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Someone was dying before his very eyes. Everyone walked by, ignoring the plea written right there in ink. The look of—apathy. Hopeless apathy in grey-yellow eyes. Granite grey, shot with thousands of tiny lines, and the faintest yellow starburst around the pupil.
Good eyes. They didn’t belong on someone like that. They should have been vibrant, alive, full of wit or daring. It was all too easy for the watcher to imagine a great purpose in those eyes. The worst part was—they had once contained hope, passion. Or else how would they be so empty?
Too many lines on the skin. Too many creases. Too thin, as well. For all that, the dying man didn’t look that…dead. Or else, he might have been quietly shuffled away so he could die without bothering everyone.
More than a hundred people passed every ten minutes. A thousand or more per hour. Not a single one stopped to help him. Many probably thought they did something. Every now and then, Chieftain Mrell would watch a coin fall into the hat. Hear a mumbled thanks from the sitting homeless man.
He was going to die, a hundred coins or not. The man was a Human. A [Beggar]…no, wait. They didn’t have such classes, so he couldn’t magically suck coins from passing money pouches.
Wallets. Mrell found his wallet and awkwardly peered at the bills. He kept watching the man, but it had been nearly an hour. He looked the man up and down and saw him.
He had a lovely scarf, stained and dirty, which he used to protect his neck from the chill in the air. A jacket and pants, likewise faded grey, hung around him, decent clothing for the cold—but not for sitting there. Sitting cross-legged on cold pavement. Shivering. Arms wrapped around his chest, shoes worn flat and thin.
He smelled like cigarette smoke, ashy, but the entire city smelled like smoke and gasoline from cars, the sewers—perfumes and colognes from the people passing by. This man just smelled like he hadn’t been washed. And smoke. And a slow, creeping death that no one would save him from.
Homelessness. A plague that affected Human cities. Affected Earth. It was shocking to a son of the Gnoll tribes. Mrell regarded being without a home, even a temporary one like the nomadic tribes, as the worst fate of all.
You died, alone. Gnolls, Humans were social. Alone? Being alone was terrible, and that was why Urksh had cast him out.
A terrible punishment for a terrible crime. Here, though—it was a ‘thing’. It wasn’t an exception, it was the rule.
Mrell knew this was an imaginary man in a Skill that created a world for him to explore. It was not real—but he couldn’t help himself. Even if it meant he was ‘poor’ for the rest of his hour, having used up the other one already, he put all the money in the hat.
The dying man looked up at Mrell in astonishment. Those tired eyes opened.
“Thank you. What’s—are you serious?”
The man looked down at the money in the hat, all the bills. Someone passing by blinked at Mrell as the Gnoll squatted down. Not because he was a Gnoll—but because he had done something odd.
“Are you sure? This is…”
The man was counting. Mrell nodded, eyes fixed on him.
“Yes. What will you do with it?”
“I—I don’t know. I’m…”
For a moment, Mrell thought he saw those eyes fix on him. Did they glimmer with tears? Confusion—certainly. The apathy lifted from the limbs and hunched back, and the man began to rise. To take Mrell’s hand? To…?
Mrell was reaching down to give him his paw, to ask him who he had been, what he might do. But as his furred fingers touched the ragged glove on the man’s hand…Mrell felt contact, for just a moment.
Like mist, the homeless man vanished, mid-word. Mid-look. Mrell reached out, and the man…disappeared. No one seemed to notice as the Gnoll recoiled. He looked around and then down at the hat—and it was gone too.
The Gnoll [Chieftain] didn’t know. Perhaps—he’d violated the rules somehow. Perhaps the [World of You and Me] was too weak, or too many Gnolls were using it.
Or perhaps, simply, the two people it had been based on had never done something like this. Could not explain or even guess what might have come of Mrell’s gesture.
Rose and Inkar. It was not their fault they could not show Mrell, but he longed to know. He stood there, looking helplessly at the spot the man had been.
If he looked around, he could go anywhere he wanted. Into any shop, restrooms, cross the street, go into a business building, one of the towering skyscrapers of Rose’s city of Los Angeles.
However—that also meant Mrell could face the consequences. He could walk into the ladies’ restroom and find out what it was like to be arrested and spend the night in prison. Or to get shot.
Neither Rose nor Inkar had been arrested, so there was some extrapolation here. However, other Gnolls had told Mrell of much the same experience. Adetr had, in his classic way, taken out half a police station before being kicked out of the Skill. He had claimed he’d done it to see how good the average [Guard] was.
Yet you could get hurt, even ‘die’ here. It was exceedingly unpleasant, Mrell was given to believe. Not painful, but just frightening because it was real. Among the first casualties when the Skill had been activated had been Chieftain Xherw and Shaman Ulcreziek, who had opened the emergency door in a plane with sheer brute force.
They could learn so much here. Mrell knew he should be investigating, pulling all the information he could about how they made structures so tall. Or simply experiencing the effects of explosive depressurization and free-fall for himself.
But he just kept staring at the spot that man had been. Of all the things he had thought to see on Earth…the sheer suffering of Humans for all their advanced technology was not it. He had had visions of planes dropping bombs.
Now—he wondered what that man might have been. How did you create a giant moving box of steel and not find a way to give that man a purpose?
“This is Earth.”
Mrell looked about and sniffed the air. The Gnoll looked at his reflection in a piece of glass, and saw a dark-skinned man looking back with short-cropped hair. Miffed, he ruffled it. His paw touched his own fur, and when he looked down he had his body, but what other people saw was his Human self. Another conceit of the Skill, he supposed.
Is this how I look…? No, it’s random. I hate this haircut.
Aimlessly, Mrell went to go to a barber’s. Then he remembered he had no money. Mrell decided to interview for a job. To his bemusement, he found himself in a fast food restaurant, being taught how to use the ice cream machine less than thirty minutes later. He turned to the man showing him how to serve customers.
“This is the most depressing work I have ever known.”
The manager gave him an odd look.
“Yeah? Do you want the job or not?”
Mrell gave it a whirl. He was exceptionally glad when, thirty minutes later, the world turned to mist and he stopped leaning on the counter. The Gnoll stopped wearing the stupid hat, smelling the grease and arguably good-tasting food that he had to make in the cramped kitchen for people he would never know for a low, low wage—
And stepped back into the real world.
Adetr was sulking on the ground and watching Gnolls enter and leave the [World of You and Me]. He helped make the Skill, but it had ejected him so fast he’d stumbled out of the mist, landed on his face, and spent the next five minutes staring at the ground.
“It was just a fistfight!”
The Gnoll growled plaintively. The [Battle Seeker] glared at nothing. That was three times! And he couldn’t re-enter for sixteen hours!
[The World of You and Me]. A new combination Skill created from the combined powers and perspectives of Inkar, Rose, Adetr, Feshi, Yelroan, Satar, Gireulashia, and Shaman Theikha. A seven-person Skill with the power of four tribes behind it.
It took the appearance of a shining bubble of faintly-heard sound and noise, across which images of Earth would play out, often of the experiences of those within. Like…a dream come to life.
A beautiful, swirling barrier. Touch it or walk into it and you’d enter the Earth that Inkar and Rose knew. So, somewhere they had been, often places they were most familiar with, but sometimes a place they’d gone on vacation or a transitory hub like an airport. The experience was like walking into a cloud; swirling mist amidst the darkness that would gather—then reveal a new place.
Sometimes you had a job or were in the middle of work. Usually, you were just in some leisure activity. Your income, race, clothing, everything, seemed random, though no Gnoll had reported being actively attacked or in the middle of strife or danger.
You had to seek that out. Adetr sat cross-legged, frowning at the Skill. He thought he spotted Honored Krshia chatting at a bar—before it shifted to Chieftain Mrell flipping a burger and staring at it on the grill.
What was he doing? You only got two hours! Every sixteen hours, you had another chance to go in. If you tried again too soon, it was like running into a magical forcefield. Adetr had tried to punch his way back in—until Theikha had hit him on the head with a staff.
“This is a bounded Skill, you fighting idiot. Do you want to break it?”
Apparently, you could break it. This was not Adetr’s [Vision of Greatest Battle]—this was a physical manifestation. Such was the power of the oldest [Shaman] of the Gnoll plains. Adetr’s ears perked up as he heard her introducing more people to it.
“It will be uncanny, frightening, and even horrifying, Shamans. Or it may be wonderful. The experience is up to you. But it is Earth. It is the most secret thing, yes? Two hours. In sixteen hours, you can try again.”
The [Battle Seeker] turned his head and saw a few [Shamans] from other tribes staring at the bubble. One exclaimed.
“Shaman Theikha! This is truly a magic of older ages! You are the greatest [Shaman] of our generation, yes?”
“No. It is not I alone who did it.”
The old Gnoll gently flicked one of the younger [Shaman]’s foreheads with a finger. She waved it in front of the others.
“Seven brave young people combined their Skills. This is a combination Skill—and since they have learned it, any one of them can now deploy it. Know their names. Watch them. But this Skill…it only has power together. Earth’s children and ours joined paws to make it. Without their perspective, we could not see. Without our magic, it would not be so real. If we find more children, we may learn more. This may last…but it will require magic.”
“We should keep it forever.”
Another [Shaman] instantly volunteered. Adetr recognized him from being from Steelfur; he had a certain militancy to his [Shaman] gear, which was closer to armor. Theikha promptly flicked his nose, and he sneezed.
“Spoken like a Drake, young man. Why protect what we can remake? This is a perspective; if it is something to fight and die over, let it go. We have created knowledge, understanding. Let that be enough.”
That, Adetr supposed, was wisdom. Far better to have a deployable Skill across seven individuals rather than a vulnerable asset…
That wasn’t what Theikha meant. Even Adetr knew that. He had to concede—this was wisdom.
How afraid I was of Earth. I still am. But my nightmares of death by bombs and their soldiers? It is less now.
The [Battle Seeker] looked at the projection of Earth. True, he couldn’t even start a fight without being ejected, much to his annoyance. It had turned into a forty-person brawl—which he’d been winning—but Humans of Earth weren’t that tough.
Their armies were. But they were now a people to him, where they had only been a military juggernaut to be feared.
Indeed, there was so much to learn it made Adetr’s head hurt. Not only was this Skill a window into Earth, it was a bounty of information that, until now, Earthers could only describe in their limited terms.
It was one thing to say ‘car: a moving metal vehicle capable of speeds up to a hundred plus miles per hour, run without magic on a combustion engine’. That gave Adetr nothing but a vague impression.
Another for him to get into a car, pump the gas, get scared, hit a traffic light, pop the door open, sprint down the street at full-tilt, then jump back in the car and drive down the street to see how fast he was actually going, drive into four-lane traffic, observe how safety precautions and traffic lights organized their transportation, ignore all of it, drive onto the highway, hit a hundred and twenty miles per hour, jackknife off the road and—
That was the second time he’d been ejected, incidentally. Adetr wanted to do it again.
“A Skill where you can do anything and get away with it. Experiment. Break laws. Have fun.”
Theikha scowled as the [Shamans] heard Adetr muttering.
“Ignore that silly child. Learn. Be respectful.”
Adetr bowed his head at the six [Shamans]; oh, there was also an occupancy limit of a hundred. A hundred. Well, four tribes had combined their magic to create this…
“Try chocolate candies. You can buy as much as you want from any store. And it doesn’t stay in your stomach when you leave.”
“Ignore—actually, do that. There is much good eating. Adetr, why are you out and bothering me? Did you get expelled—again?”
Theikha was fairly tolerant of Adetr, like the grandmother he vaguely remembered as a cub. His ears flattened.
“I only got in a small fight, Honored Theikha.”
She snorted. The [Shamans] looked amused as they cautiously approached. Then backed up. Adetr and Theikha turned and saw someone walking out of the bubble.
“Chieftain Mrell! Chieftain Orelighn! Shaman Cetrule!”
Three Gnolls came out at the same time, shaking their heads, blinking as they returned to the real world, and however they’d been feeling—hurt, full, and so on—changed back to how they had been when they had entered.
Mrell recoiled as a [Shaman] bowed and stepped out of the way. He looked around and then nodded as Cetrule and Orelighn both blinked and rubbed at their bodies, getting used to the experience.
“Extraordinary. I cannot believe it. Am I out? So soon? Argh.”
Orelighn exclaimed. It was early morning, practically dawn, but all four male Gnolls, Theikha, and the [Shamans] had gone to the Skill to use up their two hours as soon as they could. Time was standardized across the Skill and the real world, so they had to account for sleep and such, but Adetr didn’t want to waste any time.
Two days had passed since the late evening when Theikha had first used the Skill. Adetr gloomily decided he’d have to wait until this night to get another turn. Which let him do it again…
He was counting on his fingers as Mrell, Orelighn, and Cetrule began talking with the others.
“What did you do this time, Chieftain Orelighn? Shaman Cetrule? My experience was…revealing.”
It was interesting. All three Gnolls had clearly had a very different experience. Mrell looked unhappy, even troubled like some Gnolls who’d been jumped or held up or had to spend their hour in the hospital due to accidents. He didn’t look shellshocked—and some Gnolls had walked out and sworn never to return.
It could be traumatizing, walking around in a new world. Even seeing all those Humans, their foreign architecture, reading the news…
They had city-destroying bombs in all the major powers. Bombs that could destroy everything around it and poison the air itself for countless miles, and they thought it was normal? All those conflicts…Adetr had seen some graphic pictures when Rose had shown him how to access the internet.
However, Mrell’s troubles were not Orelighn’s. The Chieftain practically burbled with delight.
“I have had the most wonderful experience! I hope I can do it again? Disney world. You should all go! It has these…rides! And food! And such funny little characters!”
He waved his arms, trying to explain to the curious [Shamans].
“It does cost money, and there are lines, poor Humans. However, there are little children having such fun! And the rides! On one, you ride this roller coaster where you go upside down—ah, but there are multiple parks in the same area. Very humid. Oh, and there are giant lizards in the water.”
Adetr’s ears perked up as a [Shaman] looked worried. Orelighn waved it off.
“Only small ones. Alligators. Florida, I think. But they aren’t that dangerous, and I got exclusive treatment when one tried to eat my foot and I had to kick it. Which is wonderful because I got to the front of every line!”
He had had a great experience, it seemed. Cetrule was more in the middle.
“I…I think I fell into a trap of some kind. Has two hours already passed since I entered? I just sat down and…I’ve been tricked. She tricked me!”
He looked around accusatory, but didn’t immediately elaborate.
“Who did, Shaman Cetrule?”
Mrell and Cetrule seemed to be coming out of their experience, and the [Shaman of Purity] hesitated, then gave Mrell a look of instant reserve. They did not care for each other. Adetr was good at noticing impending hostilities, so he was intrigued.
Mrell and Cetrule did not get along, but it was Cetrule who clearly didn’t like Mrell, and he couldn’t even hide it that well. He turned instantly hostile, and Adetr wondered what Mrell had done to make a [Shaman] so impolite.
“Ah, Chieftain Mrell. I…took advice from someone and visited an ‘arcade’. A…very odd experience. Time flew away. And the littles games on…”
“I could have lost my life there. Hours! Days! That little child wants to…?”
What was this? Adetr’s ears perked up. Little child? Mrell looked like someone had just poked him with a sharp needle. Cetrule’s mouth clamped shut, and he turned to bow to Theikha and give tips to the other [Shamans].
Mrell never took his eyes off Cetrule. Now curious, Adetr stood up. There was only one ‘child’ he knew of who would be precocious enough to give Cetrule advice on anything.
Okay, two. Cers was Cetrule’s son, but he had no insight into Earth. If anyone did—why would that make Mrell look so…?
There were more secrets in the Meeting of Tribes yet to uncover. More to do, clearly. However, the wonders of the combined Skill had not faded. If anything…Adetr thought that the event two days ago had changed so much.
For the better.
We were there.
The rest of the world didn’t know about the Skill that had been created in the Meeting of Chieftains. In fact, the grand tent had to be abandoned and a second one built, much to the confusion of the Gnolls.
They knew something had happened, but the Skill was being guarded by the best [Guards] and magic. And anyways, the secret of Theikha’s great wonder had been covered by another huge occurrence.
Books. Books and stories.
Satar Silverfang. Write down her name, underline it, circle it, and maybe highlight it too. Ferkr of Pallass. Krshia and Akrisa Silverfang.
She had gone from ‘daughter of the Silverfang’s Chieftain’ to Satar Silverfang overnight. All because of a certain name-dropping Revenant, a little Gnoll with a quill…and stories.
The first book had arrived for Satar that morning. The last two days had been spent doing interviews, meeting other Chieftains and fellow lovers of the written word who wanted access to the promised bounty, telling all her friends how it had gone down, and also visiting her new Skill!
And freaking out. Satar had been rolling around on the ground like Cers—and breaking into tears, so overwrought with emotion.
You could, in fact, be too happy. However, two days meant she wasn’t curled up in a ball with Cers howling for their mother to calm Satar down.
Her paws were only shaking so badly she couldn’t undo the fancy purple-and-gold ribbon and delicately-wrapped paper, such that it required no glue or magic to keep itself folded. The wrapping fell away as the Courier, Mrsha, Cers, Akrisa, and dozens upon dozens of Silverfangs and a [Cameraman] Gnoll hired by Wistram News Network jostling with one hired by Nerrhavia’s Wonders watched.
“…and it looks like Satar is opening the wrapping now, Sir Relz.”
Someone was commenting in the background. Satar shed the wrapping paper—which looked so pricey someone snatched it for reuse—and lifted up the tome.
Her breath caught as gilded lettering over beautiful leather came to light. It sparkled under the rising sun, and a pair of tiny jewels gleamed. Satar looked down into a leather-embossed cover with an illustration of an imperious ruler holding a staff and pointing down, catching the light. Undead marched before her in the illustration, and two tiny gemstones made up the [Necromancer]-[Queen]’s glowing eyes.
Anthologies of Khelt, Volume 1: Khelta the First, Undeath Queen, [Queen of Necrocracy], Khelta the Eternal, Sovereign Ruler of Khelt, Guardian of the Norrislands…
It had a long title. So long, in fact, that someone had worked the list of her formal titles into the outline of the tome, so it ran around and formed what looked like a solid line around the cover and across the spine and back…until you realized they were microscopic letters.
This was a first-edition book of Khelt, gifted to Satar by none other than Fetohep of Khelt. In fact, the Drake Courier herself let out a sigh.
“Delivered and witnessed. Will that do, Your Majesty?”
She turned and bowed to the figure who was watching from a scrying orb. Satar heard a calm voice.
