8.79

Did you believe that a sin could be so great that it followed you after death? That some deeds were so wrong, some crimes so heinous that they haunted an entire people? Children held responsible for deeds done long ago that they could never have prevented, or even known?

Some crimes were beyond forgiveness, if you believed that. Some things could not be forgiven. Especially if you yourself betrayed your people. Would you ever forgive yourself?

The Gnolls of Izril stood in judgment around a little white Gnoll, arguing, barely restrained from fighting. In defense, condemnation. Hatred and terror. Pointing at a child’s white fur as a mark of who she was. Trying to remember the right words.

Doombringer.

Doombearer.

They had forgotten even why she existed, but the Tribes of Izril knew her now. Mrsha, who had been of the Stone Spears tribe. A child who looked up at the hostile faces, wondering if she truly were to blame for it all.

The truth was that there were some terrible crimes you could not escape, even over a hundred thousand years. Longer. Deeds that would never leave you, nor your children’s children.

But Mrsha had not committed them.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was crying.

The memories of tears ran down her cheeks, hot and cool. She didn’t have a runny nose. Nor did she begin hiccuping. Her eyes were not blurry, because she was dead.

Still, she was crying. She had to, because she saw the truth.

An old story. One of the oldest, and a mystery revealed that had changed this world forever. It had always been here.

She—had always been here. And, oh, but it explained so many things.

Erin thought of her friend, that silly, serious, old and young half-Elf, Ceria Springwalker. Who ate bugs and cast ice magic and was brave, a person in her own right, often gluttonous—and wise too. Sixty years old, so young for half-Elves. Her hair often untidy, but still.

Half-immortal. Half of something that refused to change. A nature that did not, could not be erased. But only half. To look at her or Falene—any of their kind—on first glance was to see a striving till forever. Something that Earth had nothing like.

The blood of immortals. Elven heritage. But as everyone knew—the Elves had died long ago. Even in death, there were only a handful. The rest had disappeared. Gone somewhere even souls could not follow. Or…been consumed?

The young woman didn’t know. All she knew was that there was at least one left. One of them.

An Elf.

She was blonde. Ceria, Falene, many half-Elves had inherited parts of her characteristics. Fair skin, pale hair like hers, but only fragments. Her hair was blonde like the light fell on daffodils on a hot summer’s day.

Not golden, not wheat or the color of honey shining, but brighter, almost overbright. But just. Like a hot day, and she seemed as though she could have walked down through meadows forever.

Barefoot. She wore clothes that looked like they had never known stitching or thread or…cloth. As if someone had simply scooped up branches and leaves and they had obliged her with clothing. If Erin had met her in the forest, she would have asked to sit and talk and wondered if Ryoka knew her.

For one moment, that was how the Elf looked. Then—her hair darkened and dripped with blood as it fell out of the braid. She stood in another part of her life, as ghosts did, armored in harsh metal covered in gore, holding a sword without a peer as if she were born to it. Carried it a hundred years—and she had—until unsheathing it was as unconscious as breathing.

Then—finally—she walked with clothes fit for the crown upon her head. A gemstone that a thousand Dragons would fight over, set into a crown of perfected metal and garbed like royalty. For that was what she was. But mortal dress—not sylvan, nor the armor forged of myths before.

The most beautiful things those without an eternal lifetime could forge, with all the care and riches put into them. She wore those clothes, meant to praise her and show the world the greatest heroine of her kind, or any species, as if they were rags. Like chains and branded cloth of a traitor.

She was happy in that first time and never after. Brave? She had faced Dragons, other immortals, her kind, and forces beyond them. She had made her choice and had eternity to regret it.

Erin was crying for her without knowing why. Not yet, but as that Elf rose amidst the Dragons flying from Baleros, she understood more than even the other ghosts.

More than the [Witches], who were silent, hats raised in respect. More than Giants, who gazed upon a being so old they had not been born when she died. Even Xarkouth, the Dragon, bowed.

[Heroes], [Kings] and [Queens], [Legends], [Adventurers], [Sages] and [Archmages]—all looked at the first story. When they had made their names in history—she had long been gone. All they had known were half-Elves.

But she had existed. The Elf cried out, so distant, but her voice ringing so far that Erin heard her. She had answered that horn, which she had once heard in life. Now—she answered the secrets that only Erin, someone from another world, was privy to.

A little mystery. But one that was part of it all. A piece of the puzzle—maybe even a corner piece. A word that Erin had heard shouted at the children of Elves from petty little faeries.

Whores. The fae were prickly and rude and mischievous, but they had hated Ceria with a passion. Ceria, who was arguably closest to them. Erin had almost forgotten it. Now—she looked up past the tears, heard the Elf’s voice, and understood.

I am Sprigaena, the Traitor. The Last Elf, who lived beyond my children. Who turned against my kind, took up arms and fought alongside God and mortal alike! I, who saw my people end and slew kin and friend alike in service to what I thought was good and worth saving.

She was weeping too. She rose higher as the ghosts swirled around her, following her charge upwards. Even the Seamwalkers, even the dead gods looked at her.

Hungrily. With recognition. Even with regret.

Sprigaena cried again even louder.

I have had eternity to regret my mistakes. I beheld what became of the world after all I was promised and fought for, and I saw only ash. Ash, and the world they made as they laid laws in the very foundation of magic and the nature of our souls. I remained and have seen it all, as the ghosts of this world were preyed upon by the very ones who once swore to guide and shelter them. Now I take up arms. One last time. To atone with a single pebble for the endless shore of my guilt. To arms, Baleros. Wake, dead! Take up arms and fight, for this is the last battle of death.

The last Elf to walk the world, the greatest traitor of her people, pointed. Her look flashed across the world, towards Erin, just once. But the charge she led was west. Straight for the Seamwalkers. Straight for the edge of the world.

“Sprigaena.”

Someone whispered that name, and Erin turned and saw a strange look upon the face of the three-in-one. Was it regret?

Kasigna whispered.

“Even she turns against us. She did not see the great dream I had for everything thereafter. We were slain. Enough—she has been here all along. I will take her hand and remake it all anew. All of it will be the foundation for a true beginning. Even them.

She turned a gaze across the rot marching on the dead. And the ghosts sighed. They began to follow her, but the wise man and the dancing man were there.

Gasping. Touching—and devouring even the mightiest with a single touch. So unfair. Hands reaching—recoiling from the blade of the King of Knights and the umbrella of the sun. Pressing against walls of sand raised by Khelta.

“What is she doing? What is she doing, Kasigna? There must be at least a handful if she lived. Yes…she survived it all. There might be as many as a hundred of their souls. Elves.

Instantly, the wise man began drifting towards Baleros, but Kasigna was watching Erin.

“Go if you wish, Emerrhain. Only Dragons have their pitiful fire here. Take care you are not devoured by Norechl’s kin, or you, Laedonius Deviy. I have nothing to fear from any.”

The two shuddered as she named them, with delight and…Erin thought, anger. As if naming them were both blessing and mockery.

Norechl, Emerrhain, Laedonius Deviy, and Kasigna. Four out of six. The other two…absent. Perhaps one wasn’t even here.

But the three pressed their hands against the walls of sand, held at bay by Khelt. Greedily, smiling, taunting. They looked at Norechl’s kin and knew—Chandrar would not hold them back forever. But all watched as Sprigaena flew towards the end of the world.

Seamwalkers burned, swatting at Dragons who bit and tore and breathed Dragonfire. It was not an equal battle; the Dragons had no mass, and they were smaller than the beings who tore at the ghosts. They had no magic nor other gifts they had in life—and they were being devoured.

They did not die at a touch—but Erin saw one greedy hand with a thousand fingers prising a shrieking Dragon’s wing from her body and devouring her very soul. Another bloomed, covered by golden fire as over five dozen Dragons brought it down.

Where was she going? Erin watched, still crying. Then she saw the great spiral of ghosts change.

Every dead soul in Baleros was flying upwards—from Nagas to Gazers and Centaurs and Dullahans. Most were powerless; it was the Dragons who flew after the lone Elf and cleared the way for her. A few held relics that they had managed to bring into death itself.

But most were fleeing the advance of the Seamwalkers. Waiting for something. At the sight of this, Laedonius Deviy, Kasigna, and Emerrhain turned and greedily walked towards them, seeking a harvest.

They were faster than the ghosts, and there was nowhere to run. A last feeding frenzy from both Norechl’s kin, it and the others. Indeed, the forgotten thing was following the ghosts now, leading its kin towards Chandrar.

“Do we run or stay? We must return Erin Solstice to her body—and Fetohep is sailing for Izril.”

The ghosts were arguing. Step past Chandrar and Khelt’s rulers had no more power. But the longer they waited…Erin had to get to her body. Khelta looked sharply at Erin Solstice, and Califor tugged at her hat.

“All the answers lie in Baleros. I feel it. But you are marked, Erin Solstice. They are waiting for you. Petty things. I will go. And any soul to find what we must do.”

So saying, she stepped into the dark tide lapping at the shores of Chandrar. Instantly, Elucina followed.

“I will go ask that Elf what it means.”

Califor and a hundred other ghosts tried to make a break for the sea of ghosts coming from Baleros. Erin gasped as Elucina, Califor, and the other bravest ghosts began to journey away from Chandrar’s shores. A handful might reach Baleros. But the rest?

The three noticed. One turned back, and the other continued onwards, far hungrier for the countless millions of souls in Baleros itself. but one…one was enough. Emerrhain began striding back, faster than any ghost in existence, reaching out with greedy hands.

He was going to catch them. Some of the ghosts instantly turned back—Califor did not. She gazed at Erin and the coven as the [Innkeeper] cried out, but she was still walking. Erin shouted at her.

“Califor! Don’t!”

“Nothing is paid for without a sacrifice, Erin. Remember your promise to me.”

Then the [Witch] was striding across the water. The God of Magic followed her, snatching at Garuda trying to fly out of the air. He was smiling.

Erin raised the pan to throw but knew he’d just eat the memory of that. She clenched her hands helplessly.

