving and suddenly turned invisible.

A suspicious turnaround victory…rapid mobilization. It could just be luck, unforeseen factors, and there were certainly many, many elements at play that Chaldion had no control over.

Even so. Six days of march time was not a boon you gave to a poor [Strategist]. To the Titan?

Of course, it was not a given that the Titan would be Pallass’ enemy. On the contrary, Chaldion had the feeling the Titan was not about to support wholesale massacres of Gnoll tribes. It could be interests aligned, at least along the intersection that brought the entire tale back around Liscor.

The thing was…Chaldion eyed the game board, dangerously unstable despite his best efforts. Manus, Zeres, Oteslia, Salazsar, Fissival, each pursuing their own goals, armies on the move. The tribes, as furious as they’d ever been; Drake cities, each acting in their own selfish interests. The problem was not that the Titan was on the board.

The problem was that the Titan lived for this kind of game. He had a habit—which was that he tended to fight everything on the damn board.

Worse?

He had students.

 

——

 

“Looks like a running battle. Ever seen the like, Wil? Merrik? Peki?”

It was a strange habit of [Strategists], to stand there and watch during a battle while lives were lost and won. The Gnoll mercenaries, led by Berr, were almost frothing at the mouth to jump into it. They didn’t berserk—yet—but Wil Kallinad edged away from the one shaking in place.

“Calm down.”

Someone smacked the Gnoll on the back of the head, and he froze and ducked his head; though, his eyes were locked on the conflict.

Honored Berr, Berrigal the Berserker, was a tiny Gnoll…unless he was fighting. He went around ‘gently’ calming down the other Gnolls of the Wild Wastes tribe. Even the Human and his minders—another [Berserker] who Berr had insisted they take along.

So many [Barbarians] and [Berserkers]. This was the most unique mercenary outfit that Wil had ever worked with. In Terandria, he’d have hired [Duelists], [Knights] if an Order would consent to the cause, or generic [Sellswords] and [Mages] like an adventuring team. Some balanced group, good at ranged attacks given their small size, which could hold defensive positions.

This group was all-melee, all in-your-face fighting, and the most offensive classes you could find. Wil didn’t like it, but his eyes were glued on the battle.

Venaz stood there, carefully putting his back to the overhang of stone above the cave they’d hit when they sensed the battle. He grunted as a centipede slithered past him, but didn’t move. They were keeping in cover, gazing down at the battlefield.

One of the Wild Wastes Gnolls growled.

“Strategists. Are we going to watch?

Berr stomped on his foot as he passed.

“Shut up. We’re employed. You’re as bad as my sons.”

“Honored Berr! That’s the Hekitr Tribe!”

“And we’re letting our employers decide. I’m glad I didn’t take my sons after all. They’d be halfway down there and you all would be following along. Control yourselves. You especially, young man.”

He patted the Human’s shoulder. Wil eyed the rictus of clenched teeth on the Human [Berserker]’s face. Berr spoke to him.

“Control yourself.”

“I can’t hold it in, Honored Berr!”

“Yes, you can. When you fight, it will come out. You can wait for that moment. Wait…

Wil tuned the voices out. He focused on the battle. Peki and Merrik were shifting, but Wil and Venaz were the calmest of the lot as true representatives of their class. [Strategists] liked elevation. They were taught to observe first. Observe fast, but Niers had hammered it home into them. Wait. If you’re in a position to influence a battlefield as an ambusher—make it count.

“War in Izril. Drakes and Gnolls. That’s the last thing we need. If I were more suspicious of his character, I’d wonder if the Professor set it off.”

“Don’t be stupid, Venaz. To what purpose?”

The Minotaur shrugged.

“If it were Dullahans and Centaurs—what’s your appraisal of the battle, you two? How do [Officers] see it?”

Peki and Merrik looked up. The Dwarf grunted.

“Not my style. I’d be that army pursuing the tribe. Hekitr? They’ve got their non-combatants out of the way. It’s like fighting Peki, right?”

“Not me.”

The Garuda [Martial Artist] folded her wing-arms. Merrik snorted.

“Exactly like you. They just used traps instead of direct attacks.”

“Not like me. I don’t use traps.”

“And that’s why you failed our course on…”

Wil ignored them too. Sure enough, the Gnoll warriors were racing ahead of a slow-moving Drake army that was understandably cautious to give pursuit, even with their mounted divisions. They’d tried—and run straight into bear traps, hidden tripwires in the tall grass, and harassing fire.

“Nice slowing tactics. Unfortunately, that army won’t stop. And there’s a second force in the region.”

Peki frowned. Merrik hesitated from nodding, and the Wild Wastes tribe looked sharply at Venaz. Wil saw Venaz glance at him. The Minotaur was breathing steadily, but he had adjusted the green diamond greatsword on his back. Ready to draw it.

“Do you concur, Wil?”

“Looks like it.”

“How do you know?”

One of the Gnolls demanded angrily. Wil pointed down.

“Baggage trains. This army’s carrying far too much; also, you can count the pennants and other regalia. I see a gap in their numbering.”

“And they don’t have nearly as many riders as a Drake army traditionally sports. That’s anecdotal, but it’s not even a 1:16 split from infantry to horse. Besides…look at them. They’re setting fires, wasting the Gnoll tribe’s lands. Boxing them in. There’s a natural ridge up ahead. The tribe heads that way, they get boxed in.”

Venaz pointed it out and Wil nodded. Textbook. He bit his tongue.

“If we go down there, we’re embroiled in Izrilian politics, Venaz. We’re bound for Liscor. To the Professor.

“Wil. Are you suggesting we let this tribe perish?”

Venaz folded his arms. Wil blinked a few times.

“No…but this isn’t our home. We’re not invincible.”

“Then we’ll be careful. I will, carefully, join Berr and the Wild Wastes tribe. You contact the Hekitr tribe and we’ll ambush the ambushers. Merrik? Your preference?”

“Give me a defensive line any time. Wil and I hold the line, you and Peki go in?”

Merrik nodded. The Gnoll [Mercenaries] watched them. The four students exchanged glances. Were they doing this? Wil took a deep breath. He put a hand on the hilt of his shortsword.

“One amendment to the plan, Venaz.”

The Minotaur looked carefully at him. Wil touched the Sword of Serept and three Wils stood there.

“I’ve got two extra lives. Put one of me in the vanguard.”

The Minotaur grinned and slapped one of the Wils on the back. They began to race via cover to the ambush site. Wil kept cursing as he ran, panting, to keep up since their horses were too noticeable.

Ailendamus and home. The Titan and Liscor! Damn, damn—

But he had found the Titan’s promised adventure.

 

——

 

Her friends were idiots. Because she knew that, knew their personalities, Yerranola was not surprised when Feshi burst into their tents.

“Strange medicine.”

She finished staring at the powdered yellow flower before mixing it into the small vial of liquid she personally imbibed. Her Selphid-body relaxed.

The pain was gone. It crept back and she knew she had to take the next dose, along with her antidote. So many mysteries.

“Say it again, Feshi?”

“They just joined the Hekitr tribe. The tribes are under attack! There are armies marching along the Great Plains.”

“Continental war?”

The Selphid saw her friend blanch. That was a name for a very specific kind of war. Civil wars could be between peoples, a nation or kingdom. Magic wars took place over dimensions you couldn’t fathom, and so on.

Continental war was one step below the greatest of battlefronts—intercontinental conflicts. Technically, it was only south Izril…but that was a huge place. Intercontinental war? Well, the last time that had happened, the King of Destruction had launched attacks from Chandrar after beating every invasion force running.

“So what are we doing, Feshi? Going after them?”