“Admirably, Courier T’shar of Zeres. You have Khelt’s gratitude.”
The Drake bowed again, and looked around.
“A pleasure, then. Is it alright if I check out the Meeting of Gnolls?”
“Of course! And thank you—again—”
One of the Silverfang Gnolls broke out of their stupor as Satar, trembling, opened the cover. The Drake Courier smiled and jogged off to get something to eat. She had a slight limp on her left leg, but nothing that had stopped her from taking the book from Zeres the instant it had arrived.
Via teleportation. Then straight to Satar via Courier. Such was Fetohep’s largesse; more books were inbound via ‘slower’ boat travel to reduce the cost of teleportation.
That was T’shar Glassbreath. The Courier who breathed glass! Or something like it—and who had received the most fines out of any Courier on Izril for temporarily turning stretches of the trade roads to glass so she could slide to her destination.
However, arguably…Satar knew someone more famous. Fetohep of Khelt. She heard someone muttering behind her.
“Cover alone’s worth probably a few hundred gold. That’s not a poor gemstone cut up; that’s a magical gem. Hand-stitched lettering, first-edition Kheltian volume probably written over a few thousand years ago…”
Qwera the Golden Gnoll got a firm nudge from a Human woman standing next to her.
“Stop scaring Satar, Qwery.”
Ysara Byres was watching with clear envy. And a bit of concern. Satar looked like she might faint.
“…and there you have it, folks. The first book to the Meeting of Tribes. This is Sir Relz, and our [Reporter] on the ground, Casif Plain’s Eye. Now, onto our next story…”
The crowd—at least, the television side of it—began to break up. However, the Gnolls who were here for the stories, not just the short-lived fame of it, gathered even closer, begging to touch the book or asking for a turn.
“Absolutely not. It’s too valuable. It has to be guarded! We’ll have to watch for [Thieves]…”
Beilmark knew what she was on about. The [Guardswoman] was already watching the crowd, and Satar’s heart leapt painfully at the thought of it.
Good came with ill. Yet Satar thought this beautiful gift…she looked up, and a Revenant winked at her, one of his golden eyes vanishing in its socket a moment. She had never thought she’d love an undead face.
“I trust this satisfies, Satar Silverfang?”
“Yes. Thank you!”
“Do not thank me. It is well that Khelt be first to share its vast knowledge. You caused this. I trust you will share your enlightened view on Khelt and the world to your Chieftain and other Gnolls. Good day to you.”
The world’s friendliest Revenant vanished from the scrying orb, and the Gnolls began to talk and exclaim in earnest. But not before Fetohep gave a smug little girl a dark look.
Mrsha was getting too full of herself. And for a girl whose mother was a genuine [Princess], and who had been raised for the last year in The Wandering Inn by Erin Solstice—
That was saying something. Lyonette had not helped with Mrsha’s ego, only her manners and other things she considered important. The problem was—Lyonette was a real blue-blood.
Actually, she was a red-blood because she bled red if you stabbed her. Mrsha had been vaguely disappointed by that. False advertising.
The problem was, Mrsha had once been a terrified, half-feral girl in an abandoned inn traumatized by the loss of her family. Then she had been a curious, mute girl, getting into trouble, but wide-eyed and fairly innocent.
Now? Now she swaggered around on two feet with a bag of holding full of gold, wore a crab-hat, and not only could insult you in prose but considered bribery an effective way of getting out of any situation—followed by ruthless blackmail or pulling rank or calling in favors.
She was either a girl thrust into great events of strife, hunted as a Doombringer unfairly, and somehow still innocent and caring despite all she had been through…or all that plus a monster in the making.
To her credit, she’d gotten rid of the crab hat. Unfortunately, she’d replaced it with an obnoxious pair of sunglasses slanted in a crazy ‘w’ shape that blinded everyone every time she turned her head in the sun.
“Who gave you that? No—I don’t have to guess. Yelroan. Give it here, Mrsha. It’s blinding people!”
The Gnoll girl slapped Rose’s hand down. She handed the Earther a card.
Back off, punk.
Rose stared at Mrsha. The Gnoll put up her dukes. You want to fight? Huh? Huh? You’ll take these glasses over my dead—
The thing was, Rose was a fairly poor caretaker, and, despite knowing Mrsha, she did not really know how to deal with Mrsha. She mistook hesitancy for kindness.
Beilmark calmly snatched the glasses off Mrsha’s face. When the Gnoll went to kick at her, the [Guardswoman] raised one paw.
“Kick me, and I arrest you. These are a public nuisance.”
Mrsha hesitated. Beilmark was nice and friendly, but her grin was a bit too nice, if that made sense. Mrsha sat down in a pout.
She was being childish today. It seemed like you rolled a die to find out if you got a mature Mrsha or a bratty one. However, anyone mistaking this for a simple roll of the Mrsha-dice was a fool. There was a psychology to this:
Mrsha was sulking. Ergo, she acted out. Much like a [Princess] would calmly announce to the entire court she was pregnant in a bid for attention. Or how Erin would do whatever she wanted.
The root cause of Mrsha sulking was more complex, though. The Gnoll girl was not with Satar, who was still marveling over her book; she’d lost interest and retired to Krshia’s tent, which was a sort of living-room for people to gather since the [Shopkeeper] only used it to sleep.
She had been trying to raise Fetohep to smugly congratulate him, but she couldn’t find her [Message] scroll. Mrsha had then resorted to her gifted sunglasses—most likely to annoy everyone in a hundred foot radius, only to be foiled.
She searched around for her [Message] scroll, then saw to her shock that Beilmark had it! The [Guardswoman] had come into the tent, picked up her scroll—
Give it back! Thief! Thief!
Mrsha raced after her just as Qwera and Ysara entered to continue pricing out their analysis of Satar’s gifted book. Beilmark held the scroll calmly over her head.
“No, and no. No sunglasses, no scroll. Kick me again, and you will regret it, Mrsha.”
“Mrsha, here—come on. Beilmark, what are you doing with, um, Mrsha’s scroll?”
Rose was present; Akrisa, Krshia, Inkar, Tkrn, Gire, Adetr, Yelroan, Feshi, Cetrule, and everyone else were gone. It was only Mrsha, Beilmark, Rose, Ysara, and Qwera in the tent.
Rose suspected Inkar and Tkrn were on a date in the Earth-simulation so Inkar could show him around her home. Akrisa and Krshia were discussing the issue, and Yelroan, Feshi, Adetr, and most of the important Gnolls were allowed access to the Skill—so that’s where they were, or unpacking what they’d learned.
She was here because, well…home made her hurt too much. She had gone in once—and only Adetr had helped her avoid a breakdown. Even then…
It had been a mistake to go home. To go home and see people who were not her parents but looked like them and talked like them and…
Good things hurt. So Rose was here. Beilmark was here, not being trusted enough to participate. She was put out by it, but understanding. Mrsha was here because she was Mrsha, and Plain’s Eye would be all around [The World of You and Me]. Same with Qwera and Ysara; they were not in the know.
Beilmark tucked the scroll into her bag of holding. She read a card Mrsha was waving in her face.
“I am not stealing it, Mrsha. This is a request from none other than Fetohep of Khelt. He sent a little note with Satar’s gift. You have been annoying him. So you don’t get this back for a week.”
Tyrant! Thief! You can’t do that! I’m his best friend! I’m his only friend! He’s an old man with nothing to do!
Mrsha promptly proved why Fetohep of Khelt had requested the intervention. She rolled around, not quite daring to attack Beilmark. Beilmark was a mother, and she had injected the warning tone that Mrsha had learned to listen to, akin to a child’s [Dangersense].
“Hrr. You’ll get it back. The fact that you can talk to a ruler of a…I feel like the world makes no sense, but that’s normal these days. Now, behave. I have to make sure a [Thief] doesn’t steal Satar’s book out of her paws and run.”
Beilmark trotted off. Mrsha fell onto the ground and flailed about like Cers. That made Rose smile—until she saw Mrsha roll over onto all fours and narrow her eyes.
“Mrsha? Where are you going? Oh no. Not again. Mrsha—no, Krshia said—Mrsha!”
For the eleventh time so far, Mrsha the Fed Up snapped. She bolted for the tent flaps. It was time! She was going to Earth! To—
Ysara grabbed Mrsha with ease, and Qwera picked up the Gnoll.
“I don’t believe in punishing little girls, but I will spank you like I spank Vetn or Tesy. Sit down. Try to run off and regret it.”
Mrsha raised a fist…and hesitated.
But it’s not fair!
Now she was nearly in tears, and the Mrsha-childishness revealed the root cause of the Mrsha-psychology. She actually began to snot up.
Earth! Earth is right there! I can go play video games and see movies! You can’t keep me away! Fast food! Chocolate! Arcades! I want to go! Pleeeeeease?
She wrote and held up the card for Qwera to see. The Golden Gnoll looked blank.
“I don’t know what they did in the Meeting of Chieftains, and I don’t care. Some big Skill? It’s dangerous. Listen, you little idiot. Do you want to die? Hm? Chieftain Xherw of the Plain’s Eye tribe is right there. Think!”
She squeezed Mrsha—but gently—and the Gnoll’s face fell. She looked up at Qwera and drooped. And there it was. Childishness instantly replaced by the feeling of mortality.
Rose felt terrible for Mrsha. No wonder she tried to distract herself. Qwera was right.
“What did they do in the Meeting of Chieftains? No one will tell me, not even Krshia. Do you know, Qwera?”
The Gnoll turned over the card and eyed Rose. The Human girl gulped. She glared at Mrsha, who recalled, uneasily, that Qwera was definitely not in the know as an outsider.
“Looks interesting. Some kind of…place? Earth. Now why would you call something as stupid as that? Sounds like Krngnoll.”
Ysara read Mrsha’s card over Qwera’s shoulder as the girl leapt and tried to snatch it back. She’d given a secret away in her excitement! Qwera shrugged.
“Oh, the Gnollish word for the world. The Great Land, I think. Generic. Chocolate, movies, video games? Interesting. What are these things, and why does the Meeting of Chieftains have access to it, Mrsha?”
She bent down with a huge smile, and Mrsha avoided her gaze. Rose inhaled.
She’d completely forgotten Qwera was on the same side but didn’t know the big things Krshia and the others did! Mrsha had too, clearly.
Wasn’t it okay to tell her? Rose saw Qwera’s eyes flicker towards her.
“What’s this about, Rose? Tell you what, Mrsha. Why don’t I get that scroll back to you if you spill? No going into danger, but…I sense an opportunity. Or a secret, which is worth a lot. How about it? [Is It A Deal]?”
She held out a paw to Mrsha, and the girl hesitated—long enough for a Human hand to slap Qwera’s paw down. Ysara Byres looked exasperated.
“Qwera, one second you’re a nurturing, caring individual, the next, you’re a cold-hearted monster of a [Merchant].”
“Hearts of gold are cold, Ysara. Come on, don’t you want to know?”
Ysara smiled crookedly and adjusted her posture; she always stood one foot in front of the other, poised. A genius with a sword, Rose had heard.
“Of course I do. Which is why you ask Mrsha nicely. I’m sure she’ll tell us. We are friends, right?”
The [Merchant] bent over to smile at Mrsha. The Gnoll girl laughed in her face, and Qwera snorted at Ysara’s affronted look.
“That would work on an innocent girl, Ysara. But you’re still a [Lady] sometimes. Listen, you bribe Mrsha. How much?”
Neither [Merchant] got to break down Mrsha’s low, low walls, because the tent flaps opened in that moment, and Gireulashia came charging into the room. She swept Mrsha up and swung her about.
“Mri! It was amazing! I ate and ate, and I beat every single game! And I could do anything. It’s so fascinating! They have ideas that we don’t! And—oh. Qwera and Ysara are here.”
She caught herself, eyes shining. The [Paragon] looked as happy as Rose had ever seen her. However—she was deliberate.
Even in the private tent, she used Mrsha’s cover-name. Instantly, Qwera perked her ears up.
“Honored Gireulashia, don’t stop on our account. Earth? We know all about it.”
Ysara nodded, and Gire gave the Golden Gnoll a steady stare. She flicked her eyes down to Mrsha and saw the Gnoll girl shaking her head. Gire turned, and her face became a perfect, polite mask.
“That was a slip of the tongue, Honored Qwera. I hope you won’t repeat it? The Chieftains would be very upset to hear anyone was prying without their permission, even if you hear…anything.”
Qwera cursed under her breath.
“Smart. Oh, very well—keep your secrets. Mrsha—Mri. Keep away from whatever it is. For your own good.”
Gire instantly sobered. She tossed Mrsha up and down gently and caught her friend.
“Yes, Mri. You can’t go. Even though it’s amazing. Can you smell anything on me? I know it must be hard, but I have to tell you what I saw! Privately. Come, let’s go to my tent and…”
Rose saw Mrsha’s look of agony as Gire carried her off, chattering. Well, no wonder Mrsha was so upset. Of everyone, she knew what to expect from Satar’s combination Skill…and she couldn’t see it! And Gire was probably describing it in such vivid detail it was driving Mrsha insane. In truth, Rose wondered what this would change.
What had she done? What would the Gnolls get from a copy of Earth? In this sense, Rose differed from Ryoka Griffin greatly. She worried about it, then decided in the next breath it was done and for the best. Gnolls were good people, by and large. The Silverfangs were—so why not trust them?
“Hrr. So, I think it is based on what Rose and Inkarr know, yes? But perhaps the Skill and the power of it expands what they know? Or else—it takes anything they know, even on a small level. I will have to do this again—but I have written down a list of interesting metals we do not know. Let me see. Aluminum, cobalt, titanium. A lot are not as useful, like ‘seaborgium’…it is listed, but ‘radioactive’. Honestly, the information is so great that we cannot make use of it yet! So much time must be spent studying, and we only have two hours. However, I have this. Again—I need to go back and double-check. Oh, and we should send someone with [Perfect Recall] or similar Skills in.”
Some Chieftains and Gnolls trusted with access went to amusement parks or tried the local taps. Some were scarily practical. Chieftain Mrell was in the middle, but he sat with Chieftain Mneic of the Sootfur tribe.
Sootfur wasn’t onto something as big as Demas Metal, but they were another tribe that specialized in metal, and the largest sheerly dedicated to metalworking. Plain’s Eye and a few others might have more [Smiths] and [Smelters] and [Farriers] and metal-related classes, but only by size.
Mneic was also an incredibly practical Gnoll. He was the kind of person that Ryoka Griffin had nightmares about.
Why? Well, simply because, after his first two visits of exploring Earth and getting a sense of it, he had spent his last visit in one place.
He’d gone to the nearest computer he could find—in a library—and opened up the Wikipedia page for metal. What he had written down was the periodic table, or as much as he could remember.
A terrifying Gnoll. But he sat in good company; Mrell reached for the paper, and someone else leaned over.
Yelroan. The [Mathematician] was joined by Mrell’s own [Shaman], Fiziker, and three other Gnolls, one of whom was Hawkarrow’s Chieftain.
He didn’t know her, but the Gnoll had organized the meeting. To understand the Chieftain of the Hawkarrow Tribe, Chieftain Eitha, it was easier to understand her weapon of choice, as it provided an insight into her psychology.
Chieftain Eitha carried a ranged weapon like her tribe was famous for—but rather than a traditional longbow or even a recurve, she had a Dwarfsteel crossbow, one of their high-power variants from Deríthal-vel’s forges themselves.
However, the mad-Gnoll had gone a step further and gotten it enchanted. She’d shown Mrell, and he couldn’t physically draw the string back. Neither could she, nor even most Gnolls with [Enhanced Strength].
Oh, they might be able to barely do it, but unless they also had [Enhanced Toughness], even the ones with [Greater Strength] would be in danger of cutting off their fingers with how much force they were putting into the damn enchanted metal string.
A crossbow no one could reload. So overtuned that it could apparently hit a target over a thousand feet away without Skills. A draw strength of over one thousand four hundred pounds of force.
She couldn’t reload it manually and didn’t try. Nor had she tried to get it enchanted to reload; magic still obeyed physics, at least for most [Enchanters], and she had poured all the available magic into making it as sturdy as could be.
Chieftain Eitha didn’t bother. She just used [Instantaneous Reload]. She was, fundamentally, that kind of person. If someone presented her with a puzzle, she’d try to cheat.
“I’ve also scrolled through their internet. Fascinating. We can try building some of their techniques, but for now, I did some research. We are centuries behind their modern armaments.”
“Armaments aren’t the goal, surely. That implies war.”
Another Gnoll interjected with worry clear in her voice. Chieftain Mneic rumbled. The sturdy [Smith] looked warningly at Eitha.
“No. The other Chieftains will deliberate, but I spoke with Honored Krshia, and she emphasized the dangers of spreading such ideas. What can be made can be stolen; any [Smith] knows that. Perhaps if it is overly complex…but no. Honored Krshia had many good points. I encourage you all to listen to her.”
He gave Eitha a meaningful look. Krshia had indeed had enough talks with Erin and Ryoka to get a sense of the Wind Runner’s paranoia. Eitha…justified Ryoka’s paranoia fairly easily with a grin.
“Obviously not, Chieftain Mneic! An arrow shot at the enemy is one they get back—even if you fish it out of the guts of whoever was hit. I think we should have an order of technologies shown publicly. However, I meant that we can redefine our own weapons and tactics based on Earth. And that is, of course, the least of what they can do. I simply mean that as one avenue of research. For instance, I studied their crossbows, and they have a new system that relies on pulleys! I want to make it—but I did check their historical weapons. My crossbow is superior to any weapon made in their era of swords.”
She patted her weapon lovingly. Mneic sighed through his nose.
“It is true…with the Drakes attacking our tribes, defense is important.”
The others nodded, Mrell somberly. He had taken all of Demas Metal to the Meeting of Tribes, but many were under attack.
“So we strike a balance. We learn—but we must learn fast, yes?”
Fiziker, Mrell’s [Shaman], spoke reasonably. She was often helping negotiate with [Merchants], and she was a good balance to Mrell. Eitha smiled happily.
“Yes indeed. We can already surprise those damned Drakes. Guess what I just learned? How to make a trebuchet. No wonder the Humans in the north are making them if they have an Earther! You can print out an instruction manual—and there’s a video! Let’s start making those, if nothing else! Do you think we can do that?”
“Do that? I could redefine our architecture! Calculate the size of this world—assuming it’s like theirs! There are tiny particles we can’t see, and space—”
Yelroan exploded and caught himself. He sat, quivering.
“Anything…practical, Honored Yelroan?”