“Hey, you—you jerk! Leave them alone! Fight me! You coward! You—you—ugly—uh—[Sorcerer]!”

She shook her fist at Emerrhain, who glanced at her but didn’t break stride. Pisces’ insults didn’t work on him. He reached for Califor, who looked ahead, ignoring him as he caught up. Laedonius Deviy switched back, and more ghosts began to vanish.

“Someone give me the umbrella or the sword!”

Erin began to start into the dark waters, and the sword rose in the grip of a [Queen]. She stepped into the darkness—and the God of Dance went for her. He stepped away from the light from the umbrella, wincing as it shone over him, and she swung—then he grabbed the hilt of the sword and the hands that held it.

The [Queen] of a Chandrarian kingdom vanished with a sigh, and the sword fell into the waters. The ghosts stirred.

Don’t let him have it!

However, Laedonius Deviy just stepped away, shuddering from the touch of the blade. He did not want to touch it—and he avoided that edge.

But it wasn’t the actual Excalibur, just a memory. He turned to Erin, who had frozen, halfway out in the surf.

“Come back, Erin Solstice! We have not enough weapons to harm them! Even Dragonfire does not do lasting damage!”

Xarkouth bellowed. He exhaled, and the God of Love fell back, shielding his face, crying out and hissing with agony. But as soon as the Void Dragon stopped breathing fire, he was laughing, catching rulers who tried to retrieve the blade.

“Califor!”

Erin Solstice flew higher, shouting at the [Witch]. The God of Secrets and Magic nearly had her. Even Kasigna was turning to see Erin’s expression with calm, vindictive pleasure.

“So petty.”

Erin thought she heard a voice. It was not Sprigaena—but it had a similar quality. She turned her head left, then right. A floating Djinni, grimacing at the magic he could not conjure, glanced at her.

“Did you hear that?”

He nodded and cast about. Jinn, following their immortal cousins, looked around. Garuda circling high above in hopes their foes would have to rise to catch them turned their heads.

“Who said…?”

Then Erin Solstice turned, and even Laedonius Deviy hesitated a moment, fingers outstretched. Kasigna turned her head, and Emerrhain, about to grasp Califor’s shoulder—missed a step. All three gazed about uncertainly.

In the distance, Norechl, God of Lost Things, slowed. It looked up, and that gleeful smile of malice—flickered.

All four dead gods turned as Erin Solstice saw a strange group of ghosts break from the horde milling about in that spiral. They did not walk with the Elf towards the end. Rather—they came with their own followers, some tiny, half a foot high—an army of ghosts across the sea.

But there were only…eighteen. Eighteen.

They marched with Dwarves and tiny Fraerlings, little people that Erin Solstice had never seen in life. They were followed by Nagas and Lizardfolk, pointing to the four dead gods with angry fingers, by Centaurs and Dullahans, folk far taller than they.

For these were the shortest people in the world. Or—had been. Only the Fraerlings were smaller. They were shorter even than Dwarves, and far less stocky.

They looked like Erin had dreamed they would, until she had been told they were dead. Faces alight with intelligence and mischief. Some had thin beards; none had pointy little hats, and they had a certain dignity. A strange kind, because they laughed as they walked, and one even skipped as they waved and blew kisses at the startled four.

Like…grandparents. Like the oldest Humans who never seemed to lose that spark of youth, like the eternal uncle who was always truly smiling and playing little tricks on nephews. Innocence that age couldn’t erase—and, oh, they were old. They walked towards her, hair a mix of any color, often grey, but sometimes dyed irrepressibly vibrant.

Waving, calling out, and happily making the rudest and sometimes lewdest gestures imaginable towards the dead gods. Erin Solstice had a name, but it was Laedonius Deviy who stared at them and spoke in a voice that…quavered? With sudden unease.

“I thought they were all gone. We wiped them out, I thought. All but—Kasigna. Emerrhain. It’s them.”

He refused to name them, but Erin did. She looked at the eighteen men and women, each one coming their way, and clapped her hands and laughed.

Gnomes.

Just eighteen of them, but the four flinched as if Erin had said something terrible. Instantly, all four changed course. Emerrhain himself abandoned chasing Califor and went for the eighteen as the [Witch] stared at the unexpected reinforcements.

“Oh no. Watch out!

The God of Magic was first to go for them. The eighteen saw him coming—and as far as Erin could see, none were possessed of any quality the others lacked. They just made Emerrhain…

Nervous. But he went for them, arms grasping. The Gnomes looked up, and at last, Erin heard their voices distinctly in the distance. They saw the God of Magic coming at them and began chattering.

“Who’s that coming our way?”

“Emerrhain?”

“No, it can’t be. He’s much too ugly. That nose? It must be someone else.”

“Slouched shoulders. No decorum whatsoever. Must be what the new ghosts are calling Seamwalkers. And a particularly nasty-looking one.”

Erin’s eyes bugged out. The God of Magic slowed a second. His brows locked together in familiar anger.

“You meddlesome tricksters. Some of you survived? We wiped your kind out!”

He reached for them, and the Gnomes looked at each other. One of them scratched at a shock of grey hair sticking up in spiky waves like the mad inventor of every story.

“Wiped…I don’t recall you winning. Just listen to the fellow. Eternity and not a second spent in self-reflection. Well, here we are again. Ready?”

Ready!

He was nearly upon them, and Erin’s trembling heart was pounding as she saw the other two dead gods, Kasigna and Laedonius, heading towards them. But what was this feeling…?

Hope? The expectation of…then she saw something happen.

The Gnomes saw Emerrhain coming at them and slowed as he reached for them. He could absorb—eat—destroy any one of them at a touch. So what did they do? As if they had been waiting for that moment, they all turned to the one who had spoken, with the spiky grey hair. He had a set of work overalls on and a toolbelt with a wand and other odd devices. He grinned at Emerrhain—

And they all hopped into his body.

Even the dead gods blinked. Erin’s jaw dropped. They jumped into—no. She saw eighteen hands wave and heard laughter.

They were overlapping. Ghosts had no actual substance, so they could pass through each other. They didn’t because no one liked to hover in someone else’s butt or something. Except some of the weird ones, but it felt uncomfortable.

Yet for a second—all the Gnomes were in one spot. Then, as the God of Magic hesitated and reached for them—they abruptly split in every direction.

Straight backwards, left, right, down—like a game of tag in slow motion, Emerrhain had eighteen targets all heading in a direction such that he had time to grab one, two at most, before they were scattering. And he—

Hesitated. He swiped left and missed a female Gnome who skipped past him and slapped her butt as his fingers missed. Not that they performed their trick in silence. The Gnomes chattered as they flashed past Emerrhain.

“Ooh, so close!”

“Not really.”

“Poor form. The lad’s got no coordination.”

“No wonder they called him the God of Secrets and not the God of Basic Fitness.”

Erin’s jaw was all the way open—then she heard laughter. It was coming from Gerial. The man covered his mouth as Emerrhain whirled. He was—embarrassed. Embarrassed, furious, and chasing after the first Gnomes, faster than they were.

Maybe that was why he missed the Dragon. It rose out of the sea, and Erin’s eyes bulged as she saw a serpent’s body, no wings—

The Sea Dragon belched a poisonous liquid over Emerrhain, and he howled. Then a dozen more, Sea Dragons and their airborne kin, even what might have been a giant Salamander, all flew out of the sea and exhaled.

Kasigna, Emerrhain, and Laedonius shouted as Dragonfire or variants of it engulfed them. They tried to press on, but the pain forced them back. The Gnomes strolled onwards, waving at their escort.

Keep them off us! Stick to the plan!

“Which plan are we on?”

“How many of our little cousins made it? One, two, three…”

They were chattering, trying to count the Fraerling ghosts, and stepping onto Chandrar’s shores in the midst of chaos as the three dead gods retreated. Erin Solstice saw them come to a halt and look at her. One of them gave the ghosts a bow.

“Hello! Pardon the intrusion, but Norechl’s called forth its disgusting army. You saw Sprigaena—she’s doing the only thing we can. We’re here to meet this living girl from Earth and mess with that lot.”

He jerked a finger at the three dead gods, who watched the Gnomes with actual trepidation. Gnomes. Erin’s eyes were sparkling as she faced them, and the one with wild hair winked at her.

“Don’t worry. There is a plan. And remember—if nothing else?”

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at them and leaned in. His eyes twinkled like the spirit of mischief, yet his voice was serious and playful. Resolved and calm and full of laughter. He whispered to Erin in a stage-voice.

“Gods can die. They can lose. We beat them once, and we can do it again.”

He clapped two Gnomes on the shoulders, and Erin looked at him. Her eyes went wide.

“You mean—”

The Gnomes laughed at her. One rotated her arm as if preparing to start boxing the giant Seamwalkers and dead gods.

“What, did you think they got each other? We watched them die. Now—let’s get to work. They’re not half as smart as they think they are.”

The Gnome with frizzy hair linked arms with Erin as the Gnomes split up, some heading to the Wyrm, others talking to Khelta, the [Witches]—she looked down into an old face untouched by lines and two bright, pale silver eyes mixed with green spots. The Gnome nodded to her.

“I have a lot of names, but call me Zineryr. You’re Erin Solstice, aren’t you? An Earth-girl?”

“Yes—how do you know that?”

The Gnome sighed and patted her arm, though neither one felt it. Nor was he even touching her—but he ushered her onwards, miming the motions.

“Your people have died on Baleros as well as every other land. We knew something was up—not that we were watching, but we had enough time once we recognized six of them were back. Consider us up-to-date on everything you know, and there is a lot you do not know and need to be told. Still got your body?”

“I—no, someone hijacked it!”

The Gnome cursed.

“Kasigna’s sometimes wobbling breasts! Well, I thought that was a danger. We’ll work on it. What we need to do is have a nice, long chat before we’re all eaten—if Sprigaena does her job, we’ll have a chance. If she fails? We have another chance. But you need to know…everything minus the dangerous parts.”

Erin Solstice was nodding and hesitating. She stared at the oncoming wave of Seamwalkers.