“I—I can’t. Weatherfur needs me. Some of the tribes want to take the battle to the Drake armies, some want to just hold ground, and they have rivalries—but there will be fighting here.”

Yerranola nodded reasonably.

“Then we trust Wil and Merrik to do the smart thing and keep Venaz and Peki alive. Don’t obsess over it, Feshi. This is our battlefield.”

And they had work to do. Her friend calmed down as Yerranola stood up. Suddenly, the Selphid felt better. Just in time too.

“The Meeting of Tribes wasn’t designed as a defensive position. It’s flat. We need earthworks. Actual walls, defenses.”

Yerranola emerged from her tent, talking and arguing with Feshi. The Gnoll gritted her teeth.

“I know. We have countless Gnolls and lots of [Shamans]—but you can’t just start building a defensive line, Yerra.”

“Why not?”

“This is Az’muzarre’s land. Also, the Chieftains need to agree—”

“To make defenses? Feshi, I thought your people were smart. Let’s just grab some expert. Who would that be. Gaarh Marsh?”

“I—yeah.”

“They can build earthworks outside the Meeting of Tribes. Just a dirt-fort like the Professor had us do with [Geomancers]…are we the only two people thinking about this? Where are all the Gnoll [Generals] and [Strategists]?”

“They’re usually combined with [Chieftains]. Yerra, if the enemy reaches us here, it’s a worst-case scenario. The tribes won’t sit in forts; they’ll attack any Drake army on the march. It’s how they’ve won every war when the Drakes tried to push into the Great Plains.”

Yerra nodded reasonably and rolled her eyes.

“And so they have no fallback plan. Does that remind you of any historical defeats?”

Feshi hesitated and the Selphid patted her on the shoulder.

“Let’s call it a ‘just-in-case’ fort. The Drakes have the Walled Cities; the Gnolls should probably have had at least one big capital.”

“We used to.”

Feshi muttered. Yerra strode faster, trying to think. Diplomacy getting in the way of strategy. Yuck. She wasn’t in pain, but she couldn’t help but feel a pang in her host body’s stomach. After all…there was another name for this war neither she nor Feshi had used. Because that would be the worst scenario.

Interspecies war.

The question was if the Gnoll tribes were united enough to hold their ground. They certainly were if an army came marching at them. But going on the offense, fighting as one?

 

——

 

There was an undercurrent in the Meeting of Tribes. Sudden poison. It leaked in, amid the outrage and shock, and it lay there, a line of suspicion. Drawn by that damn Drake, with just words.

Traitors. Allies to the Walled Cities in engineering this plot. So, even as Gire sat, playing ‘Five Paws’ with Mrsha, where you tapped each other’s paws in a complex child’s game of reaction and basic tactics, she listened.

“Ekhtouch will not join Woven Bladegrass on an offensive attack, Chieftain Werri. If an army crosses the water-line…”

An old marking around the Great Plains, the furthest point which any [Shaman] could call water from the rivers crossing through the region. Often noted as an absolute border, which Drake forces could not cross.

Her mind clicked to these facts as Mrsha tried to slap one of her paws. She kept missing, and Gire didn’t attack Mrsha’s own paws. The Gnoll girl slapped with both paws and Gire’s paw blurred left and right.

“Then we will go with Tribes who will prevent that from happening, Chieftain Firrelle. When an army does march, I hope you will join the defense.”

Firrelle’s voice was cold as she spoke to another Chieftain—the fierce leader of the new Woven Bladegrass tribe.

“Rest assured, Ekhtouch will be there, Chieftain Werri.”

The other Chieftain stalked away with a group of Gnolls representing other tribes. Gire thought of the conversation.

Then Woven Bladegrass would be conducting its own battles with its alliance. At the same time, other tribes would hold the Great Plains, responding to an incursion. They were all on the same side…but tribes would fight and die with only their closest allies, rather than forming one unified army.

In that case—what side was Ekhtouch on? Gire stared at Mrsha and hoped it was Silverfang’s. But—

“I’m Mri. Stop! Stop!”

Mrsha, exasperated, toggled her speaking stone. She pointed at Gire’s paws which she had been unable to tag once after an entire minute.

“No one beats me at Five Paws, Mrsha. I could close my eyes and only use one hand. Sometimes the children can touch me—but they’re the ones who’re the best at Triumphs. I don’t think you can do it.”

Mrsha’s eyes narrowed. Her paws blurred.

Don’t you mock me, you giant Yellat! I am Mrsha the Great and Terrible. Take—

Her two-armed attack missed Gire’s one paw. Gire lifted it up, moved it left, right, as Mrsha punched and furiously struck at her paw, trying to touch Gire’s palm-pad. She missed. In her fury, she launched into a flying kick at Gire’s stomach.

Take th—

Gire caught her by one leg. Mrsha dangled there upside-down and saw the nine-foot tall Gnoll give her a reproachful look.

“Kicking me is cheating.”

Mrsha tried to punch Gire, but her flailing limbs were far too short to reach the [Paragon]. Realizing she was failing even there, she reached for something. Gire saw her draw a wand and—

[Mudball]!

An orb of mud shot forwards at Gire’s face. Mrsha felt the [Paragon] let go. She landed and saw Gire dodge the [Mudball] at point blank range. She swung her head just under it, and a foot rose, sweeping sideways and up like—

Like Ryoka’s best kick. Only it wasn’t a spinning hook but a roundhouse, the shin coming towards Mrsha’s head with bone-crushing force—

Gire halted well clear of Mrsha and frowned.

“Don’t do that, Mrsha. I nearly kicked you.”

Mrsha stared at the giant leg. She nodded slowly and raised her paws.

Five Paws was a stupid game, anyways. For children. Only someone without class or dignity would try too hard to win or cheat.

Gire yawned. Mrsha saw her sit back down, cross legged.

“Okay. I forgive you. What do you want to do next?”

Mrsha sat there, panting a bit. She had done her best, but Gire had truly not even been strained, even by Mrsha’s most underhanded Lism-tactics. Her [Mrsha Kick], developed from the Relc-school of fighting arts, had done nothing!

It was true what Gire had said this morning. Even this game with Mrsha the Incredibly Athletic…was making the [Paragon] bored. For the first time, she was patently bored but, like the growing girl she was, clearly trying to make herself look interested for Mrsha’s benefit.

“We can play other games if you want. Like football.”

Mrsha’s eyes narrowed. Was she being patronized? It was the kind of thing big kids said to others, like Visma’s big brother. She had heard Satar use that exact same tone of voice when Cers begged to play.

Mrsha had never recognized it before, but her new friendship made it obvious in Gire. The Gnoll [Paragon] smiled at her. Mrsha folded her arms and sat like Gire.

No way. I’m a big girl. Let’s do something fun.

Gire nodded reasonably, but she was distracted.

“We could…go get something to eat? I can pay for whatever you want.”

Mrsha’s ears twitched. She saw the too-casual look on Gire’s face as she glanced towards the Meeting of Tribes. And these treats would just happen to be in line with Chieftain Torishi’s orders that Mrsha was an honored guest, eh? Nothing to do with a certain big Gnoll girl being prohibited from anything but her specific diet.

I could use some food. Let’s get snacks!

Gire smiled eagerly and picked Mrsha up. With Mrsha riding on her shoulders like she did with Moore, Gire trotted to the entrance of the Ekhtouch tribe.

“Where are you going, Gire? You have lessons.”

“I’m taking our guest out.”

The Ekhtouch Gnolls exchanged glances. But Firrelle was busy and Gire pointed to some Gnolls who looked up.

“We will ask Weatherfur to accompany us. We cannot be rude to the Silverfangs, can we? Or Weatherfur?”