Eitha looked cautiously at Yelroan. The [Mathematician]’s eyes bulged at her.
“Anything—well, honestly, Earth is so far advanced in math that a lot is theoretical. However, practically? Systems. Earth has so many…systems that we don’t. Ways of thinking about money, organizing data. Chieftains, Honored Gnolls, I may love math, but even I can see—there is so much we need to learn. Have you studied…bacteria? Micro organisms?”
Of all of them, Yelroan was the most academic. Where Mrell or Mneic could go to a library, Yelroan walked into a university. Hence his involvement here.
“Let me write that down. A hundred Gnolls won’t be enough to investigate this! Not by far, yes? We need to get the [Chieftains] out of smoking whatever they call Dreamleaf and riding on escalators, and get specialists in there. No—new classes! Learning!”
Eitha slapped the table. She looked like a Gnoll cub learning you could ride cows for the first time. Mneic was intensely practical, eyes lit up with the idea of learning how to make advanced metals to compete with even the Dwarves.
Mrell? Mrell was as excited as could be.
But he kept thinking of his daughter.
It was like a spiral. Everything had been going so well. Mrell had been proving Demas Metal was truly all he made it up to be. He was rubbing shoulders with famous Chieftains like Iraz Steelfur, and his tribe was poised to not only make a killing financially but help other tribes. Redefine the industry of magical metals, put Izril on the map and underline it with his name.
Up till now, magical metals were highly, highly localized to the right [Smiths] and locations. You got raw ore from places like Salazsar, and there were mithril-capable smiths on Izril, but places like Deríthal-vel, the Tannousin clan, the mighty forges of Invictel, and so on had a monopoly. Even steel required a lot of dedication to produce great quantities, like Pallassian steel.
…That was the [Smith] part of his brain. The other part, that Mrell hadn’t been—hadn’t ever been for perhaps more than fifteen seconds, while he waited for his daughter to cry—
He went back to it again. He should have hugged her closer, rather than recoil. He blamed the [Shaman]. He had been old and traditionalist—married into the Stone Spears tribe from Plain’s Eye.
That was an excuse. Mrell should never have listened.
[Shamans]. Fiziker was more like a glorified [Firestarter] than a magic-user, which was probably why he worked with her.
Doombringer. My daughter is a Doombringer. The Gnoll wondered if it was his fault. He could not have stopped a Goblin Lord, but maybe…
He was banned from seeing her. Cetrule, Chieftain Torishi, and the Silverfangs would make sure of that. Yet it felt to Mrell, especially now, that things revolved around Mrsha.
Not just because of where she came from or her strange connections. In part, the Meeting of Tribes hinged around her because of who she was.
Doombringer. This was a reckoning. The most impactful Meeting of Tribes in the last thousand years, easily. Old versus new.
But all Mrell truly wanted to do was…was what? Hold her and pretend the last eight years had never happened? Make amends?
How could he?
So caught up was Mrell that he lost track of the conversation. He only looked up when Fiziker nudged him.
“Hmm? I’m sorry, Chieftain Mneic. I must have stayed up too long in excitement.”
The older Gnoll smiled understandingly. He had a broad, blunt face, and the others chuckled.
“I see. We should rest—but I cannot stop talking. You lie down, Mrell. We will pull you and anyone back into these discussions, yes? I’ll ask whether your Demas Metal has parallels to Earth’s or whether it’s new. I still cannot get my mind off…blast furnaces. The Kroll process, as they refer to it, to make titanium, is far too complex, yes? But magic and Skills provide. If only we had a Tannousin smith who can make their contained environments! Ah, and we need espresso.”
Yelroan sat up excitedly.
“Have you not had any Oteslian coffee recently, Chieftain Mneic? I got a shipment of the stuff.”
“What now? Then that means—!”
Mrell left. He walked slowly back to his tent. Earth was one thing. A giant, glorious puzzle, a promised meeting, a learning experience for an entire species. A world apart.
It could be wonderful. If only they had the time to pursue it. However, he feared that even as practical as Chieftain Eitha was, as instrumental as Theikha’s wondrous Skill was…
The Meeting of Tribes was simply coming to an end.
Satar Silverfang had taken her first step into the next stage of her class. She was no longer an [Archival Storyteller] but a [Historian of the World].
A powerful class that was…Gnollish. Like Inkar, the [Worldly Traveller], the class fit the combination Skill. Fit Gnollish history.
[Historian of the World Level 25!]
[Skill – Tribe: Full of Ink obtained!]
[Skill – A Missing Passage, Revealed obtained!]
[Bound Spell – Repair obtained!]
That last one seemed the most important at first—until Satar realized how valuable all of the Skills were.
A free [Repair] spell? She could cast it once per day! Fix books! However, that was nothing compared to the other two, as it turned out.
“Let me see…that is roughly one half of the ink pot. So we are using less…or maybe we have more? I would guess each pot has roughly four-tenths more ink, but I would need to ask [Mathematician] Yelroan to find out. And I do not want to.”
Cetrule had done a test on the camp’s ink supplies. They just…lasted longer. There was not actually more ink, but when a Silverfang Gnoll wrote, it meant they needed to replenish the precious ink less.
“The cubs will hate you for that, Satar.”
Amused, one of the Honored Gnolls in the Silverfang tribe turned to Satar and winked. Satar jumped.
“Well, because now we need to train [Scribes]! We make use of tribe-skills, and if we’re more efficient with writing, then we must take advantage, yes? Other tribes will come to us just to save coins! Especially if you keep levelling.”
Or we make a printing press. Satar and Cetrule exchanged significant looks. However, the last Skill was the most powerful.
How did Satar know? Because it had a comma.
No, facetiousness aside, it was a hint. Satar, as a student of the written word, knew that the longer a Skill was, the more powerful it was. There were highly powerful Skills that were short, but she knew you could chain Skills together like a poem.
What did the Skill mean, though? Satar was afraid to ask because it would give away that she had a Skill, but no one had an instruction manual for Skills, and no book she’d ever read describing basic Skills had ever mentioned this one.
She tried to find out as she read Khelt’s anthology. And what Satar realized instantly was this: when they talked about the glorious past and called this the Waning World, the twilight of the Gnolls and all species at large, the old [Shamans] did not lie.
She wrote it down, summarizing the long, long book of Khelta’s glorious past so she could tell her friends. The book was just over thirty thousand pages long; enchanted to be small enough to carry around. It did not just contain Khelta’s long life as ruler of the undead, but her exploits, legacy, the world in which she had lived…
It was a gold mine to any [Historian] and also spoke to Khelt’s mania for perfection and self-glorification, because it had probably taken multiple [Writers] a lifetime to create. However, they were good enough to create a magical table of contents and glossary, proving they were truly excellent souls. Satar had only to look up a chapter, press her finger to the glowing text, and the book would flip to it.
So, naturally, she read of Khelta in relation to Gnolls. And there Satar discovered that Khelta had attended the Meeting of Tribes no less than four times.
And in those days—Satar scribbled notes as she wrote.
The Meeting of Tribes did not always take place every twenty years. We knew that. But this confirms it. Nor was it every hundred years or fifty! Every two hundred years, the tribes gathered.
It is not like our Meeting of Tribes today. Not by a long shot! I considered this one going on overlong to hear from the other Honored Gnolls who remembered the last one. The previous Meeting of Tribes?
It could last years. Because it was so rare, every monarch who could attend would at least send a representative! Imagine it! [Courtiers] and [Knights] and [Mages] would all come because you could not miss it.
Because we were so important.
She stared at that last line. Then went back to reading. There was more to learn, and some of it astonished her.
That was when Satar found out what her Skill did.
[A Missing Passage, Revealed]. She was cribbing notes like a mad-Gnoll, jotting down whatever was written. Annoyingly, even Khelt’s [Historians] had not gone too deep into Gnoll culture; they wrote from a Khelta perspective. The Gnolls were mighty, so Khelta could be mightier still, the genius queen whom even the Meeting of Tribes revolved around.
It seems Khelta did not meet many white Gnolls in her time, or it is simply not brought up. However, there is a bastardized version of ‘The Beast of Albez’ written here! Kheltian literature really does include poetry, songs, and everything else. This one is almost exactly like the Silverfang story, I’m afraid.
The white Gnoll came to the tribe that lived among the Hills of Albez. The tribe was Knocte. When the white Gnoll came, they did not heed the warnings and did not chase the white Gnoll away, and were so doomed. The beast fell among them when the white Gnoll left and killed them one by one. While it lay sleeping, a heroic Gnoll crept up on it, stabbed it, and, after a great battle, killed it. That is all there is to the story, but Cetrule will be happy we got it right.
I can’t immediately find any white Gnolls in the book, but maybe it didn’t matter to Khelta. Or maybe it didn’t matter at the time, so—
Then Satar stopped. She peered at her writing and recoiled. For there, on the page, before her very eyes, the Beast of Albez story…
It looked as though the neat, inky letters faded away, as if she’d written in invisible ink. Suddenly, Satar realized what her Skill did. With trembling paws, she held up the paper.
The white Gnoll came to the tribe that lived among the Hills of Albez. The tribe was Knocte. When the white Gnoll came, they did not heed the warnings and ______________. The beast fell among them when the white Gnoll left and killed them one by one. While it lay sleeping, a __________ crept up on it, stabbed it, and, after a great battle, killed it. ____________ but Cetrule will be happy we got it right.
The offending lines crossed themselves out, then slowly faded away. Leaving Satar with—
Her other Skill, [Narrative: Spot Inconsistencies], chimed. And it told her this was it.
This was the truth. But she had written falsehood. So her Skill had erased it.
[A Missing Passage, Revealed]. Satar nearly fainted because she realized this was how she would do it. She would, with her own paws, write the history they had lost.
But she had to find out what it was, first.
Satar tried a dozen lines as she paged furiously through Khelta’s autobiography. She managed to fill the first gap! She tried a dozen combinations from ‘killed the Doombringer’ to ‘some fled, but others would not listen’, and she realized how frustrating this would be and how specific she would need to get. She could not cheat and write anything. Because the missing line was this:
When the white Gnoll came, they did not heed the warnings and ignored her warning.
Very specific. Very…Satar mumbled.
“Ignored her warning. That doesn’t sound that different? But I wrote—‘did not chase the white Gnoll away’.”
Her fur tingled. It was a hint. But the other two sections refused to fill in no matter what Satar tried. Moreover, she thought her retelling was incomplete to begin with.
But that was it. Satar knew she was on the right path. She furiously went back to reading, yet she couldn’t help but also feel pained.
The Meeting of Tribes of old was so glorious. In the first one Khelta ever visited, they wrote that, out of desperation, the last of the Unicorns of the Vail Forest of Izril had come to trade the horns of their dead and struck a mighty bargain with the greatest [Alchemists] and [Mages] living.
Like that was one event that occurred. Unicorns just walking into the Meeting of Tribes. Another was a Dragon coming to demand a tribe fight for her, and it nearly coming to a miniature war as the Gnolls objected to her presence.
Why, there were old heroes, fabled weapons that Satar wanted to cross-reference in other stories…these were the very tales of legend! Khelta was old—and so was Khelt. But it still did not rival the Shield Kingdoms in age. At least the book gave proper timelines, but they were all impossible to cross-reference to modern calendars.
Entire nations like the Walled City of Mershi, the City of Stars, had existed, and Satar wondered if Honored Lehra would be interested in that! Could she get an autograph? Wait…didn’t Mrsha know her?
If this book was right—then Khelt could rightfully boast it had been created in one of the ages of legends. Satar’s rough math made them out to be tens of thousands of years old…but only technically.
They were a nation twenty-one thousand years old from when Khelta had walked the earth. They had survived multiple cataclysms, the Creler wars of six thousand years ago being the last huge one.
So old that Satar was amazed Pallass, Zeres, and the other Walled Cities were described.
“And from Salazsar, still cut year by year out of stone, youngest of the Walled Cities, came a bountitude of gemstones to cease the war between Plain’s Eye and the Walled City of Gems. To strike this mighty pact…no way!”
It had been there. Salazsar had been a small Walled City because they’d begun mining into the mountain. It had been built after the initial foundings of the other Walled Cities and so was described like a provincial town!
Satar was hooked. She would die in her room, reading this book, and die happily. She read on, knowing she had to tell Lehra, her mother, show this to Theikha, Plain’s Eye, and so on…but one more page? One more page?
“…so bitter was the fighting that all sides feared Plain’s Eye and the City of Gems might well violate any truce. So, to mark this great peace and ensure it would last at least a century, the Archmage of Sinful Magics, the Guardian of the Vail—the leader of the Unicorns—and the infamous Witch of Webs all took the greatest gemstones as payment to create a binding pact. They struck it at the zenith of both moons, under moonlight, as a Wall Lady of Salazsar and the Chieftain of Plain’s Eye swore in blood and by magic to…”
What Satar missed in her excitement was that some stories never truly went away.
The Meeting of Tribes was so much smaller, now. So much…less grand. And with that decay, when Gnolls grew petty and weak, some stories repeated themselves.
When rot developed…
The Raskghar emerged. Like maggots breeding in a dying corpse. They were as much a herald as white fur.
One of those old threads was loose and roaming the Meeting of Tribes right now. It had taken a while to arrive, but unlike the others, chained by metal and magic…it was free.
Not that Belavierr particularly cared. She was interested in the same way a [Merchant] kept tabs on who was selling a lot of flax and so on. Only, her clientele were more…varied.
If anyone asked her, she could have told them a number of things. For a price. The Stitch Witch missed the old days.
She could have bought a unicorn horn, bartered for a Djinni, hired an army, and been sipping on tea poured from a Dryad’s gardens in a single day. She had woven a little tapestry just to see whether the Meeting of Tribes had anything of interest to her, but no. Nothing.
“What beautiful magic, Mother.”
Maviola whispered. The undead [Lady]’s eyes flickered with ghostly flames if you looked into the pupils. A burning fire hidden by magic so that she looked simply like a beautiful, if oddly pale young woman following her mother about.
Not exactly like Maviola El had ever been; Belavierr was too canny to risk that. But still…Belavierr’s second daughter had a resemblance to her.
She was chewing on a plate of delicate sarish, and that, at least, had not changed markedly in Drake lands. Belavierr ate, because it was seemly, but she felt that she was failing to blend in.
All the Drakes and Gnolls kept eying the tall Human woman with a hat so wide it threatened people sitting at other tables of the outdoor cafe. Did they not have half-Giants, even the small ones, anymore? Were huge hats out of fashion?
Belavierr hated catching up with the world. Still, she was getting better at it. She had left Az’kerash’s castle…mainly because she still wasn’t sure if he’d violated some dimensional boundary in creating his newest undead. Ambitious projects almost always carried some personal risk.
Belavierr went back to studying the tapestry of shifting threads. Oh, and here came the Drakes. She rolled it back up, much to Maviola’s disappointment.
“It is just magic. You must learn some yourself, though you will weave fire—far more tumultuous, my daughter. Wiskeria never cared for thread either, and you were made to burn.”
“I want to meet Wiskeria.”
“I will allow you to. When you are older.”
Belavierr hadn’t told Wiskeria about Maviola. It was just a mother’s instinct, but she felt as though admitting she had murdered a [Lady] of the House of El and used her corpse to create a second, undead daughter capable of levelling might disturb Wiskeria.
But parents never knew their children, anyways. Belavierr was, at least, grateful that she could feel anything. So long she’d been a…captive to her own immortality. Now she could think.
And she thought she was poor.
My immortality and protections, burnt. My fortunes, also burnt. I have been bleeding artifacts making petty deals these last few thousand years. Ah, well.
It beat hiding in the darkness waiting for the magic to come back. Or dealing with Crelers, ruining any opportunity for good business…no, on the contrary, great calamity provided excellent opportunities.
Belavierr sipped from her cup. Maviola kept chewing happily; she had taste buds.
“Mother? Why are we here? Are we waiting for the castle to be repaired? May we return soon? I miss the funny skeleton.”
The immortal Witch of Webs, the Stitch Witch, Belavierr the Spider, the Temptress, and too many names for her to bother to remember—twitched.
“…I told you not to speak to that one. It is a bad influence.”
“Yes, Mother. But he’s funny. Why are we here?”
The two were, of course, impossible to eavesdrop on. But Belavierr looked around carefully even so. She was annoyed even her ‘don’t notice me’ charms seemed to be struggling, but perhaps she really was out of fashion?
Belavierr loomed over Ryoka Griffin, who was six-foot-one, without a hat. The seven-foot woman plus her incredible hat made a Gnoll sway back. He focused on her.
“What an incredible…hrr.”
Then the magic persuaded him she wasn’t the most astounding thing he’d see all year, and he wandered off. Belavierr frowned after him.
“There is business to be done, Maviola. I must find a new client—after our work with the Necromancer concludes. However, there are poor pickings and I must rebuild my fortunes and magic.”
“Yes, Mother. So why are we here? You said you lost far more than you could have gained. Including your eye.”
Belavierr covered her left eye at the reminder. The new one was identical to the first, but she was still…very unhappy about losing the other one. An immortal’s lifespan even Dragons would admire and she had lost it to a Fraerling riding a bee?
The fact that Niers was the greatest [Strategist] of his age didn’t placate Belavierr’s wrath. And it was true; she’d lost far too much.
“We are here, my daughter…because I was thwarted.”
“By a child, Mother?”
Belavierr turned her ringed gaze, and Maviola went back to eating her food.
“…Yes. However, my daughter, I do not take defeat lightly. I have been thwarted. So this…is simply revenge.”
The outdoor cafe in Pallass containing the Stitch Witch and her daughter shivered as the temperature dropped. Belavierr was sitting on the 6th Floor. Calmly…looking down at a certain bar on the 5th Floor.
There was such a thing as a bad reputation. However, given how it had gone down, Belavierr was alternating between wrath and simply pique.
To be clear, pique was drawing a rune of pestilence on the doors of Tails and Scales and attracting every rodent in a ten-mile radius. Possibly deadly.
Wrath was pointing at the bar and casting [Everburning Firestorm]. And she was thinking about wrath. A bad reputation was one thing, but she also had to maintain her image.
Belavierr calmly produced a little flame from one fingertip and took aim. Then she caught herself, and the growing inferno winked out.
What was she doing? She turned to her daughter, almost embarrassed.
“I have made an error, Maviola. I must teach you better. When you take vengeance upon a couple bound by love, kill one and spare the other. Vengeance may follow, but that in itself is well. I taught Wiskeria this.”