“Do we have time? Wh—what do we do first?”

The Gnome fixed Erin with a long, searching look.

“Well, trust each other. You seem like a nice girl. You don’t eat other Humans?”

“No!”

“Have a habit of murder? Theft?”

“No! No! I mean, I’ve killed people, and I’ve stolen—things.”

“Hm. Good enough. It’s my job to find out. Tell me what happened from start to finish, Erin Solstice. Nevermind the time—and I’ll tell you. I’ve heard of you. [Innkeeper]? Not the class I’d have picked if we bought into their little game, but do what you want. Speaking of which—Pawn to E4.”

“Huh? Huh?

It was going so fast, but Erin recognized that last one. She blurted out the obvious after a second as the Gnome grinned at her.

“P-pawn to E5! You know chess?”

The Gnome rolled his eyes.

“I hope you’re good. We stopped playing ages ago. Dragons throw the most unimaginable temper tantrums, and they’re not that good. Elves take too long choosing each move. King to E2.”

Just when she thought she couldn’t get any more surprised—any more delighted by these strange folk—he hit her with the classic, the immortal…Bongcloud Attack. Erin Solstice looked at the Gnome. Then at last—

She began to laugh.

 

——

 

The Meeting of Tribes had ended. Or if it hadn’t, not completely, this was the end. No one would be perusing the stalls, walking through the forests of tents, and there would be no more deals, no more negotiations or gifts. Gnolls stood with blades drawn, and Mrsha?

Mrsha looked up at the face of her enemy. Not Pawn. Not Face-Eater Moths. Not even Nokha, truthfully. Belavierr was as close to an enemy as Mrsha had ever had.

Nokha wanted to eat her. Belavierr hated her for completely unfair reasons.

But Xherw, the Chieftain of the Plain’s Eye tribe, was her enemy. He didn’t regard her as prey or declare a vendetta against her. He looked at her like an actual enemy, like a threat. He had devoted his life to killing her kind.

Now the two looked at each other and recognized the other. It was almost a relief.

Here came death. Like Merish before, Mrsha refused to run. The great Earth Elemental, Khoteizetrough, turned from glaring at the Plain’s Eye tribe in uproar as the [Chieftain] strode towards her. He was reaching for the blade at his side, which had just killed countless Drakes in battle.

He never reached her. The slow Earth Elemental was too cautious of the innocent Gnolls to block him, but half a dozen Gnolls blocked Xherw’s way.

Krshia Silverfang, standing with Akrisa, Cetrule, and her tribe.

Gire, glowering hugely as she held a paw in front of her little friend.

Lehra Ruinstrider, still looking confused but determined.

Adetr Steelfur, gazing into the eyes of Iraz Steelfur, his Chieftain, standing across from him.

Chieftain Torishi, Feshi right behind her, the Weatherfur tribe surrounding Mrsha.

Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh.

She put her staff down, and Xherw aborted his charge, hesitating. It was just a staff, just one elderly Gnoll he probably had a hundred pounds on and a lot of muscle—but even Shaman Ulcreziek hesitated as Theikha placed her staff on the ground.

Back. No one will harm this child. She is under the protection of Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur, and Silverfang!”

Xherw recoiled as, above him, the Earth Elemental raised one huge fist. Gnolls looked up at the shadow of the land itself that threatened to crush him.

Doombringer! What madness has gripped you, Shaman Theikha? Do you not see her white fur? Do you not see Doom among us?”

He howled, pointing at Mrsha. He turned, looking around—but he had arrived too late. Everyone had already seen Mrsha’s pale white fur, seen the Earth Elemental snatch her up, and the mountains themselves had heard his word. Theikha’s gaze was steady with conviction as she gazed at him.

Plain’s Eye, traditional tribes, and those on one side. Silverfang, Weatherfur, many of their allies on the other.

Countless tribes split, undecided, caught between fear and uncertainty at the greatest decision yet of the Meeting of Tribes. Mrsha looked at horrified Gnolls shrinking back from her as if she were Yellow Rivers or death incarnate. Gnolls who would kill her for just looking like she was, a name.

Others who were weighing fact against fiction. Some who didn’t care about her fur at all, only who she was. But so many afraid of what they had been told as cubs.

A day ago, even with all the will in the world, Mrsha would have quailed before the gazes of the tribes. An hour ago that would have been true, because part of her would have believed it.

Today? Now? Mrsha looked up at Theikha as Gire held her paw. She looked even higher at that set face of the oldest being here. Khoteizetrough, who had set it all to right with one word. She clung to it and believed in it. Time for the reckoning.

Shaman Theikha shook her head and faced Xherw, eyes searching his face, Ulcre’s, and looking at the world how it was and wondering, perhaps—where it had changed from what it should be. What had twisted in all their minds, like darkness. An idea, rotting in their heads over generations.

“Not Doombringer. Doombearer.

Gnolls looked at her, murmuring the word, comparing the two. They would never be the same people after this. But today—

Today was the day they began to decide who Gnolls of the Great Plains would be.

 

——

 

There was no blood at first. Just a lot of shouting.

It made Tkrn want to blow his whistle a few times, as if this were a huge argument at a bar that had spilled into the streets of Liscor. However, he was fairly certain that if he blew his whistle he would have it inserted into an orifice. Ears or nose would be the kind option.

When Gnolls got angry, they growled. Their ears went flat and fur rose—which was what earned them uncharitable comparisons to dogs or other creatures. They were closer to hyenas, a Chandrarian species that looked about as close to a Gnoll as…a monkey did to a Human.

Gnolls took that comparison as an indication of the character of the people who made it. They did not jump to violence. Tkrn had once been told that when Gnolls quarreled, they had a system, a method to it.

Debates. He recalled the first Gnollish debate and saw one at the heart of the Meeting of Tribes—but not a genteel argument. No—this one intersected with what Gnolls had told him didn’t really exist or wasn’t a problem and what he himself had realized was present.

Loyalty to your tribe. Politics. And yes, emotions and tradition and simple fear. No debate was a void where only logic existed. So when he looked across the rift in the Meeting of Tribes—he saw the sides.

There stood Chieftain Torishi, a beam of light falling from the sky above and illuminating her fur. Shaman Theikha, the oldest [Shaman] and beloved by all. Akrisa and Krshia Silverfang, newly risen to fame. Last and possibly most notable—two individuals. Lehra Ruinstrider and Gire Ekhtouch.

Adetr didn’t count as he did not lead Steelfur. Feshi, Inkar, Yelroan, Satar—and they were there, standing with Mrsha—they were not the most famous Gnolls. But those Gnolls should have been able to browbeat any other tribe just by their presence on any other issue.

…Save for the Gnoll who opposed them. Chieftain Xherw, who had by all accounts laid an entire army of Drakes low by his own efforts. Chieftain of the largest, arguably most powerful tribe of all. Plain’s Eye. Custodian of tradition and—Tkrn saw now—the one who slew Doombringers. Not behind it all, but the one behind a lot of it.

It was a surreal thing to Tkrn, to look at someone he knew was trying to kill Mrsha, who had done terrible things, and watch him walk free. He itched to find a pair of cuffs and wondered what Zevara would have done. But then—the [Mastermind], Mr. Soot of Liscor, had never been charged, only arrested and let go.

Was this how Watch Captain Zevara had felt? Tkrn yearned to…to do something. And at the same time? He was conflicted. Because it was Xherw who had given Tkrn the very same Eyeshield that had saved his life during battle.

And if you did not know a Doombringer, know Mrsha, and you had only your knowledge of them from [Shamans] and you had seen all the good Xherw had done, if you had friends in Plain’s Eye? Maybe you listened to him.

That was all Tkrn could think. He had to think that was part of the reason, or else he was looking at tribe after tribe filled with people who wanted to kill a child in cold blood. He had to believe they were not all like that, or their Chieftains were making the decisions.

“…Fifty tribes with Plain’s Eye.”

Someone murmured as Tkrn stood on their ‘side’. A neutral zone was being drawn as tribes abandoned their camps. Not just as a sign of where you stood. They were getting ready.

It wasn’t subtle. Gnolls, a people who could smell and hear almost anything they did, didn’t bother to hide what they were doing. So Tkrn saw Weatherfur Gnolls driving stakes into the ground, creating palisades. Gaarh Marsh [Shamans] were raising the ground, creating elevated areas for Gnolls to loose arrows from.

In a way, it made him glad. It was a declaration of how far they’d go, and the other tribes took heed.

…It made him less glad to see Plain’s Eye was doing the same. And their [Shamans] were making something that was raising the fur on his body.

“What is that they’re doing, Shaman Cetrule?”

The Gnoll counting sides gave Tkrn a grave look as Tkrn pointed at a huge pole of wood being driven into the earth. The [Shamans] had carried it back from Xherw’s battlefield, and now they were embedding it here.

“One of Plain’s Eye’s magics. You saw how I could attract spells with my magic?”

“Yes…”

Cetrule did it with long stakes, each one painstakingly made and enchanted to be used to attract enemy magic like a magnet. The Gnoll nodded at the giant totem that would be sixteen feet high when a team of Gnolls finished dragging it upwards.

“…That is one of their Gaze of the Plains totems. As analogous to Drake siege engines, I suppose. Some can loose spells, but most are not [Mage] magic.”

“Ah. So what does that one do?”

Cetrule scratched at his chin.

“I could be wrong, but I think any enemy in a thousand feet of it goes blind when activated.”

Tkrn gulped. The [Shaman of Purity] just watched, looking at his counterparts. He was outmatched. Shaman Ulcreziek, the [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands], stared back. And his eye had been passed from [Shaman] to [Shaman]. It tried to drill a hole into Tkrn’s head, and he broke away, shuddering.

“H-how many are on our side? I mean, declared?”

He went to count. Most of the tribes had still not moved from the neutral zone. But if Xherw had fifty…

“A little over a dozen.”

Tkrn’s head snapped around. He did not have a full view of the Gnolls, so the disparity in numbers wasn’t obvious.