“No…”

The [Guard] drew out the word with clear reluctance. Gire didn’t wait for a counterargument, so she strode with Mrsha as the Weatherfur Gnolls followed. Mrsha sniffed the air and saw Gire brighten with delight.

“Miss Qwera said that you can buy whatever you want as long as it doesn’t ruin your appetite. And she gave you money, didn’t she?”

Mrsha gave Gire a superior look and signed with her paws.

Give me money? Do I look like a Peon? I’ve got lots of gold.

Gire blinked.

“Really? How much? I have sixty one gold coins, you know. All from odd jobs or monsters I killed and such. A lot of money; Ekhtouch doesn’t give me an allowance.”

She seemed rather proud of that. Mrsha sighed and patted her on the head. Good for you. She saw Gire frown, and thus had to show her the bag of holding with so many gold coins in it that Gire’s eyes popped.

“How did you get that? Did Qwera give…?”

The Golden Gnoll? She wasn’t that generous. No, this was Wer’s bad-luck money. Mrsha hoped he was okay…but the upshot was that no food was out of reach. Anything was fair game, from the free stalls to the most expensive luxury items.

“Mrsha…you’ll share with me, right? I shared my breakfast with you.”

Mrsha gagged at the memory of the steamed health buns, but she nodded munificently. She sniffed the air, and, like a [Sailor] clinging to the bird’s eye mast—which was Gire’s head—she pointed. The giant Gnoll made her way through the crowd.

Gnolls turned and stared at Gire, of course, but ironically, this was, in a way, safer than Mrsha being alone. People saw Gire and the tiny Gnoll cub and thought—well, that had to be Ekhtouch’s [Paragon] and some Gnoll kid. Mrsha, with her brown fur and painted gold ears, was probably with the Golden Gnoll of Izril, and none of them stopped to think about her being alone, a white Gnoll, or her lack of speaking.

Besides, Mrsha had her speaking stone setup.

“Left. Left…I want that.”

The first stall they stopped at was offering a rare food. The [Stall Manager] looked suspicious, but the first handful of silver coins Mrsha plonked down was enough to make him call to the special [Chef].

Both were Drowned Folk, incidentally, one Human, one Drake. But they were also part sea-folk, so they weren’t as hostilely regarded. Mrsha saw one huge eye blink at her as the Drake with long tendril arms—three on his Drowned Folk side—reached for a cleaver, a pot lid, and the cage with the fresh ingredients.

“What’s that you want?”

He didn’t have the same resonance as Seborn’s voice, but the half-Squid Drowned Drake was a fascination to Mrsha. Gire answered for her.

“Um…it looks really good. All of it. Mrsha, what are we getting?”

The Drowned Man saw the strange Gnoll girl point to one of the items listed. The [Stall Owner] blinked.

“An entire grilled lobster?”

“And that!”

The girl insisted. The [Chef] grinned.

“Spiced lobster tail? I cut off the tail, prepare it—and the rest’s the Sailor’s Grill? You have expensive tastes, little girl. Can you pay for it?”

For answer, the Gnoll girl reached into her bag of holding and slapped a gold coin on the counter. She stared challengingly at the [Chef], who laughed uproariously, then read the piece of paper she pushed over the counter.

My friend’s a [Rogue] who was at sea. He is a Drowned Man. I also know a [Pirate].

“Ah, you know a Drowned Man? And a [Pirate]? Well, I’ll give you the best lobster we have, then. How about…this one?”

He pulled out a big lobster. Mrsha brightened up. Gire licked her lips.

“M-Mri. You can’t eat all of that, can you? I guess I’ll have to eat the rest…”

Mrsha nodded, smiling at her big friend who looked alive again. Salivating as the [Chef] asked how spicy Mrsha wanted her food.

“It’ll take twelve minutes. [Fast Boiling] on the water…come back within thirty or it’ll lose the taste, got it? I won’t forget your faces.”

Mrsha nodded. Then she grabbed Gire’s hand and pointed.

Onwards, then!

“We’re not going to wait for it?”

Mrsha the Impatient gave Gire a look of scorn. Wait? For twelve minutes? She had to grant the Drowned Man chef that it might be fascinating to watch, but she had scented something else on the breeze.

No lobster snack is okay without second snacks! Buy that, buy that!

She pointed instantly at another cart, where a specialized half-Elf vendor was selling a very peculiar stock.

“All the way from Terandria! Gelato! Special containers—it’ll last for up to four hours so long as you keep it away from heat!”

She had come from Terandria, at great time and effort, travelled all the way to the Great Plains with her cargo and knowhow, and paid for the recipe and materials. It was a huge expense—and this particular half-Elf had recouped her expenses in the first day. She was here after months doing victory laps and establishing her savings fund for retirement.

“Is that…ice magic?”

Mrsha stared at the half-Elf. There was a reason she’d been drawn to the half-Elf, although she seemed nothing like Ceria. Oh, they were both half-immortal Elves, but this woman was far older, with wrinkles, and even reddish hair.

“Hello there. Are you interested in a bit of gelato? Ice cream? It’s not cheap, but I can sell you a scoop. Just one second while I finish this order.”

The half-Elf was creating something amazing for a customer. Children watched, although most couldn’t afford to buy even a scoop of the stuff without getting a silver coin from their parents. Mrsha saw a big dollop placed in the center of what the half-Elf was creating.

A basin of frozen ice, which she made out of water set into a wooden mold. She closed the simple lid and offered the entire thing to the Gnoll waiting to run it over to his Chieftain’s tribe.

“And it won’t, uh, melt?”

“It’s good for hours. You can even keep it frozen.”

The half-Elf assured him. She sat back, stretching the lower half of her back, just in time to see Gire’s head rise. Mrsha had been writing urgently so she wouldn’t have to hand cards over. Gire cleared her throat.

“Excuse me, are you a [Cryomancer] by any chance? I—I mean, my friend Mri knows a half-Elf [Cryomancer]. She’d also like to buy some gelato.”

The half-Elf peered down at the little girl, but she had spotted Mrsha making the lobster order.

“Well, that’s very interesting. I’m not a [Cryomancer]. I’m simply a [Naturalist Mage]. My specialization is magic in combination with existing things. No giant walls of ice unless I’m standing near a lake, I’m afraid. What’s your friend’s name? We might know each other.”

Gire hesitated, but Mrsha pretended to ‘whisper’ in her ear.

“Ceria Springwalker.”

The half-Elf vendor slipped slightly as she went to clean the knife she’d been cutting the gelato into portions with. She didn’t cut herself, but she stared at Mrsha.

“Ceria…I know that name. Isn’t that the adventurer who was—?”

Gire herself had recalled the name and was giving Mrsha a strange look. The Gnoll girl nodded proudly, defiantly clinging to Gire’s paw. Ceria wasn’t dead! Ksmvr was alive, and doing silly things in Chandrar. So Pisces and Yvlon were okay, and Ceria too!

But that wasn’t what had the half-Elf blinking. She rubbed at her face.

“Springwalker. I’ve been to their village. Springwalker…I don’t know her in particular, but I do know where she came from.”

Mrsha’s ears perked up. Oh? She’d always thought Springwalker was a last name. Apparently not.

“We name ourselves after our homes. Springwalker is a Terandrian village. In fact—it’s known for water-related gifts. Hence the name. I went there to learn some purity magics. It’s a very traditional village…although it’s had a bit of unrest. It always does. I’m sorry, that is quite amazing. You’re a well-travelled girl, aren’t you? Mri? Where do you come from?”

