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[The author is on break until March 8th! See you then.]
When he grew up, they told him he’d been in the tribe. Grown up on the Great Plains. But he was too young to remember.
This vast wilderness, free of cities and roads, was alien to him. Terrifying, even. He liked his warm bed and a roof over his head.
Yurts were drafty. The walls, however thick the cloth was, even if they could survive storms, felt flimsy compared to enchanted stone.
This was not his home.
And yet it was.
Tkrn knew Gnolls had always been here. This was their land, and it said something that after so many ages, what his people had done was…keep it the same.
Not turn it into a world of stone and glass, but live here. He began to understand when he ran around like a child and everywhere he turned his head he saw green. As if the world were infinite, and he could shout and scream and run and never reach the end of it.
He still liked Liscor more. But this wasn’t so bad. Tkrn’s friends were Drakes. He lived in a Drake city.
So it was so terribly strange to see them here, like scaled invaders, dragging their tails across burnt grass, holding shields in their famous Drake formations, neatly arranged like pieces on a chessboard, across from the Gnolls howling and blowing horns.
War. Tkrn had known battles. This was different. This reminded him of Liscor’s short siege, but unlike then—it did not smell of mud and rot as the spring rains receded.
This smelled like autumn. The first tang of it hung in the air, drowned out by the smell of smoke. The Drakes had been setting fires, baiting the Gnoll tribes into attacking them.
So smoke, ash, and rain from the shower pattering down onto the Demas Metal armor he wore. It coated the armor like a liquid, but didn’t make it feel heavier. Gnolls like Dekava, from the Silverfang tribe, were envious.
Chieftain Mrell had given Tkrn a full suit of the armor, and he carried an Eyeshield of the Plain’s Eye tribe and a shortsword of Demas Metal. The drizzling rain had extended the blade, and the watery edge looked like it was constantly flowing, rippling with the rain.
I look like a Gold-rank adventurer, Tkrn realized. He raised his head and saw a ripple in the rain, coming down from sparse clouds. Overhead, something shifted, and he heard a snarl.
“Shields up! Head down, you idiot!”
A Silverfang [Warrior] snarled at Tkrn. The helmeted head of the [Guardsman] looked blankly at the Gnoll; an arrow snapped off the top of the enchanted shield Tkrn was holding as the other Gnolls ducked their heads, growling.
I know my job. Tkrn wanted to say that, but he heard a howl and a voice.
“Silverfangs, to me!”
Shaman Cetrule was pointing, and the Silverfang warriors advanced, falling in to march towards the enemy alongside Ekhtouch and Longstalker’s Fang. Each tribe moved under command of their leaders, splitting up, loosing arrows, or retreating after fighting, but Feshi Weatherfur and Yerranola were among the [Strategists] and [Chieftains] coordinating them.
Chaos. Now Tkrn saw the front, where Drakes stood in line, fighting Gnolls who surged forwards and back. The Drakes listened to the bellowed commands of their officers; the Gnoll warriors howled, communicating with each other, cursing their enemies.
A contrast. Tkrn smelled blood, and that was the same, heavy iron. But both species fought so differently.
Drakes fought like Liscor; each Drake held the line. Where that line was changed, but they moved together, in unity.
The Gnoll tribes were scattered, free-form. The Drakes hated losing ground. They took strategic positions, tried to hammer their opponents with archers from elevation, and unleashed magic as they advanced step-by-step.
By contrast, the tribes treated the battle like Gnolls saw it. They would abandon a position if they thought they could save lives or attack elsewhere and didn’t stick long in the fighting. They preferred to harry their opponents, loosing arrows, even switching from bow to blade.
Organization versus versatility or something. Tkrn was no strategist.
He saw another ripple in the sky and angled his shield. The trick was knowing where your helmet was. Despite the Silverfang warrior’s snarling, Tkrn’s helmet would save him from all but an arrow through the front. So if he held his shield like this—slightly in front of him, angled upwards—he could peek out with minimal risk.
He felt like he was dreaming. Cetrule was shouting orders, and Tkrn looked around for the person he’d been asked to protect. Who Xherw had suggested he accompany. His friends.
Ekhtouch had sent fifty warriors total into this battle, where tens of thousands of warriors were taking part on one side alone. Was it eighty thousand Drakes?
Tkrn didn’t know. It was so spread out he couldn’t see all of them, but he thought he did see Gire.
Only one Gnoll was so tall. She wore armor from head-to-toe, treated magical leather rather than metal. She carried a number of javelins under one arm, and the Ekhtouch Gnolls each had a weapon they were most suited for. Many carried spare throwing weapons, and they set up a position here.
On the edges of the fighting. In the center, Steelfur and other great tribes led the offensive. Adetr Steelfur himself was in the front, swinging a pair of enchanted axes and howling as arrows and spears tried to pierce his fur.
In truth, Silverfang was not considered a mighty tribe, and Ekhtouch was so small that, despite their fame, this was a small area of the fighting. That might soon change. Tkrn edged out of line.
In a Drake army, they’d probably stab him for that. Here?
“Tkrn, where are you going?”
Dekava turned, eyes wide, and Tkrn waved at her.
“I’m going to join Ekhtouch. Cetrule knows!”
He jogged across the battlefield, a short eighty paces as Silverfangs looked incredulously at each other.
What was that idiot doing?
Some Drakes on one of the hills might have thought the same thing, because Tkrn felt an unpleasant sensation on his arm. He looked at his right shoulder and swore.
He was marked! A glowing rune was shining off his armor! Tkrn went running as a volley of arrows began to target him. He threw up his shield and ducked his head behind it. He prayed Demas Metal was as good as he hoped.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
The sound of arrows rattling off his armor had a far higher-pitched sound than he expected. Tkrn barely felt it, but Dekava gasped.
The Gnoll [Guardsman] checked himself. An entire volley of arrows was embedded in the grass around him; the ones that had struck him had glanced off.
“Wow. That’s am—”
He lifted his shield and ran as a second volley of arrows began to land around him. But it stopped almost immediately; whoever had ordered the rain of arrows had probably seen it was as good as spit.
Tkrn was very surprised. But what he didn’t realize as he ran, swearing and trying not to pee, was how even the other Gnolls were looking at him.
Even for Gnolls, who let warriors fight individually, it was a kind of crazy to run away from your group and make yourself a target like that. Even Dekava, who was a seasoned warrior and hunter, was shaking and tense in this battle.
He looked at the enemy. Drakes. Poor [Soldiers] following stupid orders. He didn’t see Drakes as the enemy because many were his friends. But they’d kill him, and he’d kill them.
He’d be scared stupid if he had to charge at them. A wall of gleaming spears? Drakes armed with swords in the second rank, teeth shining as they bared them, armored tails lashing? Even with the armor, Tkrn would be so afraid.
At the same time…that was all they had. There were their commanding officers, high-level, a [General] whirling a massive halberd around his head and roaring orders like he was right out of Satar’s storybooks. Zeresian forces, with their light armor they could swim in, ranks of [Javelineers] hurling enchanted weapons, and their swashbuckling infantry. Dangerous, and Tkrn knew that.
But that was all they had. Tkrn didn’t freeze or panic. He could move, even run to Ekhtouch as his boots tromped through soggy grass and splintered arrow shafts, because he’d looked [Terror] in the eyes.
He’d seen two red gemstone eyes in a mask of dead flesh. Smelled rotten flesh so old it had turned into something else, stretched and patched into armor over a beast that commanded undead.
He’d torn through a giant moth with a razor mouth trying to eat his face off as they landed around him. He’d seen the Raskghar devouring his people and led by a fallen Silver-rank adventurer.
He hadn’t done much in those battles, but he’d seen tens of thousands of Goblins break the Goblin Lord’s army, following a white flag and a Human girl. Tkrn was not that brave.
But he could do this.
Gireulashia was surveying the battlefield, a javelin in one paw. She turned to him, and her eyes were wide. She was younger than he was, and she looked like it as Tkrn slowed.
“I’m, uh, here to help. I promised Mrsha I’d be with you.”
Tkrn felt stupid, but Gire looked relieved. The Ekhtouch warriors snorted at his armor, but made room for Tkrn.
“Honored Gireulashia, they haven’t noticed us. What are your orders?”
Tkrn blinked. They were making Gire, a fifteen year-old girl, their leader? It seemed like Ekhtouch truly did obey their hierarchy at all times.
“So many Drakes. I see Adetr there. Feshi and Yerra there. Lehra…there she is.”
Gire looked around, almost as wonderingly as Tkrn. Yet she saw spots in that chaos, pointing a huge paw. Tkrn squinted. He had seen Adetr fighting amongst Steelfur Gnolls. The Drakes were engulfing their push on all sides, but Steelfur refused to fall.
It looked like a thin protrusion in a line at the heart of the battle. Solid Drake lines slightly pushed by Steelfur. On the edges, lines of Drakes held firm, rotating out, falling back only grudgingly as Gnolls charged and retreated.
Where was Feshi? Ah, there. A safe position on one of the hills. Not natural ground; Tkrn eyed the raised mound of dirt. A [Shaman] must have done that. Archers surrounded it, loosing long-ranged shots.
Longstalker’s Fang and Hawkarrow, probably. Gire pointed next at a flash of light. A rapidly-changing area of the battlefield where an entire battalion of Drakes was running back.
Because of the Stargnoll and her team. Stargazer’s Promise fought like adventurers, the four of them driving back ordinary [Soldiers].
Lehra, brandishing a glowing sword, armored in a metal beyond even Tkrn’s gear. Suxhel, hanging back, throwing spells and glaring at her enemies with her eyes, the Gazer protected from enemies by Elgrinna, the Dwarf, and Emper. The Stitch-man and Dwarf lashed out, Elgrinna holding a shield and axe, Emper spinning his staff, deflecting even arrows as Lehra fought ahead of the other three.
Adventurers in a battle. Those were the Gnolls that Tkrn knew. There were other famous heroes, of course.
Gnolls wearing Krakenhide armor, barely two dozen of them, crashed into Drake lines, as fearless as any [Knights], lashing out with weapons carved of Kraken ivory. Tkrn thought he saw extra appendages mixed with the flailing limbs; a tentacle or slashing arm that struck a Drake down.
Armor fashioned by one of the Gnoll’s greatest [Tailors] living. And [Shamans] from Weatherfur, one of the famous Great Tribes, were battling the Drakes, calling down shamanic magic.
Unlike [Mage] spells, theirs were closer to a [Druid]’s magic, a gathering of power. One was conjuring walls of thorns underneath Drake feet, ensnaring them and leaving them easy prey. Another was simply raising a staff and open paw to the sky.
Glowing orbs of light were gathering overhead, floating out of Weatherfur Gnolls, even those engulfed in the fighting. They gathered into a larger sphere of glowing light, bright green. Almost friendly.
Aside from the fact that when the Gnoll threw it, it struck a barrier of magic, expanded, and left a hole thirty feet wide in the ground as it exploded.
Faced with so many famous tribes, high-level individuals, it would have been amazing for any ordinary army to hold against them.
However, Zeres itself had backed the disparate groups that combined into this main army. A non-Zeresian [General] cut a [Fireball] in two with his halberd, holding the center against Steelfur Gnolls.
Those [Javelineers] were hurling enchanted weapons that exploded, bringing Gnolls down, and as Tkrn watched, a cabal of Drake [Mages] exchanged fire with the [Shamans], hurtling [Lightning Bolts] and [Fireballs] across the battlefield.
“Zeresian [Lineholders] and [Marines]. They’re keeping our warriors from the [Archers]. Those [Javelineers] are striking down anything trying to flank them. Heavy cavalry…I don’t know the city. Weatherfur’s Gnolls are losing to them.”
Gire pointed out fighting on both wings as Gnolls and Drakes—the Drakes wearing heavy armor, and with plated mounts—dueled in fast flurries of fighting. Gire looked around and nodded, coming to a conclusion in a matter of seconds. Tkrn was still stuck on ‘that’s a lot of fighting’.