She produced a tiny needle and hunted for a vial of poison. Maviola nodded and smiled, but it slipped as Belavierr looked away. Maviola wasn’t sure she liked her big sister that Belavierr praised so often.
Belavierr unstoppered a bottle that might kill everyone in the cafe over the next two days if the vapors were released and, created a little void of air so she could dip the needle into it. She was, after all, not a mass-murderer or some errant lawbreaker.
She just followed laws and practices as old as she was. That was why, when the announcement began to blare across Pallass and every head rose in alarm, she politely stopped and listened.
“I am Chaldion of Pallass. A Named-rank criminal has been located within our walls. All citizens, stay indoors. 1st Army is in position. A Tier 7 spell has been prepared, and wall spells are online. Remain indoors.”
“I didn’t know they had a Tier 7 spell anymore. How distressing. Be very careful, Maviola.”
Belavierr cautioned her daughter. Then she felt something writhing. She pulled out a tapestry of her deaths and saw a lot of tiny threads seeking her life.
Belavierr glanced around and then saw the [Snipers]. And the Dullahan [General] marching down the street as Gnolls and Drakes screamed and ran.
“Hm? Oh. Is it me again?”
She looked around—then uncannily, terrifyingly, twisted her head and stared across the city towards a disguised partition behind enchanted glass where a [Grand Strategist] was sitting, surrounded by wards.
Those eyes peered straight into his soul. Two eyes with infinitely smaller rings, staring at him. A contorted head and body, twisted around to stare at him across thousands of feet, through stone.
The Drake refused to flinch.
Her immortal gaze met his gemstone one, a flashing blue gemstone eye of [True Sight] set in one socket, a burning mortal eye narrowed and fixed on her. Everyone else in the room shuddered, but Chaldion spoke into a stone.
“Duln. Arrest her. I will sound the all-clear once she’s willing to leave peacefully.”
Timing a trap for the Spider was hard. It spoke to Pallass’ current state that she could so freely enter and leave. Like the Meeting of Tribes…it was decay.
However, Chaldion saw the Dullahan approach fearlessly. Belavierr would have probably forgone her vengeance now she knew he would stand in her way. She was practical. But Chaldion didn’t like gambling when too much was on the line.
“Tell Belavierr that she is under the laws of hospitality. If she accepts, fine. If not, escort her out of the city and inform her she’s banned just like I told you, under the old wording. Politely. But let her know that if she accepts and agrees to meet me as hospitality dictates…I have a job for her.”
The Stitch Witch could not hear him in the contained space, protected by so many spells even Archmage Eldavin would blink. She could not hear him, and she should not be able to see him.
But she was the Witch of legends. Chaldion’s scales crawled. In his magical eyesight, he could see her across the city as if she were right in front of him, the view magnified, enhanced, and revealed all secrets except hers. He saw Maviola El’s body, and if he thought he could kill her without a death toll so high…
But use whatever weapon you had, even a cursed one. What scared even Chaldion though, was Belavierr’s reaction.
She smiled as wide as could be. Ah, at last.
Proper employment. Belavierr met with Chaldion—briefly—and he paid her a pre-calculated fee with minimal haggling.
He would report to the Assembly of Crafts that Duln had helped run off a Named-rank criminal because that’s what they needed to know.
His private security council would hear of their deal, and Chaldion would summarize the results. His offer? Taken. The price was steep, and Belavierr refused a few conditions, like destroying the corpse of Maviola El. But she agreed to do what he wanted.
The problem was, even the [Grand Strategist] of Pallass couldn’t predict how Belavierr would act. Nor was he aware of all the factors. If he had been…he might not have sent her to her destination.
Belavierr departed Pallass and headed straight for the Meeting of Tribes.
If only they had more time. It could be glorious.
When they did meet each other, it was at lunch. Lunch was big, plentiful, and social, with Gnolls coming and going.
But since a certain little Gnoll needed to keep mostly out of sight, she had lunch catered to her. Sulking that she couldn’t eat sweet, sweet ice cream while playing on arcade machines and eating pizza and doing all the things without consequence, Mrsha splurged.
Not least because Gire could and did eat anything she wouldn’t finish. And where good food existed…
Lehra Ruinstrider followed.
“Mri! Hello! Is that Wyvern steak? Mind company for lunch?”
“Lehra, no. I am so sorry…”
The Stargnoll and her team peeked into a big tent where Mrsha was paying for a small feast of food. A drooling Gire was looking at marbled cuts of Wyvern, fresh and preserved from the famous attack on Pallass. Marinated, fried just enough to cook it, but still bloody and rare.
Oh, and there was also a Fruit Golem. Which was a Golem…made of fruits.
Not ordinary fruits, but rare ones. Bananas? Mundane. Pineapples? Passé. Glowberries, Jumping Durians, Sea Oranges…and more.
Such a bounty! Aside from durian, which was a horrible-smelling fruit that Mrsha refused to touch. However, Lehra had followed her nose, and that was how she became a guest, despite Elgrinna’s clear embarrassment as she tried to drag Lehra out by the tail.
“I know Mri! We’re all friends! What’s the issue? Hello! Nice fur.”
Qwera, the Golden Gnoll, Tesy, and Vetn all looked up from their spot at the table. They exchanged looks. Tesy waved, and they whispered together as Lehra said hello to others she recognized.
“Is that a Named Adventurer? I’m allergic to adventurers.”
Vetn edged as far back from Lehra as he could. The Thief of Clouds and a Named Adventurer at the same table?
But they knew each other! And it wasn’t just Mrsha—or Mri, rather—who made it happen. The other person was…
Tkrn. And Inkar. The Gnoll [Guard] was blinking at a little Golem made up of different bunches of grapes begging for its life.
“I…I’m not hungry. Who eats like this?”
Inkar agreed. Rose guiltily hid a grape she’d been about to eat. So Rose, Inkar, and Tkrn were there.
And so was Adetr, unapologetically already eating a huge steak. And then the tent flaps opened, and more guests came in.
“Hello! Am I late? I found Yelroan. We were visiting the thing—oh!”
Feshi Weatherfur and Yelroan both entered the tent and blinked around. They were followed by Satar and Cers…and the two young Silverfangs were agog by the company.
“You know Lehra Ruinstrider, Mri?”
Cers’ jaw dropped, and Lehra offered to sign his forehead. Satar squeaked, and Mri looked around smugly.
“That child is a nightmare. Who raised her?”
Qwera muttered to Vetn and Tesy. Ysara Byres slid into a seat at their table.
This was not a moment about them. They were peripheral to the Meeting of Tribes; their entire involvement was due to Mri, and honestly, none of the four were quite sure where they fit.
There was business to be done, but Sellme and the Thief of Clouds were clearly antsy.
“She has so many protectors. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe she’s safe now, Qwera. We’re not even allowed to know what’s going on. Unless you can find out, Vetn?”
The Gnoll [Thief] shrugged.
“I tried. They’re locked up tighter than any tribe. I could get out, but I’d have to make a scene. Something big’s going on, but I’m not interested. You, Tesy?”
“Nope. It’s not like there are any walls to paint on. I could do the grass…but grass grows. What do you think, Qwera?”
The Golden Gnoll rested her chin on her paws. She had risked a lot coming here, and so had Vetn and Tesy. Mrsha probably remembered, but the girl was in the midst of distracting herself.
“Poor child. She’s surrounded by protectors, but where were they when you found her, Vetn?”
“Hrr. That other idiot probably took her away.”
“All these Gnolls can’t stop an arrow. Well, Lehra Ruinstrider might and that [Paragon]…but we’re staying.”
Vetn watched as Tesy chewed on some durian with subdued horror. The Drake looked around brightly.
“Okay then, I’ll see you all later. Vetn, want to head to Oteslia? I hear we might be able to—”
Qwera grabbed both by the shoulders.
“You two. Are staying. Here.”
Both young men looked at Qwera and sighed. However, they had to admit—there was some energy here.
Tesy’s claw itched, and he absently began sketching the sight of Lehra, Gire, Adetr, and Feshi together. Each one a leader in battle in some way—but completely different.
Important Gnolls. Fascinating Gnolls.
Yelroan was positively shy, and he seemed nervous of Mrsha, almost sick to the stomach as she waved at him to sit and eat and told him how Beilmark had stolen his glasses. Yet he did sit, and while he was visibly reluctant, he opened up the instant Gire had asked if he’d figured out ‘sin’. Sine? That was the least of the math to be had!
On the other end, Adetr was trying to draw Emper into a discussion about [Monk] fighting styles while Emper ate the fruits, and Rose was whispering to Gire about all the good eats on Earth. Cers was staring at Suxhel and losing because the Gazer had more eyes to stare at him, and Satar was writing this all down.
Inkar and Tkrn were being disgustingly cute. Ysara sighed.
“What a mix. And here I thought my younger sister was exaggerating about the inn she visited. This is a gathering.”
“Biggest I’ve ever seen.”
Qwera muttered. Ysara raised her brows.
“You think so? It reminds me of when the Five Families gather. You’d see this around Magnolia Reinhart or another influential figure like Tyrion Veltras. Not that they’re ones to emulate. I think it’s good, Qwera. It means they like each other.”
“Like tips the scales, but gold and blood weigh more.”
Qwera quoted a famous adage from the [War Merchants] of Baleros. Ysara smiled.
“You’re too nervous here, Qwera. You got Mri to safety—and the sky hasn’t fallen! Relax! Here. Have some fruit. Do I need to feed it to you with kisses?”
She picked up a durian piece and offered it to Qwera with her lips before the Golden Gnoll flicked it away—and into the back of Feshi’s head.
Mrsha beamed as Feshi looked around, and Qwera instantly pointed at Tesy.
It was almost like home. Cers grabbed a pawful of food and raised it, and Feshi, with the instincts of a [Strategist], went for cover. Rose reluctantly was drawn into the discussion about sin since it wasn’t theology. Mrsha’s ears perked up as she heard Gire complaining.
“I like math! Math is fun, Rose. Just explain it. I think Yelroan understands, but I want to be certain! The universities certainly beat some of the other places.”
“The what now? What’s this about? Is this the big secret my Chieftain was talking about? Should I ask to visit?”
Lehra perked up, and Gire turned.
“You have to. If you’re allowed—it’s the most amazing thing ever, Lehra. And it has incredible food. But it’s secret.”
She glanced at Lehra’s team, and Elgrinna growled.
“Damn it. Is that my cue to leave?”
“No, since Lehra has no permission, I won’t tell anyone.”
Gire shook her head. Lehra looked crestfallen.
“But I want to know! Fine, I’ll get permission! Then I’ll tell my team. I wouldn’t keep anything secret from them!”
“And that is why you’ll never get permission.”
Adetr growled. Lehra gave him a supercilious look.
“My team’s trustworthy! I’m loyal to my tribe, but it’s silly to think non-Gnolls can’t be trusted.”
“This is bigger than just one tribe. You’re a Named Adventurer. Secrecy—”
“Anyways, Rose. Some places are boring. Not to give out secrets, but that thing with the pews and altar? Boring. The book is somewhat interesting, but it has a lot of words blanked out.”
Rose sat up in alarm, but Gire just yawned.
“Is that really how it looks to you? The man who gave the entire service kept skipping the word too. Either the Skill’s busted, or you have weird…what’s the word?”
She snapped her fingers. Yelroan looked puzzled.
“What place is this? Fill-in-the-blank games?”
“I wish. It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
Mrsha frowned at Gire, demanding to know more too, and Lehra and Adetr were arguing about the tribes. The tent flaps opened once more, and someone hurried in.
Cetrule. The Gnoll was winded, his ceremonial garb hanging askew. Only Feshi, peeking out to see if the food fight had begun yet, noticed. Had he had a bad turn? Gotten into a car accident or looked at some very…disturbing images online?
The Gnoll’s fur was messed up, and he looked at the chattering room.
“What are you…?”
No one noticed. Cetrule caught himself as Satar turned, beaming.
“Cetrule! I found out what my new Skill does! It’s—”
The [Shaman] of the Silverfangs cut her off. He took a breath and then bellowed, so loudly he drowned out everyone else. A note of high tension, a cracking voice bordering on a howl.
“What are you all doing?”
Everyone went still. Mrsha looked up, face covered in sauce, and the arguers, diners, and Cers himself looked in Cetrule in alarm. The [Shaman] pointed outside.
“The Drakes. They’ve crossed the water line. The Woven Bladegrass tribe sounded the alarm—every tribe is mustering its warriors. Honored Lehra, Gire, Adetr, Feshi, your Chieftains need you now.”
The tent went silent. Mrsha had been afraid for a moment that someone had found out her identity. This?
This was worse. Yelroan’s head snapped up. He saw Feshi pale; Adetr was already on his feet and racing around the table. Lehra dropped the fork she was holding, and the clatter was far too loud.
It could have been glorious. If only they had more time. Time to explore the wondrous Skill, to get to know each other, to enjoy life. If only this part could last forever.
If only…Drakes weren’t so petty.
“They are split up and coming from every angle into the Gnoll Plains. Not one unified army. We could smash any one army so far, but every Walled City has sent a force. Fissival has sent the largest by far. A Wall Lord Dragial is now leading it.”
Someone shouted in outrage.
Feshi Weatherfur listened, declining to interrupt as Chieftain Werri of Woven Bladegrass spoke. She, Iraz of Steelfur, and Chieftain Reizet of the Az’muzarre tribe were leading the discussions.
Werri because her people had been doing the scouting. Iraz to balance her and because he was a foremost military leader. And because this was their land and they had famously fought every foe who entered their homeland, Az’muzarre.
Feshi was present as one of the [Strategists], and Yerranola too. Some of the Gnolls gave her distrustful glances, but she was not a Drake. She just happened to be wearing a Drake’s body today.
“We could really use Wil, Merrik, Peki, and Venaz right now. Or the Professor.”
The Selphid whispered to Feshi. She’d been lying down rather than eating, but had risen for this. The poison seemed like it had mostly run its course, but the Selphid looked grim.
That was fair. Everyone was grim.
“First they attack vulnerable tribes. Now, they come after us. Does their treachery know no end?”
Reizet growled. Others agreed, but Feshi privately thought the Professor would have approved in his way. There was no way the Meeting of Tribes would have ended with the Gnolls happy with the Drakes. The cities had struck first.
“Do we have a list of which cities have sent armies? Or their reasons? This is a clearly aggressive act.”
Chieftain Iraz spoke up. Adetr wasn’t present; he was no [Strategist], and each tribe was mustering warriors. This meeting was to decide who went where.
“They are citing our tribes fighting back as excuses for the war. It doesn’t matter why—they’re here.”
Werri snapped. She pointed at the map.
“The point is they’ve split up. They know we can defeat them. My tribe alone can crush armies from any one Drake city outside of a Walled one, so they run the instant we get near. They link up and wait for us. But they’re not idle. They’re using tactics from before the Antinium Wars against us. They’re setting fire to the Gnoll plains.”
A low growl went up from those listening. Feshi growled herself.
“They’re trying to send a wall of fire at us. Wildfire, stoked by magic. We need to put out the fires with our [Shamans]. So we have to tackle them. This is the perfect time for it, with the heat of the summer and autumn detritus. If it were winter, they’d try to conjure blizzards and starve us of food. These are old tactics.”
A [Strategist] from the Wild Wastes tribes was old enough to remember those classes. Werri growled.
“I’ve highlighted the biggest armies. There’s one to the south of combined Drakes. Not all high-level—but over eighty thousand strong. Two more joining from the north, and Zeres has reinforced their lines. Smaller gatherings. Woven Bladegrass is in position to take the south.”
“They will not stand alone, no. My Steelfur Gnolls will split up. We must divide and fight. Which tribes will join our southern assault?”
“Hawkarrow will. But we are fewer. We must divide by specialty. Who goes north?”
“Weatherfur goes north. I will help lead the northern attack.”
Feshi spoke up. Iraz nodded at her, and they began tallying tribes. Someone else spoke.
“Ekhtouch will fight in the north as well. Fifty warriors.”
Fifty? But it was a tiny tribe. Then Feshi heard the speaker add.
“And our [Paragon]. I will lead twenty of ours to aid you, Chieftain Werri. Gireulashia will join the north.”
Chieftain Firrelle calmly strode out of the tent. And Feshi’s worries stacked higher.
“Gire is too young to fight!”
Rose was trying to argue with Akrisa, but there was nothing the Silverfang Chieftain could do.
“She must if Chieftain Firrelle says she must. I asked her—but she said that if Gire is old enough to challenge her for her position, she is old enough to fight. It is…pettiness.”
“Not pettiness. Vindictiveness. You saw how Gire dealt with her. All I can do is tell our warriors to try and shield Ekhtouch—but it will be a terrible battle.”
Cetrule muttered. Rose looked from Gnoll to Gnoll.
“What can we do?”
“Do? I am no war-[Chieftain]. I will place our command with our [First Warrior]—but it is a battle. Even Honored Beilmark does not fight in wars. I am afraid…we can only support our people from the rear, Rose.”
Akrisa looked pale and worried under her fur. Rose whirled and ran to find Gire.
The [Paragon] was hiding in her tent. She was hiding under her blanket as a little Gnoll girl worriedly patted her on the shoulder.
“I must fight. I must. I am a [Paragon]. I’m scared, Mrsha.”
Don’t fight. Don’t fight!
Mrsha was begging Gire not to, but the [Paragon] was one of many Gnolls going to the front. And going now.
“Where’s Ekhtouch? Move out!”
A roar made Rose jump as she stood in the doorway. She knew that voice. Gire poked her head out, and Mrsha turned. Rose saw an angry Gnoll standing in front of their camp, surrounded by nearly a hundred Gnolls with metal fur.
“Adetr! Can you convince Firrelle or Iraz not to send Gire to fight?”
The [Battle Seeker] stopped as he saw Rose. His face was not the joyful look he had when anticipating a fight. This was grim, and she saw his snarling face turn to surprise when he saw her. Ekhtouch was already lined up, and Gire emerged from her tent a moment later.
“Rose? Gire? No. She’s a [Paragon]. We need every warrior we can get!”
Adetr gave Rose a blank look, and she recalled that he had been fourteen when he was first made a [Warrior]. But then he recalled their talks. His gaze softened.
“This is a war for our people, Rose. If the Drakes start the fire, they’ll cast a windstorm across the entire plains. We’ll all burn by the time that inferno reaches us.”
Even the Steelfur Gnolls looked uneasy by his talk. Adetr was not good for morale. He looked around, then grabbed her arm and whispered.