“Only a dozen?”

Cetrule shrugged. He never looked away from Ulcreziek. He was frowning deeply.

“In truth, with such famous tribes on either side, it should make most tribes who do not lean one way or the other think. Xherw stands on one side—but Theikha on this, and I do not think she is less respected than he. But perhaps—”

Was it all down to a single word? Doombringer? Tkrn looked helplessly across the middle distance and saw the first two great tribes who had joined Plain’s Eye, practically within moments.

Steelfur, smaller than some, but each Gnoll’s fur as tough as metal, led by their famous war-chieftain, Iraz Steelfur himself. And…his heart sank to look at them…

Az’muzarre.

He had not considered what the tribe of Dragonslayers would think, but they were traditional, the greatest protectors of the Great Plains. Chieftain Reizet and her warriors armed with Dragonbone relics, shields made of Dragonscales and even the teeth of the Tyrant of Gems, Muzarre, glared at the Gnolls.

She made Tkrn want to wet himself. It was a dire sign.

“Why did they join Plain’s Eye? Are they that traditional? That friendly?”

Cetrule shook his head. He frowned deeper, and Tkrn saw he was looking for someone. The leader of Plain’s Eye himself, Xherw.

“They are traditional and friendly with Plain’s Eye, but I would not have bet they would go with Plain’s Eye. Not immediately. Not when Khoteizetrough himself acted. Some tribes, like Decles, are practically Plain’s Eye.”

He nodded to the growling Gnolls who stood with Plain’s Eye, and Tkrn remembered how they’d acted. He nodded, but Cetrule muttered.

“…He’s doing something. But it’s not magic.

He pointed, and Tkrn saw two figures emerge from the largest tent aside from the Meeting of Chieftains itself.

Xherw and a Gnoll [Chieftain] from Ironscent emerged, and the other Gnoll shook Xherw’s paw again. The Plain’s Eye Chieftain looked at him and nodded, and the Ironscent Chieftain loped off, calling for his people.

Tkrn had a bad feeling. It was confirmed less than five minutes later as Ironscent struck their camp and moved across the divide.

Onto Plain’s Eye’s tribe.

“What was that? He just walked in there, and they talked for thirty minutes and—”

“I saw it.”

Cetrule had been watching. His eyes were narrowed. Tkrn went to the most obvious answer.

“He bribed him. Or used magic to persuade him. A Skill!”

“None of the three.”

Tkrn hesitated.

“Huh?”

Cetrule shook his head. Slowly, he watched Xherw as he conferred with Ulcreziek and went to approach another Chieftain, who looked wary. But within the hour, another tribe joined Plain’s Eye.

“It’s not a Skill nor magic, and the Gnolls who joined Plain’s Eye are adamant, but not fools. Some could not be bribed, or I misjudge all their characters. They just made up their minds. I’ve told other Chieftains not to talk to Xherw, but I can’t understand what it is.”

It was like…Tkrn’s lips moved silently.

As if there were a chance the Chieftains could swing one way or the other. And in one instant, the stars aligned and they made up their minds. Chance? One possibility among many?

And he had it. He breathed one word.

“Luck.”

 

——

 

“It’s luck. He has an infinite reservoir of it. I don’t know where he’s gotten it from, but I can guess. If he touches you—he might not even need to do that. Stay away from him.”

Two other Gnolls in the Meeting of Tribes had realized what Tkrn had. One articulated it fully; the other couldn’t speak.

Mrsha looked up at a Gnoll with wide, appraising eyes. Qwera, the Golden Gnoll of Pallass, looked back. Her fur shone like fake gold under the light, brighter than the real thing.

“How do you know that?”

Shaman Cetrule looked at Qwera in surprise; he and Tkrn had hastened to the tent where Mrsha was being protected to deliver their conclusion. Shaman Theikha coughed into one paw.

“I take Merchant Qwera at her word, Shaman Cetrule. And I see Mrsha agrees. Is this a power of Doombr—Doombearers that Xherw has? Could he be one?”

“There is no way, no.”

Akrisa shook her head instantly. Gire scratched at hers.

“…But it explains so much. Luck. A few classes have Skills revolving around it, like [Gambler] or [Lucky Soldier], but it’s so rare. It isn’t a coincidence he has it.”

She eyed Mrsha and Qwera as the Golden Gnoll tightened her grip on the little girl in her arms. She was shaking with nerves.

Only Tkrn gave Qwera a blank look.

“Good thing Miss Qwera has luck Skills too so she can confirm it, eh? And Mrsha has luck too, right?”

Mrsha slapped her face with a paw. Then she looked up at Qwera. But all the Golden Gnoll did was bare her teeth.

“Exactly. I’m afraid, though—that if you want to match luck with luck, neither Mrsha nor I have a chance. If she can even control her powers.”

Mrsha shook her head. She had no idea what to do. Wer the Wanderer had shown her some of it, but she was no expert. Qwera was sick to her stomach.

“I don’t want to get near him. But if he’s doing what you think, he’s taking an even 1 in 1000 chance and turning it into…what, 1 in 10?”

Xherw didn’t have a complete success rate, but it explained far too much.

“Warn the other Chieftains. We can prove nothing unless more Skills like Merchant Qwera’s are present. But it is not hard to insist we conduct our arguments in the open.”

Indeed, as Akrisa nodded to Cetrule and he hurried back out, Mrsha could still hear the voices outside.

Gnolls were arguing. Fiercely, sometimes escalating, but arguing. Debating the issue. In groups as large as hundreds or thousands, or individually, calmly, angrily—

But the greatest debate would take place soon. And if they lost? 

Someone else was thinking of that eventuality too. Feshi Weatherfur was striding about the tent, issuing orders, checking the state of their camp. She saw the worst possibility and didn’t sugarcoat her words.

“We will not give Mrsha up even if opinion comes against us. This is one point that we cannot be swayed on, luck or not. What happens if…we were to lose our arguments and most of the tribes turned on us?”

It was Shaman Theikha who answered. She looked wan. Tired and exhausted, but she held herself upright, refusing to sit.

“It is customary for a tribe to insist only twice—then the other tribe loses face and may be shunned by all. But when one refuses to relent and the other must insist? It becomes the simplest of answers. Sometimes Gnolls will overturn their Chieftain’s decision first.”

“That won’t happen.”

Gire growled. She was making something as she sat.

Javelins. Specialty ones where she carefully bent wood along a simple vice so they’d stay curved, held in place by prongs of wood. She had eight, each perfectly balanced the way she wanted. Then she stood up.

“I won’t allow it.”

“Gireulashia, your tribe does not stand with you. And you are one Gnoll. I caution you—Xherw is beyond even a [Paragon] of your age.”

The giant Gnoll girl looked affronted by the statement, but she ducked her head as Theikha turned to her sharply.

“He may be. We may see. But Firrelle is not. Enough waiting.”

She strode out of her tent, and Mrsha ran after her, breaking free of Qwera’s grip. Gire went down the slopes, one stride for every four of Mrsha’s. She crossed past fortified ground—even walls.

“I’m glad I began building a dirt fort. We’ve got a march on anyone, but, uh, has anyone forgotten the Drakes armies crossing your water line and coming this way?”

Yerranola was supervising the fortifications directly. The Selphid had led them to occupy the fortified ground she’d been working on nearly a month ago. She was speaking to another expert on Gnollish fighting, but he just sat there.

Adetr Steelfur’s head was in his hands. He stood across from Iraz, the one Steelfur Gnoll who hadn’t followed Iraz. He looked up at his mentor, teacher, and inspiration, who watched Adetr with betrayal on his face.

And yet—Adetr knew Iraz was wrong. He knew it because if he crossed that line, and part of him wanted to, he would come back to strike that little Gnoll who ran past him with an axe.

Kill her like she were some giant, white rat. But she was not. Adetr wondered what Iraz was thinking. Rose hovered at his back.

“Adetr?”

The Gnoll warrior rose without a word as Gireulashia of Ekhtouch went down the slope, past Gnolls holding bows and spears, into the neutral ground. She pointed at a Gnoll who was camped almost cheek-by-jowl next to the Plain’s Eye’s camp.

Chieftain Firrelle! I am Gire, the [Paragon] of Ekhtouch! I demand you join me in the only place with any honor or integrity. Ekhtouch, to me!”

A [Chieftain] jerked as she looked around. Chieftain Firrelle, almost eight feet tall, a giant, superior Gnoll to the rest of her kind, looked up at Gireulashia. The scant hundreds of Ekhtouch looked up. They had been mourning less than ten of their warriors who’d died; a terrible blow to their tribe.

Gireulashia stood there, her red fur gleaming as she raised her arms. Gnolls looked at her as the fifteen-year-old girl shouted.

“I will not stand by while we fall for Plains Eye’s trickery! Did you not hear the Earth Elemental shouting the truth? Join me and tear the blindfold from our eyes!”

Her words were fiery, but Firrelle called back slowly.

“Your judgment, young Gire, is compromised. All know that you have made friends with the little Doombringer. She has corrupted your mind and your training. You are not a Chieftain.”

Ekhtouch’s Gnolls looked from Firrelle to Gire. In answer, the [Paragon] pointed at Mrsha. Eight Gnolls had raced out of cover and were holding shields in front of her, pulling her back.

“A child has the Skills or ability to corrupt me? Are you doubting Ekhtouch’s blood that much, Firrelle? Do I see you whispering with Xherw? Are you afraid to oppose Plain’s Eye, or has he bought your loyalty? I am your [Paragon]. I was born to lead you all, and that day is now.”

She struck her chest, and Firrelle bared her teeth. Ever since that moment Gire had opposed her in private, picked her up and shook her—she pointed at Gire.

“You are not ready, and your naivete shows that. I am your [Chieftain]. Step away from these Gnolls, Gireulashia!”

Gire looked at her with genuine surprise. Even for such a smart Gnoll—she still had a moment where she looked hurt and let down. But she shook her head.