“Feshi has to break through or we’ll lose. That [General] is a target. So are the [Mages] and [Javelineers]. We target the throwers.”
Ekhtouch’s Gnolls nodded and rotated their position. Tkrn saw thirty-one of the fifty Gnolls plus Gire plant arrows in the ground or ready spears, handing some to other Gnolls to serve as ammunition-holders. The rest simply stood, shields up, searching for enemies coming their way.
“Er…Gire? Do you want to coordinate with Silverfang or something?”
Tkrn hated to burst Gire’s bubble, but Ekhtouch did not look that impressive. There were eight hundred, nearly a thousand Drakes armed with javelins.
Plus, Gire was out of range. Tkrn wasn’t an expert on javelin-throwing, but he assumed you could toss a pilum or javelin about a hundred feet and hit someone. Ekhtouch and the advancing Silverfang line were both several hundred feet from the enemy. From the encamped javelineers?
Six hundred feet. A longbow could hit them…maybe, if you were a good shot. Throwing weapons? No chance.
Four of Ekhtouch’s Gnolls had longbows. Tkrn watched as the Gnolls gauged the distance, checked the wind, squinted down the shafts of their arrows, and then Gire hefted her javelin. She barely looked at the enemy.
“Ready? Loose or whatever.”
A military leader she was not. Nor was Ekhtouch. Some had already shot their first arrow, and they didn’t volley, but shot like each one was hunting.
Individualistic perfectionists. Tkrn lost track of the arrows, even Gire’s javelin, the lone throwing weapon among the arrows in the sky. He watched the distant Drakes throwing spears of their own. There was no way—
He blinked as a tiny figure in the distance suddenly clawed at their shoulder and dropped. Suddenly…twenty Drakes fell down, and confusion erupted around them. One of them had a distinctly long-looking shaft of wood stuck in their belly.
Tkrn’s mouth fell open. He turned and saw a tall Gnoll—not Gire’s nine feet, ‘only’ seven and a half—aiming a recurve bow high up.
“Wind…now. [Tracer Shot].”
A glowing arrow sped upwards, creating a glowing arc, what Yelroan would call a parabola, through the sky, and Tkrn saw it fly. Practically floating as the wind blew it straight towards the Gnoll [Archer]’s mark.
The [Markswoman] grunted as it hit a Drake in the helmet. She growled at the others.
“Adjust your aim on that. A third of you missed. Shameful!”
The Ekhtouch Gnolls began adjusting their aim. Tkrn knew the Watch of Liscor didn’t hit targets nearly as far. Two thirds had hit a mark? At that range?
Gire picked up another javelin, calmly peering around.
Her arm blurred, and her entire body seemed to rotate. She drew back, arching over incredibly far, then seemed to throw her entire form forwards and shift it into a throw, putting all the momentum into one arm.
The javelin vanished. Gire shaded her eyes as a Gnoll handed her another spear instantly. She smiled after fifteen seconds.
Tkrn’s jaw was so far open he was in danger of swallowing an arrow. And, oh—they were coming. The first Ekhtouch Gnolls snarled as the Drakes realized some highly-skilled enemies were onto them.
“Javelins and arrows! Dodge!”
She flipped out of the way, and the other Ekhtouch Gnolls performed similar displays. One howled in pain, and another grabbed a potion as arrows pattered around them.
“Enchanted arrows! [Interception Fire]!”
A Gnoll swept a bow up. He shot a regular arrow into the sky, and a bloom of fire proved he’d hit a target. Tkrn kept his shield raised, trying to shield Gire’s…lower ribcage and left side. He realized he couldn’t really protect her; she was far too tall!
“Gire! If you need to take cover, get behind me!”
“Thank you, Tkrn. I’m f—”
Gire smiled sidelong at him, then caught something. She inspected an enchanted arrow, the tip frozen solid, and handed it to a Gnoll next to her.
She reached out, accepted one, and threw it. She hit her target, Tkrn had no doubt.
What an incredible, ridiculous girl. A [Paragon]. All of them. Ekhtouch kept shooting and hitting their targets. Tkrn watched Gire as the Drakes began to take more notice of her. She was surveying the battlefield, throwing javelins, looking for an opening. Doing all of that at once at her age.
But…he heard her murmuring.
She picked up a javelin, threw it, and was throwing another one when she spoke again.
“Four. I don’t know who they are.”
Tkrn looked up at her. One of the Ekhtouch Gnolls handing her javelins was watching her. Gire’s eyes were bright.
“I killed four people. Five, now. I never have before.”
Her paw trembled so slightly as she lifted the javelin that only Tkrn saw it. Gire looked up. She never stopped moving. She was entirely rational; she didn’t hesitate or miss. She knew the stakes. But she just looked at Tkrn, in that brief rotation of her body as she went to throw the javelin.
“It’s too easy.”
He watched her aging, that girl, with each javelin. Each rotation of her arm. Tkrn lifted his shield higher. He couldn’t shoot a bow or throw anything. But he’d keep her safe.
Or die trying.
On the Drake side of the battle, Zeres’ commanders noticed Ekhtouch’s arrival like they had marked Lehra, Steelfur, and the other significant Gnolls.
They had a different approach to the battle, however.
“Ekhtouch is on the field. They’re assaulting our javelin-lines. There is a tall Gnoll among them. Their [Paragon].”
“Good. Kill her.”
One of their leaders was an officer of their throwing-divisions. A [Thousand-Foot Javelineer Major]. He was accompanied by several Drake [Mages] from various cities and a few [Strategists] in his position.
He had specific orders from Zeres’ own Admiralty. Win the battle if possible, but more importantly—kill any Gnolls belonging to a tribe with unique war-capabilities, or famous heroes.
Like Lehra Ruinstrider. Reclaiming the Blade of Mershi was a war asset, and Wall Lord Dragial had posted a bounty in addition to the one already on her head. Of course, if the [Javelineer Major] got it, he’d turn it over to Zeres.
He put out a claw, and his [Munitions Expert] placed one in his claw. Of course, an entire class just for someone who held and handed out resupplies of equipment wasn’t impressive if that was all they could do.
That was why, as three dozen Drakes around the [Major] put their hands out, the same Drake handed them each a javelin, according to their needs. The [Major]’s was a [Seeking]-[Piercer] javelin.
Officer-killer. If they could, Zeres would recover each one thrown, because they were expensive. No non-Walled City could field so many. He took aim at the tall Gnoll.
[Doubled Velocity]. [Invisible Cast]. [Enhanced Strength: Throwing]—
The invisible, seeking spear shot through the air like a bolt of lightning. It curved, and the [Major] put out a claw.
She’d dodged. Somehow, the [Paragon] saw it coming. She threw herself out of the way, and he had another javelin in the air. He saw the distant shape whirl—and spot him.
Drakes cried out as Ekhtouch showered them with deadly arrows. The [Major] frowned. He looked up—and threw his javelin. Then he cursed.
He threw himself sideways as a javelin thunked into the ground so hard it split, leaving half of it cratered deep in the earth. Right where his head would have been. The Drake looked at the javelin.
The [Munitions Expert] blinked. The [Major] snapped.
“Javelin! Explosive tip!”
He raised the javelin and threw it. This time, he watched where it landed; the [Paragon] sprinted to cover, carrying a Gnoll in full-body armor to safety. He snarled—
The [Major] ducked a second javelin. He stared. Had she just put that into the air before him? Ridiculous!
He put a claw out, and one slapped itself into his grip. He raised his javelin—and saw a third flicker going for his groin—
The [Major] twisted, dropping the javelin as he did. He put out a claw, shaken.
The javelin of the [Paragon] flashed past the left side of his head as one of the rings he wore overloaded, keeping it from his scales. The [Major] looked down at the ring that had saved his life. He backed up.
“Mark that Gnoll! Pull three companies and take her down! Now!”
He wasn’t above bringing his entire company to the duel. The Ekhtouch Gnolls fell back as hundreds of arrows and javelins began to rain down around them. Then a few began to die. But not the [Paragon].
It frustrated Feshi as much as it did Gire. The Gnoll [Paragon] panted into the speaking stone.
“I can’t get him. He’s too far. I thought I could, but his ring saved him. Ekhtouch is falling back.”
“Understood. Shaman Cetrule—move Silverfang forwards. Attack the Drakes there. [Mark Position].”
Feshi pointed, and a spot that only she and the [Shaman] could see lit up. She heard Cetrule’s growled reply a second before she switched targets of her speaking stone, cutting him off.
“I see it, Strategist Feshi. Silverfangs—”
From her ground, she and Yerranola were watching the battle. Gire had announced she was going after the Drake commander of the javelin-group, and Feshi had let her try. She was amazed Ekhtouch could hit them.
“If only we had a thousand, we’d have won already. Gire, get to cover.”
The Selphid turned from barking orders into her speaking stone.
“If wishes were artifacts, we’d be rich, Feshi.”
True enough. Feshi clamped her lips shut; the normally-chipper Yerranola looked serious and intense. She waited for Gire’s reply.
“I’m using Tkrn as a shield. We’re safe. Come on, Tkrn—”
Feshi was watching the battlefield with a Skill as well as her eyes. She had an aerial view of the battle—even the Professor had one. She was smart enough not to focus too long on one spot, even though Yerranola was there. She was not in command over everything, but she was close.
Even so, it was hard not to focus on what she thought was Gire sprinting away from the danger zone, holding Tkrn over her head like some kind of floppy umbrella.
Ridiculous. But that was adventurers and unique individuals like Gire for you. Nasty variables, the Professor called them. Even the most unpredictable enemy officer wouldn’t be as weird as civilians.
Feshi directed her attention back to her specific command. She saw a group of six undead champions of Khelt, the max the dagger could summon, charging a flank of scared Drakes. Their enchanted weapons and armor did a lot of damage—but they were outnumbered. Two went down fast, vanishing, returning to wherever they had been summoned from.
The Diamond Dagger of Serept was an asset. Free, summoned warriors. The sacrificial charge wasted all six, and it would take time for the dagger to allow her to summon more, but it slowed down an entire regiment of Drakes, allowing the tribes to complete a flanking maneuver.
“Nice undead charge, Feshi! Grandma’s tits, but this is ugly! Adetr Steelfur, you’re in too deep! I don’t care if you’re winning, you’ll be cut off! You want a charge? Charge left! There we go…”
Yerranola cursed. Feshi had to agree.
Were they winning or losing? And more importantly, if they were doing either, how badly were they taking casualties? Each Gnoll that died was a loss forever. Feshi would rather ‘lose’ with everyone wounded and able to fight later than win with ten thousand deaths.
So would the Drakes. She broke away from watching the Silverfangs charge under Cetrule’s [Wards of Defense]. They were doing well. Were those magic blades? She wished someone would have told her they were armed with magic!
“Yerra—how are we doing? Break and huddle.”
Yerra looked up. Then the Selphid put down her stone and looked at Feshi. The Weatherfur Gnoll was sweating. The battle had barely begun, but she was shaking, sick—
And leading. She hadn’t graduated, but she had already been a [Tactician] when she came to the Professor’s academy. She could do this. But she had to—
Win. And because he had taught her well, Feshi stepped back from commanding to realize something.
“What’s up, Feshi? How do you think we’re doing? The enemy leadership isn’t that good. They’re solid, but not original. I’m not as scared as I would be if Venaz were doing this. Mind you—we’re not winning any awards either. Is that it?”
Feshi growled. Then Yerranola had sensed it too.
“Yes. We’re facing the Selphid’s Dilemma.”
The what? A few other Gnolls coordinating the battle looked up. They were good leaders, who had more practical experience. Feshi and Yerranola, though, had studied terminology and gone academic.
Selphid’s Dilemma was a way of explaining what the two were facing. Which was—a [Strategist] or a [General] or whatever who knew what they wanted and what to do, and who couldn’t make it happen.
Like a Selphid’s own problems with a rotting body. Muscles would degrade, rendering limbs less mobile or useless over time. Hence the nickname.