“I’ll try to protect her. Feshi is coordinating the assault in part. We will look out for her, yes? But this war is…”
He knew other Gnolls were listening, so he didn’t finish it. Rose looked at Adetr desperately, then looked about.
“Hold on! I’ll get you a scarf! Or amulet! Or…”
Adetr gave Rose a blank look. One of the Steelfur Gnolls groaned, slapped the back of his head, and winced and rubbed at her paw.
“Dead gods, Adetr.”
“A lucky charm! Or something! Just don’t die.”
“I can’t wear a scarf. It’ll get in the way, and it’s not useful—stop that.”
The other Gnolls were jabbing Adetr in the back with the tops of their weapons so he’d shut up. Rose realized she wasn’t going to find anything to give Adetr and settled for a hug. His fur bit into her flesh, but she hugged him tight.
“Don’t die, you stupid [Battle Seeker].”
“I won’t. And I’ll keep the others safe.”
He nodded to her. Rose stepped back as Gire raised her paw.
“Ekhtouch, we fight with Steelfur! With me!”
She loped forwards, and the fifty Gnolls followed her. Adetr grunted, and he began jogging with Steelfur to their rally point.
No! No! A little Gnoll tried to run after Gire, trying to howl, her brown fur covered with tears, and the gold paint on her ears flaking. Rose tried to grab her, but she leapt past Rose and ran after Gire. She would go with her friend!
“Mri! Stop! St—”
Since the camps were in chaos, her usual guards were too few and too slow. Mri ran after Gire and might have vanished—but for a Gnoll who scooped her up and handed the kicking, biting girl back to Rose.
Rose grabbed Mrsha with all her strength, ignoring the sobbing, punching girl. She looked at…a Gnoll she had never met before. Prha got tackled again as she tried to reach Mrsha by a Weatherfur Gnoll.
“No problem, Miss.”
The Gnoll tipped his cap to her. He was still a bit puffy-cheeked. Damn allergies. But Ferris watched as Mrsha clung to Rose, sobbing. He scanned the camp and slipped away. By the time Mrsha and Rose realized someone had stuck a letter to her back embossed with Calanfer’s seal—he was gone.
Incidentally, so was Rafaema. And Ferris was only glad he wasn’t around to hear Makhir.
“I’m going to lose my job for this.”
The [Infiltrator] sighed. Then he went to figure out exactly how bad the situation was.
Wall Lord Ilvriss was preparing to go when he was asked for a quick meeting with Hunt Commander Makhir. The Gnoll didn’t beat around the bush.
“My ward is missing. Wall Lady Rafaema. Dragonspeaker Luciva herself considers her safety top priority. I know you’re a Wall Lord of Salazsar, but by our cities, I need you to help me, Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
Ilvriss raised his brows.
“She’s gone? When?”
“This morning. I found her quarters empty and a letter addressed to me. The contents—in brief, she wrote she was looking for something. She didn’t say who or where, but she was speaking to that [Princess]. But she refuses to say anything, and I cannot…persuade her to tell me. If I could force the issue, I would.”
That was as blunt as Manus, but surprisingly aggressive. Makhir looked…Ilvriss eyed him.
Beyond worried. Was he Rafaema’s father, or was she more important? Or was she Luciva’s adopted daughter?
He didn’t know. But the Wall Lord spoke directly to Makhir.
“I wish I could help, Makhir. I can speak to Miss Lyonette. But I am leaving Oteslia.”
Makhir grunted in surprise.
“I am being permitted to leave.”
The words were sour, but Ilvriss spoke them. He glanced at the window; Zeres’ army was pulling back.
“Zeres has entered the war against the Meeting of Tribes, and they have brokered a deal. Any foreign dignitaries may leave. Any…Drake dignitaries. Miss Lyonette will have to stay. Perhaps that was how Wall Lady Rafaema left?”
Makhir shook his head instantly.
“She did not go on foot or even horseback. She left with Mivifa herself, via Pegasus. The First Gardener did not order it—I cannot imagine what possessed Adventurer Mivifa. To risk Rafaema’s life…it’s inconceivable.”
Yet he could conceive of a reason. Ilvriss saw Makhir’s eyes flicker.
This has something to do with Cirediel. Xesci said they were unusual. If I could pick this apart…Ilvriss replied, curtly.
“I wish I could help you, but I swear on the walls of Salazsar and my family that I don’t know why this occurred, Hunt Commander. I’m leaving to link up with forces from Salazsar. My house has sent our standing forces along with an army.”
“To join the attack on the Meeting of Tribes?”
Makhir fixed on Ilvriss, suddenly shifting to the pressing military issue. Ilvriss met his gaze without blinking.
“To take stock of the situation. Salazsar has not declared war on the tribes, and I will personally be damned if we do. But this is high politics, and I need an army. Without one…I’m stuck. I’m sure you can understand.”
The Gnoll cursed.
“I do. I’d leave for Manus as well, but I must know why Rafaema left and where she’s going. I’ll leave you to it, Wall Lord.”
He was turning to go when Ilvriss spoke up.
“Hunt Commander Makhir?”
The Gnoll turned. Ilvriss pointed at him.
“Aside from the diplomatic incident between nations, leave Lyonette du Marquin unharmed. Or you and Manus will answer to me. Press her by all means, but harm her or her people, and we will have a second issue.”
The Gnoll just snarled at him and stormed out of the room. Ilvriss went back to packing. Zeres was leaving some of its army to check Oteslia because the City of Growth might be disposed to help the Gnolls. But it was moving towards the Great Plains, and so was Liscor’s mercenary army.
Ilvriss hurled a pair of shoes at the wall and winced at the damage they caused. But he cursed aloud.
“Not now! This is not the right time! Damn you!”
However, it was too late. The first battles between Gnolls and Drakes were continuing. If Ilvriss had one consolation, it was this:
He’d personally seen Salamani and Ci take Saliss’ antidote a day ago. Ethereal-class antidote; it required an enchanted container just to hold the liquid. It was en-route to Liscor.
So was Rafaema. Lyonette du Marquin sipped tea and listened to Makhir and his delegation arguing with her Thronebearers. A fight broke out after a minute, but she kept staring out the window.
She could not leave Oteslia. At least—not until Mivifa was back, and she might well be arrested by the First Gardener and Makhir for what she’d done.
Five days after the amazing conversation with everyone. Five days—and it had taken Saliss and Xif two days without sleep after receiving the mushrooms to synthesize the antidote.
They were sleeping through the fight. Lyonette had handed the bottle to Salamani, still cold from whatever they’d done to make it that way. She’d lost some skin and didn’t care.
“Wake her up.”
Now, Lyonette thought that Ferris would be in the Meeting of Tribes. She had wanted Makhir; Rafaema had only been sure Ferris would obey.
Lyonette wished she had sent Mrsha something more. An artifact! But Ferris had pointed out that anything magical would make her stand out more, so she had agreed reluctantly to wait. And handed over all but one of her artifacts to Rafaema.
Cloak of Balshadow. Ring of [Fireballs]. Wand of [Sticky Webs]. Mivifa had lent Rafaema her collection of gear too, but the Dragon was very well-equipped already.
A Dragon. Lyonette didn’t know if she was losing her mind because it felt so natural. Including turning her head and giving orders to the nervous Earth Dragon standing with her.
“Cire. Go and stop Makhir.”
“Me? He’s punching your [Knights]! And they have armor!”
The Dragon squeaked. Lyonette rolled her eyes.
“You are…you, Cire. He won’t harm you. Go and stop him.”
It was about knowing people. Delegation. Cire went out, and the crashing did stop—but the shouting didn’t.
What will I tell Makhir? Nothing? Everything? No—he doesn’t know what I know. I will be in danger. I have collaborated with Rafaema as per her wishes. I need to poorly intimate that I ‘know’ so he guesses that I don’t and am trying to ferret out information.
That was so simple she didn’t even have to dwell on it. Politics were her blood.
Mrsha was her heart. Lyonette waited for Mivifa to come back. When she did—Lyonette would leave Oteslia. For now, Ferris was guarding Mrsha.
Where was Rafaema going, though? Well, that was simple. And Lyonette suspected that the pink coach, Salamani and Ci, and Mivifa were all headed in the same direction.
“Honestly, we might have just had them all ride together, then. How fast would that carriage go if a Pegasus and Ci were pulling it?”
Lyonette was almost certain they were all headed to Liscor.
Two days ago.
“Liscor? You’re certain?”
Lyonette was watching coverage of the Ailendamus war. She looked up as Rafaema and Cire paced about. Well, Rafaema did it because she was nervous. Cire did it to copy her.
“Yes. The Dragon you’re looking for is at Liscor.”
“Are you sure it’s not him? He looks like us.”
Cire pointed at the image of Eldavin. Lyonette chewed on her lip.
“If he is, based purely on eye-color…it’s rare I’ll grant you, but not everyone with mismatched eyes is necessarily a Dragon.”
“True. He could be a dual-elemental [Mage]. His magic, though. And his…why are you certain I should go to Liscor?”
Rafaema turned to Lyonette. The [Princess] turned off the orb so she could focus.
“Because Erin met a Dragon there. She told me, and I never believed her; I thought she met a fire-breathing salamander or something. But there were other…hints.”
Like Klbkch refusing to deny there was a Dragon in the High Passes. Like whispers overheard from Ryoka that mentioned someone. Lyonette said it aloud.
Rafaema and Cire’s heads turned, and they looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] got up.
“Now, that is just a name. Perhaps Grand Magus Eldavin is this Dragon. It is entirely possible, and he seems to be Ryoka’s benefactor. But it would make sense that if he had a base or something, it would be in Liscor, wouldn’t it? When Ryoka visited Eldavin—or Teriarch, if the two are different—she went to the High Passes. Or do you think Grand Magus Eldavin has all his worldly possessions?”
Rafaema chewed on the tips of her claws.
“…He does not. He’s had to beg alchemical ingredients, and he mentions his wealth, though he’s not specific.”
“How do you know that?”
Cire blinked at Rafaema. The Lightning Dragon irritably waved a claw at him.
“I read the reports from our agents in Wistram. And believe me…”
She eyed Lyonette and fell silent. The [Princess] gave Rafaema a happy smile.
“Wistram is hiding something hugely significant? Like…young people with interesting backstories?”
“You know about that too? Well, that’s one thing, but it’s convincing me that you might be right.”
Rafaema crossed her arms. Cire’s head swung from Rafaema to Lyonette.
“Wait, what’s this about?”
Both women snapped at him.
Cire threw up his claws.
“This isn’t fair! I’m helping! I agreed to Lyonette’s deal.”
Lyonette was unmoved. She nodded at Rafaema.
“Ask her, but it isn’t my secret to give.”
“Then can I go with Rafaema?”
“No. Mivifa would never allow it. How are you going to convince her to give me a ride, anyways? She knows I’m a Dragon.”
Cire smugly rubbed his claws against his shirt.
“I’ll just tell her that I’ll scream, ‘I’m a Dragon’ from the rooftops if she doesn’t. Then, when she comes back, I’ll tell her I swore a death-pact with Lyonette. She has truth spells. Easy.”
Rafaema turned to Lyonette. The [Princess] saw the Dragon gesture to Cire.
Do you see?
Lyonette nodded fractionally. She pressed her fingers to her temples. Imagine if she had to deal with a male Mrsha in his teens…all her life? She felt for the First Gardener and Makhir, she truly did.
“Liscor. Dragons have caves, don’t they? Or is that a rumor?”
“I don’t know. Who would actually have a lair or cave? It sounds…stereotypical.”
Cire frowned, unfurling his wings slightly. Rafaema scratched at her neck-spines, equally dubious.
“I can see a secret base, but I’d hate a cave-cave. Still, you’re right. Finding proof Eldavin is a Dragon is far better than risking revealing myself to an Archmage. Okay, Liscor. I like it. Even if it’s a dead end—it’s an adventure. And you’ll lend me your invisibility cloak and whatnot?”
“Cloak of Balshadow. Yes. Now, I’ll write you a letter to Ishkr, but Erin is…asleep. Do you think you can track down a Dragon’s lair?”
Rafaema went to check her neatly-laid out gear and armor, all perfectly maintained. She spoke as she fidgeted; she couldn’t stand still. Cire, by contrast, could sit all day if he was focused.
“I…don’t know. I’m hardly that gifted in magic. I need to learn from scratch, and it’s hard when a [Mage] tells you how to do it. However, I might be able to smell the cave. I smelled the Dragon on you. So that’s how we know one exists. Let’s say I go there, track it down to the cave…and make contact. You and Cire will go save your daughter, or Ferris will contact you. Just—do you know what kind of Dragon it is? Maybe it’s an evil one. Maybe it is Eldavin. How do you know Teriarch is the right name?”
She sounded uncertain, longing, and afraid, and looked at Cire and Lyonette as if worried they would see that as weakness. Cire went to pat Rafaema on the shoulder, and she swatted him away.
They were alike as a species—and different in personality. Lyonette thought they felt younger than her, for all they were both many times her age. She would have helped them as much as she could, oath or not, normally.
But Mrsha needed her. So Lyonette was willing to let Rafaema find what she needed or her doom in the High Passes. All she wanted…was their help. If she had to unleash a full Dragon or drag Oteslia into war—she would.
And Oteslia’s Dragon was bound to her by life or death. She was going to use that. Magnolia Reinhart would be so proud, and Lyonette hated that, too.
But the mother took it one step at a time. Convince Rafaema. How? Oh, that was so simple.
Satar had just shown up on the news, and Lyonette had to believe her darling mischief-maker had helped organize that. Her first public event, and she’d probably helped write all those letters!
She was grounded forever, and Lyonette would never let go of Mrsha again. The [Princess] rose and picked up something. It was so simple. She handed Rafaema a book, and the Dragon’s claws locked onto it.
“Teriarch. When you meet him—I don’t know what he’s like. But you are looking for Teriarch, not Eldavin. The Dragonlord of Flame.”
Rafaema’s eyes went round. She looked down at the book, and Lyonette thanked Ser Dalimont. The Thronebearer and Ser Sest had been researching the ‘legend’ for her obsessively. Dalimont might suspect something, but Ser Sest had bought the line about Teriarch being connected to the Heartflame Breastplate.
The Dragonlords, by Ciarr Plain’s Eye. A copy of an ancient book. Cire’s jaw dropped.
“If you find him—good luck. I’ll write you more letters if you need them, and I’ll show you on a map where Ryoka must have gone. Oh—and stay away from Goblins.”
She had more instructions, and Rafaema only half-listened. She had a name, hope, and a certainty a Dragon existed.
So she went.
Brave children were going to do great things. They had already done great things. If only they had time, and the world wasn’t against them.
Children should have time to grow. They should have had peace.
All these revelations in the Meeting of Tribes were having an unusual effect. Some tribes embraced the new, like Sootfur and Hawkarrow. They followed Silverfang’s charge into revealing old truths.
Some tribes saw all these things and drew back. They gathered around Plain’s Eye, Gaarh Marsh, and older tribes. When the world shook, tradition and the past were roots to cling to.
“We must be wary of this new world. Those two—Rose and Inkar—they must be watched, don’t you agree, Chieftain? We cannot let them leave. And the danger—!”
An anxious Gnoll Chieftain of the Gembows Tribe was speaking. Her nerve was shattered. Some people, when faced with the incomprehensible or a great challenge—broke.
It was too bad she was a Chieftain. However, Chieftain Xherw of Plain’s Eye slowed long enough to nod to her.
“I will take care of it, of course, Chieftain Yinbe.”
She smiled and nodded, relieved. What Xherw carefully omitted was that he would not do what she wanted.
Not exactly. He was split on the Humans. On all these new events. He disagreed with the idea of shunning Earth. They had to join hands with Earth rather than face a great foe.
At the same time, Earth disturbed him. But he would not be the reactionary who fled from fire when someone invented it. He would be cautious—Plain’s Eye had to walk a narrow line.
Satar Silverfang was a good example of what ailed Xherw. She herself was not a bad Gnoll. If anything, Xherw admired the young [Storyteller] and [Shaman]. He could wish for a thousand Gnolls with her spirit. Her combined Skill? Wonderful. Her class…
No. No, that was a problem. She was digging into the past, and that…that was regrettable. That was what hurt Xherw.
None of these young people deserved anything but a bright future. Around him, horns were blowing.
The tribes were going to war. He had seen Feshi Weatherfur moving with Adetr Steelfur. Honored Gireulashia? A lot of the Gnolls who’d helped make Theikha’s Skill a reality were going north.
Two main armies were coming from the north, and Plain’s Eye would take the western one. The young children were headed to the eastern battle.
Actually, a lot of tribes had joined the eastern battle. Even Lehra Ruinstrider would be participating.
Four bright young Gnolls who all knew each other. By contrast? Plain’s Eye alone would fight on the western front. Plain’s Eye, augmented with Gaarh Marsh and Wild Wastes, but they alone.
Some tribes felt it was close to showing off or glory-seeking. Xherw intended to show them it was not, and to show them Plain’s Eye would bleed for the tribes. He had to prove it.
However, the eastern battle concerned him. So many children…
There was an opportunity, so Xherw left the nervous Chieftains still babbling about Earth behind. He approached the Silverfang camp, and some guards stirred to nervous attention.
“Chieftain Xherw himself? How can we help you, Chieftain?”
A…Weatherfur Gnoll blocked his way. Xherw frowned as some of his personal guards stopped, politely nodding to their counterparts.
“If it pleases Silverfang and Weatherfur, I would like to enter the camp, friends. This is a time of war—but I am seeking someone.”
The Gnoll hesitated.
“That—it would be easier if we could bring whomever it was to you, Chieftain. I am ashamed to stop you, but Chieftain Akrisa has given orders for no one to enter the camp unannounced. We have had an issue, you see. With another Chieftain.”
Interesting. Xherw looked about. His fur was…tingling.
Is the Golden Gnoll here? Quite possibly. Yelroan could not prove she was a Doombringer, but I think one is here.
However, that was a secondary concern to war, so he only smiled and nodded.
“Quite understandable. Then, could I ask to meet with a certain Gnoll? I understand Silverfang has joined the forces heading to our northeastern flank.”
“Yes, Chieftain. They are about to depart. Who can I send for?”
The Gnoll was oddly tense, but Xherw put it down to the mood in the Meeting of Tribes.
An opportunity indeed. He requested the Gnoll and saw the Weatherfur Gnoll blink but instantly agree. All these children heading to battle.
They should not die. They should not die, but some would. However…Xhrew smiled widely as a Gnoll stumbled out of a tent and hurried towards him, visibly apprehensive.