Gire saw Mrsha hesitate. Behind her, some Gnolls with Weatherfur’s dye looked up. This was what Torishi and everyone who knew Mrsha worried about. For a girl who couldn’t talk, she had a fat mouth.

 

——

 

A scowling Gnoll with fur like metal found he was actually sinking into the earth. He shifted his posture, but he was so heavy that he was literally twice the weight of some other Gnolls his height.

Even so, that made Adetr into an unstoppable warrior. One of the greatest to emerge from the Steelfur clan. He was something of a loner, but a respected battle leader and, the stories said, possibly Iraz’s successor by nature of his Skills.

That was why other Steelfur Gnolls, who themselves had the classic metal fur that made their tribe so renowned and feared on the battlefield, eyed Adetr as he lounged against a wooden post.

He never relaxed and had said publicly he wouldn’t ‘waste his time’ at the Meeting of Tribes. He just stalked around using his battle-prediction Skills. And yet here he was, clearly waiting near the food section.

“You’re late.

He growled as someone approached. The Steelfur Gnolls pointing at him saw a young Human woman hurry over. Ah, that explained everything. But who would have thought? Adetr?

The [Battle Seeker]’s glare hurried off the members of his tribe as Rose stopped.

“Sorry. Everything’s in chaos. So…d’you want to sit and talk?”

She glanced around. Adetr touched the Ring of Silence he’d brought.

“Anywhere is fine. Let’s talk again. You were explaining the history of where your people passed ours. The…dark times?”

“Medieval ages. The dark ages is a nickname.”

Rose sighed. She peered around wistfully.

“You don’t want to get anything to eat first? Explore the Meeting of Tribes?”

This was a habit of theirs. A somewhat uneasy habit, but Krshia had agreed with Rose that it had to be done, or Adetr would have only a half-truth without explanations. Still…Rose was tired of feeling like a history professor teaching a student who knew nothing of Earth—at all—the history of everything. Especially because Adetr had seen…

Modern warfare. He’d fought tanks, seen the effects of guns against his tribe, and, Rose couldn’t believe this, had even been hit by some kind of aerial bombardment. Even maybe a nuke.

Adetr was a [Battle Seeker]. He was also a fine warrior, or so she was told, but one of his Skills, a rarity among any normal person, was [Vision of Greatest Battle]. It allowed him to see…well, what it would be like to fight someone else.

And apparently on an Earther, it meant he was suddenly fighting soldiers from her world armed with modern weaponry. That had freaked Rose out, especially because Adetr had nearly gone crazy, thinking this army existed and might go on the attack.

However, Adetr really was an oddity. [Battle Seeker] was a strange class, and he was a single-minded Gnoll. He glanced around, and Rose sniffed the air more eagerly than he did.

“I’ll pay for something if you have to eat.”

“You don’t want anything? Really?”

“No. It’s just food. I thought you Humans from…”

Adetr hesitated, looking around.

“…your home would have better food than this, anyways.”

“Not magic food. And besides, good food is good food. Let’s just walk around a tiny bit before we get back to talking. Please?”

“Gah—fine. You know I’m busy. Steelfur might have to fight the Drakes soon so I have to go. Not that I’d mind that, but I need to know…everything.”

“Well, I’m not telling you how to make anything.”

“I don’t need to know that. Yet. Just how my tribe’s supposed to survive.”

Adetr stalked after Rose. She sighed. Why couldn’t her Gnoll contact be…well, someone like Tkrn? Inkar, that lovely young woman from Kazakhstan, who rode like a seasoned [Rider], fit so well into the tribe that clearly loved and appreciated her, had Tkrn, who was smitten.

Rose got Adetr, who stalked along behind her like a giant metal shark, such that even the other Gnolls got out of the way. She might have decided he was too…insane and refused to meet with him at all except for one thing.

Adetr didn’t look at Rose like some psychotic war-hungry fighter. He was surly, bad-tempered, focused on only military matters or ‘how strong Humans were’, and so on. But she caught the expression in his eyes now and then, the same as when he had first accosted her.

He was afraid. He had experienced a war completely unlike battles he understood, and he saw how dangerous it might be to everything he cared about.

So Rose did her best. Not only to educate in a limited sense, but also to…convince him.

“So, um…the Drakes declaring war on the Gnolls. Are you worried?”

“Chieftain Iraz is. He’ll decide if we go out and fight. We’ll probably just hold the Great Plains. I’m not worried about that.

The metal Gnoll saw Rose glance back at him.

“Not about Gnolls and Drakes fighting?”

He shrugged.

“I’ve seen some of the Drakes’ best. We have amazing warriors too. If it happens, it happens. Neither side can toss the other over and the Great Plains have never been taken when the tribes gather. I’m more worried about something else. What do you want? Let’s get it and find a seat. You can have as much tea and snacks at the Steelfur camp as you want.”

…And there he went again. Rose sighed. They drifted by a stall with a delicious seafood grill and she stopped to stare at it.

“Oh my gosh. Lobster?

“I’m not buying that.”

Adetr checked the prices and instantly glared at her. Rose raised her hands.

“I can pay for myself, thanks! Anyways, who could eat an entire lobster? For a snack?”

“I don’t know. You’ve been eating every day we ‘talk’.”

“Don’t be rude. I don’t know why I—”

Rose went to shove Adetr and he stared at her as she tried to push him. His fur wasn’t as spiky as the metal indicated, but it was like shoving a brick wall. She sighed and walked on as he stomped behind her.

As a result, they both naturally spotted the giant Gnoll girl bent over to talk to a half-Elf. Who wouldn’t stare at Gire? Rose’s mouth opened.

“That’s her! That’s, um—Gire!”

“Gireulashia. [Paragon]. Don’t make her mad. She’s an excellent warrior.”

Adetr glanced at her with clear interest. But Rose spotted the little girl there and froze.

“Mr—Mri?

She caught herself just in time and Adetr glanced at her.

“Someone you know?”

“Yeah, she’s…why is she out here?”

Instantly, Rose began to worry. She’d been so glad to hear Mrsha was safe, but she knew this was a dangerous position. Her talking with Adetr she hoped was helping, but she glanced at him and recalled that his tribe was traditionalist. Fortunately, he didn’t look twice at the Gnoll girl, only to check out her ears.

“What’s with the gold? Is she with that Golden Gnoll half my tribe wants to buy from?”

“Yes…yes. She’s a friend of Silverfang. What’s she…”

They were just in time to hear Gire laugh and explain, her words quick and calm.

“Sorry, Miss. Mri’s voice is hurt from a cold. And eating too many Herthee. She’s from the city. The Golden Gnoll’s caravan, actually, but she’s related to my tribe. Ekhtouch.”

She named the somewhat allergic vegetable that could swell up your throat. The half-Elf nodded.

“Poor girl. Well, some gelato will help with that.”

Gire smiled, and Rose sighed with relief. What a perfect lie. The [Paragon] was a natural actor, and Rose had met Jasi and Wesle. She drew closer as Adetr sighed and checked his money pouch; the gelato was not cheap.

“So you know Ceria Springwalker? That is amazing. Well, I can give you a little taste just for that.”

“I can pay!”

Rose jumped, but Mrsha had toggled her speaking stone. She slapped three gold coins on the counter and everyone stared. Adetr nearly dropped his coin pouch.

“Oh…I, ah, well, that’s quite a lot. What do you want, Miss Mri?”

“C-can we get the vanilla ice cream, Mri? I love vanilla. What does it taste like?”

Mrsha and Rose gave Gire the pitying looks of people who understood the neophyte’s entry into sweet tastes. Mrsha was about to opine that this half-Elf should invest in chocolate, despite knowing how hard the stuff was to make. But she saw ‘lemon’, ‘Sage’s Grass’, ‘mint’, and ‘bithstone’ as flavors and was content to order a big bucket for after the lobster.