The Gnoll tribes were not…moving like Feshi wanted them to. They listened, but sometimes they argued or took their time reacting. Had she been leading the Drake army, she’d have done better, but her people were less coordinated. Tactically, they were perfect, but these were disparate tribes!
“We can’t perform sharp maneuvering unless it’s Skill-based, Yerra. And we need something sharp. The Drakes have their back lines well-guarded. We need to break them open, or they’ll win the ranged battle.”
“Agreed. Who are we going to get?”
Feshi snatched up the speaking stone.
“Lehra? I have a mission for you.”
She heard confused shouting and then a calm voice, despite the battle.
“[Spears of Light]. Lehra, you are too far forwards. This is Suxhel. Feshi, what do you need?”
Feshi could see the Named-rank adventurer and her team in her Skill-view, pushing hard towards the center of the fighting. Lehra was scaring the Drakes; she was fighting impressively, but she and Steelfur were useless in the vanguard. Oh, they did damage, but that wasn’t how you won a battle! The Drakes were concentrating their strength there, checking the Gnolls’ best hammers. They had to hit them where they were weak and fold up their army.
“Tell Lehra to fall back! I need you to all regroup. Stargazer’s Promise will fall back, cast [Invisibility], and circle the battlefield. If you have to, go through the [Riders], or you can break through spear lines—get those archers! Throw them into chaos. Do you need more direction?”
“I do not. [Barrier of Light]. But Lehra—Lehra! Fall back! Feshi needs you!”
Dimly, Feshi heard a voice roaring back, excited, over the shouting.
“I see the [General], Suxhel! Cover me! I’m going to take him out!”
Feshi and Suxhel shouted it at the same time, but it was too late. The Stargnoll went charging towards the Drake with the halberd, who whirled and pointed at her.
“The Stargnoll herself! Thief! Fight me like a Drake!”
“Fight you? I’ll fight you like a Gnoll—ulp!”
The ulp was the halberd hitting Lehra so hard she went crashing back into Emper. Feshi swore as the [General] and his bodyguard engulfed Stargazer’s Promise. Suxhel stopped replying; her team was fighting for their lives.
This was why the Professor told her never to rely on them! Worse, she knew Lehra had been sucked up into her mindset. If she could take out the enemy [General]…
But that was a gamble. It appealed to Lehra’s pride as a warrior, but Feshi didn’t like gambling. She knew that Lehra was a certified Named Adventurer. But she’d been Bronze-rank or barely Silver when she found the Blade of Mershi.
If she were the Drake commander, she’d bet on that [General], a seasoned warrior, killing her. Now she had to bail Lehra out of the fighting. Feshi looked around. She checked her dagger and spoke.
“I summon a warrior of Khelt! By my blade—protect the Stargnoll! Arise and fight!”
Outside of the tent, twenty feet away, a portal opened, and an undead Drake arose, holding twin daggers. It raced down the hill to throw itself into the fighting.
Am I wasting the undead? I’m not being optimal, but they’re not listening! Feshi’s mind raced as she heard shouting from Yerranola.
“Fall back, Hawkarrow! Fall—I think Chieftain Eitha’s down.”
She raised her head, and Gnolls cursed and turned. Feshi switched over to that side of the battle and saw a Gnoll with a giant crossbow clawing at an arrow in her leg as Drakes raced towards her. Hawkarrow’s Gnolls were trying to get her up, but they were running from the cavalry charge.
“Someone get Chieftain Eitha!”
Feshi shouted. She saw a desperate stand as the Gnoll Chieftain’s tribe tried to put themselves in the way of the charging Drakes.
Even another Silver-rank team. But would they make it? The Drakes were aiming at Eitha, no one else.
“Chieftain Eitha! Get up!”
Nailren was loosing arrows as The Pride of Kelia and Hawkarrow’s archers tried to shoot the armored Drakes off their horses. His arrows glanced off the armored horses. He didn’t want to kill them, but he was trying to hit them in the eyes—but they had blinker hoods on.
The Pride of Kelia, a Silver-rank team that had been around Liscor, had joined the fighting for their homeland. More Gnolls were bracing with Nailren’s team, but they were too slow. Gnolls carrying her on foot couldn’t stop that charge.
The Silver-rank team had come back for the famous Meeting of Tribes after struggling against Liscor’s dungeon and then the disastrous raid on the Village of the Dead with another team. They had arrived just in time for the war.
A sound like thunder. One of the horses and riders went down as a crossbow bolt pierced through both. Eitha lowered the crossbow, panting.
“Leave me! That is an order! Run!”
Hawkarrow’s warriors looked at the [Riders] and ran. Nailren wanted to stay, but he knew his team couldn’t hold the gap. If only Gold-rank teams were here—
Gnolls were howling as Eitha tossed aside her crossbow, unable to reload it with her Skill so soon. She drew a pair of pocket-crossbows and waited for point-blank range, teeth bared. The enchanted arrow in her leg refused to be healed or come out. An Anchoring Arrow, courtesy of Zeres. It wasn’t poisoned or as deadly…but it left her weakened.
Gnolls on horseback were pursuing the charging Drakes, but the Drakes had lowered lances, aiming for Eitha. Nailren turned back as a terrible howl arose. He looked up as something huge thundered by him. A foot nearly booted him in the face. Nailren blinked as someone rode past him, bursting through Hawkarrow’s lines. But…
Was that a Human?
He saw a young woman with colorful, beautifully-woven clothing, wet from the drizzle, standing up in the stirrups, hand extending as she bent down, brown skin glistening with sweat. Eyes wide with desperation.
A voice shouted from one of the speaking stones that Eitha carried. Nailren just shook his head.
She was riding towards the Drakes. And unarmored, she was faster. Eitha looked up as she fired her crossbows.
“Get back! Not you! Not—”
Inkar swung herself down across her beloved mare’s saddle and grabbed Eitha under her shoulders in an incredible display of coordination and trust. If her mount had bucked or even twisted—
The Gnoll came up, and Inkar almost screamed with the effort of lifting her—but Eitha grabbed onto the saddle and clung, hauling herself onto the back of the horse.
That only left the Drake [Lancers] now aiming at both Inkar and Eitha. The Gnoll scrambled for a weapon, anything! But Inkar was weaponless, and her horse, Flura, was too slow, even if the [Worldly Traveller] had Skills!
The tips of the lances aimed at horse and rider and Eitha. Inkar closed her eyes—and Nailren, waiting for the impact, heard a pop.
She vanished and appeared half a dozen paces left of the [Lancers], who thundered past her in confusion, looked around, tried to turn—and Inkar was racing away.
“Cover that Human!”
Hawkarrow’s tribe cheered and pelted the Drakes with arrows. Nailren shot a Drake through the helmet as Inkar galloped away, covered by Weatherfur [Riders], who swept the Drakes off their saddles with billhooks and other weapons designed for the task. How had she done that? A scroll? Magic? She had to have the timing of a genius or—
Or was it her? The Human so beloved by Longstalker Fang’s [Magical Weaver], Honored Deskie, that she had made the Human a garment herself.
Waisrabbit fur. Inkar rode away from the fighting, white-knuckled, as Gnolls cheered her name.
Tkrn nearly screamed into Gire’s speaking stone. What was she doing here? She wasn’t allowed to fight! She’d been arguing with him! But he was a [Guard], and she—
“Quiet. I need to listen.”
Gire covered his mouth with her paw. Ekhtouch had fallen back and were crouching in the grass. One of their [Shamans] had actually cast a spell to make it grow high enough to hide them from the rain of death that had tried to take them out.
It had killed two of Ekhtouch, despite their reflexes. A terrible loss for their tiny tribe. Even now, some were loosing arrows in secret.
Such simple spells. [Grow Grass] was useful. Or rather, [Grassy Meadow]. But still, it was the same basic spell. Who knew?
The same way [Detect Life] could find them here—if you put it on a long-range Skill or enhancement. Tkrn watched the battle with Gire. And he began to see why she was frustrated.
She had tried to take out an officer. She thought logically. The greatest impact Ekhtouch could make was not in decimating the enemy with their paltry numbers, but with taking out dangerous foes.
However, they had failed. And this battle wasn’t going well, for all some people like Inkar were saving valuable lives.
Drakes had [Mages]. They loosed spells with abandon. That was not to say the Gnolls were helpless, but they had only one kind of magic. Collective; there was a limit to how many [Shamans] a tribe could support, and their power was derived from numbers.
The Drakes truly had handicapped their old foes. If Gnolls had an equal number of [Mages] along with their [Shamans]…
But Gnolls had learned long ago to make up for that lack in battle.
“Fireballs! Stay behind me!”
Cetrule’s voice echoed over the speaking stone as Feshi gave him orders, and Gire listened. Tkrn could actually see the [Shaman]. Cetrule was fighting—not directly, but the only way he could.
A Drake [Mage] group was tossing deadly [Fireballs], which could wipe out all of the Silverfangs very quickly. The explosive orbs of fire were precisely scattered to just barely overlap their radiuses.
Hundreds could die within a few volleys. Yet Cetrule galloped, if not as adeptly as Inkar, certainly as bravely. He whirled on horseback and slammed something into the ground as he rode away from the Silverfangs. Not to run; to save them all.
A huge stave of wood, lengthened so it was as long as a spear, one end pointed so it could ram into the ground and stick as Cetrule struck it down in a moment. The top was a far more complex, carved beast of a snarling animal. Inlaid with runes and wards that Cetrule himself had carved.
Cetrule howled, and the [Mages] throwing [Fireballs] cursed as their spells curved. The [Shaman] of the Silverfangs galloped away just in time as six [Fireballs] landed around his magical totem and exploded.
However, the reinforced marker was still standing, and the [Mages]’ next volley of spells all curved around it, missing the Silverfang lines. Instantly, they began screaming at the [Soldiers] to do something about it.
Anti-magic combat. Tkrn saw Gire smile briefly, then look up.
“I have to do something. Or else…I have to. I am a [Paragon]. No one else can.”
“Maybe someone else can?”
Gire gave Tkrn a blank stare. She shook her head with a smile.
“You don’t have to come. Ekhtouch. Eight warriors. Stealth specialists. We’re attacking the enemy. There.”
She pointed, and even Ekhtouch’s warriors looked apprehensive. Tkrn turned pale. Gire eyed him, expecting him to turn away. But he didn’t.
“Are you sure?”
She nodded once.
“I can do it. Let’s go. [Basic Perfect Action: Stealth Run]. [Keep Up With Me].”
She dragged Tkrn to his feet, and then they were running. Eight warriors followed Gire as they passed across the battlefield. Heading straight for the middle of the Drake lines and the javelin-throwing Drakes.
“We have a squad coming your way, [Major]. Our anti-stealth specialists mark it as Ekhtouch. [Paragon] again.”
“Damn. Kill that Gnoll!”
She was back for more? The [Major] spun and spotted them as someone broke their stealth Skill. That just made the ten Gnolls, one in armor and far shorter than the others, run faster.
“Command—I see a high-level Gnoll with the [Paragon]. Some kind of warrior with an enchanted shield and their Demas Metal. Mark as high-value. Get me any intelligence you can on it.”
“Marking. No immediate matches. Maybe Demas Metal’s Chieftain or one of their champions? We’ll keep you updated.”
“Command group—target those Ekh—whatevers. [No Overlaps]. Aim! Loose!”
Enchanted javelins and arrows split the air like trails of beautiful comets. They struck the Gnolls and ground, and it was less beautiful.
Four Gnolls went down. The rest broke off, retreating in dismay.
The [Paragon] and that armored warrior kept coming. She looked back, shouted at them, and then ran faster.
“Dead gods. That’s Courier-speed!”
A nine-foot tall sprinter blasted across the battlefield, so quick that Drake units barely caught sight of her before she was gone. Somehow—it had to be a Skill—the armored Gnoll kept up on her heels.
“Javelin! Take aim! Scatter your shots around her!”
The [Paragon] was looking at him. The command group took aim, and she—vanished. The [Major] blinked.