“Chieftain Xherw? Of the Plain’s Eye himself? H-h-how can I help you? No? Yes? I’m here! Did you want me or someone…?”
He was so uncertain that one of Xherw’s own guards gave his [Chieftain] a dubious look. This was the Gnoll that Xherw went to meet when all was turning to battle? However, Plain’s Eye had learned to trust their leader, and Xherw just smiled.
“Yes. I understand you have joined the fighters. Before you go—I will make sure you get to your destination, yes? But will you walk with me, Tkrn of Liscor?”
Guardsman Tkrn looked around, but no one said anything. So, stuttering, he nodded.
“I—yes! What is it? What have you heard? Why me?”
One of the Weatherfur Gnolls slowly covered her eyes. Someone else went to find Krshia. Xherw noticed, of course.
He noticed a lot. But his attention was on Tkrn.
So this was the Gnoll who seemed to know a number of important Gnolls. Who was sleeping with Inkar, clearly. Who made a splash.
But was not, in himself, a high-level individual. Xherw saw Tkrn’s history in a glance, even caught part of his shame. His regrets. The [Guardsman] was afraid of him, Xherw realized.
Perhaps he thinks I disapprove of him being with a Human? Or something else? Hrm. Well.
“You are fighting with the Silverfangs. It is brave of you to join.”
Tkrn jumped, then hastened to reply.
“I’m a Silverfang, Chieftain Xherw. When I heard some of the other Gnolls I knew were fighting…Inkar—um—Honored Inkar, from Longstalker’s Fang? The Human?”
“I have seen her. She attended the Meeting of Chieftains.”
“Yes! Right! She…doesn’t want me to go. But I have to. Gire is going, and Mr—Mri wants me to look after her.”
“Who? Never mind. I understand. You and I have not met long, young man. But I wished to speak to you about exactly that. Honored Gireulashia. A [Paragon]. Adetr Steelfur, an impulsive warrior, but one of the greatest in any tribe. Feshi Weatherfur, whom we all know. The Stargnoll. All friends of yours?”
Tkrn nodded, a bit confused now. Xherw turned to him.
“They are the leaders of our future. But this battle will be intense. The coming battles will. I…hope they will not fall. I fear they will.”
“I hope they won’t either, Chieftain Xherw.”
The young man replied slowly. Xherw wondered why he was so afraid. Nevermind. Xherw turned, and a bodyguard offered him something.
“Then, I hope you can understand that when I give you this…it is a terrible burden. Yours to lift, Tkrn. I hope you will accept it.”
He offered Tkrn something. The [Guard] blinked at the enchanted shield. It was made of truegold and had a giant, clear eye of gemstone drawn on the center. It was very magical, and the Gnoll’s jaw dropped.
“Offer—this? To me? Why?”
He hesitated. Xherw smiled at him. A bit sadly. It was not a trap. Or at least…his intention was truly to save lives.
Just not Tkrn’s.
“It is a powerful shield of Plain’s Eye. An Eyeshield…I didn’t come up with the name. I hope you will accept it from me, Tkrn Silverfang. And when you ride into battle, you ride with those four Gnolls. You understand? With one of them. I am sure the Silverfangs will allow it, and I will request it myself.”
“…Why? Chieftain Xherw, this is all very confusing.”
Tkrn took the shield and looked at his plain buckler. He didn’t look too poorly with it. Xherw was glad. There was only so much he could do. He put a paw on Tkrn’s shoulder, and the Gnoll started.
Everyone remarked that to stand around Xherw was to feel his aura. They mistook his true…advantages…for an aura, which was well. But Tkrn truly felt it as Xherw called upon the power that made Plain’s Eye greatest of all.
“Do not thank me, Tkrn. I am asking you to ride with them. To run next to Adetr Steelfur. Or Gireulashia. You see…there is a position for you in battle. When great warriors fight, someone must watch their back. Raise a shield that an enchanted arrow will not strike them from behind, or a sword pierce their backs. If need be—throw themselves before that spell. I hope it does not fall to you. But if you accept this shield, that is what I ask of you.”
He looked Tkrn in the eyes. The Gnoll started, looked at Xherw, and understood what the Chieftain was asking him to do.
A brave Gnoll who liked the others. Was liked. Who had something to atone for. His fur stood up as Xherw patted his shoulder.
There. As much as I can give him.
“I…I see. If that’s what you mean, Chieftain. I accept.”
Tkrn whispered. Xherw smiled.
“You are the kind of Gnoll we need more of, Tkrn Silverfang. Thank you.”
He hoped Tkrn would survive. But that was all he could do. An enchanted shield and…advice. Because, like Yelroan’s calculus, Xherw obeyed a cold equation of his own. If it were Tkrn or Adetr Steelfur’s life, he knew which one he would choose.
“To battle. Guard yourselves—we must make all the tribes remember Plain’s Eye’s name.”
The [Shamanic Warriors] around him nodded and growled as Xherw strode to his own warriors. He left Tkrn behind, looking at the shield.
Ride with them. And if ever there should come that moment—
Xherw had given Tkrn some help. The rest was up to his courage.
Brave children. They deserved a longer future. Xherw walked off to his own part of the war. And he wondered, briefly—
When had it all gone wrong?
Perhaps in the inception of Plain’s Eye’s most secret, darkest tradition. Necessity born of loss. If he wrote that story, he would begin like this:
We started hunting Doom after the fall of our kingdom. When they led our people to ruin, we swore never again. Everything I have ever done is to continue that.
I have lived for over half a century and seen the worst and best of two species, Gnolls and Drakes. I have done terrible and glorious deeds and kept this secret. After all this time I know—
I was not wrong.
Seldom had Mrsha seen people preparing for war.
Oh, she had witnessed terrible, sudden battles. One moment, a door could open and Crelers flood into the room. Or a Raskghar could appear or…well, monsters could attack out of nowhere.
But Liscor had been filled with great, sudden events. Only once had she ever witnessed the realization that a battle was imminent.
That was the siege of Liscor. What Mrsha saw was…grief. Arguments. Before they might never see each other again, Inkar and Tkrn fought terribly.
“Don’t go! Not like that. Not with that shield and—”
“It’s not cursed. I got it checked, Inkar. I’m not stupid!”
“Then why are you going to sacrifice yourself?”
She was pulling at him, and Tkrn was holding the enchanted shield he’d gotten. The eye stared at Mrsha as the Silverfang warriors embraced their loved ones. Or promised they’d come back.
Cetrule was going to war. Cers wouldn’t let go and was howling, so Satar had to prise him off as the [Shaman] rubbed his head. Mrsha watched as a Silverfang Gnoll carefully broke something in half. She handed a locket—no, half of one—to a little Gnoll girl.
“When I return…we’ll buy all your favorite foods, yes?”
That hurt too much. Inkar was still arguing with Tkrn.
“I will go with you.”
“You? You can’t fight!”
“I can shoot a bow.”
“Absolutely not. I’m a [Guardsman]. I—I have to do this. I promised Mrsha I’d protect Gire.”
The girl froze as Tkrn dragged her into the argument. He hefted the shield grimly and pushed Inkar back. She stumbled and nearly fell, and Beilmark caught her. She gave Tkrn a glare.
“What is this idiocy? Guardsman Tkrn, you are not a [Soldier]. Why did you enlist?”
He gulped, and his ears flattened as Inkar looked at Beilmark in relief. However, Tkrn saluted the Senior Guardswoman.
“I did it because I have people I need to protect, Guardswoman Beilmark. When war comes to the walls, the Watch is placed under the command of the army.”
The older Gnoll grunted as if struck.
“You read the rules?”
Tkrn gave her a blank stare.
“Yes, Guardswoman Beilmark. Only Relc doesn’t.”
The two [Guards] looked at each other, then began to guffaw uproariously. Beilmark laughed for a good ten seconds—then reached out and clasped Tkrn’s shoulder. She turned to Inkar.
“It is his choice. I cannot stop him; I will not go. Many must stay to defend the Meeting of Tribes, and I…”
She looked at the warriors preparing to go.
“I have a family. That is the cowardice of it. I will not tell you to stop him, but do not let it be a poor farewell. Just in case.”
As blunt as a hammer—but also true. Inkar looked at Tkrn, and he lowered the shield he’d been raising as if to defend himself. Mrsha crept away.
She didn’t want to hear.
This was too sad. Where was Gire? Gone, already, with Adetr. Mrsha looked around for Feshi in the Weatherfur camp adjacent to hers but…
She shouldn’t interfere.
Could she do anything? Mrsha wished she had one of Numbtongue’s spare crossbows to give to Tkrn—or an acid jar! Or Erin’s magic.
Wait. Someone might be able to help. Fetohep! Where was her scroll? He’d do something, right?
Mrsha ran for her tents, then recalled Beilmark had taken the scroll. She went back for the [Guardswoman] and heard someone howl shortly.
“Silverfangs! We fight with our kin! Follow me!”
Shaman Cetrule raised his staff, and Gnolls, warriors and not, howled as a mass of them began to lope after him.
She was too late! Inkar threw her arms around Tkrn, and Mrsha watched, helplessly, as the warriors began to exit their camp.
Halfway out, Cetrule slowed, and the valiant procession of Gnolls going to defend their homes and people choked up around the entranceway. Mrsha heard the [Shaman] suddenly snarl.
“You again? This is not the time!”
There was only one person that could be. Mrsha heard a sudden clamor and tried to push forwards, but she was short! Someone picked her up, and Mrsha gratefully saw Inkar lifting her higher.
“Oh no. It’s him again. Mri, get back.”
Rose appeared and groaned as everyone recognized a now-familiar face.
Chieftain Mrell of Demas Metal had not come alone or with just his bodyguards this time. Nearly a hundred Gnolls were behind him—but not warriors. His tribe had few good warriors, and he had pledged them all for the southern battle.
Was this him trying to get to Mrsha? Akrisa Silverfang strode forwards with Krshia right behind her. Cetrule was snarling at Mrell, who was raising his paws.
“Shaman. It is not that. I…”
“Chieftain Mrell. We are about to go to war! I assume you have a good reason for this, no?”
Akrisa snapped. The Demas Metal tribe turned and bristled at the harsh address, but Mrell ducked his head.
“I have no intention of bothering your camp, Chieftain Akrisa. Rather…because I know Silverfang is going to battle, I have something. I apologize; not all were ready, and we spent time finishing our work. We have been working the last few days, but we will only take ten, twenty minutes at most.”
“Twenty minutes to do—”
Then Akrisa saw it, and Krshia gasped, abandoning her hostility. She saw the Gnolls behind Mrell were carrying weapons and armor.
Demas Metal weapons and armor.
An entire suit of plated armor, very thin, with interior padding was being held across six Gnolls. However, that was the exception; most of the pieces that Mrell’s tribe had brought were tailored in the expectation that they would not be able to create a full suit of the expensive metal.
Even if Demas Metal was more accessible than Orichalculm…Mrell’s favorite, least metal-intensive creation defensively was chain mail. Exceptionally time-consuming, but efficient in terms of material.
He had dozens and dozens of the stuff! But the real bounty was the blades. Only blades; no maces or anything without an edge. To take advantage of Demas Metal’s unique ability to carry liquids and even magic, Mrell’s [Smiths] had produced shortswords, longswords, claymores, flamberges, hatchets, battleaxes, spears, short spears, glaives, halberds, partizan spears, long daggers, billhooks, kris blades, a war scythe…
And one horrifically stupid contraption that was essentially a flail if you attached long, thin blades to the ends instead of flail heads. It was so dangerous that if you let it dangle against your leg while simply holding it, you’d need a healing potion.
No one wanted that, and the disappointed [Smith] holding it was the only one left holding a piece of Demas Metal gear as the stunned Silverfangs armed themselves or had the [Armorers], [Tailors], and so on help them equip the gear, adjust straps and put the armor on.
A fortune in metal. Demas Metal’s fortune. Mrell spoke to Akrisa.
“I will need it back. But Silverfang will march into battle with our weapons and armor. We have given similar gifts to the other great tribes. I hoped you would accept this.”
“You give this to us—even temporarily—for nothing?”
Akrisa looked Mrell in the eyes, and he glanced past her, then bowed his head.
“I owe Silverfang a great debt. That’s all. I won’t take your time.”
He stepped back, and Shaman Cetrule hesitated. His unconcealed anger towards Mrell faded. Perhaps you couldn’t buy friendship…but you could pay your way out of sheer hatred. At least, right now Mrell could.
“Thank you. Chieftains Akrisa, Mrell. We go forth. Silverfang, armed with Demas Metal’s gifts! Onwards!”
They went. Inkar and Mrsha both watched a clumsy Gnoll walking in pure plate metal, swearing as he went for his horse, who seemed to groan as the animal eyed the extra weight. Was that coincidence?
…No. Mrsha saw Mrell nod to Tkrn and exhaled, slowly, through her nose. The Chieftain was very deliberately not looking at her as everyone watched the Silverfangs go.
However, it was the girl who wearily padded forwards and tugged on Krshia’s leg to get her attention. Mrsha handed her a card, and Krshia frowned at it.
“Are you sure? You don’t have to.”
Mrsha gave her a long look. Then she eyed Mrell, who was watching her, out of the corner of her eyes. Not alone. And certainly not happily, as Krshia approached Mrell and whispered to him, and he looked startled and grateful and began nodding at once.
But alright, you. I see what you’re doing. You get one chance, on top of all the other chances.
Show me something.
All the warriors were leaving. Well, not all, but oh, so many. The Gnolls were not stupid.
They had left many of their own to defend the camps. Powerful spellcasters like Shaman Theikha and, most notably, that giant earth-thing, the mud-swamp monstrosity that towered over the Meeting of Tribes, had not yet moved. It was probably a last-resort. A deterrent against anyone marching against the vulnerable population at large.
However, many warriors from each tribe were leaving or had left, and that meant opportunity.
A feral shadow watched as the little, familiar Gnoll girl slowly approached the bigger Gnoll who had all that strange weaponry. He offered her a hand, and she turned away and took the Human girl’s.
Rose. The other one had hurried off. And that giant, glorious [Paragon] whom all called Gireulashia of Ekhtouch was gone.
Too dangerous by far. Same with the one made of metal. Or the one who held the diamond dagger. Or the one with that strange artifact, the Stargnoll.
However, happily, they were all gone. The watcher had not included Tkrn in the list of threats around Mrsha, nor would she, even with his armor. Even if you canned food, it was still just a matter of opening the can.
Yet Nokha quite understood how dangerous these Gnolls were. Her mind was alight, and it felt as though she had been trapped underground in her head as well as her body.
Our destiny is to eat. I’m hungry. Still hungry.
She wondered, she wanted to know—what all those great Gnolls tasted like. Because now, Nokha was sure. Instinct had told her before that Mrsha was special. More than the other Gnolls. Instinct, her gift of her nature, of the Raskghar, told her that Adetr, Gireulashia, and Mrsha were…
Important. She would gain something from each one.
Nokha had not come this far by being reckless, though. She stepped back into the shadow of one of the tents where she’d been watching from. She didn’t even go out in the open.
Not when her only protection was seeming to be a Gnoll from afar. She wore a…cape of fur. Like any hide of an animal, until you realized what it was. She slipped into the tent and squatted down.
Another voice agreed. Six Raskghar were in the tent with her. They all wore similar capes. And all of them had eyes full of intelligence by now.
A long journey. With some unexpected surprises. A few of their number had perished; their prey had not been without tricks. But Nokha had learned from each city and encounter, and she had come across Izril. Tracking her quarry.
She would gain much from Mrsha. Less from ordinary Gnolls. She had passed some kind of threshold of diminishing returns.
One sacrifice made Raskghar realize their heritage.
Ten completed the beginning of their gifts.
A hundred might bear more fruit. Or a thousand. But the true power lay in great Gnolls after that. If there was anything of interest to Nokha between her great quarries…it would be interesting Gnolls.
Like the gagged, writhing Gnoll fighting as two Rasgkhar pinned him. Overconfident and unwary. But why not?
His fur was steel. One of Steelfur’s Gnolls was a mighty warrior—but still only one. Nokha grinned as her people sniffed their prey.
“Toss the scent-killing powder down. Silence stones. One of you will get to see if it gives you great power.”
If it were that easy…Nokha doubted it. That Chieftain made of metal would give her fur like steel, probably. Not one of his tribe.
How fun. The Raskghar grinned, no longer bestial predators but thinking…monsters. And they had the tricks of civilization, like the ability to mask scent, disguise themselves.
Even invisibility spells. It was just a shame that her kin were so well-guarded by Az’muzarre, Nokha mused. If she could free them…
Well. One step at a time. Mrsha was unguarded, and she was visiting Demas Metal’s camp. Nokha had been thinking about getting some armor. Armor was a good invention. A helmet could hide your face, and then you were just an oddly big Gnoll.
She already had an artifact for a blade, but maybe she’d pick up some gear tonight.
And a bite to eat. She watched as her people began to feast.
The difference between good and evil was not a mathematical equation. Yelroan knew that. It was stupid to even try and reduce it to math, but he still thought of it like a formula.
If there was a difference…the [Mathematician] heard the call to war. He feared for the future. He sat in his tribe, as brave Gnolls went to fight the Drakes, and they were probably good and honest people, even if they hated math.
But they would also kill a Doombringer in a flash. And until recently—so would he.
Did that mean Plain’s Eye were all evil? No, Yelroan had to believe that was false.
If there was a difference between good and evil people, more than what they did—for his own sake—Yelroan had to believe the difference was the ability to believe you were doing wrong.
To question. To admit when you’d made a mistake.
That was the foundation of science in another world. Science so grand they challenged their own notions of self-importance. The sun did not revolve around the world.
He longed to go back and learn. To sit and pretend he was a student of math and lived in a world where being a Gnoll didn’t put a target on your back by the Drakes.
The fact that Yelroan idealized Earth meant he hadn’t learnt enough. And he was here, instead of hiding away, because he had to be.
He had to…fix what he’d done.
“A list of all the officer classes and levels I could pull from our records and data, organized by each army. Run it to whoever’s coordinating the strategy. Tell them it’s sent from Chieftain Xherw. Don’t argue, do it.”
He handed a sheaf of papers to a Gnoll girl, and she sprinted it off. Yelroan sat back.
If only I were a higher-level…[Statistician]? Or I had trained someone in that class. [Data Analyst]? We could not only measure the enemy army’s composition, but derive elements of how they might organize. Other factors.
Skills gave even theoretical sciences far more power—and they had already put Humans on the moon! Yelroan, without arrogance, now believed his class or his type of class might be more valuable than he had thought.