She was just about to let Gire get her basic ice cream and get a mix of lemon and bithstone, when Adetr swore. He jolted and Rose nearly leapt into the stall.

Adetr! Don’t do that!

Gire turned. She recognized the Steelfur warrior at a glance.

“Oh no, not the crazy one again. Is he following us?”

She sighed. But the Steelfur warrior jerked and then stared at Mrsha. He pointed an accusatory finger at her.

Who is that girl? Why does she know the Black Tide, a [Spearmaster], and—

Rose saw people turn around. She instantly knew what Adetr had done. He had heard ‘Ceria Springwalker’, a famous Gold-rank adventurer, and, like the stupid fight-seeker he was, he’d used his Skill on Mrsha.

And, incidentally, gotten to meet Relc, multiple Gold-rank adventurers, angry Antinium, and acid jars to the face. He began to raise his voice.

“She’s from the same place as that other Gnoll. From—”

Rose slapped a hand over his mouth so fast Mrsha saw Adetr recoil. The Human glared at him, and then turned to Gire and Mrsha.

“I…”

Mrsha saw Adetr staring at her. She stared at him, Gire, Rose, and slowly raised a paw. She stared at Adetr’s strange fur. At Rose. She touched the speaking stone rune hidden at her side.

“Hello. I’m Mri. Wanna eat?”

 

——

 

That was how Rose, Adetr, Mrsha, and Gire found themselves eating a lobster, special lobster tail on a bed of buttered rice, with a giant bucket of ice cream in an ice-bound container.

As a snack. Mrsha had also snagged three skewers of meat and a bucket of popcorn with meat flavoring.

“…Is she some kind of [Eater]? A [Gourmet]?”

Adetr stared as Mrsha came back with Gire. Rose looked at the hamburger from the Silverfang stalls with fries.

“Mri, are you insane? That’s too much food! Lyonette’s right, you will get fat!”

Adetr glanced at her. Rose was trying not to smile, even as she eyed Adetr, worried about this new development. After all, she and Mrsha were from the inn.

It felt like a long time since they’d left. Mrsha beamed at Rose. She took a single bite from the meat skewer, a big bite of hamburger, and some popcorn. Then she handed the hamburger to Gire.

“Thanks, Mri.”

The [Paragon] opened her mouth, and devoured the hamburger. Not fast—rather, she took small bites and chewed until all the flavor was gone, then swallowed, savoring each bite. But she didn’t stop and her mouth was so huge that…

Adetr and Rose looked at the nine foot tall Gnoll, who had the metabolism of a [Paragon]. Mrsha had seen how much Gire ate for breakfast; she was confident this qualified as a Gire-snack.

For his part, Adetr had no idea how this ‘Mri’ knew Rose, and he was half-impatient to get back to talking about Earth. But Rose had told him Mri was from Liscor and he could absolutely not talk about her.

He didn’t get why, and he didn’t really care. But he did notice Mri writing little notes and signing with her paws. Adetr raised his brows…and ate some of the lobster, and found the fast food wasn’t bad.

He really didn’t watch the news unless there was fighting on. Rose, eying him, saw the light of a [Detective]’s keen insight…not at all in his face. She sighed with relief.

Thank goodness for idiots.

“Honored Gireulashia. Sorry for interrupting you. Rose and I will be going.”

“Itfsh fine, Warrior Adetr. Rose is a friend.”

Gire spoke with her mouth full. She glanced around guiltily and hunched down as if she would somehow get smaller sitting at the food table.

“Uh—don’t tell the Ekhtouch tribe I’m eating. I’m just helping Mri finish her meals.”

Mrsha nodded, a huge bite of lobster in her mouth. She waved at the Drowned [Chef]. This was good stuff!

Food united Gire and Mrsha, but could you eat food forever? Adetr sighed, but picked at the french fries as Rose asked Mri what she’d been doing. She nearly slipped a few times, but Gire was flawless in keeping Mri’s name out there.

“Mri and I are finding things to do.”

Mrsha agreed, signing—Rose could sort of get what Mrsha said after some second-hand exposure, and Mrsha could always write a note to clarify or have Gire translate.

It was hard. The blunt truth of it was that Gire and Mrsha liked each other, but Mrsha playing tag with Gire was like…Visma trying to play tag with Relc in full Relc-mode.

That was Gire’s problem with everyone, to be fair. You actually needed Relc at his best to give Gire a challenge. She was flawless.

[Paragon]. Adetr watched Gire with one eye.

“Are you going to fight when Ekhtouch takes to the front? Steelfur refuses to advance unless a Drake army violates the water line.”

Gire stopped speaking for a second. She swallowed slowly, and fumbled with her food.

“I…suppose Chieftain Firrelle will tell me to.”

Adetr blinked at her.

“You don’t want to level?”

Rose looked between him and Gire. The [Paragon] sighed.

“I haven’t killed people. I don’t want to. But if Ekhtouch fights—I’m old enough to fight. I might have to.”

“You haven’t? You’re one of the greatest warriors of Ekhtouch. Don’t be a coward.”

Adetr snapped, seeming irritated. Instantly, Rose smacked his head and shouted in pain. It was like hitting a metal pole.

“Adetr! Don’t tell Gire that! She’s only fifteen!”

Mrsha ducked, but Adetr wasn’t fun at all. For proof, he hadn’t taken a drink of water and didn’t perform the old Winebreath Blaster. He just blinked, and, like a normal person, stared at Gire.

“You’re what?

He turned to Rose. She folded her arms as Gire doodled on the table.

“That’s right. Gire shouldn’t be fighting at all! Who makes a fifteen year old fight?”

Adetr hesitated. He was clearly stunned by the revelation, but he replied after a second.

“I was joining patrols when I was fourteen. You’re fifteen and you’re…”

Gire and Rose and Mrsha looked at Adetr. Rose shook her head.

“That’s insane. No one should be fighting that young. The minimum age on E—where I come from is sixteen!”

Gire’s ears perked up and she exchanged a look with Mrsha. Adetr snorted, but his ears had perked up.

“And how old are you?”

“Eighteen. What’s it to you?”

He eyed her.

“I am nineteen years old. I thought you were older. Are you telling me none of you have fought and killed enemy warriors?”

He glanced around. Gire shook her head. Rose shook her head. Mrsha sat back and gave Adetr a long look. He eyed her.

“What’s with her? Does she speak or not?”

“Mri’s voice is hurt.”

“Right. What’s this…?”

Mrsha held up a card.

 

I’ve killed Face-Eater Moths, fought Crelers, Raskghar, and evil [Witches], rookie. Bow down to Mrsha the Warrior!

 

She triumphantly held the card out. Adetr stared at it. Gire stared at the card—Mrsha was holding it out away from her, but she read the lines of ink through the thin paper.

“Mri!”

Adetr’s mouth opened. He focused on the card and Rose stared in horror at Mrsha’s name. Adetr stood up abruptly, just as an arguing duo walked by. Feshi saw Adetr pointing at Mrsha and froze.

“Oh no.”

You fought Crelers? Raskghar? Where?”

Rose covered her face as Mrsha snatched the card back. Adetr leaned over the table. But Gire’s eyes lit up as Mrsha, relieved, put her feet up on the table. She waved for Rose to break out the ice cream. Darn, she should have bought more food. Mrsha idly scribbled with one paw. She supposed she could tell the story.

Mrsha ‘Crelerbane’ du Marquin smirked at Adetr. And Gire for that matter. The [Paragon] had that look again. Of sheer interest.