One second she was there, the next? She seemed to disappear so completely he whirled.
“[Battlemage]! Dispel that!”
A surly-looking Drake crossed his arms. He was apparently the highest-levelled [Mage] on their field and had been throwing spells with incredible accuracy; even casting [Boosted Velocity] on some of their volleys.
“I would have if she used a spell. No magical detection.”
The [Major] turned back. For a few dozen heartstopping seconds he didn’t see the [Paragon]—but he did see that running Gnoll in armor. If he was there, then…
He caught sight of the [Paragon] and recoiled. She was out of sight because she’d ducked down, begun running on all fours! She skirted past Gnolls and Drakes, galloping like a Gnoll child. But so coordinated!
On the ground, up close, it had to look like the world’s largest dog or wolf coming at you, golden fur ablaze, eyes focused on you. From his point? She was impossible to hit!
“We can’t get a target, [Major]. She’s too close to the ground!”
“Then—get me Oldblood [Snipers] and hit her from above!”
Drakes flew into the air, sighting on the [Paragon], but they had to be wary of snipers from all sides. The [Major] slowly put his javelin aside and drew his sword.
“Command unit—prepare for an officer charge. Pull up two companies. Now.”
They looked at him, then switched to their sidearms uneasily. That Gnoll was going to come all the way here? She’d have to cross their defensive lines!
The Gnoll in that blue armor jogged past two groups of Drakes, who whirled and tried to stab him. Spears glanced off his armor as he ran past them. One of the interception squads came at him, and he raised his shield—
Gireulashia leapt. She had not a weapon in her hands, but she punched a helmet so hard it crumpled. Then she grabbed another Drake and swung the screaming woman around, knocking all the other Drakes down. She ran with the Drake as a shield towards the enemy command.
Tkrn followed her, shield in hand.
“Gire! Stop! Stop!”
She wasn’t listening. A little Gnoll had told her she could make a difference, and that was what the girl was doing. But…
Heroes died. General Shivertail had died. This was madness.
Even so, Gire reached the enemy command. She tossed the Drake into the others, fouling them up. Drew a throwing axe and threw it at the [Mage]. A barrier screamed, and the weapon exploded as the Drake recoiled. So Gire threw the second one with her other arm.
She was, of course, ambidextrous. A calculated attack. Someone had dropped their sword when she threw her living shield; Gire kicked it up and straight through the chest of the Drake standing next to the enemy commander.
Two axes thrown, a sword kicked, and Tkrn was just raising his sword and shield. The [Paragon] moved like clockwork from another world. A perfect assassination. She drew her sword and slashed it across the [Major]’s neck. A long-range specialist who—
—the blow. The Drake was thrown back a step with the impact, but he spat.
“Zeres’ finest. To me!”
Zeres, City of Waves, who fought on ship decks, were known for their hybrid specialists. Even so, Gire’s other paw wrenched the sword from the dead officer next to the commander, and she swung it at the [Major] to kill him—
She bent back, dodging a bolt of lightning that flashed overhead, so close it scorched her fur. The [Mage] had survived the second axe?
Tkrn skidded to a stop and raised the Eyeshield just in time for it to catch a second bolt of lightning. He felt the current run through him, and every hair stood up under his armor—but that was all.
“Hm. Command, we need backup now.”
The Drake [Mage] winced as he rubbed at a chunk taken out of his shoulder. It was already healing; he’d dodged the axe. A [Mage] dodging an axe?
Tkrn had a bad feeling. Then the [Mage] confirmed it.
“Magus Grimalkin training graduate. Mage Belini. Entering combat.”
He raised his hand, and a sword and shield made out of magic appeared. Gireulashia whirled, and the [Major], his bodyguards, and the [Mage] all attacked. Oh, and Tkrn was there too.
“Gireulashia is in danger.”
Ekhtouch’s frantic report came to Feshi at the same time as she was making sure Chieftain Eitha would live. Inkar was panting and feeding her mare some food as Yerranola scolded and praised her and asked if she would try it again.
She wasn’t the only one in danger. Feshi looked towards the heart of the battlefield and cursed bravado, Lehra’s stupid desire to be a hero, and Named Adventurers in general for not living up to the hype.
She was losing.
The Blade of Mershi shone like a star. The Stargnoll herself was wearing the incredibly powerful armor that resisted even enchanted blades. Her weapon could adapt—but what it couldn’t do was win the fight for Lehra.
The Gnoll had changed it to a halberd to match the Drake [General]. She made the mistake of trying to overpower him. He was taller than her, and her arms shook as she tried to hold him back. Then he headbutted her.
Decades of battle experience! The Drake stepped back to tend to a wound caused to him. His bodyguard rushed into the gap, hammering Lehra.
The Gnoll took a kick, which did nothing to her armor but rattled the Gnoll inside of it. They even knew how to fight enemies with superior armor. She shifted her blade back.
“I can do this—just like the Minotaur—”
She learned, but too slowly. And this was a battlefield, not an adventurer’s story. The only thing that saved her team from being overrun was the undead Kheltian warrior and the Ruinstrider tribe, who were helping defend Stargazer’s Promise.
“Lehra! Back up!”
“I’m trying! I can’t—”
Elgrinna was swearing at Lehra.
“What do you mean, you tall-headed, ceiling-scraping pile of iron scrap? Move back, you idiot, or we’ll all die!”
Then her team realized that Lehra was really trying—but the [General] wasn’t letting her. Her back was pressed against something flat.
“[No Retreat, No Quarter]. Face me, Stargnoll.”
The [General] beheaded the Kheltian warrior as it died alone, facing high-level warriors. Feshi felt the loss, guiltily.
What a waste. She knew they were undead and didn’t ‘die’ forever, as they were phantoms. Even so…if they weren’t undead, she would have never used them like this. Not in worthless battles.
It was as if the dagger were…speaking to her. Her paws whitened on the table as she saw Gire charging the enemy.
“All wrong. All wrong!”
“It’s not insane, Venaz does it. They’re all Venazes, though—and the Professor says—”
Yerra was gripping at her hair, tearing the dead follicles out of her Human body for today. Feshi half-listened.
The Professor always reprimanded Venaz. Not because he put himself in danger or thought he could change a battlefield with his own two fists. Niers always reprimanded Venaz because he was predictable. He liked to make it a battle where his best met the enemy’s best—and his best won, of course.
But that wasn’t how you took an enemy down. Her dagger was being misused. There was no coordination. Lehra and her tribe fought. Silverfangs fought—but they didn’t coordinate. They didn’t know the other tribes, even Silverfang and Ekhtouch who’d been together for months!
A crazy idea came to Feshi as she looked up. She started away from the war table.
“Yerra—I need you to take over command of the entire battle for the two of us. Can you do it?”
The Selphid spun. She hesitated—then saw Feshi’s face.
“You have a plan?”
“Just like the Games at Daquin. Except this time—I’ll win.”
Feshi looked around. Yerranola chewed at her lip.
“Is this Umina stupid or Venaz stupid, Feshi?”
The two friends looked at each other, and Yerranola nodded after one eternal moment. If only it could have been immortal.
Feshi ran. She shouted at the young woman.
“Inkar! I need your help!”
The young woman turned, and Feshi leapt into the saddle. She spoke into the speaking stone as Lehra was tossed around like a ragdoll by the enemy commander. The only thing saving her was her armor. Feshi needed someone to respond now. So she named the only person she could, who could move like she wanted.
“Adetr Steelfur. Fall back!”
The Gnoll snarled at her. Feshi shouted over him.
“Lehra is about to die! Get to her!”
Across the battlefield, a [Battle Seeker] and [Vanguard of Metal] broke out of his battle haze. He looked around and saw the struggling Named Adventurer.
But he had to hold here! Steelfur’s Gnolls were fighting and dying and…Adetr looked at Lehra. The same Gnoll who ate too much crab, was fairly thoughtless, rude at times, and—
“Aargh! Fur lice! Steelfur! With me!”
Gnolls turned as their battle-hungry leader broke away from the fighting and retreated. Adetr ran, building up speed and ignoring the spears and arrows bouncing off his fur. Steelfur Gnolls followed as he saw multiple Drake formations encircling the cut-off team of adventurers and Ruinstrider Gnolls.
The Drakes didn’t want anyone saving Lehra. So Adetr ran. He charged across the muddy ground straight at a line of Drakes.
“Gnoll incoming! Brace! Brace.”
An officer saw Adetr coming and waited for him to be cut down. An [Archer] placed with her command raised their bow.
“[Piercing Arrow]—got him! Huh?”
An arrow struck Adetr in the shoulder and lodged—about an inch deep. He snarled. That hurt! And he kept charging.
“Hold them back! [Spearwall Formation]!”
“[Reckless Advance]! [Ram’s Spearhead Formation]!”
Two Skills met one. And it was rather like rock-paper-knife-spell. You could have an advantageous formation beat one not designed to stop it. Or just be higher-level.
Adetr was both. He broke through the first line of spears as they failed to stop him. Steelfur Gnolls followed him into a wedge that pierced the Drake formation. He saw the officer draw her sword with a ringing flash of steel.
“Drakes do not run! Hold your ground!”
She swung at him as he charged at her and—missed. Adetr ran past her, shoulder-checking two Drakes to the ground. The officer blinked.
Adetr just ran through the Drakes, knocking anyone in his way flat. They were so surprised that they failed to slow him down. He scattered the last guards with one shoulder-charge and found himself face-to-face with a bodyguard.
The Drake slashed across Adetr’s face. The blade was enchanted, so it cut Adetr, drawing blood. The Gnoll howled. He buried an axe in a chest as another blade cut him again, and the Drake died. But he was wounded badly.
So Adetr slapped a spot on his shoulder and heard the crunch as a healing potion—or rather, the pocket of healing potions sewn into the lining of his clothing there—broke and splashed against his fur. Far faster than drinking it. Now, what had Feshi said? He didn’t like anyone but Iraz giving him orders, but…
The Drake [General] had Lehra captured—ironically by stepping on the tail-part of her armor. She was on the verge of being run through when he saw Adetr coming for him.
He whirled his halberd, slashed at Adetr, and the Gnoll half-parried the blow. He took the cut to his chest and snarled. The howl of pain wasn’t mortal, though.
The [General] went for another cut—blocked a slash from Adetr across his halberd—and saw the Gnoll leap into a tackle. The [General] pivoted, halberd raised—and missed.
Mainly because Adetr was out of range. He tackled Lehra, taking her in the stomach.
“Oof—what are you—”
All the air rushed out of Lehra’s lungs. She felt Adetr charging with her on one shoulder.
“Wait! There’s a Skill!”
Then Adetr slammed Lehra into the [General]’s Skill. Adetr didn’t have a scale, and he’d broken the ones on Earth, but Rose had guessed he might weigh over four hundred pounds. He could still run as fast as any ordinary [Soldier], and he was carrying Lehra on his shoulder. And they both had armor.
Yelroan could calculate how hard Lehra hit the barrier. Adetr could tell Yelroan how many of her ribs he broke. Five.
Maybe they were just cracks. But they went through the Skill as Lehra gagged in pain. And she lived.
“Go! Steelfur, fall back with Ruinstrider!”
The Gnolls broke away as the [General]’s Skill faded. He tried to pursue, but Adetr kept running.
“Let go—I’ve got to—”
“Shut up. Feshi sent me. She needs us. Gire’s in trouble.”
Lehra gulped down a potion. Suxhel, Emper, and Elgrinna looked at Adetr, transitioning from disaster to emergency. Adetr amended his statement.
“And Tkrn. But he might already be dead. Come on!”
It wasn’t a perfect strategy. But it was Feshi’s answer to the Selphid’s Dilemma. If she couldn’t move tribes—she’d move friends.
Tkrn blew his whistle. The [Guardsman]’s shrill whistle pierced the air and poked a red-hot needle into your brain, especially up close.
“Someone shut that Gnoll up!”