“No. You are the one who is too cowardly to do what is right, Firrelle. I am sorry you cannot find the courage. But if you cannot—I, Gire, challenge you for the title of Chieftain of Ekhtouch. Face me. I will beat you with one paw tied behind my back if I must.”

Ekhtouch Gnolls gasped. They looked to Firrelle, and she rose, trembling with fury. Gire looked down at her.

She could not have half as many levels as Firrelle. But she did have about…a foot and probably at least a hundred pounds. And she was the [Paragon]. Trained by their finest warriors to be the best.

Firrelle hesitated. She looked at Gire for a long moment in silence, as she wavered. Then she bared her teeth.

“I do not accept challenges from a child who has not even reached adulthood! Ekhtouch warriors—reclaim Gire!”

Her bodyguard looked at each other and then Gire. Half rose—and Gire reached down and plucked an axe from her belt. She held the two-handed axe in one paw.

“Are you a coward, Firrelle? I said—I challenge you. If you will not heed it, then I will come to you.”

She began to stride across the ground, and dozens of Gnolls drew their blades. Gire halted, a look of pained confusion on her face as Firrelle’s friends and allies in her tribe surrounded her.

Dozens of Gnolls, outnumbering the lone [Paragon]. They might not be as great as her—but they had the same heritage. Gire hesitated as some began to advance towards her, moving left and right. But then they halted as their kin tore axes and blades free of their holsters. A Gnoll raised a bow and put an arrow into the ground right in front of another Gnoll’s boot, so close that it vibrated against the tip of his foot as it struck the earth.

Chieftain Firrelle looked around as Gnolls—her Gnolls—abandoned their places. Her tribe looked from Gire to Firrelle and split. Some went to Firrelle. The others, a third, a bit more? They walked towards Gire.

The [Paragon] looked around as Gnolls turned, calling to each other. Shocked—friends gazed at each other across a rift in the ground as deep as a valley. Families split in the middle.

“What have you done?”

Firrelle’s voice trembled. For answer, Gire tossed her axe down.

“Ekhtouch will not survive in twain. For the good of us—let’s settle this, Firrelle.”

She charged across the open ground at Firrelle and the others, but Firrelle didn’t meet her, only backed away. It took nearly twenty Gnolls to stop Gire. Shouting warriors raised their weapons.

There will be no bloodshed here! Paragon Gire, desist!”

Shaman Ulcre and Theikha both raised their voices, restoring order. Gire halted, panting, staring at Firrelle.

“Firrelle…”

The Chieftain refused to meet her gaze. And then she was turning. Walking to Xherw’s camp. Mrsha saw Gire’s people, her tribe, flocking around her. But Ekhtouch reeled as it snapped in half. Perhaps that wound would never close.

All her fault. Mrsha wanted to bury her head in her fur and hide. But as Gnolls stared at her with hatred and some howled curses—a beam of light fell across Mrsha. She looked up and was almost blinded for a second. But the air was warm. And even on the coldest day—Chieftain Torishi bent down and picked up Mrsha. As if she could read Mrsha’s mind, she spoke.

“No. Not your fault.”

The little girl didn’t know her feelings were written all over her face and looked astonished. Weatherfur’s Chieftain just held her.

“This is not your fault, Mrsha. Do you think all these older Gnolls could be brought to this place by one child? You may have a [Princess] for a mother, but that is ego.”

She flicked Mrsha’s nose, and the Gnoll sneezed. Torishi smiled at her, but sadly.

“This is our fault. The fault of countless generations—and this is our reckoning. Ekhtouch is choosing. So must we all. Raise your head.”

Mrsha did, and Torishi turned with her in her arms. Gnolls were glaring at her. Not just Gnolls who had never met her and feared her home.

Some Gnolls broke from Silverfang itself. One pointed at Mrsha with a trembling paw, and it was a Gnoll that Krshia Silverfang recognized.

You. You killed Brunkr! You were his doom. The doom of Liscor—the one who unearthed Raskghar. Everything that has passed here is because of you.”

The little Gnoll’s eyes went wide as she locked gazes with Brunkr’s family. Krshia Silverfang ran down the slope.

“Menoa! Mrsha was not his end. That was the traitorous Regrika Blackpaw! Brunkr quarreled with her, but at the end, he and she made peace.”

The Gnoll mother howled at Mrsha.

Made peace? She nearly cost him his arm! One bite was enough to give him a plague! If he had not gone at your request, Krshia Silverfang, good Silverfang warriors would not be dead! One group was slaughtered by Gazi Pathfinder days before the King of Destruction awoke! The other? My son was murdered by a Named Adventurer! Is that coincidence?”

It was all true. That was the problem. The facts sounded like…Krshia Silverfang looked at Mrsha, but she shouted back.

“It is true these things happened. But that is not Mrsha’s fault! She was not here when the first warriors died. One child cannot be the reason everything happened. And besides—”

Her voice wavered.

“—Besides. The day he died, we were celebrating Brunkr’s new class. He became a [Knight], and I have never seen him happier. Mrsha and her mother helped with that.”

Menoa wavered. She looked at Krshia in disbelief, and the [Shopkeeper] realized Brunkr had never written to her about his new class. Krshia had certainly not brought it up when she communicated his death.

“He—he became a [Knight]? Impossible.”

Krshia’s eyes stung with tears. But she nodded her head.

“If you take the ill—you must take the good. He was slain by a monster. A traitor to our people. Mrsha did not do this. She did not end her tribe. She is not a Doombringer. She is a Doombearer. The Raskghar kidnapped her with the others to eat her heart. But when she was in the darkness, she helped free our people and distracted them to flee. She is a brave child, and I wish I had one half as brave—and that she would never face such days again. Menoa. Do not walk away from us. I know you are hurt. I ask you blame me and me alone forever for what I asked of him. But I tell you this: if Brunkr were here, he would be standing here, shield in hand.”

She pointed down, and Mrsha raised her head. Her eyes and nose were dripping. It was just water. And snot. The Gnoll woman gazed at Mrsha. Then she looked across the distance.

Lies. Convenient lies. No—Krshia Silverfang is mistaken. Look how she rewrites the story to explain all the strange evil that has come to her city and that region of Izril. Goblin Lords? A dungeon? Think, Gnolls, Chieftains. Is this all normal for a city that has been so quiet?”

Shaman Ulcreziek strode across the lines of Gnolls, refuting Krshia. The [Royal Shopkeeper] clenched her paws into fists. The [Shaman] was swaying even progressive Chieftains like Hawkarrow’s Chieftain Eitha.

It would be so easy if this were Liscor or anywhere nearby. But she couldn’t tell them, couldn’t explain the real culprit she suspected was behind this. It was the stupidest argument ever, so she held back from making it. But it was all—all—

“It wasn’t Mrsha! It was all—Erin Solstice’s fault! I mean—sort of. It was her inn. And she was there way before Mrsha. Trust me! I was there! It was that crazy Human. If anyone was the real Doombringer, it was her!

For a second, Krshia thought she’d gone mad and blurted that out, but she wouldn’t have put it like that even drunk. And she was not the…

The Gnolls stopped as a Drake strode across the ground, waving his arms and shouting. Ulcre halted in confusion, and the Gnolls glared at a Drake in their midst.

But one of a good number. The Pallassian delegation that had delivered the Raskghar had been the largest force of Drakes, and Krshia had heard they were marching back, but they were hardly a threat; barely two hundred [Soldiers].

The other Drakes present were actually a camera crew setting up as fast as they could. Everyone had heard something had happened, and soon images of the rift in the Meeting of Tribes would be shown around the world because it was prime television.

And showed their enemies how vulnerable they were. But the Drake who was shouting and waving his arms, his black scales covered by battered leather armor, wasn’t…either group. In fact, he looked sort of familiar. Krshia narrowed her eyes. Then she gasped.

Insill?

Insill of Vuliel Drae came to a halt and gulped as he saw all the angry Gnolls staring at him. But another voice rose to his defense.

“It is true. We were there. Chieftain Eitha—I have returned. From as far north as the Village of the Dead to give witness. Mrsha did not cause the dungeon attacks. Nor Raskghar. Some of the accidents were simply from having a dungeon under Liscor. Some were even—our fault.”

Larr of Vuliel Drae. The Gnoll [Ranger] raised his voice, and Krshia saw the entire team there.

The Silver-ranked team of Vuliel Drae. Insill, their [Rogue], Larr the Gnollish [Ranger], the half-Dwarf woman with a beard, Anith the Jackal Beastkin [Mage], and…a one-handed woman with a katana.

Pekona, the [Blade Dancer]. And they had been on the news in some capacity too.

Larr?

Chieftain Eitha turned to one of her Gnolls who had gone to seek glory and gold, and Larr bowed his head to her. He turned, and Anith spoke up.

“We are Vuliel Drae, and we caused one of the incidents you all saw. The—Face-Eater Moth swarm? No white Gnoll caused that. Just adventurers foolish enough to try and destroy their nest. Sometimes fate or curses are not needed, [Shaman]. Sometimes it is just—idiocy.”

He bowed to the surprised Ulcre and looked around. Gnolls gazed as a cousin-species in Anith, the dark-furred Jackal from Baleros, the leader of Vuliel Drae, turned to Chieftain Eitha.

“Indeed—I can personally attest to the fact that one Human was known to be the cause of many incidents. And if there is great wrong done? Great deeds were done too! A Goblin Lord met his end at Liscor! A door that crosses Invrisil to Pallass was found there, and an Adult Creler was slain by a Silver-rank team!”

Mrsha was staring at the familiar team, wide-eyed. Yet…they were not the team she wanted. The Horns of Hammerad, Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers—she’d even take the Silver Swords or any other Gold-rank team over them. She missed them. Big Moore, funny Pisces…Anith noticed Mrsha. He ducked his head.

“…We came south as fast as we could to attend the Meeting of Tribes. It was a long road for any team heading south from Invrisil. My team came to let Larr meet with his tribe. And I, to beg to study magic from Krshia Silverfang’s gift. A book of spells the likes of which no library in the world has dreamed of, even Wistram!”