Right now, he was putting all of it to use, helping coordinate the defense of the Great Plains. One of his greatest assets was simple.
Yelroan was doing an advanced calculation simply based on the average number of Tier 3-4 spells a Drake [Mage] could throw in a battle. Using data from [Scouts] and so on, he could tell the Chieftains how many [Shamans] or spellbreaking experts to send to protect their troops per battlefield. Disperse them equally so that, aside from exceptional [Mages], his people would take less casualties.
He was so engrossed with his work, Yelroan barely heard the commotion from outside. He didn’t even look up when someone strode into his room.
“Good timing. Take this to the strategy tents. This is the northeastern front’s [Mage] tally and spell count. Minimum, maximum, average. Just tell them Xherw sent it. Don’t argue.”
He held out the paper. When no one took it, he shook it impatiently. Then he looked up and saw Merish.
The [Mathematician]’s eyes widened, and he took off his sunglasses. The [Shamanic Warrior] looked exhausted. His fur was dirty, and the magical markings had all been broken or used up, leaving only dead paint, grey and colorless.
He still had blood on his fur; Yelroan smelled it. The Gnoll didn’t smell like he’d washed in days, and he stood, swaying a bit.
He smelled like despair and fear and…Yelroan hesitated as Merish spoke.
“We failed, Yelroan. It was an ambush. The Titan of Baleros himself was there. Had to be him. Two-thirds of us died, and Viri betrayed me. There were Goblins and Antinium and…”
Yelroan’s first instinct was to get up and grab Merish. Find a [Healer], embrace his childhood friend.
But then he remembered what Merish had been doing, and he hesitated. Just a single moment of hesitation and uncertainty, written across Yelroan’s face.
The Gnoll was a poor liar. Merish saw it. His unfocused gaze fixed on Yelroan with hurt puzzlement.
“—Nothing. Merish, you look terrible. Does Khaze know you’re back? Chieftain Xherw? No—he’s on the front. Shaman Ulcre isn’t going to war. Sit! Do you need a potion? A [Healer]?”
Merish shook his head, slumping into a seat as Yelroan sprang up, hurrying around to call for one.
“No. Some of us reported into our sub-tribes. We—I heard it was war. I haven’t seen Khaze. I thought you might know where Xherw was.”
“I don’t. Damn—where’s my potion? Here!”
Yelroan scrambled around, found a healing potion and then a stamina potion, and thrust them at Merish. The warrior took a gulp of the healing potion and coughed, making a face.
“Thank you. What’s happened?”
“Oh—nothing. Everything. The Meeting of Tribes, the Drakes crossing the water-line. But enough. What do you mean you failed? I thought you lost them!”
And that little girl is in the Meeting of Tribes! So who did he go after? The other white Gnoll? The adult?
Merish explained, and Yelroan sat down as he heard Merish’s account of how they’d lost the two Doombringers—only for both to pop up under the protection of the Lomost tribe. The failed ambush, which had turned into a near-total slaughter until the Hekitr tribe distracted their ambushers long enough.
“The Titan of Baleros himself? That’s…not impossible, actually. He was spotted in the High Passes. It makes sense he’s in this. I don’t know how Goblins or Antinium factor in. But…”
Yelroan’s mind spun. It was an incredible tale—and Merish looked like he fully expected Yelroan to disbelieve him. However, the [Mathematician] had been at the heart of an even crazier story recently. He related his part of it while a [Healer] hurried in, and someone brought something for Merish to tear into.
“A great Skill that Shaman Theikha herself worked? I would love to see it. A world without war or battle every two seconds…”
Merish raised an arm so the Gnoll could check on the healed wounds from the arrows that had gone into his shoulder. Yelroan thanked her and sat back; if Xherw or Ulcre wanted Merish, they knew where to find him. Someone was going to tell Khaze, but Merish was too exhausted to rise. For now, the two friends just sat there. Yelroan looked at Merish and thought of what to say.
“I’m glad you’re alive.”
He found he meant it. But Yelroan couldn’t bring himself to say ‘I’m sorry the Doombringers got away’. Even as a lie.
He had always admired and liked Merish, who had gone through life the proper way, as an esteemed warrior of the tribe. A [Shamanic Warrior] who’d gone to Rhir, survived an encounter with the Death of Magic.
A war hero, someone who didn’t laugh at Yelroan, and who was well-loved among his tribe. Yelroan had always been privately jealous of that.
Now? Yelroan looked at Merish.
What have you done? Did you know what you were doing or were you blind? He couldn’t decide which was worse…no, the first was definitely worse. But even the second?
“Viri betrayed us. Not that he caused our ambush to fail. But I thought he was with me. He didn’t understand. I explained it to him again and again, but he—he’s not a Gnoll, Yelroan.”
Merish broke the silence. He seemed shellshocked, not quite there. But he was focused on Viri’s betrayal. Yelroan fiddled with his glasses.
“It must have been shocking. For him, I mean. To learn you were after Doombringers. Didn’t you tell him?”
Merish stirred indignantly, and his brows crossed as he glared at Yelroan.
“I told him we were hunting doom. I forgot he didn’t know what that meant. He couldn’t understand, Yelroan! I told him what they did, and he called me a child-killer. Me. We fought together!”
His voice growled dangerously. Yelroan didn’t meet his eyes.
“Yes…well, think of it how a non-Gnoll…no, non-Plain’s Eye must look at it, Merish. You know, they don’t have our traditions where the [Shamans] tell Doombringer stories all the time? Or the one where they grab us and the warriors chase them off? Even city Gnolls don’t fear Doombringers as much. Let’s take out the white fur. It looks like—”
Merish’s growl deepened, like a rabid dog, and Yelroan cut off.
“You know as well as I do what they are! Xherw ordered me to destroy the Doombringers! Is he wrong?”
Yelroan gulped. Merish was a lot larger than he was. The [Mathematician] was sweating and wished he had his sunglasses to hide his eyes.
“No. But I’m just saying—look at it like Viri, Merish. If that’s what he thought…”
The [Shamanic Warrior] seemed poised to do violence, then he sat back. Abruptly, as if something had occurred to him.
“5th Wall. Combined arms…Commander Ciri had to deal with that too. I didn’t think about it. Is that really what he thought of me?”
“I’m sure he trusted you and knew you, Merish. You said he stuck with you until the ambush—but he must have been terribly confused.”
Yelroan felt odd. He was not on Merish’s side, but he tried to soothe his friend. It was working! Merish was nodding, putting his head in his paws.
“I was a fool. Viri or not, though…this is my mistake. I will accept the punishment.”
Yelroan nodded. His heart was already drumming in his chest, but he looked towards the opening of his tent and cleared his throat. This was it. Or did he say it later? Ah—ah—
“Maybe it’s just as well you failed. Frankly, Merish, it occurs to me we’re not in possession of all the facts. All the data.”
Merish’s head snapped up. He blinked at Yelroan.
“How? I know you’re smart, Yelroan. But Xherw himself—”
“Yes. Yes. I know Doombringers. I’m Plain’s Eye, even if no one thinks a [Mathematician] is traditional. But hear me out, Merish. And, um, keep it between us. But I’ve been thinking.”
Yelroan spoke faster and faster, hoping Merish could keep up with him.
“Listen. We know Doombringers are evil, because the [Shamans] tell us and that’s tradition. But consider how other species see it. What if—perhaps—I am just saying—if the Titan of Baleros is protecting a Doombringer? Other Gnolls? Of course, they could be wrong, but that is a world-renowned [Strategist]! He’s probably in possession of knowledge about Doombringers. Maybe he doesn’t understand, but Viri objected, and you—what if we interrogated the Doombringers rather than kill them? Have we tried that? I’m not saying it’s good the Doomslayers were killed. Tragic. But I’m just—”
Merish’s face was growing more blank with each passing second as he listened to Yelroan. The first few arguments struck him, Yelroan saw. But then…
Merish got angry. He surged up, grabbed Yelroan behind the desk, and dragged him across it, scattering supplies and paper and inkwells.
“Are you mad? You didn’t see what they did to us. We faced doom, and Doom killed us. It’s all their trickery. It’s—”
The terrified [Mathematician] was stuttering. Merish wasn’t punching him, but he was physically lifting Yelroan up. Yelroan was afraid of fights. He knew Merish could beat him like a drum, like he had once thrashed six Gnoll cubs bullying Yelroan in a six-on-one fight.
However, Yelroan thought of Mrsha. That little girl who was so sad and precocious and thought his sunglasses were the coolest thing ever. And Yelroan found that, more than fear, more than sympathy—
He was angry too.
“And maybe you’re wrong! Maybe the [Shamans] and Xherw were wrong too! Did you think of that?”
He threw a fist for the first time in years and punched Merish in the cheek. It hurt. Yelroan. The [Mathematician] threw another punch, and Merish blinked as it glanced off his arm.
It didn’t seem to hurt him, but his face was astonished. He let go, and Yelroan surged up, furious, throwing wild swings.
Merish blocked them with one paw. He swatted down each punch, and Yelroan was panting within twenty seconds of wild punching. But Merish looked like Yelroan had given him a [Giant’s Kick] to the stomach.
He was staring at the panting [Mathematician], backing up as Yelroan came at him when someone cleared his throat.
“I assume this is a personal matter, and I will forget I saw it. Yelroan. Back to work. We need your lists. Warrior Merish?”
Both Gnolls turned, and Yelroan’s blood froze when he saw Shaman Ulcreziek. The Shaman with one eye inherited from the past [Shaman] of Plain’s Eye looked coldly at both Gnolls, and Merish turned and bowed his head.
How much had he heard? Yelroan was terrified, but the [Shaman] just gave him a long look. Almost…puzzled. Yelroan throwing punches was as odd as seeing Az’muzarre showing humility.
“Come with me, Warrior Merish. Whatever this matter is—you two may work it out later. We are at war. And you are both needed. Chieftain Xherw is fighting on the front, but I will listen to your report, Merish.”
He turned, beckoning Merish, and the Gnoll looked at Yelroan. The panting [Mathematician] met Merish’s eyes, and he saw the confusion and hurt there. Not all of Merish had come back from Rhir, and Yelroan was afraid he and Viri had only torn open that wound.
But he was wrong. His spirit and heart were damaged, Yelroan knew. But for the good of his soul…
“Think about what I said, Merish. Just—think!”
He sat down hard, and Merish left his tent without a word. Yelroan rubbed at his face. Oh, this was too much. He wanted to just let the numbers speak and fall into that. But why was he crying?
“Do you ever think you could forgive me?”
Mrell asked Mrsha that question like he was the child. And the little adult gave him a look full of scorn.
Forgive? Why did she have to do anything? Why was he making her life harder?
It was just as Torishi had said. Mrsha didn’t owe these two strangers anything. But Torishi was off fighting to defend them all.
And Mrell had done something for Silverfangs. So Mrsha agreed to talk to him. Or rather, listen as she clung to a certain Drake’s claw.
Tesy and Vetn didn’t really know who Mrell was, and they were not their first pick for bodyguards. Both would have nominated Qwera, but she was busy making flash-deals to sell needed goods to the tribes with Ysara—at the lowest margins they could.
There was such a thing as ethics in business, and neither one was exactly aloof to the plight of the tribes.
With everyone gone, it fell to Vetn, Tesy, and Rose to be Mrsha’s minders, and Rose walked along behind the duo…wondering who they were and why Mrsha didn’t want to hold her hand.
That was a fair question, because Rose had known Mrsha longer. On the other hand, she hadn’t exactly impressed Mrsha at the start of their relationship, and she hadn’t saved Mrsha from certain death like Vetn. Nor was she either a [Magical Painter], Sellme, or the infamous [Thief] of Clouds. Mrsha was a pragmatist; if she wanted someone to be protecting her, Rose was below Mrell.
Not that she didn’t have Weatherfur Gnolls, four of them, casually standing at a distance. Another reduced guard, but four Gnolls were more than enough to sound the alarm if Mrell grabbed Mrsha.
And what would he do? There were enough Weatherfur Gnolls within earshot to drown Demas Metal. The real danger was just…emotional.
Mrsha really could have used Qwera, or Krshia, or Torishi. Lacking all of them, she clung to Tesy’s claw as she glared at Mrell.
“I want to make amends. Chieftain Torishi is right. You needn’t see me again after this. But if you…I wish to…and I think Prha does too. To do something for you. Even if it’s just provide something?”
Mrsha jangled her bag of holding at Mrell. Don’t talk to me about money, peon! You can’t buy my affection! You’re too poor!
He seemed to get the spirit, if not the letter of her reply. Mrell nodded and sighed.
“If…if there is one thing, I would like to show you something. I couldn’t before, and they wouldn’t let me talk to you. But I think you should see this, at least. Thank you for agreeing to walk with me.”
Vetn was chomping down on a carrot. Mrsha and Mrell both stared at him, and the [Thief] unapologetically began dipping the carrot into a jar of mustard he’d bought. Tesy nodded. They were continent-famous names after all! Here they were, playing escort duty to a little girl! It was only because Qwera had told them to. And she’d hit them if they didn’t do it.
Where was Mrell taking them, though? Mrsha craned her neck around. It wasn’t Demas Metal’s tribe they were heading towards. She had thought Mrell would show her something to make her like him, like how Demas Metal was made.
She would have dutifully gone to ‘take your daughter you tried to abandon to work day’, and then sold the information to Pelt at a premium.
However, it didn’t seem like that was their destination. Mrell looked…nervous. No—apprehensive? As if this were going to be hard for him.
“It’s…when I heard about Stone Spears, I blamed myself. I tried to do all I could, but Demas Metal was still growing. And we were far away. I don’t know what Prha has done all this time, but she’s a good warrior in her tribe. Not a Chieftain. She was more of a warrior.”
By that, everyone took that Prha was better at hitting things than Mrell. And that was sort of her only specialty. Mrell went on as Mrsha rolled her eyes.
Yes, tell me how much better you are. She was a hostile audience, and Tesy winced as she kept squeezing his fingers hard to indicate how much she didn’t like what Mrell was saying.
However, Rose thought there was one thing that Mrsha was missing. Not about Mrell. Rose didn’t like him much either. She did think Mrsha’s mistake was, well…forgetting that she was not the perfect saint. She was acting fairly self-righteous, and, if Rose recalled correctly, Mrsha had caused a number of not-so-little disasters.
There was a quintessentially Lyonette way to how Mrsha was holding her head, chin raised a tad too high. She had every right to be angry.
But she had forgotten something. Or just not considered it. Mrell led the group on.
If he had one chance to talk to Mrsha, he would not spend it trying to get her to let her hold him. Or forgive him. He wanted these things, so badly they were an all-consuming passion.
Because he had a second chance, he was trapped in the past. He would never be able to continue, even with all the wonders around him, all the opportunities, until he fixed this.
Perhaps he never could. But the first and only step, the only thing he could give Mrsha…the Gnoll looked ahead. He could not give her armor or a blade, even if she would accept it.
Actually, she probably would, but that wouldn’t protect a little girl. A Doombringer.
His fault. Mrell saw Shaman Fiziker herself waiting at the entrance to another tribe’s domain. He had sent her ahead to ask if they would be welcomed.
They were. Not that Mrell had doubted it, but he and the group of four slowed as they saw someone waiting for them. Someone unexpected, who blinked at Mrsha in faint surprise.
“A curious meeting. Hello, little one.”
Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh leaned on her staff, looking wan and tired, but dignified beyond belief for all that. Mrsha blinked at her and waved with her free paw. Mrell bowed deeply.
“You honor us, Great Shaman.”
“When I heard what you wanted, I thought I myself should bear witness. Now, I see it was more than instinct. Mri, isn’t it?”
Theikha’s gaze focused on Mrsha, and Rose felt uneasy, because it was such a knowing look. Mrsha nodded, lips sealed. Theikha lifted her gaze to Mrell.
“They are waiting. Come. Have you told her?”
A staff promptly threatened Mrell’s head, and he ducked. Theikha stopped the group and frowned at him.
“You young Chieftains. Does everything have to be a surprise? Surprises are as unwelcome as grand gestures, young man. Especially for this! Stop!”
She halted everyone as they passed into Gaarh Marsh’s ground. And it was definitely their tribe’s.
Even in the short time the tribe had been there, the grass had turned to…well, fertile ground where more colorful plant varieties warred with the native grass. The Gnolls had planted magical flowers and welcomed nature into their midst.
Dragonflies flitted about, and butterflies, even hummingbirds and other creatures, large and small, roamed without fear—of everything but each other.
Mosquitos were prey to dragonflies, who in their turn watched out for birds and lizards. Nature was a cycle, and the Gaarh Marsh tribe didn’t try to erase it.
But they did benefit from all parts of it, like a little Gnoll girl harvesting a bush. An [Animalfriend] who rewarded a bird that brought several dead, bright orange dragonflies to her with a handful of fat worms.
Who wanted dragonflies when you got twice as many worms? And the dragonflies, from their bodies to their gossamer-thin wings, would make lovely, gross, reagents.
All of this natural chaos surrounded the still, smelly bog given life. The towering Earth Elemental, taller than most buildings in Liscor, loomed over its tribe, a hill at rest. No features visible; it didn’t even have the bipedal shape a Golem might. It was literally…nature. Plants grew out of the muck and mud, and a frog burrowed out of one huge leg to hop around until a heron snatched it up as a snack.
Gaarh Marsh. One of the Great Tribes of Izril.
The little [Druid] looked up at the Earth Elemental in awe. Mrsha felt a vast intelligence, a connection with nature so profound that even Nalthaliarstrelous, the [Druid], was an insect compared to it.
Khoteizetrough, the Earth Elemental, paid the others no heed, even Theikha. She stood in its shadow and turned to Mrell.
“Tell her. Tell her now, Chieftain Mrell. And explain to me later how you came to find her.”
Mrell bowed his head.
“Yes, Shaman Theikha. Mr—Mri. Gaarh Marsh has someone…some people you must meet. Even if you do not want to see me again. You must meet them. You see, when I heard about the Stone Spears tribe…our tribe…I was devastated. I don’t know what Prha did, but I’m sure she asked her Chieftain to do anything she could. But we were too far. Too late.”
Mrsha tilted her head, frowning at Mrell in silent puzzlement. Why was he telling her this? She looked at Theikha, but the [Shaman]’s face was unreadable. Mrell went on, slowly, glancing ahead, through the tribe’s tents.
“It took me a while to find the story. And then…find out how the tribe had fallen in battle against the Goblin Lord. Every adult, from Urksh to…every single one. Despite Zel Shivertail and a Drake army—two!—being there. I’m sure he did his best. He was a friend to Gnolls.”