A weapon bounced off his armor. But Tkrn kept blowing—and guarding Gire’s back.
She was taking on six soldiers at the same time, her paws a blur as they moved left, right—she tossed up a hatchet, caught a blade with her fingers, yanked it out of a hand, tossed it, caught the hatchet, threw it—and maneuvered left. Her long arms meant that she could reach out and tickle someone with a blade in their eyes.
But she was alive because Tkrn was there. His shield was raised, covering the broad side of her back.
And he was still a [Guardsman]. He used [Fast Leg Sweep] and tripped a [Soldier] up. He wasn’t a good killer—but he was used to bar brawls and tripping up people, holding a point. And blowing the whistle.
“It’s not all-clear! Ignore the damn whistle!”
Funny thing—Watch patrols used the same whistle-signals since Drake cities standardized for efficiency, and [Soldiers] could hear whistle-commands.
But the main thing was the Demas Metal. Like a lesser version of the Cloak of Plenty, the rainwater—and blood—coated both armor and sword. In the armor’s case, it made it thicker. In the sword’s case, it gave Tkrn a longer range and wider blade. And it was still light, balanced and—
Argh! Tkrn’s legs buckled as someone stabbed through his armor into a shin. He slashed the spear aside, his mind blanking from pain. He couldn’t lower the shield, though, or drop his sword. Keep fighting.
Gire had to run. She was trying to back them up, but they were surrounded. He’d promised Mrsha and Xherw…
Why was he alive? Tkrn had the armor and shield but—it was the [Javelineers] at first, not being expert fighters in close-quarters, even if they could hold their own. Gire—who could move as fast as a striking serpent.
But then came the regular [Soldiers]. Tkrn turned aside a sword thrust, and a shield rammed into his face. He stumbled back, bounced into Gire’s back, and saw the Drake aiming a sword at him in another thrust, going for Tkrn’s face-guard.
If he dodged, Gire got stabbed. Tkrn lowered the shield, and the blade glanced away. Someone grabbed it, tore it back.
The sword rose for a third stab, and Tkrn looked a Drake in the eyes. Just some guy, snarling, raising the sword. Tkrn might have arrested him at any bar in Izril. The Gnoll strained to parry the blow, but he was no [Duelist]. The sword flashed forwards and—
The [Swordsman] collapsed, an arrow in the back of his head. Tkrn blinked, turned, stabbed the person holding his shield, and swung around, clearing Gire’s back.
An Ekhtouch bow? No—it didn’t have their beautiful fletching. Just some arrow. A lucky shot.
Lucky. Tkrn turned as the [Mage] snarled.
“More units incoming! We have disruption in our back lines! [Major], fall back!”
“Kill that [Paragon]!”
Something was happening elsewhere, but Tkrn just kept fighting. Guard Gire’s back. So lucky. Amazingly so, but Tkrn was a bit…perplexed.
…That was the third time that kind of thing had happened in the last ten minutes.
Feshi rode, clinging to Inkar’s back as the [Worldly Traveler] carried her into battle. She had to; Feshi needed to concentrate.
The Diamond Dagger of Serept was held over Feshi’s head. Inkar raced towards a line of Drake pikes—and blinked through their lines. The Drakes turned, but it was one rider.
Even if they were charging the back of the enemy—they’d be killed. Indeed, the nearest group of [Archers] spotted them, and a dozen Drakes pivoted.
Feshi didn’t see any Gnolls in the Drake attacking armies. They must have taken them out of the armies if there were any.
Good. That makes me feel a bit better. Feshi locked eyes with the archers. Lightly-armored, wielding short weapons for last-minute self-defense. She raised her voice as she strained.
She didn’t like necromancy. Gnolls didn’t like necromancy…but after meeting Fetohep of Khelt, Feshi had wondered why. The Necromancer was evil.
Not all undead were. And this—she embraced the magic of the Diamond Dagger of Serept. Fetohep had told her it had more powers. And the name it was given, from Serept’s Diamond Blades, was the Sarcophagus Dagger of Thiiem.
“Arise, great warrior of Khelt! Come and see your enemy. Bring them to ruin.”
Feshi pointed at the [Archers] as Inkar thundered past them. She didn’t have enough magic saved in her clothing to perform another jump.
She didn’t need to. The [Archers] loosed—but not at Feshi or Inkar. They had another target.
Like the huge, undead Minotaur with the halberd who hit their lines and scattered them like Adetr hitting a group of Drake children.
“Undead! Undead in the lines—call for—”
Feshi looked behind her at the carnage. Then pointed Inkar onwards.
“Those [Archers]! There!”
Another Kheltian warrior rose. This time—they didn’t assail the enemy from the front. They appeared among Drakes in the back lines and began to dice them apart. Even if they didn’t kill them all—the ranged formations turned into chaos, and Drakes had to fall back and save their comrades.
Chaos in the army. Feshi’s teeth were bared, and Inkar’s hair was blowing into her eyes, but she didn’t care. This was how you did it, Venaz. She was the first of the three students to use her blade properly. Then Feshi saw her plans come to fruition and pointed.
“They’re onto us! We have to run!”
They were behind Drake lines. Feshi just pointed.
Adetr Steelfur crashed into the [Javelineers] surrounding Gire with a roar. Steelfur, Ruinstrider, and Ekhtouch warriors followed him into the breach, and someone shouted.
“In the name of the City of Stars!”
The Drake [Mage], Belini, turned as Stargazer’s Promise came to Gire’s rescue along with the others. The [Paragon] stumbled back, fur scorched, reaching for a potion to finally heal as Tkrn looked around. Elgrinna charged past him.
“Don’t stop fighting, you idiot! [Impact Headbutt]!”
She smashed her helmet with one of those spikes on top into a Drake’s groin. A male Drake; you had to know the weak spots. Tkrn followed her, shield still raised, and Belini took aim at Adetr.
He had to kill one of them. The magic flew towards Adetr—then splintered as it met a wooden staff.
“…That’s not how the spell works.”
The [Battlemage] looked at his opponent. Emper bowed his head slightly as he advanced.
Anti-mage classes and Skills. The magus stepped backwards and looked for the [Major]. He was down. Lehra had just run him through. Belini cursed.
“Command—fall back! Fighting retreat! [Haste].”
He turned and ran. Emper didn’t try to strike him from behind, not that it would have worked. Magus Grimalkin had taught his students well. Shield-spells were meant to be cast forwards and backwards.
The battlefield was changing. The Drakes were in disorder, their tidy formations disrupted. And as Gire caught her breath, Adetr turned—took a blade to the chest—and went down howling.
“You will not get away, Stargnoll!”
The [General] charged straight at Lehra. His halberd rose—and Gire grabbed it with her two paws.
The two giant warriors wrestled for it. The Drake’s eyes bulged as Lehra whirled, but Gire already had her opponent’s weapon, and the [General]…couldn’t…
Snarling, he let go of the halberd and drew a sword.
[Flash Unsheathe]! It sprang into his claw, and he aimed at the Gnoll in his way.
He launched towards her, all the fury of a storm behind the single stab to her heart.
The Skill went through armor and flesh and bone. The Drake [General] came to a standstill and looked at the halberd which had gone through his chest. It was his Skill.
She’d just been faster.
[Superiority Made Manifest]. Gire lowered the halberd with a shaking paw as the [General] tried to cut her. He slashed, walking onto the blade and his halberd. She’d gone through his heart—but he was alive. He reached for her, and she drew a fist—
“Back. He won’t die for a bit.”
Adetr yanked Gire away. He looked around as a horn blew.
The [General]’s death was like a physical ripple; his Skills vanished, and the lines began to waver. The Drake kept moving, spitting blood out of his filled lungs, but the Gnolls heard a voice shouting and turned. They saw Feshi and Inkar joining them and fell backwards.
The battle was done. The Drake [General] stood there a while before he fell, exhausted. Tkrn watched the Drake and Gnoll armies fall back.
He found…he had somehow survived.
[Conditions Met: Guardsman → Shield Companion Class!]
[Shield Companion Level 21!]
[Skill – Shield: Great Barrier (Steel) obtained!]
[Skill – Defensive Fighting obtained!]
[Skill – Earpiercing Whistle (Hostiles) obtained!]
[Skill – One Lucky Save obtained!]
As Skills went, for a lower-level class consolidation, they ranged from somewhat ordinary, if nice—like [Earpiercing Whistle], a disappointment for a Level 20 consolidation—to very nice, like [Defensive Fighting]. A Senior Guardsman would be expected to have at least one constant edge like that, although Tkrn would need at least a few more levels and more experience to qualify.
However, the higher-end of the Skills were [One Lucky Save] and the [Great Barrier]. Tkrn didn’t even know how good [Lucky Save] was. But a translucent field that appeared around any shield he picked up, thin, weightless, and which could extend his shield’s size, upgrading a buckler to a huge aspis-shield?
That was useful, even if the barrier would slowly break down the more you hit it. Tkrn suspected an artifact like the Forceshield he’d seen the Horns of Hammerad using was still better by itself, but what if you gave him the Forceshield?
He was over the moon about the consolidation. It was a great battle won. Tkrn had been napping while riding behind Inkar. They hadn’t even argued much over her involvement in the battle or risking her life.
They’d won. The Drake army fell back, leaving prisoners and equipment behind, and the only regret of the [Chieftains], Feshi, and Yerra was that they couldn’t harry the Drakes back to their camp and erase their threat as a whole.
However, it was done. As they headed back to the Meeting of Tribes, Gire still looking down at her paws, washed of blood, Adetr stomping across the ground, looking tired but satisfied, Feshi and Yerra breaking down the battle and new tactics around the dagger—someone began bringing news from the other fronts. A Gnoll raced towards the tribes on horseback, shouting excitedly.
“A great battle won!”
“Yes, it was. In no small way thanks to Honored Lehra and the others.”
Chieftain Eitha nodded at the somewhat subdued Lehra. The [Messenger] looked around.
“Here, too? I meant—Plain’s Eye has won a great battle to the west!”
The Gnolls stirred. Their victory had not come easily, and as Crusaders of the Liscorian army could have told Tkrn and the Gnolls—if they were there—that stung the pride to hear their victory was already overshadowed.
However, it was almost inevitable. The [Messenger] rode to Eitha, and Tkrn caught wind of the babble as the [Chieftain] and the other war leaders listened with disbelief.
“It was Chieftain Xherw and his bodyguard. I’ve never seen such fighting! Even Garsine Wallbreaker herself said he looked like Chieftain Kerash reborn! I don’t think a single Drake officer of the commander-rank survived to leave the field! They went from command point to command point, killing the Drakes!”
“Chieftain Xherw? How? What class does he have, exactly?”
Feshi was astonished. Lehra herself hadn’t been able to best a [General]. But the Chieftain of the largest Gnoll tribe had apparently taken the battlefield by storm. The [Messenger] shook his head in wonder.
“I saw it myself, Honored Feshi. I wouldn’t believe the rumors, but it was like he and his bodyguard couldn’t be stopped. Every blow was perfect; the paw of fate itself was hanging over Plain’s Eye!”
Something stirred in the back of Tkrn’s mind. An almost…suspicion born of one of his new Skills. But he didn’t have the context to fully understand it.
Regardless, the news of the second northern victory cheered up the tribes, and Plain’s Eye’s victory and their own lifted every head—
Until they heard that Steelfur’s main force, Az’muzarre, and the Woven Bladegrass tribe had fallen back from their southern battle in retreat.
“Chieftain Iraz lost? How?”
Adetr stormed over to grab the second [Messenger], but Cetrule blocked him.
“Why did they lose? Speak freely. Warrior Adetr, back.”
Adetr listened, quivering, as Tkrn’s jubilation faded. The Gnoll was winded from her ride. She shook her head.
Fissival. That name alone made the hackles on every Gnoll rise. The [Messenger] explained that Woven Bladegrass, Steelfur, and Az’muzarre had been practically pressing the enemy into the dirt. All three famous tribes were peerless in hand-to-hand combat.