“You fought Crelers, Mri? Chieftain Firrelle has me fight monsters, but never Crelers for practice. The most I’ve ever beaten by myself is a Wyvern.”

Mrsha and Adetr turned to look at her and the little Gnoll lost some of her swagger. What, an entire Wyvern? By herself?

And yet—it was one thing for Gire to say she’d beaten a Wyvern. Quite another for a little Gnoll cub actually the normal size for her age to say she’d fought one of the dark legends of Gnolls and come out on top.

Most people would assume she was lying, like Adetr, with genuine introspection for the first time…for the one thing Mrsha wasn’t lying about. Yet Rose knew better. Gire knew better. Even…

“Hello, what’s this? Is that lobster? Are you Mri? I’m Yerra—Feshi, stop staring and come over. Is this the little girl you were telling me was so important?”

And here came the Selphid. Adetr looked up and Mrsha’s little jaw dropped. She stared at Yerranola, from the Games of Daquin, the sea trip, and scrying orbs. She fumbled for an autograph card as Feshi walked over.

“I—sorry to interrupt, Miss Rose, Honored Gire. We were just—is that a whole lobster?”

Yerranola’s mouth was watering. Lobster?

“I love lobster. What was that about Raskghar? Crelers?”

“Yerra, don’t be rude.”

“Sit, sit! Please! I’m Mri! Hello! Nice to meet you!”

The little Gnoll girl practically danced on the spot, waving an autograph card. Yerranola winked at Feshi, who was embarrassed for her glutton of a friend who loved seafood. Adetr edged over, a bit respectfully; after all, they were the Titan’s students.

“We haven’t met, yes?”

Feshi nodded at him. He nodded back.

“Adetr of Steelfur. Honored Feshi, it is my privilege to meet you. And this is—”

He looked at Yerranola, who froze mid-reach for a lobster claw.

“Uh, Yerranola. Hello! Are you made of metal? Amazing. Yerranola. Does anyone mind if I have a bite…?”

“Help yourself.”

Everyone agreed; the lobster was too huge for anyone but Gire to make a dent in it. Yerranola rubbed her hands as Mrsha held out a quill.

“Autograph? Sure! What’s…whoa. What is this card?”

She stared, suddenly moving her buttered fingers away from the card. Adetr was recalling trying to fight Yerranola—to his disappointment it hadn’t resulted in the Titan appearing—and glanced with disinterest down at the card Mrsha was holding.

“Who orders a lobster for food? Miss Rose, I know Silverfang has a lot of money, but it’s more expensive here. We could have gotten you a cheaper one.”

Feshi was whispering to Rose, looking at Gire who was wolfing down fries. Rose pointed.

“It wasn’t Gire. It’s Mri.

“What? She has that much money?”

The other people eating at the table were eyeing the fascinating group sitting there. Four big names, and Mri and Rose were the odd ones out. The smell of cooked lobster hung in the air, and perhaps it was inevitable.

Hey! I knew I recognized that giant! And look, I smell lobster! See? See, Emper? I told you someone else would buy lobster. Hey! It’s me!”

There came the cavalcade. The six people sitting there turned and saw four people striding their way.

Lehra Ruinstrider; Suxhel, the Gazer; Emper, the Stitch-Man [Monk], sighing; and Elgrinna, the Dwarf, holding a bucket.

A bucket of crab from the exact same stall. Mrsha’s eyes went round, but Lehra knew her.

“Mri! It’s Mri! Or was it that other n—”

Suxhel elbowed her in the stomach and the Stargnoll went oof. She hurried over.

“Is that lobster? My team wouldn’t let me buy one because ‘no one buys lobsters as a snack’. Well, look who’s the ignorant person here, eh, Suxhel?”

“Lehra. Stop bothering these poor people. Sorry about that folks. Our ‘amazing’ Named-rank adventurer doesn’t ever quit.”

Elgrinna grabbed Lehra by the tail. Mrsha bounced up and down at the table, and Rose, looking at her, and at Lehra with an awe that didn’t quite fade, waved her hand.

“No, sit, please! Mri would love the company. She bought the lobster.”

“Can we share? I’ve got crab and shrimp!”

Lehra plonked her bucket of food down and suddenly it was a feast. Adetr found himself staring at Suxhel, and that was a competition you were destined to lose. Abruptly, he was sharing a table with many of the people he had used his prediction of battle against.

And…they were nothing like the shades he had fought. Gire had once thrown a spear through his eye, and he recalled the peerless way she’d fought with her small tribe.

But that was just her phantom at war. Her real self ducked when she saw an Ekhtouch Gnoll trotting by and tried to hide under the table. Far from being the focused warrior wearing the Blade of Mershi, Lehra Ruinstrider was light-hearted, slapping him on the back and asking after Chieftain Iraz.

This was a new moment for Adetr. Uncomfortable. He looked around.

I’ve killed you all—

His mindset was largely lost though. Yerranola was gobbling food and Feshi, exasperated, went with Rose to get more so they wouldn’t be seen just leeching off the others.

It could have been yet another moment of convivial meetings, and, by now, only Inkar and Tkrn were missing. By now, they knew each other by name, aside from Adetr.

“Shame that Venaz isn’t here. Or, uh—uh—that funny Lizardguy and the Plain’s Eye fellow. He was interesting. What was his name?”

“Merish. Venaz and Wil and the others went north, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, damn. For that Professor? The Titan? I wanted to go with you! But I forgot. Besides, I guess I have to stay at the Meeting of Tribes.”

Feshi stared at Lehra as the Stargnoll rolled her eyes. Maybe it was just words; Lehra had the air of someone who made a lot of promises. Even so…Mrsha’s eyes were shining.

Lehra knew Mrsha too—at least part of it. It was Elgrinna, the Dwarf woman, and Emper, who regarded Mrsha and introduced themselves. What they knew, exactly, was unclear, but Suxhel smiled at Mrsha.

The entire moment was lovely. It was also extraordinary, seeing how Mrsha sat there. Gire peered around, eating, and all these other famous people were chatting.

But the Gnoll woman couldn’t stop staring at that little girl. She peeked at her from around one of the tents. One of her companions stared at her, then at the small team who’d followed their friend.

“Prha. What is with you?”

The Gnoll warrior of the Sofang tribe didn’t answer. Some of the other warriors muttered.

“She’s been like this ever since she was called to Chieftain Mrell’s camp. What did he do?”

“Should we burn down his tent? If he said anything—”

“I heard Chieftain Torishi got involved. If Sofang’s in trouble, it’s all our tails on the line. Prha—”

“She’s real.”

Prha stared at the little Gnoll girl who laughed and wrote things and signed with her paws. Her companions had no idea what she meant. Not yet. But they were beginning to.

Chieftain Mrell was watching too. Not as conspicuously pressed up between two tents like Prha—not that anyone noticed aside from people passing by—but dining at a far distant table. They watched her. But Torishi had forbidden them from getting close. And what…

What could you say? Then they saw the inevitable happen.

“Autograph? Sure! For who? Visma. Ekirra. Got it. Hey, you hold onto that, you know these things are valuable, right? But for free lobster, I’ll autograph anything!”

Mrsha took the cards Lehra signed and Emper took the quill next.

“It is an honor. A strange one, because we are not icons. I suppose Lehra is, but as a role model or inspiration…”

He stared pointedly as the Gnoll tried to lick butter off her nose. Then passed the card along.

The new thing was to get multiple autographs of famous people. Or—and this was a move for someone who had the most valuable autographs—to get all the names on one card. That meant it had been in the presence of all the biggest names and was therefore most valuable.