Theikha nodded solemnly.
“Yes. He was.”
Both Mrell and Theikha looked at Mrsha. Why did she look so hurt by the Drake’s name? She, more than anyone, knew how kind Zel was. Mrell continued the explanation, gazing into Mrsha’s eyes.
“He made arrangements. That’s what I found out, later. You see, I think he heard about…how Gnoll survivors are treated. He had part of it wrong, though. But General Shivertail reached out to his coalition of Drake cities and hid them away, among the cities. I tried to track them down, but as it happened, another tribe beat me to it. Hence—Gaarh Marsh.”
Theikha saw Mrell nod to her and sighed.
“We have been friendly to Stone Spears as well. It grieved me terribly, and this was the least of what we could do. Say it, Mrell.”
She and Mrell glanced ahead, and Mrsha’s brow wrinkled. She felt a terrible, creeping feeling in the bottom of her stomach. She already knew what they were talking about.
But that couldn’t be, could it? She would have known. She had a class and everything.
Maybe the class was what you thought.
Or maybe it was something else. A bargain made with strangers from another world.
All for one. Now, the little girl had let go of Tesy’s claw. The [Painter] had no idea what Mrell was talking about, but he saw Mrsha stand on her tip-toes. Craning her head to see. Sniffing the air, listening with all her ears.
“Mri. I wanted to introduce you to them. They’re not like…”
Mrell looked at Theikha, and the [Shaman] sighed.
“They are not like you, child. They thought you were dead. We have worked with them for a long time. Their dreams of that night are ice and Goblins. A terrible [Necromancer]. Meeting with Chieftain Mrell and other former Stone Spears Gnolls was difficult. This will not be easy. But…”
Mrsha stared ahead. Now she heard it. The faint sounds of giggling. Yips of sound, chatter. She looked at Mrell and Theikha, and her face was as pale as…
“Mri. If you don’t want to—”
Mrell got no further, because the little girl took off. Weatherfur, Rose, Tesy—everyone but Vetn was caught off-guard, and the [Thief] didn’t stop Mrsha. She bolted ahead on all fours, ignoring the cries and adults chasing after her.
It couldn’t be. It couldn’t! They were all—she had always known they were all—
The little Gnoll girl with gold-tipped ears and brown fur raced out of the tents, into a little playground. Over a hundred Gnoll children were playing.
Not exactly happily, all of them, not with war hanging over their heads. But some had been told to wait here with a [Shaman], and, to distract them, the Gaarh Marsh [Shaman] had conjured a little playground.
Gnolls swung around on vines and pushed each other into boggy water. Another group was playing on a giant log see-saw, hopping on one end to catapult the others off. Most were simply playing tag. They rolled around, shouting, many with twigs or mud in their fur.
Unlike Weatherfur, Gaarh Marsh’s children didn’t use color in their fur. But many did have little companions they were exceedingly careful of. Or not-so-little, like a dog that played catch faster than any cub.
Animal friends. Like a little crow that a cub had helped raise when it had fallen out of a nest, or even a hercules beetle with colorful, red wings. It was hard to pick out any other group within them, but they were there.
About two dozen of the Gnoll children racing around—just two dozen—had almost no animal companions. A few had adopted them, but they were a bit more hesitant to get dirty, and they clung together, even when playing.
They had a bit of a different accent, and other differences. For instance, they all feared the dark. The coming winter would be a difficult time for them, and the [Shaman] watched them closest, sometimes taking a few cubs to the latrines.
The stranger to this impromptu playground skidded to a stop, so fast that she tumbled head-over-heels. Which was so funny that some of the children did likewise.
“Hello! Are you here to play? Who are you?”
A few children, barely five or six, raced around the strange girl, who said not a word as she sniffed the air, looking around.
That group of two dozen had gone still, waiting for their turn to play with the vines and swing over a pit of muddy water. The girl searched for them. Some of the children admired her golden ears.
“Do you know the Golden Gnoll? Is that a bag of holding? Can I see? Let me see!”
She slapped a paw reaching for her bag of holding, and a wounded girl retreated, howling. Another Gnoll boy ran up on all fours.
“Don’t hit my sister! Gragh!”
He tried to tackle her, and the other children tackled him, saving him from an overaggressive counterattack. Gaarh Marsh’s children were rough, but they stopped their own fights.
The two dozen children watched her, and finally she spotted them. Some pointed, incredulous, rubbing their eyes.
It was impossible. She was dead. But her face looked the same. But for the golden ears—maybe her fur was a bit darker than it had been, but it was her.
Someone whispered the name, and the girl turned. Her wide eyes saw a Gnoll boy looking at her. He looked like any other Gnoll boy his age, barely eleven. But he stuck together with the others. And he had one thing that set him apart.
A little, delicately carved amulet made out of stone. It was a very simple design. Two crossed points, like arrows.
Or spears. Mrsha looked at the Stone Spears children, and they pointed at her like a ghost.
As Shaman Theikha hurried after Mrell, Vetn, Tesy, and Rose, the children realized who it was. And they reacted.
In many ways, Chieftain Mrell was a huge fool for wanting to surprise Mrsha with this. But give him credit—he was an even bigger idiot for not telling them this was Mrsha, not just any survivor. Perhaps he didn’t know the full story. But what did he think would happen?
A Gnoll with a chunk missing from her ear turned and ran, howling and screaming for the [Shaman]. She hid behind the adult, bursting into tears as that night came back. Another simply recoiled.
“She’s dead! You’re dead!”
Fear. Another Gnoll went to anger.
“You did this! You and that Human!”
She leapt forwards, and more Gaarh Marsh children tackled her as she fought furiously. The little girl was petrified. Other children among the Stone Spears survivors growled or backed away. One whispered.
“White fur. She lost it. She’s a…”
Disastrous? Mrell looked in dismay at the children who had greeted him so affectionately. As if he had expected—
Another child broke forwards and charged Mrsha.
“He’s going to be bad! Gnollpile!”
Fifteen children and a dog tried to leap on him, but he dodged them so fast that Mrell’s jaw dropped in disbelief!
[Evasive Scamper]! The Gnoll almost left an afterimage, and the interception squad tumbled all over each other. He raced at Mrsha—fast. So fast that he was used in the tribe to run messages because he had a class and levels despite his age.
[Survivor]. He leapt, and Mrsha, stunned, waited. For what? A raised paw? A bite? A stone? Mrell charged at the two as the Gnoll tackled Mrsha, and the two went rolling around. He was—Mrell went to pull them apart and saw the boy was hugging Mrsha. And licking her cheek.
“It’s you. You’re alive! Mrsha! Mrsha!”
He hugged her, and Mrsha recognized him. Wasn’t he—was he—?
“Kirne, she’s evil!”
The girl hiding behind the [Shaman] shrieked, but more of the Stone Spears children were racing forwards to surround Mrsha. Others hung back, growling, but Kirne and some others leapt on Mrsha, shouting.
“She’s alive! I knew it! Chieftain Mrell found her!”
“The Winter Sprites saved her! See? I wasn’t lying! See?”
It was a mix of joyous shouting and howls of anger and terror. As it went—Theikha exhaled. It could have been worse. Mrsha, trembling, was patting at Kirne’s head, trying to make sure he was real and she wasn’t dreaming.
“Who’s Mrsha? What are we doing?”
“No, get off! This is—”
Mrell was covered by little Gnolls and dragged down to nearly suffocate. They had so much energy! Young Gnolls raced about Rose, tugging at her clothes, sniffing her, asking if she had food, wanting to know why she smelled like blood. Like a hundred, well, Mrshas.
It was overwhelming, but Rose couldn’t take her eyes off Mrsha. They were shouting her name! This was a disaster! One of the Weatherfur Gnolls was looking around desperately, but it was too late.
Shaman Theikha had heard. The [Shaman] raised her staff and, with a look of complete unsurprise, brought it down.
The ground shook. All the Gnolls went tumbling around and then turned to face her. As if casual quaking were nothing to be surprised at, Theikha raised her voice.
“Please get off Chieftain Mrell, children. And all those not of the Stone Spears tribe—go play, but please, leave little Mri and Chieftain Mrell to talk. This is their moment. If you wish to be helpful, you can help pick healing supplies. Off with you.”
The Gnoll children dispersed, obeying her without question. Which was amazing and had a lot to do with Theikha being quite willing to sink them up to their necks in the ground as ‘time-out’ if they didn’t listen.
Mrsha barely noticed. She was just looking at them all. Her tribe. Only…only…
Her eyes were filled with tears. She really had thought she was the last one! But of them all—only she had white fur. Of them all, only she had inherited that terrible curse.
Because it was her fault? Because someone had helped twist fate that day? Mrsha looked at the Gnolls cursing her, and she knew them all. They expected her not to talk, but when she held up a card, they blinked and yelped. Mrell, sitting up with dirt all over his fur, went to go to Mrsha and…
And stopped. He watched as she began to write, embraced Kirne, and tried to talk to the others, some of whom spat at her or tried to attack her. Mrell did try to stop that, but Theikha tripped him, and Vetn, Tesy, and Rose sat on him. The [Shaman] watched, occasionally speaking, but letting Mrsha handle it.
For better or worse, their anger, fear, distrust, happiness, or sadness. The Great Shaman of Gaarh Marsh let them have it and let Mrsha see it.
“General Shivertail was afraid they would be hunted down, so he hid them. Not a single one was marked like her, though. I wonder if it had something to do with how she was saved. Once, her kind had a different name. They did something terrible, but I wonder if all we do is wrong.”
The [Shaman] whispered, her eyes on Mrsha. Then she looked at Mrell. The [Chieftain] had gone pale, but Theikha just shook her head.
“This is a time of great calamity, Chieftain Mrell. If I was purely superstitious…but one child? I will not lay it all on a color. Neither can I ignore all our warnings and stories. Perhaps new children like Satar Silverfang will find the truth of it. But while she stands here—Weatherfur protects Mrsha Stone Spears?”
She looked at the four Gnolls, and they bowed deeply.
“From Chieftain Torishi’s own mouth, Weatherfur does, Great Shaman. To the end of our lives. White is a color. I could dye my fur tomorrow.”
One of the warriors looked at Theikha, and the [Shaman] inclined her head.
“Then she is safe in Gaarh Marsh. Though half my [Shamans] would object. But I see her and see a child, precocious, and all too spoiled perhaps, but a child.”
Mrsha’s ears twitched, and Theikha nodded.
“You changed your mind so quickly, Honored Theikha.”
Vetn remarked neutrally. Mrell and Rose looked at Theikha, and the Gnoll gave him a stern look.
“I’m old, not unadaptive, young Gnoll who has no visible class. Which suggests you’re probably up to no good. ”
The [Thief] bit his tongue, and Theikha harrumphed.
“I am not certain Doombringers must die. Nor am I sure they bring no danger. But I listen to wisdom.”
“And is wisdom children’s words? Deeds done, not what tradition says?”
Mrell saw Theikha blink at him. She rolled her eyes.
“No, Chieftain Mrell. Wisdom is the oldest being in the Meeting of Tribes. Older than me. If she truly was evil—wisdom and the wrath of my tribe would have surely moved.”
She pointed up. The Earth Elemental, Khoteizetrough, sat still. Perhaps it hadn’t noticed Mrsha. Or perhaps it had and was thinking of what to do. Slowly. Like a tree thought.
But so long as it didn’t move…Theikha looked at Mrsha. She was in a huddle of children, watching her write, trying to understand her story as she leaked tears and snot, no longer Mrsha du Marquin, Mrsha the Magnificently Munificent…just Mrsha Stone Spears.
No longer alone.
“Now might be a good time to join them. Delicately.”
So Rose did and found children sniffing her hands, begging for her to give them piggy-back rides. She watched as Mrsha cried, talked with the others, and tried to bridge the gap. In the background, a war was being fought.
This mattered, though. And it was all Rose could do. What she didn’t notice, what Theikha watched as night fell and Mrsha left, promising to come back tomorrow, was the way a hill moved.
A slowly-turning head. So slow you would have to watch over hours. A blank face of moss and stone and dirt slowly changing. Developing mossy eyes.
Staring at the little Gnoll. The girl with white fur. The [Druid]. The Doombringer?
The Great Shaman looked up—and waited to see how the Meeting of Tribes would end.
There would be a great slaughter, before this was over. Teeth in the darkness.
She knew it. The Raskghar stalked through the dark camp, following the little girl as she and her guards headed back home. She had stayed away from Gaarh Marsh. That giant…thing…scared her.
So did the powerful [Shaman]. Even now, she didn’t like that Drake with the brush or the one who seemed too spry on his feet. But there were four guards on the little girl now.
And she had six Raskghar besides herself and all the surprise in the world. The Human was chatting to Mrsha, who looked subdued, having cried and exhausted herself.
All the Gnolls were subdued in the Meeting of Tribes. No festivities. No crowds. Nokha and six shadows slowly stalked down the street.
From afar, they looked like Gnolls. Maybe a bit taller than average, and if they didn’t hide their smell, they smelled like…blood. Death.
But they hid their smell, and only when you got close did you realize something was wrong. Their claws were too long. They were hunched to look smaller, and they were far larger, like some primordial offshoot of Gnolls.
And then it was too late. Each Raskghar didn’t need the moon anymore, though it would give them the peak of strength. They brushed past Gnolls who glanced back, puzzled, but didn’t dwell on it long enough.
“Crabs! Lobster! You, Miss! Want a crab?”
A vendor tried to get Nokha’s attention, and she ignored them. Irritating pests. She was locked onto her quarry. Someone pulled a wagon in front of her, and the Raskghar stalked around it. There! She was nearly on them—but the power of consumerism was getting in the way!
“Excuse me! Miss? Miss? Can I interest you in a deal?”
Of all the parts of the Meeting of Tribes, the merchant-quarter hadn’t stopped or slackened. If anything, it had picked up its pace. An annoying Gnoll with a huge, beaming smile was trying to make a sale to the seven Raskghar.
In the dim light, she probably took them for a tribe she didn’t recognize. As they headed through a quieter part of the camp, the [Salesperson] followed. Nokha glanced over her shoulder and saw one of her people licking her lips.
“Fine. Save her for later.”
She muttered. She wasn’t interested in this Gnoll. That Golden Gnoll…the oblivious Gnoll kept chattering on as the Raskghar sped up.
Almost. The girl was passing by a large, abandoned tent for gatherings that no one was using. One of the Raskghar casually slowed up as the Gnoll talking to Nokha kept speaking.
“I have just the deal for you, Miss. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I think your fur could use a little bit of a combing. Maybe some shampoo? We’re both Gnolls here, and you know as well as I that you have a bit of a pong.”
Nokha rolled her eyes and heard sniggers from the Raskghar. The Gnoll politely laughed along.
“Yes, well, can I interest you in some no-dandruff, no-clinging smells, all-natural shampoo? Gives your fur a sheen.”
The Raskghar creeping up on the Gnoll waited, grinning, as the poor Gnoll blathered on.
“No interest at all? Okay, then. Can I interest you in an all-expenses paid, all-inclusive ambush?”
Nokha turned her head with a frown just before she saw the gleaming eyes open in the shadow of the tent ahead of her. She looked up, and the Gnoll [Salesperson] with the little badge of an eye on her shoulder—ducked.
The thunk and fwit sounds of nearly two dozen crossbows and bows loosing in unison were drowned out by the roar as nearly three-dozen [Shamanic Warriors] leapt out of their hiding places.
They had been invisible! But that was their—
Nokha saw Merish charging at her and reached for her sword, only to go blind, deaf—but unfortunately still able to feel the axe bury itself in her shoulder. She saw the spellcaster just for a second.
Shaman Ulcreziek drew an eye in the air and crossed it out with one paw as the Raskghar went blind. Not that he truly needed to.
Three were dead in the opening volley, staring up blindly, riddled with arrows and bolts. The other three dropped just as fast as a hatchet buried itself in one’s skull. The last two swung around blindly and were cut down.
Nokha, though, was about to be beheaded by Merish when Ulcre spoke.
“No, leave it alive. We need to question it and find if more exist. Raskghar, preying on our people.”
He snarled as he walked over. His eye focused on Nokha, then swept back to stare at the child. Why had that Raskghar been going after that girl? Perhaps Mrell or the Human?
Nokha snarled up blindly at him. Ulcre put his staff on her head and leaned on it as Merish, panting, looked at him.
“This thing thought it could hide from us. Chain it and interrogate it. Chieftain Xherw will want to see it. Then we will present it to the other tribes. Well done, Warrior Merish. I can see a lack of fighting spirit was not to blame for your failing.”
He beckoned Merish, and the Gnoll stepped back. He looked down at the Raskghar. This was a monster. He had no doubt. Yelroan was mad. He ducked his head and followed the [Shaman].
“What is my next task, Shaman?”
“We will see. Your faith in the tribe has never wavered, Merish. Perhaps it is time to tell you why we hunt Doom. That is for Xherw to decide. Or perhaps we must simply fight. Such monsters will not end us, though.”
Blind, deaf, and wounded, Nokha thrashed until someone bound her and kicked her in the sides. Then she curled up.
She was so close! The Raskghar snarled. Almost. Almost! It wasn’t fair.
“I almost had that…prey. Almost. I almost had the white Gnoll.”
The Raskghar growled into the dirt. She did not weep. Prey wept. But she couldn’t help but moan. She didn’t see Ulcre or Merish stop in their tracks. The [Shaman] looked back, and Merish stiffened. Ulcre looked at him and breathed as he whirled.
“Merish. Perhaps your hunt has not ended yet.”
Author’s Note: The next chapter will be the last for the month. It’s been some intense writing, and I’m coming to the end of my writing energy.
We’re moving fast. Not all is perfect, but we are doing it. Of course, if in the middle of writing or even after a chapter I really think it needs rework, I will rewrite it. Or even take longer to write a pivotal chapter.
I hope you enjoy this shorter…chapter. Wait, I lied. It’s 28,000 words.
What am I doing? After this volume I promise I’ll do shorter ones. But you can see I’m moving for the end, and I guess that’ll continue. In other news, my next break will contain my birthday at some point, so huge shout out to anyone having their birthday around now—and MelasD, or delta201, who provided the art for this chapter!
That’s all from me. Please send me a new pair of hands. Raskghar hands will do. Aba out.
Erin’s Checkmate by 阿鬼Ghost, commissioned by MelasD!
MelasD’s Stories: https://www.royalroad.com/profile/142450/fictions