However, Fissival’s army had launched their own attack.
“They aren’t even near that battlefield, but they cast artillery spells and sent Wyverns with [Mages]. Death from the skies. Our [Shamans] did their best, but Chieftain Iraz ordered the retreat rather than risk a hollow victory. We would have been fighting with spells raining down around us.”
So not a rout. Adetr instantly began protesting, of course.
“I’ve fought Fissival. So has Chieftain Iraz. If they placed spell attractors and—”
Feshi broke in, forestalling his loud—too loud—criticism of the fighting.
“Adetr. I’m sure the southern tribes fought their best. We can only ask the specifics when we hear more, no? Let us hurry back to the Meeting of Tribes.”
Adetr hesitated, then nodded. Tkrn looked around, and Chieftain Eitha raised her paw.
“A victory twice over! If we ceded part of the south, it was only because a Walled City was too cowardly to take the field! Repeat Chieftain Xherw’s victory! No doubt the other tribes have heard of our own!”
A cheer went up as she reminded everyone listening they had won. That was a [Chieftain]’s power.
Even so. The Drakes took a bloodying, but they had more armies to come. And the Walled Cities, save for Pallass and Oteslia, were marching towards the Meeting of Tribes. Armies from Manus, Zeres, and Salazsar were all approaching from different angles. Tkrn’s blood chilled at the thought of more fighting as intense as this.
And yet—when he looked at Gire, whom Adetr paused to talk to, Feshi and Yerranola speaking to Lehra, who listened for once, Inkar, and even himself—
When the tribes stood together like this, he didn’t think they’d lose to even three Walled Cities combined. The triumphant warriors returned to the Meeting of Tribes just in time to see their unity…
Shaman Ulcreziek knew there was so much left to do for the tribes. Investigate another world. Conduct great plans for the future of the Gnolls. Win this war; punish and find those who had betrayed their people. Individuals, each with their own dreams, flaws, and goals.
It might continue after this. And he personally would make sure the investigation found the right people—if any. The tribes would survive the war. If decisions had to be made—they would make them, before the Meeting of Tribes ended. But first…
Doom died. Waste no time, brook no arguments. There were none from his tribe, of course. He told Chief Warrior Merish to take the day off.
“This is not something that requires your aid, Warrior Merish. Rest. Visit your friend, Yelroan. He has been helpful. Xherw will speak to you. Rest easy; Doom dies.”
And they had found a way to identify Doombringers as well. Doom slain and a Raskghar captured. Two presents for the Chieftains along with Xherw’s great victory.
How much had he spent? Ulcre didn’t know, but he could admit it was worth the cost. It was on everyone’s lips, his fantastic deeds in battle.
So the [Shaman] did his part. He rented a tent, and Gnolls filed in. They set up with bows. A few even had crossbows. One of the Gnolls peeked out of the hole they cut in the tent and nodded.
“We have a sightline on our entrance, Shaman. Do we have permission to kill Doom the moment we see it?”
“No. Wait for my signal. The other groups are getting into position. The target is in Gaarh Marsh’s camp at the moment; it is imperative Shaman Theikha or other important Gnolls not be harmed.”
Ulcre stepped out of the tent and looked around. He looked up and saw a figure sitting on one of the aerial platforms the [Tumblers] used for their tricks casually adjusting a bow. Another Gnoll in the watchtowers reported in.
“I see the target, [Shaman]. Honored Theikha is very close. I can take the shot.”
Ulcre snapped back.
“You will not. Wait for my signal.”
They wanted this to be done with. The warriors were nervous, afraid of a curse, itching for it, but they knew they had to be perfect.
So they waited as a few more teams got into position. They would not wait for Xherw; he would give the same order in their place. Besides, better to do it now, before more warriors returned.
Weatherfur was guarding the Doombringer. There was no other explanation for it. Four [Guards] were looking around, and the Plain’s Eye warriors had to stay at extreme range to avoid detection.
Were they all compromised? Had Chieftain Torishi lost her sanity, or did she not know? Perhaps she was tricked. The [Shaman] didn’t know, but Ulcreziek would let Xherw make a final decision. This implicated Silverfang, Ekhtouch perhaps…Longstalker’s Fang and Greenpaw too?
Ulcre frowned as he heard someone else report in.
“Shaman Ulcreziek, please wait. There is a complication.”
That voice was familiar. Ulcre frowned.
“I told you to take a rest, Warrior Merish.”
He heard a swallowing sound, then a hushed growl.
“I was. But I had to see—hold, please. Someone is too near the Doombringer. It’s…Yelroan.”
Ulcre looked up sharply. He whirled and saw more Plain’s Eye Gnolls moving into sniping spots. He growled into the speaking stone.
“That fool. He must not have heard. Why is he there? Counting plants or blades of grass? Get him out of there.”
Ulcre tapped his foot, trying not to show any Gnolls walking around that he was waiting. He turned his head, counting how many Gnolls were in their positions. Almost…
It was almost done. Why was everything getting in the way? Perhaps Doom’s own power. Well.
Soon it would be put to better use.
Ferris of Manus felt like his heart was exploding. He had known stress before, like when Rafaema had nearly revealed herself. He had known terror in battle—but never like this.
A Dragon was going to die. If that child died—Cire of Oteslia died.
That was the bargain. It was not Rafaema—but it was one half of their future.
He saw Plain’s Eye moving into position. The [Infiltrator] was a single weapon sent by Rafaema in a game of spy-versus-spy. Killer versus killer. They didn’t know he was here, but he was outnumbered. Outmatched.
He had a number of tools he had never needed to use in Liscor on surveillance. The [Infiltrator] used them now. If they found a spy from Manus—he might die. But if Cirediel of Oteslia died…
He loaded the blowpipe, a short tube that looked more like a straw. Enchanted to make the projectiles fire with perfect range and accuracy. He took aim, lifted the straw out of his cup as if he’d found something nasty like a bug, and puffed.
His aim was true. Across the distance, in a camp with colorfully-painted Gnolls, someone swore.
“Gah! What was—”
A Gnoll woman clapped her paw to her neck with a roar of pain as people looked up briefly. That had definitely hurt. Ferris lowered the straw and strode off as the Weatherfur Gnoll grabbed at whatever had just stung her.
Weatherfur? Oh, yes. She yanked out the tiny, unpoisoned dart and whirled. She was about to howl an alarm when she realized she wasn’t dying. And that the dart had something attached to it.
They are going after the Doombringer. Plain’s Eye. She’s in the Gaarh Marsh tribe. Move.
Her head snapped up. The Weatherfur Gnoll put two fingers in her mouth and whistled, suddenly alert.
Caution to the wind. He had to move as fast as he could. Plain’s Eye were not slouches. Ferris was sweating as he walked towards the first tent with a view on Gaarh Marsh. Buy them time. Buy them time.
He tossed the cup and drink aside, and someone snorted at him.
“Littering. Pick that up.”
Ferris turned to the affronted Gnoll and smiled. He walked away, and the Gnoll bent down to recover the cup, cursing him. Ferris sidled around the tent, listening hard.
[Shadow Presence]. He could tell they were inside. They were good; quiet as mice. But Ferris had a pair of [Detect Life] spectacles.
And they were locked onto their target. They didn’t sense him as he calmly and carefully produced a wrapped bottle from his bag of holding. Hurry. Ferris pulled out a shortsword in his other paw and took a breath.
He might already be too late. What were they angry about? Someone in the way? Good.
He tossed the jar into the tent, and the whumph of oxygen and sound vanishing into a void was muffled. Ferris deployed the [Silence] spell and counted, waiting for the void spell to end.
The Gnoll leapt into the tent, blade swinging. He was thinking one thing and one thing only.
My life for Manus.
My life for Dragons.
Chief Warrior Merish was only half-listening to the Doom Slayers that Ulcre had organized, getting into position and reporting in.
He had been told to stay away. That his job was done. That he’d done his best.
Like 5th Wall. He’d done his best, and his best was just that he ended up surviving.
Nothing made sense after 5th Wall. How could a monster like that half-Elf exist? Merish felt like his reality was coming apart at the seams, sometimes. Like everything after that night was a bad dream.
This felt like it most of all. Not just the Doombringer suddenly appearing or the Raskghar…this.
What was going on? Merish strode into the Gaarh Marsh camp as one of the [Guards] waved the Plain’s Eye warrior in.
“We’re gathering herbs today, Chief Warrior. You’re welcome to pick whatever you want. The children are mixing up poultices for the warriors, yes?”
That was the activity that had carried the little girl called ‘Mrsha’, the Doombringer, here. She was running around with the other children, picking healing herbs so Gire could have medicine if she was hurt.
That was her name, according to the Raskghar. Ulcre had identified her as ‘Mri’. Merish didn’t care. She’d be dead soon.
Doom didn’t have names. Doombringers had to die. It had been instilled in him and all of Plain’s Eye from the time they were cubs.
Why did that Gnoll with blonde fur and two obnoxious sunglasses stand there, posing like some kind of Drathian [Ninja] or whatever [Soldiers] from Baleros had gossiped about? One foot held against the other leg, arms outstretched in a ‘Y’ symbol as children laughed at him?
He was even smiling. Merish’s friend, Yelroan, stood there, next to the Doombringer as she tugged on a stubborn root with Shaman Theikha watching indulgently.
All were gathered in the shadow of the Earth Elemental. One of the guardians of wisdom and the oldest ways of all. Merish wondered why it didn’t sense the Doombringer, why it didn’t kill her.
Perhaps it left that to the Plain’s Eye tribe. And they were ready. But for Yelroan. Merish was terrified Ulcre would order them to fire.
He strode across the peaty ground towards Yelroan. The [Mathematician] could have been there by chance; everyone assumed he did almost everything because of his weird class. But Merish knew Yelroan was deliberate. Why was he here?
He had surely heard about the Doom Slayers; he was Yelroan. Did he want to watch?
Why was he so close? Merish’s brain offered the most logical conclusion, but the rest of him ignored it.
He was following the Doombringer around. When she scampered off, Yelroan followed her and did another pose.
“Are you going to help or pose there all day, [Mathematician] Yelroan?”
One of the Gaarh Marsh Gnolls teased him. The Gnoll replied with a quick smile.
“I like posing. I’m advertising how cool my class is. Anyone want to hear a math joke?”
Yelroan adjusted his sunglasses and blinded everyone for a second.
“My eyes! Get that idiot out of there! He’s fouling our sight lines, Merish!”
Ulcre shouted in Merish’s earpiece. The warrior quickened his stride. He slowed, hair raising as he saw the Doombringer helping mash the roots she’d pulled up. She barely took notice of him as he came to a stop.
“Yelroan. There you are. Come with me.”
That was all Merish blurted out. He didn’t have a cover story or an excuse. He reached out for Yelroan, and the [Mathematician] turned. He blinked at Merish.
The two locked eyes, and Merish felt a slight shock run through his body. He saw Yelroan’s brown eyes lock on his behind his stupid sunglasses.
Yelroan was surprised to see him here, but those eyes were so calm and focused. He glanced at Mrsha and then Merish.
“I’m a bit busy spreading the joys of math to the world, Merish.”
“What? No. Come with me. What are you doing?”
Merish saw Yelroan sidle over to Mrsha, and his stomach lurched. He saw Yelroan looking at Merish and then around the bustling Gaarh Marsh tribe. He turned back to Merish, and his eyes blinked once.
“Is something wrong, Merish? It’s my day off. Have we won the battles in the north? I hope Chieftain Xherw is well. If I’m needed, I’ll go, of course. But otherwise…I like counting how many healing plants Gaarh Marsh harvests in an hour. It’s soothing.”
A [Mathematician]’s prattle. To most, Yelroan probably sounded relaxed and energetic. Merish looked at his friend, and the truth couldn’t be pushed away any longer.
Yelroan stood right there, in front of the Doombringer. Watching Merish. He didn’t say…anything. But he knew.
He was waiting. Merish’s eyes widened. He choked down a snarl. Then stood there, as if he’d been poleaxed.