Mrsha asked Feshi and Yerranola to sign the card for her two friends, and so a six-name card would blow her two friends’ minds with envy. Feshi did so, seeing the delighted look on Mrsha’s face.

“Yerra, sign the card for Mri.”

The Selphid didn’t move. She was staring down at the first card Mrsha had offered her.

“This…I know these names. Feshi, look at this?”

Gire glanced up from her first ever mouthful of ice cream as Adetr sighed, but decided he could go for some shrimp as Rose convinced him they were, in fact, good, and not giant bugs. He dipped one in sauce just in time for Feshi to exclaim.

“The Players of Celum?”

The others looked up. Lehra with keen-eyed interest, as did Gire who had heard the name before. Adetr raised his head, looked blank, and went back to dipping prawns.

“No way. This is impossible.”

Yerranola lifted the card. She stared at it.

“There’s not supposed to be more than, what, ten cards with the entire cast’s names on it. I wanted to go see them, do you remember, Feshi? Then they left Invrisil—this is genuine! It seems like it!”

“You know the Players of Celum? Or is that a gift?”

Lehra instantly turned to Mrsha. Gire stared at her small friend, as Mrsha looked smug. She fished something out of her bag of holding.

If you think that’s cool—

Yerranola and Feshi had assumed Mrsha was some lucky recipient of a rare card. Then they saw her pull out a Jasi-special signature, with a kiss mark from lipstick. A Wesle monogrammed card. Kilkran, Emme—she had every single one.

“Dead gods. You could buy a hundred lobsters for this much! A thousand! How did you…?”

Gire gaped at Mrsha, and there it was. The little Gnoll sat there. Smug—yes, very smug. But the common thread was this.

I was there when they started. I was at the first shows. I can get you autographs if you want. Jasi’s a friend.

Yes, it was self-aggrandizing, yes it was bragging. But it was also—Rose covered a smile as eyes turned to disbelieving looks.

“It’s true. I know it’s amazing, but Mr—Mri was there.”

“So she actually fought Raskghar? And survived a Creler attack?”

Adetr leaned forwards. All eyes swung towards him. Mrsha nodded. She had been there. She had seen it, done it.

Nothing would do but for Rose to help her explain the context—the inn, and tell the story of the Face-Eater moth attack. Feshi shook her head wordlessly, and Lehra traded looks with her team. It was Gire who muttered.

“That’s amazing. You really survived that. You’re not a [Paragon] or big…”

Mrsha glared up at her friend, but Gire went on.

“But you did that. Wasn’t it scary? The Drakes are declaring war and the Walled Cities might send a unified army to attack us. I might have to fight. I don’t want to. But you…you’ve done it. I guess I have to, too.”

She appeared smaller, despite her huge size. Afraid. Mrsha gazed up at Gire, and grabbed her paw. The older warriors looked somberly at Gire—but who were they?

Lehra was sympathetic, but she was a young adventurer, rapidly risen to Named-rank. Feshi and Yerra were students, but only Yerra had seen real wounds. If anyone, it was Elgrinna and Emper who grew silent. And Adetr.

It was hard to explain what it was. Adetr studied Gire and wondered if she could become the same unstoppable force of battle as in his visions. Fifteen. He thought Ekhtouch would surely be worried too. A warrior could be as ready as they could ever be with training and still freeze up or snap in battle.

She was young.

He remembered killing her. Even if that was just a vision.

The Steelfur warrior twitched.

Into that uncertainty, Mrsha gazed up at Gire’s uncertain face. How big she was. And how young. Like Ekirra, in her way, for all she was far smarter and taller and quicker.

It will be okay.

She wrote on the card and held it up. The others watched the little girl. Mrsha scribbled quickly.

I have seen bad people. Belavierr. Raskghar. Giant moths. Tyrion Veltras. Lism. You can beat them. My best friend is Ryoka, the Wind Runner. She beat the Assassin’s Guild. You can win. You just have to do the right thing. You just need Erin—

Her quill slowed as she wrote that name. Gire was reading.

“Who’s Erin?”

Rose’s head rose, and her face turned despondent at once. Adetr regarded her, then Mrsha. He saw the little Gnoll with her brown fur and gold ears sit at the long wooden table for a moment, surrounded by delicacies, rich as could be, with all those famous cards, by important people.

When her head came up, her face was bleak and none of that mattered. He thought she would cry, and began to rise to go to the bathroom. But she didn’t.

She sat there, eyes shining a bit, and then looked up at Gire. Mrsha began to write, hesitated, and tore the card in frustration. She motioned at Gire and made a few signals with her paws.

“Speak for you? Okay. What do I say?”

Mrsha looked solemnly up at her great friend. Around at the others. War was coming to the Great Plains. Or not? She didn’t know. She was no [Strategist]. No adventurer.

Her eyes did a circuit of the table. In the distance, unseen, her parents looked at this little stranger. Mrsha stood up. She tried to express herself—and she had to own, Gire was more eloquent in translation. But this was the core of Mrsha’s message:

“There are bad people out there. Terrible things happened and terrible things will happen. I know. I have seen it. But I have also survived. Bad things may happen now. Stupid Drakes and people may try to do something horrible. They can try, but we just have to stop them. There are consequences. We just have to beat them up.”

 

Feshi listened as Gire spoke for Mrsha. Lehra was grinning, but Mrsha’s face was serious. And…Feshi felt her hair rise as Mrsha went on.

 

I have seen Raskghar. They tried to eat me. I have seen Facestealer. A Goblin Lord killed my tribe. Humans tried to kill my city. They nearly did. Headscratcher and Shorthilt died to stop them. It is never easy. But it can be done.

 

She stared up as the others focused on her. The teasing grins faded. Adetr looked at the little girl. Mrsha felt something building in her chest. Like tears, but it was also hot. Righteous and sad and…oh, how she missed Headscratcher. How she missed them all.

 

Terrible, stupid, stinky people do terrible things. I lived, despite the [Witch]. Despite it all. I won’t let them do it again. Some day, I will be big and no one will ever do such things again. My friends won’t let it happen either. We all knew Erin. And each time this happens, we level up. When she comes back, everything will be okay. Until then—we have to do Erin-things.

 

“Who?”

Mrsha ignored the question. She felt that certainty building in her. That memory of long-dead heroes she had known.

It was disconcerting to the adults. It was—to Feshi—like hearing the Professor talk. Too weary for a child to say. And yet—Mrsha gazed so confidently up at her that Feshi had to look away.

We can win. Gire’s eyes lit up as she looked at someone who had seen and done things she could never imagine. A girl who had gone somewhere Adetr’s great Skill could not encompass because it was not war she had seen. Beyond the imagination of the [Paragon].

It was an inn on a hill. Mrsha stared at that vision. As humble as could be, sometimes. Not nearly as grand as the Meeting of Tribes, but there was magic there. That was what this place lacked, for all its grandeur and important people.

Perspective. So what if every evil Drake city in the world declared war? Beat them up. All you needed was a flag, an [Innkeeper]. You needed guests of an inn and…

Something was building inside Mrsha. A feeling. A familiar one. She regarded all of these adults, not seeing her parents, noticing even the Weatherfur Gnolls watching her. She had a strange power. A presence despite her age.

She had brought something from home. Mrsha looked at the greatest assembly of Gnolls in the world, and the resolve built in her.

This was her people. This was their moment of triumph. They should not be so small, and sad. What could they not do? Had this army been there, Tyrion Veltras would have run screaming off a cliff. Had they been there, Stone Spears would not have died.

She couldn’t go back in time. But she could tell them: it could be done. Just not alone.