The Jackal Beastkin met Mrsha’s gaze, then he pointed at Krshia, and the [Shopkeeper] blinked. Everyone turned back to Krshia, and someone else spoke up.

“Yes. Krshia Silverfang not only revealed that the Drakes had stolen our magic, she brought another great secret before the Meeting of Tribes. Twice, she has been right! Is this a coincidence? Chieftains, are your ears filled with wax? Are we fools or going to doubt Silverfang a third time? I know I am not. I have had enough with tradition and fools giving us wrong counsel. By accident and ignorance, bound up in tradition—or on purpose.”

Someone sprang to their feet. Krshia Silverfang saw a short Gnoll, almost scrawny. Until she began to grow.

Chieftain Werri of the Woven Bladegrass tribe tore a sword from its sheath and pointed it at Krshia.

Woven Bladegrass stands with Silverfang!

“Chieftain Werri! Do not be deceived!”

Ulcre bellowed, but Werri just tossed her head.

“Is it I who is deceived or you, Ulcre? Or do I not spy even Steelfur’s great warrior, Adetr, over yonder?”

She pointed, and Adetr Steelfur looked at Iraz. The Steelfur’s Chieftain spoke calmly, staring at his nephew.

“I do not know what madness has taken hold of Adetr, but he is not our tribe. Nor is he Steelfur’s Chieftain or [Shaman], Chieftain Werri. Our tribes do not see eye-to-eye, but do not make a great mistake.”

Werri spun, teeth bared.

“If you stand on one side, all the more reason why I should stand on the other, Iraz. All the more reason to believe I am right.

He glowered at her, but the Woven Bladegrass tribe was already moving. Young vs old. New vs…

Adetr Steelfur called out, voice pained.

“Chieftain Iraz. I respect you as a warrior and leader! My every goal has always been to be like you!”

“Then why are you standing there, Adetr?”

The metal Gnoll clenched his paws together.

“Because I could never stand at your side so long as you are there, Chieftain Iraz. I know Mrsha. I will not kill her or see it done. I revealed a truth to the Meeting of Chieftains with the help of Rose the Human. With Mrsha’s friends and companions who all stand here. Chieftain! Can you not see that this must be true?”

Iraz himself wavered, and the other Gnolls and outsiders looked around. What great truth? However, it could not be said, even between the disparate factions. Not now.

Yet that moment of silence was all it took for another Chieftain to make up her mind. Chieftain Eitha hefted her crossbow.

Hawkarrow—with Larr! We have fought with Silverfang, and that Human saved my life! To Honored Inkarr and Silverfang!”

Two tribes broke towards Krshia’s side, and she saw Ulcre snarl in alarm. Hawkarrow was not large, but Woven Bladegrass was a powerful one.

Insill was panting with nerves, but he had done it. It almost made up for all the other idiotic things his team had done to Krshia. Almost.

But the Drake’s presence had reminded the Gnolls they were not conducting this privately. Perhaps no great event would ever be private again. For, from here on out, there would always be…

“Hello? Hello, Drassi, can you hear me? This is Reporter Shuns from the Meeting of Tribes. We’ve just set up, and we’re looking at what might possibly be a huge altercation between the tribes as multiple Walled Cities are sending armies to the front. I’m going to ask for a quote. Excuse me, excuse me, sir. Can you tell me—”

A Drake thrust a speaking stone enchanted for clarity in front of a snarling Gnoll, and he was thrust aside by Xherw’s bodyguard. The [Chieftain] went straight for one of the other greatest of tribes not decided.

“Chieftain Perale. Will you speak with me?”

The Chieftain of the Wild Wastes tribe looked about as he rose from his seat, a [Message] scroll in his paw. He glanced at Xherw—and stepped back from him a moment. His [Barbarians], [Berserkers], and the Gnolls who lived in the northeast of Izril all stirred.

“I believe the time for speaking overlong is over, Chieftain Xherw. Indeed, I have made up my mind, yes? Wild Wastes! Up! Get moving! Watch the cows…”

The angry fighting cows of the Wild Wastes got up, and every Gnoll tribe stepped back as the Gnolls bounded to their feet. Where were they going? Xherw himself was uncertain as Perale stood—until the Gnoll jerked a thumb.

“That way.”

Everyone followed the thumb and saw he was pointing at…Perale waved a paw.

“There. Silverfang. Move, you’re embarrassing me!

Wild Wastes Gnolls looked at each other, then shrugged and began heading towards the surprised Silverfangs and Weatherfur. Xherw felt a surge of unease.

“Chieftain Perale! Can we not discuss this? What is making you act so—rashly?”

The Chieftain turned back. He was chewing on some curds of cheese from a bowl. He popped another into his mouth, unconcerned. Still, he kept his distance from Xherw.

“Little, Chieftain Xherw. I am no great thinker, and my tribe is even less so.”

Some of the Gnolls glared at Perale, but the rest were laughing. Perale went on, eyes sharp.

“—Yet it seems to me that the choice is clear. We do not kill little Gnolls.”

“That is a Doombringer—

Perale held up a paw, and Xherw controlled himself. The Chieftain glanced at something in his paw.

“The other reason is simple. I hear many opinions I trust and some I do not. But I trust my own tribe most, as do we all. I have just received a [Message] from Honored Berr. He says he will punch me if I do not protect the little child. So we go.”

Honored…

Where was Honored Berr? Xherw hadn’t even noticed he was gone. But Chieftain Perale had received a missive from his [Berserker], and…

“On the word of one Gnoll? Chieftain Perale, this is greater than a snap-decision!”

The Chieftain turned, and Xherw stopped as he reached out for Perale’s shoulder. Perale had a glint in his calm eyes.

“Honored Berr does not say these things lightly. I have seen enough. I trust Silverfang and the Great Protector of Gaarh Marsh. I trust Shaman Theikha. I trust you, Xherw—but I must ask if you went deaf this morning?”

“Even Elementals can be mistaken.”

Perale just shook his head at Xherw.

“You must think I’m as stupid as I just claimed, Xherw. Besides—Berr will be angry with me. Have you ever been punched by him when he is angry? Keep it up and you might find out what it is like.”

He turned and strode away. Two great tribes of the Plains joined Silverfang, and then Gnolls began to really waver, and it seemed Plain’s Eye was not so right as they claimed. But the greatest drama had yet to take place.

 

——

 

Chieftain Eska of Longstalker’s Fang wished it had never come to this. She stood with her tribe, with part of Ekhtouch, Silverfang, and wondered how it had come to this. She longed for the time when the worst they had to worry about was the revelation of magic and Earth.

But this had always been there—she just hadn’t expected to have Mrsha here in person.

Such a strange little girl who wrote on notecards. If only she had a voice, she could defend herself.

They were arguing now. Torishi and Xherw held back as Chieftains, [Shamans], and honored Gnolls argued. There were still several powerful tribes undecided. Legends among Gnolls, like the Named Adventurer, Gadiekh the World-Pact Adventurer.

Garsine Wallbreaker, taller than even Gire, and her tribe. The famed [Tanner], Honored Shedrkh, and his tribe.

Many more—and they were listening hard to the arguments. In fact—Eska narrowed her eyes.

Chieftain Orelighn. What are you doing?

She called down to the Greenpaw Chieftain and his small tribe. The Chieftain did not meet her eyes. Nor had he joined them in their camp. He hid his face, and Eska growled at him. Then she turned her ears to the arguments.

“No, she’s not evil. She’s a kid. She eats lobsters. How many monsters have you seen that eat lobsters?”

“What—what kind of an argument is that? Do you not see her fur, Lehra Ruinstrider? Do you not agree that doom has followed us?”

The Named Adventurer was arguing with another Gold-rank Gnoll and his team, and Eska could wish for a better representative for their side. Because Lehra…was not gifted.

“Eh, I’m a Named Adventurer. I get into scrapes like this all the time. You know Wall Lord Dragial? Sometimes it’s just people like him causing trouble.”

“Like a Doombringer.”

“Y—n—she’s a kid.

One of the most powerful arguments was simple. She was a child.

“Yet she has no voice. If that is not an omen—I do not know what is. And her tribe did die. You cannot deny these facts, Adventurer Ruinstrider. She has wiped out her own people. That she did not have the decency to die with them and somehow escaped a Goblin Lord? That is proof as well.”

Someone broke in. They pointed at Mrsha, and Eska turned.

“Someone—Honored Deskie. Carry the girl away so she does not have to hear this.”

The [Magical Weaver] was staring at the Gnoll, and Lehra made a fist but was pulled back by Elgrinna. However, Honored Deskie just shook her head.

“They say terrible things, Chieftain Eska.”

“Things she should not hear.”

Deskie cast her gaze towards the little Gnoll girl holding Krshia’s paw.

“She has heard worse, I am afraid. She must be here. Let her stay; it would be worse for her to not face them.”

Eska hesitated because it seemed so terribly cruel, but Deskie just nodded to her.

“I am going to speak to my kin among [Weavers], [Spinners], and [Sewers] who will listen to me. And if they do not? I will poke a few holes in their heads.”

She brandished a large needle, and Eska backed away. Old Gnolls were scary. And the truth was…they were still divided.

More equally than before, but Gnolls were listening to the arguments, and Mrsha’s past was being dissected, taken out of context. Liscor could be traced to many events from the Raskghar to the Circle of Thorns.

Eska kept hearing a name being bought up by Liscor’s Gnolls, as if it explained things. Erin Solstice. But to many Gnolls, the real proof was the first.

“Her tribe died and her fur became white! Doombringer or Doombearer—it seems the truth is clear. When tribes end—one Gnoll carries that blame.”

“They do not cause it. If the [Shamans] have gotten it wrong—”

“Borne or brought, it is still doom! The stories say—”

The stories. Eska looked around for Satar Silverfang. Wasn’t she looking into the stories? She had rushed into her tent when she had heard the Doombearer’s true name spoken aloud.

At the heart of this was secrecy. Eska had not forgotten some traitor had likely conspired with the Drakes to steal magic. Was it all…a thread that connected it all? She felt so, but she was still missing one last piece. She just had suspicions. Eska watched Xherw, but he was deploying Plains Eye’s countless [Shamans], who were loudly reciting tales of Doombringers.