It wasn’t just mad talk. He meant it. He—he knew. Had he known before Ulcre? He knew, and he stood there.
The two friends looked at each other. Merish took a step forwards, ignoring the chatter in his earpiece. Ulcre was cursing Yelroan, getting the Doom Slayers to check in, advising them to wait until—
“What is wrong with you? Yelroan. Have you gone mad?”
The children and the Doombringer looked up as the two adults faced each other. Yelroan’s fingers trembled as he adjusted his sunglasses.
“Have you, Merish? Honestly. If you have to ask…it’s not a hard equation. Put two and two together.”
He gave Merish a defiant look, balling his other paw up into a fist. Yelroan kept adjusting his stance, shifting. Looking past Merish, but clearly—not seeing what he knew was there.
His knees were shaking. So was his voice, ever-so-slightly.
“Come with me. You don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know what’s come over you.”
Merish reached for Yelroan, and the [Mathematician] slapped his paw down. His voice was still light, but there was an edge to it, an undercurrent of that terrible tension.
“Merish, I know exactly what I’m doing. I’d prefer not to be here, believe me. But if it were a choice between not being here and…I have to be. Does that make sense?”
A little Gnoll handed him a notecard, and both Gnolls stared down at it. Merish’s fur rose as Yelroan accepted the card, read it, and laughed. He laughed at…Doom. Then he looked up to Merish.
“How? You know exactly what we have to do.”
His voice choked back a shout, the urge to shake Yelroan. He couldn’t cause a scene. Yelroan tilted his head slightly.
“Do we? Look, Merish. What do you see? I see a bunch of kids helping make healing poultices. What do you…see?”
Their light conversation was being ignored by everyone, children, the [Shamans], and the Weatherfur guards who were loitering, spread out, on watch for other threats. Some eyed Merish, but he was unarmed.
Yelroan had a bright smile playing on his lips, like he’d solved some grand equation. Merish shook his head, uncomprehendingly. Like he was speaking to…
A Drake. It reminded him of 5th Wall. Meeting people and not getting them. But this…they were from the same tribe. Yelroan knew what was right.
“You know—everything we’ve been taught, Yelroan. All of it? Are you just going to ignore everything? You didn’t explain it to me. You must be sick. How can you turn your back on it all? Just like that? So quickly?”
Yelroan looked at Merish, brows raised high with disbelief. He looked down at a little head bent over her work, slamming a pestle into the wooden bowl as hard as she could.
“So quickly, Merish? It should just take a second. One second. It took me a few hours because I’m a fool. But all I had to do was look and open my eyes. What do you see?”
He nodded downwards, and Merish felt his fur crawl.
Doom. I see…he gritted his teeth, forcing the words out as calmly as he could.
“What do you see, then, Yelroan?”
The Gnoll fiddled with his sunglasses and replied quietly.
“I see the most precociously intelligent child I’ve ever met. Mrsha.”
The little girl glanced up in alarm and kicked Yelroan. Swearing, he grabbed at his shin.
“Mri, sorry. I see…you see that? Is that what you expected, Merish?”
The [Warrior] looked down at an alarmed brown face, who quickly went back to mashing roots. Innocently, like Ikl or Sveha, his sister’s children, when they were keeping a secret.
He felt sick. It was Doom wearing a mask. A child possessed. Yelroan smiled. He bent down and went to ruffle the little girl’s gold-painted ears. She reached up and swatted at his paw with a look of annoyance.
Stop touching me!
Children were scampering around, getting bored with mashing roots and giving them to [Shamans] to finish, but she bent her little head over her bowl with unusual dedication, though her paw clearly hurt. She kept shaking it out.
Merish could smell Gaarh Marsh’s natural scents, hear laughter from all around him. The sun shone down on the Doombringer, and she had a little shadow. There were even damned butterflies flying past her.
This was all a dream. He was back on 5th Wall, lying in the mud as his blood pooled around him. Half-buried by the corpses of Lizardfolk, Humans, Gnolls, Drakes, and every other species.
The dawn would break soon. Yet the skies that lit up would not turn bright but orange. The skies would become an inferno as magic crashed down. A thin line in the air. A pillar of fire.
A laughing woman in a sky filled with dark wings.
If that thing died, maybe it would end. Merish heard a murmur in his ears, the faint voice of a Gnoll.
“Shaman Ulcreziek to Chief Warrior Merish. We are ready. We are waiting for you. Team 3. I am waiting on your status. Team 8? Any moment, Merish.”
The Gnoll put a finger on the speaking stone clipped to his ear. He saw some of the Gnoll cubs running around stop playing and look around uncertainly. The little…Doombringer. The girl looked up, sighing through her nose.
So much work. She stretched her arms and looked at the two adults. She edged out of their shadow, and both stepped over. The girl waved a paw at them.
“Sorry, Mri. We’ll just be another moment. I told Rose I’d watch you, remember?”
Two expressive brown eyes rolled upwards in annoyance, and she turned her back to Yelroan as he bent over. Merish was breathing hard.
“Yelroan. Do you know what you’re doing?”
The [Mathematician] looked around, and his sunglasses shone, obscuring his eyes for a moment. But then they gave Merish that look. A piercing glance that rocked Merish to his core.
Yelroan had never looked like that, in his most serious, upset moments. He looked like Commander Cirille or a soldier from 5th Wall. Merish could grab him and just—yank him away. The [Chief Warrior] almost did just that. But what stopped him, what made him so angry, was that look.
More than the calm stare of someone looking death in the eye, it was that other thing. Was that pride Merish saw? Terrified, fluttering, like a shaking butterfly, like the Gnoll’s very knees. Yes. Pride.
A growl emerged from Merish’s throat, scaring the little children, who’d gathered in a huddle. They almost fled, and, abashed, the warrior stopped at once. A [Shaman] eyed him, and Merish felt a little pebble bounce off his arm.
He recoiled, reaching for an axe he didn’t have, and saw the little girl glare at him.
The words came from her mouth, and he stared at her. He’d been told she was mute. Was that some trick? The girl looked him up and down haughtily, like she was some kind of [Princess]. Then she waved the other children over.
“Mrsh—Mri. Mri, something’s bad. I think the Drakes are here.”
One of the children whispered to her. The D—Mrsha put down her pestle, ears flicking up. A scared little boy looked around. The Gnoll boy spoke into her ear, and Yelroan and Merish heard the quiet voice.
“My [Dangersense] is going off.”
The little Gnoll girl sat bolt upright. She looked around and then waved at Yelroan. She glanced at Merish and then, to his astonishment, yanked a little wand from her fur. She casually put it next to the mortar and pestle and wrote on a notecard. Merish saw the words as she scribbled with a quill.
Stay behind me, everyone. I’ll protect you this time.
This time. Merish felt an unexpected taste of bile in his mouth. How dare she say that? Like—like she was a warrior. She looked around, and he saw her protectively motioning the others around her.
“What do you see, Merish? Have you gone blind? I’m wearing sunglasses, but I know what I see.”
Yelroan quietly prompted his friend. Merish looked at him and took a step back.
“Stop it. Stop it—do you think everything we’ve done is wrong?”
His voice was shaking, but his friend didn’t let him go for once. Yelroan’s own voice was harsh. Trembling with stress, yet contained in a whisper for only the two of them.
“Maybe. Or maybe we’ve been only partly right. Look at me, Merish. Do you think this is right? Stop blindly following orders and look at me.”
The children stared up at Merish. One recognized his markings and ran over. She tugged at his leg, and he nearly kicked her.
“Chief Warrior? I think something bad is going to happen. Do you have a weapon? We should tell the [Shamans], Mri.”
The little girl was nodding importantly. Merish saw a little face looking up at him and hesitated.
“I—I don’t have a weapon. I’m sure you’ll be safe.”
She shook her head. The little Gnoll from the Stone Spears tribe gazed up at Merish and clearly spoke.
“No, we’re not. You don’t believe me, but I know we’re not safe. We were attacked by the Goblin Lord. Something bad is going to happen. Please, get a weapon. Please.”
There was a look of mortal terror in her eyes. Merish gazed down at her dumbly. The Goblin Lord? She’d survived…?
There was a kindred spirit in the little [Survivor]’s eyes. She gestured at the others.
“Please? No one’s listening. Mister Yelroan, can you get a Chieftain?”
Yelroan knelt down, blocking Mrsha from one side. He smiled at the Stone Spears child.
“I’ll let the [Guards] know in a moment. Or Merish can. I need to stand here, though.”
Mrsha frowned at him. She wrote on a card and then looked up at Chief Warrior Merish. Slowly, her eyes focused on something Merish was wearing.
His armor had the insignia of his tribe. Along with other decorations—there was a white eye, stylized and drawn onto his shoulder-guard. The warrior saw her gaze lock onto it, and then her head swiveled to Yelroan.
She recognized him instantly, somehow. Merish saw her eyes go wide, and Yelroan’s own gaze flickered to her. She looked at him—at Merish—
Then the most terrible calm passed over her face. Her tense body went limp. She crossed out what she’d been writing and handed a card to the other children. They read it, sounding out the words.
“Go…tell Shaman Theikha? Go to her and be safe. Are you sure, Mri?”
She nodded, never taking her eyes off Merish. The children hesitated, but obeyed as she tossed the contents of her bowl at them. Slowly, the Doombringer, Mrsha, rose to her feet. She stood on her two legs and faced Merish.
By now, the Weatherfur guards had noticed something was wrong. A little Gnoll girl tugging on their legs and telling them she sensed something added to their own instincts. They were speaking into their own stones, alarmed.
“We are running out of time! Weatherfur’s Gnolls are moving towards the camp now! Merish! Team 5! Come in! Team 8! Team 9!”
Ulcre was shouting in Merish’s ear. The warrior barely heard him. He watched as the little girl stood up, facing him. She met Merish’s eyes, defiantly, and spread her arms. Then slapped her chest with one paw.
Here I am.
Merish couldn’t breathe. He felt like someone was choking him. Yelroan put a paw out, and Mrsha looked up at him.
“Don’t worry, Mrsha. He’s not going to hurt you. You know where to go? Stay behind Theikha. I think she’ll keep you safe.”
The Great Shaman of the Tribes had noticed the commotion as children clustered around her. She looked around, visibly confused—but her eyes locked onto Mrsha. Mrsha—and Merish.
She knew too. Yelroan was blocking Merish’s way. Ever-so-slightly, tensed.
“Merish. Merish…go home. Go to Khaze. You don’t have to do anything.”
Merish had to force each word out of his chest. He felt he didn’t have the breath for what he wanted to say, but he had to speak.
“Viri and you. Both of you. What’s wrong with you two?”
Yelroan took a slight breath. His paws slowly took off his glasses, and he tossed them down. He looked at Merish, and his voice trembled with sadness.
“Merish. I love you like a brother. You were a hero before you left for Rhir. I don’t know what happened to you there, but you were hurt. But the same good Gnoll I always knew. This is the only time I’ve ever thought something was off about you. Something truly wrong. Don’t do this. This is the greatest mistake you’ll ever make. You see it too, don’t you? Walk away.”
The [Warrior] couldn’t say anything. He was hyperventilating. Ulcre’s voice was a roar.
“Merish, grab him if you have to! Squad 4—”
A voice broke over the [Communication] spell at last, a desperate howl. Every hair on Merish’s body rose as Mrsha, Merish, and Yelroan all heard the panicked shout coming from the speaking stone.
“Shaman Ulcre! We’re under attack! Someone is ambushing our teams!”
A ghastly scream cut off the voice. Merish blinked. Then he heard Ulcre shout.
“Anyone with a target, avoid Merish and Yelroan and Theikha! Open fire!”
Everything happened at once. A shadow fell over Mrsha, Yelroan, and Merish. Yelroan leapt to cover Mrsha—and Merish tackled him to the ground.
The [Mathematician] struggled as Mrsha froze, staring up. The Weatherfur [Guards] shouted in alarm.