Mrsha felt an energy building in the core of her being. Not like Grimalkin’s muscles, but something inside of her. A fierce energy. She reached for it.

She was tired of being small. Tired of running. Well, she had made it here. Here she stood, and here they would be. Together. She looked at Gire, and the [Paragon]’s eyes were wondering.

Something burst out of Mrsha as she reached for that memory. The power—Mrsha heard gasps. A cry of shock. It rose out from her fur. She gritted her teeth, focusing.

Yes! Her power! Was it from Erin’s inn? The natural, latent abilities of a [Princess]’ daughter? Her experiences?

It was an aura. No—it was more powerful still. Mrsha felt it envelop her in sudden strength as she felt a wave of triumph, that great memory of every time Erin Solstice had walked forwards and changed the world. This was it.

She had done it. Her eyes opened and Mrsha took in the shocked, recoiling people with calm serenity. She had achieved the next level. Powered up. She could feel her powerful aura, her hair standing up—why, she even thought she’d changed colors. Not to white; this was her final form! This was—

Gireulashia stared at Mrsha in horror and shouted.

Mri, you’re on fire!

The little Gnoll girl’s confident expression wavered. She looked at her body, and realized—that wasn’t her aura. Instead, it was a glorious flame. A pink—

Fire! I’m on fire! Put it out! Putitoutputitout— 

The Gnoll girl ran around, rolling on the ground until she realized—pink fire? She rose, and the flames did not burn her skin. The others were trying to extinguish it, but water would not work. Nor flame spells or even a cloud of dirt.

Rose stopped Emper from trying to smother the flames.

“No. It’s—Mri. It’s Erin’s…”

The little Gnoll raised her paw. It was still there. She almost cried. It was still there. She burned, and it illuminated the Meeting of Tribes and all who saw it. It seared Adetr’s eyes. Something unlike triumph in battle. Deeper than victory or defeat. Memory, like fire, burning bright.

Glory.

It burned so bright. So short-lived. And yet. While the flames on the girl eventually went out, all who saw remembered them. And this time—they did not die. Mrsha held it in her paws, and then slowly transferred it to a torch.

The flames caught for a second, burned…and went out. Mrsha stared at the wisps of smoke.

It was okay. Gently, she touched the torch, and it burned like glory again. She lifted it up. Something to show people. Something to…bring them together. The [Paragon] looked as the little girl offered her glory.

This time—it was golden. And more colors still flickered in her eyes. She had seen two flames burning. Going out. It was very small, and she was small. But she would show them all.

 

[Emberbearer Class obtained!]

[Emberbearer Level 1!]

 

[Skill – Rekindle Flame obtained!]

[Skill – Fire’s Fuel (Mundane) obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is one of two chapters left. I realized I was leaving on a Monday, so I would definitely not be able to do more writing. Well, I have plans to do the chapter on the 30th, but it’s just a really short writing month.

So I am trying to pack as much content into these chapters. I hope you understand—it’s an important trip to see family and that matters. But the story’s also important, so I balance both.

In fact, it’s humbling how much you all enjoy and like the story. If you didn’t see it, some people are starting a podcast. Oshi and Dragonus talk about The Wandering Inn, and their first episode and a promo are up where they discuss web serials, this story from Volume 1 onwards (not chapter by chapter), and more! Give it a listen; I did and it’s odd to hear actual readers exist, let alone speak!

One more chapter. Until a break. Hope you’re having a decent November and thanks for reading!

 

 

Empress Nsiia by AuspiciousOctopi!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auspiciousoctopi/

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/auspiciousoctopi

 

Rufelt and Lasica by happypanda!

 

The Veltras family and Magnolia and Ressa by MonikaisMyWaifu…yes, that was their username.

 


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46 thoughts on “8.52 MN

  1. Leave a typo for the glory of it! Fleeting…fleeting glory.

    (Glorified typo hunters: Gorexn, Litwickee, Quynin, MrWiggles, Gecko13, dradford, Combogalis (@TheRampello), Nash Erin)

    • Lomost tribe’s chieftain was at the Meeting of Tribes. Previously stated in the Songs and Stories Interlude. Might want to correct it/address it here.

    • ‘Others, like Ulvama, were eating, literally face over baskets of food.’

      Did you mean ‘face-down over baskets of food’?
      Thanks for the chapter, I enjoyed it a lot!

  2. God, everything in this chapter was delightful. That ending though, it really made it. It feels like a reflection on what Mrsha has Gained from all the trials, and it feels good.

  3. What a wonderful chapter. It is truly amazing how much i love Mrsha, she is just the best depiction of a child character in fantasy that i have ever read.

  4. That last bit does sum up everyone from the inn.

    Bad stuff is happening? Do Erin things until she comes back!

    The chaos is slowly spreading and yet the pieces are slowly gathering together. The ghost goblins just need to deal with a situation of an unwanted ghost (small disaster or attempt to mend a broken bridge)

    The tribes are moving and the conflict that has been heading towards the Meeting of The Tribes has slowly come to rear its ugly head.

    But they know or have been reminded that if bad thing happen… Do Erin-Things.

  5. I have a dream. A dream that Senior Guardsman Klblch will deputize a bunch of new Watch Antinium and lead them to the aid of the new MrshaPact forces led by the titan, who of course will be joined by RelcConvoy :P.

    Marvelous chapter!

  6. “On the contrary, Chaldion had the feeling the Titan was not about to support wholesale massacres of Gnoll tribes. ”
    Perhaps you meant ‘massacres *by* gnoll tribes’. Or just delete the ‘on the contrary’
    Then this is my reaction to the chapter (:
    This was terrific!
    The Niers part was kinda what I’d imagined would happen if he ever got to Izril, so fun to see him really in his element.
    And then the Myrsha monologue at the end was awesome. Well done 👍

  7. As always a really wonderful chapter! I had to laugh so hard at bird’s introductory line with the friendly creler.

    [I Left the Carrion None of Their Due] feels a bit OP/unnecessary though and the possible exploits are boundless. Was glad to see some limitation to Numbtongues aka Reiss else you could train/level an invincible army.

  8. Stunning! Amazingly stunning! Well done my friend!
    I laughed just about the entire time,and my eyes,they watered a wee bit!
    I’m glad to hear about the podcast because I’ve no one to discuss the bestest story that I’ve ever been told!

  9. Pirate, you are one awsome story teller. Most books dont have as much content as your 2 chapters. Btw Emberbearer is not green. Who could earn a class like that? I mean only 2 people in the world has Maviola’s skill. What kind of class is that. Can it wake Erin? What will it take to wake her up? I want to see a lvl 50 Erin godsdammitt.

    • It could have been created by people living under dragon rule. Teriarch, lord of the flame, with [flame heralds] and what not, they need to start somewhere. Probably another fire dragon really.

      A friend had an interesting idea that this class and its equivalents can have been a precursor to how original Oldblood drakes gained bloodline abilities.

  10. Does anyone else think a sparring match between a certain [Exemplar Soldier] and a certain [Paragon] might be hard to call? Very similar classes in theme and similar levels.

  11. It’s just one banger chapter after another! I’m so glad you wrote this, even if it takes a long time to write a chapter like this it’s so worth it!

  12. That’s an awesome class. Now I’m thinking about how important that use to be in nomadic societies (indigenous Australian for example) – the person who carried the embers of the fire when migrating between hunting grounds/camps. In its time it definitely would be a rare class.

  13. Oh now you’re just being silly; thinking people aren’t reading your series. 🤭 Of course we are and we really really love it.
    After the trials you have been through this year, being able to keep tapping those letters on the keyboard shows how dedicated you are. We luv ya for it.
    …. When does the world get Erin back??? We miss her.

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