The Beast of Albez was but one of many stories they retold to their audiences, who listened and argued. However…something was off.

 

——

 

Satar Silverfang knew it. She was hearing the stories they told from afar, and the Plain’s Eye [Shamans] were confused too.

Because…their stories of the Doombringer’s evil, how they would erase tribes and had even ended the Kingdom of Gnolls, were being listened to.

But they weren’t working. Or rather, they were only half-effective. Gnolls listened, and even the traditionalists looked at Mrsha and hesitated.

Not just because she was a child. But because there was only one. The scourge of calamities laid at the feet of Doombringers. Even if you believed them, there were not dozens. Not hundreds.

Just. One.

And then Satar realized what the problem was. The [Historian of the World], the [Writer], was searching the book of Khelt’s histories, writing desperately and watching the ink fade away.

She was trying to recover the missing passage of the story of the Beast of Albez. She couldn’t find how it had been told. But she knew something in her heart that made her want to weep.

It was what the [Shamans] had to realize too, in their hearts. Their stories were failing to whip Gnolls into a frenzy of fear, they were ineffective…

Because it was all over. Because it was too late. This was not the reckoning between Gnolls on Doombringers. That had…already happened.

The worst had come to pass, long ago. This was after, long after, when the stories were showing their cracks and the terrible truth was unveiling itself. They had already won long ago. That was why they were losing today.

Because Mrsha really was one of a handful of Doombringers in the entire world. Plain’s Eye would not have one more. So Satar searched.

She wondered where Yelroan had gone. The [Mathematician] had been ready to protect Mrsha with his life and in doing so, broken from his tribe. He had been taken in by the Silverfangs and promised to help her research, but he had gone off, claiming he had a lead to follow.

Satar forgot about him as her quill’s ink failed to disappear. She began to write more frantically, racing with each minute to pull the heart of the stories out of deception.

Outside, the shouting voices went quiet as a single Gnoll spoke. And the greatest drama of the Meeting of Tribes today took place today.

 

——

 

“Her tribe is dead. That is what will happen to us all if we leave that thing alive!”

A Gnoll with a spear was jostling as a group of them shoved forwards. Weatherfur’s warriors had blades bared, shields raised. Mrsha saw Qwera moving to shield her as Ysara Byres drew her sword.

Was it Xherw orchestrating this? If Mrsha died…even as Chieftains shouted and tried to restore order, it hovered on the edge of violence. Perhaps he thought it was better to risk battle before it came to words.

Almost. She saw the Gnoll raise a spear to cast and wondered if the Skills would let it strike her or if someone she loved would get hurt or die. But then—it vanished. The Gnoll threw and was tackled, but he blinked at his empty paw before he was knocked flat.

Vetn, the Thief of Clouds, whistled as he strolled out of the crowd and tossed the spear down with a shudder. Tesy was drawing a line in the grass—literally, with a huge brush, as Gnolls forced the others to back clear of the no-walking zone.

Mrsha could have hugged her silly protectors. But she knew that however dedicated they were—the criminals were ironically not good at bodyguard duty. Like Wilovan and Ratici…they were a [Magical Painter] and a [Thief], not bodyguards.

They couldn’t protect her from that simple killer. An arrow, a sniper.

A crossbow bolt.

—But perhaps he could. A Gnoll in the crowd suddenly shouted.

Assassin! They’re trying to assassinate the Doombringer and Torishi Weatherfur! Look!

Every head turned, and a Gnoll hidden against the top of a tent cursed, tossed the bow behind her, and tried to appear innocent. Howls of outrage rose as Chieftain Xherw instantly ordered the offending Gnoll arrested and swore on truth spell he had no idea what had happened.

It was a bad look. And Plain’s Eye began to realize their Doomslayers might be ruthless killers, but they were no match for an actual [Infiltrator].

Ferris of Manus nodded at Mrsha as she gazed at him, eyes wide. He slipped into the crowd. Had Lyonette sent him? He was a lot better than those silly Thronebearers.

Nor was he the only one. Someone yelped, and one of the ‘camera crew’ went down howling as a Drake with a broken hand—including three broken fingers—dropped a wand. He’d been edging around to aim at Mrsha!

He went to run—and ran into a boot. Mrsha saw a hand descend over her eyes—she’d seen the first kick to the teeth, but Qwera and Ysara stopped her from seeing the other ones.

“Excuse me. I believe the trash is infiltrating this Meeting of Tribes. Curious how they all seem to be trying to kill one person. Is that a Drake conspiracy? But don’t mind me, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll dispose of this one.”

A…[Maid] curtsied to her stunned audience. Gnolls pointed at her, and the smiling Drake wearing steel-toed boots picked up the Drake with another Human [Maid]. But every eye was fixed on the one who had done the hand-breaking.

A Gnoll in a [Maid]’s outfit calmly looked around, and Bekia, the [Maid] of House Reinhart, lifted what could have been a feather duster. Or a wand with a bunch of wisps of cloth attached.

“Lady Reinhart’s servants are here! The Humans are interfering in the tribes’ business!”

“Excuse me, sir. I am a Gnoll as much as you are. Lady Reinhart has indeed sent us—but she considers it a mission of morality. I have every right to be here. I am a Plains Gnoll, and I once was a [Chieftain].”

Mrsha gawped at Bekia as the [Maid] dusted someone’s face, causing them to sneeze. She looked…imposing. And that name. 

“Bekia?”

Even Torishi started. She peered at the [Maid] and pointed.

“Are you…Chieftain Bekia of the Longclaw? A tribe censured for being [Raiders]?”

Bekia slowly bowed as people recognized the name. Her face was impeccable, but her voice betrayed a bit of her emotions.

“I…was. I do not claim any right to be counted among the voices here, Chieftain Torishi. But Lady Magnolia Reinhart bade me come here to defend the life of that girl, and so I shall. I caution you—we may be [Maids] of House Reinhart, but we will enforce that girl’s safety in any way necessary.”

By kicking the teeth out of a Drake, counter-assassinating Plain’s Eye Gnolls in their tents—Ulcre was ready to attack her, but he would have had to admit what they had been about to do.

And he’d lost sight of that damn Gnoll! The other one!

 

——

 

Ferris strode along with some of the [Maids], on the watch. He doubted Plain’s Eye would try another visible sniper, and if they did? It was more grist for the rumors spreading they were just out to kill Mrsha. And why do that if they were right and confident they’d persuade anyone?

He was patting the Drake’s hand who was being dragged along.

My teef. You shahid—

“Shut up in the name of Manus.”

The [Maids] eyed Ferris as he hissed at the Drake. They were giving him looks of slight respect. Even for one of Manus’ lot—it was a dirty move. Xherw was denying hiring a Drake assassin, of course, and he was honestly confused.

Mainly because Ferris had arranged it. He was not above dirtying someone else’s name. Especially since the [Chieftain]’s guilty conscience would betray him already.

The ideal way to conduct this battle was to have, behind every shining beacon of morality like Torishi, a real bastard with no scruples about doing what had to be done. Ferris was only glad they had more than one.

 

——

 

Lady Magnolia Reinhart had her first chance to address the Meeting of Tribes. She’d had a slot booked to propose her peace treaty—but that moment might never come.

She did not bring up the wall between North and South. Perhaps it might never come. But sometimes…you simply had to stand.

Magnolia Reinhart bowed her head slightly.

“Gnolls of Izril, it is my deepest honor to greet you.”

“You say this, yet I notice you are not here in person, Human. You went begging to Drakes with great gifts before the Meeting of Tribes.”

Magnolia Reinhart pursed her lips as a female Gnoll shot back.

“I regret to say that the Meeting of Tribes was on my list, but I thought I could persuade the Walled Cities first then attend—but for Zeres besieging Oteslia. Besides which—they did invite me. I quite notice I had no invitations from Gnolls. And at any rate, I believed and still believe the Drakes needed more…persuasion. You know how stubborn they can be, Chieftain Werri.”

The Gnolls smiled at that. But they watched her warily and with no trust. Magnolia wished she could have presented her gifts to them or spoken. But she could not.

And they certainly knew it. The Gnolls were eying the room behind her.

“You seem quite cosy for someone who did not bother to even try to visit the Meeting of Tribes, Lady Reinhart. In fact, are you at your estates in the north already? For someone who claims they were held by Zeres, your magical carriage certainly seems to have headed north already. We are not fools; we know it has already left for the north.”

Magnolia blinked at the speaker.

“As a matter of fact, that was a separate mission for one of my servants, Chieftain Xherw. I am still in Oteslia. If you would like, I can move this wretched scrying orb and show you an objectionable number of Drakes camped outside the walls.”

The Chieftain frowned at her, and Magnolia would have ordered the scrying orb moved—but she had no Ressa to efficiently carry out her orders. More than that…she sighed.

They did not like her already. And they were not going to like this. But sometimes you just had to smile.

“Chieftains, I have a simple message for you. And I know my words are being broadcast across the world—thank you for that, Wistram. Even in an hour of crisis, I can count upon you to watch and do little.”

She beamed into the camera as the Gnolls frowned at her. Chieftain Reizet frowned and then barked sharply.

“Speak, Magnolia Reinhart! This is not your affair!”

Magnolia inclined her head to the Gnoll again.

“It is not. And I will say only this to preface my words. When I approach another species, especially one with so much bad blood, I am conscious of the weight of history between us. The understandable, nay, necessary distrust. By deed, I hope to win your willingness to work together, and I know it will take more than I might have. For a great cooperation to unite Izril, I must be daring and cautious, humble and extend every hand in welcome even if I receive only claws.”

Her audience frowned at her, and Magnolia Reinhart took a slight breath, heart beating overloud in her chest. She did wish Ressa were here. Even one crook of the lips, a slight smile…

Magnolia Reinhart met the eyes of the Gnolls through the scrying orb.