A Gnoll raised his bow and loosed an arrow—it exploded in midair as it hit a projectile flying down. Shaman Theikha lifted her staff.
“What is going on? Stop! This—”
Then she also froze. Mrsha gasped as an arrow struck the ground next to her right foot. She flinched and looked around for somewhere to run.
A babble of voices broke out. A Gnoll was attacking the attack teams. There were [Maids] ambushing other groups! But Gnolls had a bead on the Doombringer.
The one on the tower took aim at Mrsha, and an arrow struck him from the side. Weatherfur’s Gnolls. Ulcre himself was charging for the Gaarh Marsh camp as Weatherfur’s tribe charged through the Meeting of Tribes, howling an alarm.
Gaarh Marsh’s Gnolls had no idea what was going on. They spread out, shouting about Drake [Assassins]. More arrows were streaking towards Mrsha, but they missed.
A group of Plain’s Eye Gnolls forced their way through one of the entrances to the Gaarh Marsh grounds. They sank to one knee, and Merish looked up. Yelroan shouted.
Crossbows. They took aim at Mrsha, and Merish let go of Yelroan. He turned to the little girl, frozen in place. Merish leapt—
And hit the ground face-first. He tumbled and felt no blossom of pain in his chest. He heard no click, no thunk of arrows meeting anyone’s flesh. He rolled over to get up again and realized Ulcre had stopped.
Theikha had frozen mid-spell. Mrsha hadn’t moved. Even the Plain’s Eye Gnolls had gone still, heads raised, mouths open in awe.
A shadow crossed over the world, blotting out the sky and clouds. Merish, on his back, looked up as a hill moved. A cascading face of mud and branches, even parts of trees, a bog come to life, a towering figure of mud.
Not Golem. Nor Giant. Something that was not delicately made, never created by any hands, nor even alive like a Giant. Earth given sentience.
An Earth Elemental. It looked like a huge mound of earth that sprouted arms when it was still. Now, it rose, and the earth itself shuddered as Gaarh Marsh’s tribe went still.
Two eyes appeared, so vast that Merish could have run around on them, horizontal slits of moss that grew and blossomed before Merish’s very eyes. With each second of movement, plant matter grew and decayed and rotted. The very earth blossomed and grew fertile where the Earth Elemental moved.
It stood. The entire Meeting of Tribes beheld the great protector of the Gaarh Marsh tribe, Khoteizetrough. A hand comprised of stone and muck, fingers tapering into the most delicate, narrow points, reached down.
Khoteizetrough’s hand closed around Mrsha. The power to break a Drake city’s wall with a single blow—as gentle as could be. Mrsha jerked and tried to run, but the fingers curled around her, drawing her into the mud-hand as it rose.
Shaman Theikha herself looked up as the oldest being at the Meeting of Tribes lifted Mrsha up. She lowered her staff.
“Now we will know.”
The Gnoll whispered up at the sky as Khoteizetrough’s wrathful head rose. Lifting Mrsha higher.
Twice in the Meeting of Tribes, Khoteizetrough, the Great Earth Elemental, moved. First to unearth the treachery of a Walled City.
The second time to pick up a little child, who wriggled and tried to bite the hand holding her—spitting out a mouthful of mud.
Mrsha was terrified as she rose into the air, a dizzying height. The muck around her was as solid as stone, and she knew she was going to die.
Would it eat her? Kill her? She looked up—and went still as she beheld Khoteizetrough’s presence at last.
The Earth Elemental had been like an unmoving hill, a source of green power, but nothing more. Now, she realized the Earth Elemental had been slumbering.
Or hibernating? Because there was no mistaking the lighthouse of power that the elemental was powered by. A vast, simple intelligence.
Not stupid, but primordial. Ancient. It was like the very High Passes had developed eyes and a mind and judged her. And he was only the size of a hill.
Mrsha quailed. Her mind went blank, as a grasshopper would feel looking up at a vast tidal wave sweeping towards it.
Incomprehensible. Khoteizetrough saw her. He saw her class. Her connection with the natural world. He saw her nature, hidden by mere paint.
She gazed into the core of his soul. The origin that stretched back to the founding of Gaarh Marsh. An ancient pact with the very spirit of the marsh itself.
Until one or the other is gone, he would protect them. They were bound by more than mere blood or time. The bones and bodies of Gnolls had been buried in Gaarh Marsh, and they had lived their entire lives there. They were the swamp.
And, oh, how it had faded. How it had been glorious, wartorn. How great evil had befallen it, from foul Crelers to war that had slain his kin.
Khoteizetrough, the Earth Elemental, had died. A Dragon had torn out his heart. Burnt his kin to ash.
He was dead. The body that Mrsha saw was the ruined wreckage of an Earth Elemental, not the pure green of one in its strength.
He had died millenia ago. But earth…nature didn’t die, it just changed. So the elemental had risen from the death of the last, a being of the swamps itself.
Until the last days.
That was what she saw in the being before her. Wisdom and loss. But wisdom of nature. Enemies died. His people he protected. If the swamp died, it would die with him, and he would defend it to the last.
But the world was simple to Khoteizetrough. Rot was not an evil in itself, but what was evil would always be. He did not have the means to counter great and insidious plans. But he saw wrong.
And so he lifted her up. Higher, higher, as a face emerged.
Moss for eyes. Stone teeth, amid a mouth of swampy water. Loam and decayed plants for skin.
Every Gnoll in the Meeting of Tribes, even the returning armies saw him. That giant, bearing judgment.
Satar Silverfang raced from her tent, hearing the alarms, and saw Mrsha rising higher, caught in the grasp. She heard Qwera moan as the Golden Gnoll came to a stop.
“No, no, no. What is it doing? It’s killed her.”
A white Gnoll’s head rose as the paint Qwera had put on her washed out of her fur. Gnolls pointed up at the tiny figure and shouted.
“Doombringer! Doombringer! Khoteizetrough has found—”
Screaming—but then silence. Everyone watched as the Earth Elemental brought Mrsha to head-height. Satar’s heart was thundering.
Doombringer. Mrsha hated her name.
She had accompanied Satar and Gire because she had to know. Satar’s research into the past, the conspiracy, the lies surrounding magic…her trying to piece together the truth behind Doombringers, it mattered to Mrsha.
But she was so afraid the truth was that she truly was cursed. That she was responsible for all the bad things.
She knew Wer, the other white Gnoll, had told her it wasn’t their fault. That they only harnessed luck, for good or ill. But he didn’t know. If she could really make the world better by leaving, or just by going far, far away…
He knew the answer.
Khoteizetrough looked into Mrsha’s soul, and she saw that massive face begin to move. Slowly, the earth began to shake.
Gnolls fell to their knees. Gaarh Marsh was bowing before their great protector. The world rumbled, and even distant Drake armies halted in uncertainty and fear.
Hundreds of miles away, Dragonspeaker Luciva raised a hand, and Manus halted as they felt the tremor. Then—they heard the voice.
It didn’t merely come from the Meeting of Tribes. It was deafening, overwhelming, because it came from the earth itself. As if every blade of grass had suddenly grown a tongue. It was that kind of voice. Booming, massive—but not because it came from giant lungs.
Because a million voices spoke it in perfect unison. The Oldblood Drake’s blood chilled.
It was just one word. She had no context for it. But the Gnolls did.
Satar Silverfang looked upwards as Khoteizetrough spoke. She gasped and screamed, and her voice was lost in the roar of every Gnoll. In that single word he spoke.
He was no perfect being. Khoteizetrough could not save Gnolls from themselves. He could not defeat the Walled Cities alone. But he could remember. And what he realized, now, in this moment—was that his people, even his tribe, had forgotten.
The little Gnoll girl hung in the air, high overhead, as the elemental’s other hand rose, and his features contorted into an expression of wrath. He looked at Mrsha as that hand fell.
It struck the earth and caused an earthquake. The Doom Slayers of the Plain’s Eye tribe aiming crossbows at Mrsha screamed only once as Khoteizetrough struck them from this world.
Judgment. Passed and executed by the protector of Gaarh Marsh.
Then he spoke. And it was the one word that mattered, that set the mystery ablaze in Satar’s mind. The one clue she needed that proved it was all connected. Such a simple thing. A little lie that had been put in Gnoll minds like poison. Twisting the truth.
One word, that made Theikha close her eyes and weep for all Gnolls had forgotten. That struck Merish with the weight of what he had done. That began to shatter the illusion woven over them all.
A name for the girl. The white Gnoll.
And the world changed.
Chieftain Xherw returned from his great victory to find the Meeting of Tribes changed forever. Shaman Ulcreziek came to meet him with some simple facts.
“Yelroan has betrayed us. I found a Doombringer and could not kill it. And…the tribes have split.”
The entire Meeting of Tribes had changed. Once, there had been a vast camp, sprawling and encircled. Now?
Plain’s Eye and tribes affiliated with them gathered on one side, warriors holding bows and weapons. Facing the Gnolls on the other across a neutral ground.
Silverfang, Ekhtouch, Longstalker’s Fang, Greenpaw, Demas Metal…and Gaarh Marsh were the ones on the other side. Every other tribe was wavering, caught in the middle.
A Doombringer, fur white, listening to the shouting, warded by lines of Weatherfur guards, Silverfangs looking uncertainly at Akrisa as she and Krshia stood in front of Mrsha. But no Gnoll protested because Shaman Theikha stood, staff raised, protecting the girl with a [Mathematician] posing with his sunglasses.
And…Khoteizetrough. The Earth Elemental sat, having killed almost every Plain’s Eye Gnoll nearby. Face set with fury.
Xherw’s blood chilled at the word that had echoed across the Great Plains. The old word for white fur. He looked at Ulcreziek.
It was all falling apart. All the sacrifices, the safeguards that had kept their kind safe—Plain’s Eye was uncertain, but Xherw knew what would come next.
“The Meeting of Chieftains is called. Every Chieftain must attend. Chieftain—”
Ulcre looked pale and sick. Even uncertain? Him?
Xherw shook his head.
“It is time for a reckoning of our people. Hold firm, Ulcre. I will speak to every Chieftain who is uncertain. We must win this. With me.”
He looked around and saw Chief Warrior Merish lingering on the edges of camp. Looking as uncertain as all. Xherw turned as the Meeting of Tribes came to a close. The King of Destruction, the future of their people, retribution for Fissival’s deeds, war—it all boiled down to a simple, final question which divided them.
White fur. The first blood of Gnolls had been shed by other Gnolls.
Xherw feared…no, he knew that more would soon follow.
Author’s Note: This is possibly the shortest chapter of Volume 8 by far, and the longest chapter of like, Volume 2-4.
How things change. When you first met Mrsha or Krshia, did you think they’d end up here with a giant Earth Elemental with an unpronounceable name telling people they’d forgotten their etymology?
Well, this is an ending point. I could add more, but nothing is as narratively fitting as this, for now. And I’m going to rest up, so I’d rather make it a clean cut than messy. On that note, please consider filling out that survey! There’s important questions there like finding people to help on unnamed TWI-projects! Or just letting me know where you all are. Are my analytics bad?
…Which I will review later. Time to rest, play Elden Ring, and come back fresh. I will say that my birthday is sometime over my break, another reason I’m happy it’s time off. Unlike other years, I will not do a week of writing. That was insane.
…Maybe next year. Who knows? For now, I hope you enjoyed finding a big clue to one of our long mysteries. I’ll put that Patreon poll soon, or concurrent with this chapter so vote—we’re narrowing it down.
It is a chaotic time in the world right now. As of today, February 26th 2022, I am watching reports about the war in Ukraine against Russia and I hope my Ukranian readers, who I do have, are safe. I write about war, but don’t want anyone to have to live it. I will be back to writing, and I hope you are all safe until then. The volume is ending.
Soon, for a given value of soon.
Yelroan by pkay!
Irrurx, Crusader 57, Gothica and more by Gridcube!
Lyonette and Mrsha Portrait by Miguel!
Forsooth Mrsha by Plushie!