“In short, it is politic to say little and promise nothing. To make friends and to refrain from acting like a Reinhart. Or Veltras. Or Wellfar…Terlands or Els might do.”

She sighed as they gazed at her uncomprehendingly. She was tracing around the sugar dish. Magnolia folded her hands together and smiled.

“However. Some things are not to be borne at any cost. I have sent my servants to the Meeting of Tribes despite any discourtesy they might offer. They will not leave. They will protect that child, little Mrsha, and I tell you to your faces, Gnolls of Izril. Do not touch her. Harm her, Chieftain Xherw of Plain’s Eye, Reizet of Az’muzarre, and I will summon the Five Families to battle your tribes. House Reinhart never forgets, and I will never forgive you nor any Gnoll who joins you. Am I clear?”

“Are you threatening the tribes, Human?”

Reizet howled. Magnolia Reinhart’s spring green eyes narrowed and focused on the Gnoll.

“I am warning you, Chieftain. I do not permit anyone to kill children on my lands or anywhere else. No matter what you call her.”

“And you will march your armies into Drake lands to enforce your threat? You are toothless, Human.”

The Az’muzarre Chieftain and Magnolia Reinhart locked gazes. Magnolia Reinhart shook her head ever-so-slightly.

“The Circle of Thorns vanished because they dared to poison two sons of House Veltras. Is one Gnoll child worth so little that House Reinhart would not care?”

A snarl was her only answer, but it was Chieftain Torishi who shook her head.

“Gnoll children die many times over in countless tragedies. Is this one the single life to matter, Magnolia Reinhart, or is it as you say, politic?

She fixed Magnolia with a stare, and the [Lady] sighed. She wished the Gnoll could see they were on the same side. But she supposed she deserved that. She gave Torishi a bright, regretful smile.

“Not at all, Chieftain Torishi. But I have met this girl. Seldom do I see a tragedy that I can prevent in such direct terms. Call it selfish, call it selective, and it is both. And believe me, I regret that we first meet with threats. But—”

She extended a finger and pointed at Xherw.

“Harm that child and I will call down the wrath of the north on you. A Reinhart’s word on it.”

He didn’t have time to answer. A snarling Reizet strode over, and the orb went silent as she probably smashed the one on her side. Magnolia held herself there for a second. Then she sat down.

“Decline all of Wistram’s…whatever. I fear I’ve just ruined all the plans of decades.”

She rested her head on one arm, closing her eyes. One of her [Maids] hesitated as they moved around the scrying orb. A Drake bowed to Magnolia.

“Begging your pardon, Lady Reinhart. But I think there was nothing you could have done.”

“Of course not. I hardly think—”

“No, Lady Reinhart. I think there was little you could have done for the better.”

Magnolia Reinhart looked up at the [Maid]. And it said something that she had the blankest look on her face.

“Really? You think so? You will have to explain that one to me, my dear. But for now—I need a bowl of ice cream. Ice cream cake. And tell the Velistrane to move up the coast. It is too large to sail up the rivers that pass through the Great Plains. But that girl may need a route north. Or myself as well.”

 

——

 

If nothing else, Magnolia Reinhart of Izril became known in that moment as someone opposed to killing children for whatever reason.

It was a considerable step up from the rest of the Reinhart family’s reputations. Did it matter?

It did, a bit. Although some Gnolls considered that anyone that one of the Five Families was protecting might well be a threat for that reason alone.

However, the bitter strife around Mrsha was reaching a head. Gnolls were shouting and pushing when the event happened.

“Stone Spears—I knew them. Chieftain Urksh was a good Gnoll! But that child—I know her too. I remember the day I heard that a [Shaman] and over a dozen Gnolls were expelled from the tribe. Even the day she was born, she had no voice. She was marked and brought naught but trouble, and I believe the [Shaman] saw it.”

A Gnoll was speaking to a crowd of others. Qwera was pushing up to try and throttle him to death, but the Chieftain of the Kedarune tribe was not about to let the Golden Gnoll anywhere around him, nor any of the Silverfang’s allies. He was pointing at Mrsha with a snarl as she made rapid, rude gestures. But her eyes were swimming a bit.

They were so cruel, these adults, to one little girl. The Chieftain went on.

Is that not a sign? Answer me, Chieftain Torishi!

She did not, but someone else did. The Chieftain of the Kedarune tribe was listing Mrsha’s entire history from a biased perspective to the scrying orb recording the entire debate. He turned as backup came to denounce the Doombringer and smiled widely.

“And here is another to speak up in face of the Five Families and all the deluded. Chieftain Mrell—”

Mrsha’s head rose as the Chieftain of the Demas Metal tribe and his bodyguard strode onto the stage. Then Mrell raised a fist and punched the Kedarune’s Chieftain off the stage and into the crowd.

Of all the things—! Xherw himself looked around as the young Demas Metal Chieftain took a stand. But why was he…? Iraz was quite complimentary towards Chieftain Mrell, and he had no deep ties with Silverfang; he’d offered them armaments on loan, but he was a diplomatic, careful Gnoll.

What was he doing? Xherw had no context for what Mrell had done or what he was about to do.

The outraged Kedarune Chieftain came up, and Gnolls recoiled and some almost laughed at his face. He felt at his fur, and his paws came away with…

“Paint? What the—”

In the seconds since he’d fallen and gotten up, someone had scrawled ‘loser’ all over his face in red paint. The Gnoll smeared it into his fur as he swiped at it.

Chieftain Mrell! Have you taken leave of your—

“My senses? Come up here and I will strike you again! You want me to denounce that girl? Mrsha?”

Mrell was shaking. He pointed to Mrsha as the other tribes looked at him. The Gnoll’s voice cracked, and the [Smithing Chieftain] shouted around.

“Do you want to kill her? A Doombringer? A white Gnoll? Would you ask me to? To—kill my own daughter?”

Xherw’s mouth opened. Even Chieftains like Firrelle and Iraz did a double-take.

What had he just said? Mrell shouted it, tears streaming from his eyes.

“I am Chieftain Mrell of the Demas Metal tribe. And that—that is Mrsha, my daughter! I was the one who abandoned her. She was never guilty of anything but having parents unworthy of raising her. Now—now I have found her once more. And you would kill her? You will have to kill me first. That is my daughter, and you will have her, Xherw, over my dead body. I will never let her go again, no matter what comes.”

He turned to Mrsha as Demas Metal looked at their Chieftain and Mrsha, and gasps and howls spread through the Meeting of Tribes. The camera focused on Mrell—then a Gnoll burst through the crowd, leading nearly a hundred female Gnolls.

“She is my daughter too! And Sofang and I will not let anyone hurt her! I am Prha of Sofang!”

A female Gnoll shouted, bow raised, aiming around. Mrsha’s parents. The little Gnoll stared at them as the other Gnolls saw her parents, standing by Mrsha, defying the other tribes and Chieftains.

A child and parents. That…it was one thing for a Doombringer to stand alone, but when the two ran to her, past a growling Torishi? The Gnolls wavered. Who here could truly say they didn’t look like a family? One filled with regretful parents?

The television broadcast from Wistram News Network focused on Mrell as he held ‘his daughter’.

And Lyonette du Marquin exploded.

 

——

 

You bastard. You bastard! Your daughter? YOUR DAUGHTER?

She was shaking the scrying orb so hard that Ser Dalimont had to stop her before she cracked it. The [Princess] was incandescent. She was frothing at the mouth as Dame Ushar tried to restrain her.

“Princess—she is safe!”

That is not their child! Those two worthless, vagabond, child-stealing harpies without an ounce of care for Mrsha their entire lives—let go of me! I will have them drawn and quartered! I will call the wrath of Calanfer down on all of them! All of—”

The next twenty minutes were filled with nothing but Lyonette cursing, kicking, and shouting such profanity that even Wilovan and Ratici, no strangers to foul language, were offended. Even Xif, an [Alchemist], was impressed.

Then the [Princess] calmed down.

“We’re leaving Oteslia. Now. Where is Cire?”

“Getting ready, Your Highness.”

The [Princess]’ eyes rolled upwards, and Ser Dalimont hesitated. He was considering trying to talk her out of it again, insist they go alone—and Ser Sest and Ser Lormel looked like they were thinking of the same. But one look and Dalimont closed his mouth.

He was still shaking with relief after seeing Princess Seraphel riding out to break Ailendamus’ lines. If anything had kept Lyonette—it was watching the end of her nation. And for Cire to get ready himself. But it was beyond time.

“Take me to him.”

Wall Lord Ilvriss had left the city. Magnolia Reinhart had stayed, but the carriage had already left—as had Rafaema and Mivifa. So Lyonette just strode out of her mansion to the one meeting that mattered.

 

——

 

The rulers of Oteslia were not just the First Gardener and [Generals]. They were also the Council of [Druids]. Even a number of high-level Drakes and Gnolls in other roles.

However, today, Cirediel Anvi’dualln Olicuemerdn had only called for the ones with any war capacity. So the First Gardener, Shaerrha Brasswing, had granted this oddly formal audience.

She was already under a lot of stress, and Hunt Commander Makhir was going insane upon realizing that Rafaema was missing. Manus itself was on the march with a vast, vast army to protect their Dragon.

And here was Cire. He had insisted on the meeting, gone as far as to threaten to shout his true nature from the rooftops of Oteslia if he didn’t get it.

Was that how he convinced Mivifa to take Rafaema north? The First Gardener didn’t know her exact location, but she had spotted the Pegasus going north, and Pallass had confirmed Mivifa had flown past their walls, but little else.

He’d probably sworn on a truth spell he’d do it, too. Dead gods. Dead gods and Ancestors. Shaerrha had heard that Cire had done this before, but it was the first time he’d been this out of control.

The worst part was that he meant it. So she’d humored him. He probably had an idea for the war or some strategy. She had given him fifteen minutes to make his pitch and summoned everyone—but she had not been ready for Lyonette du Marquin and her Thronebearers to attend.

“Cirediel! What is this?”

One of Oteslia’s [Generals] rose slightly. She stared at Lyonette, who gave them a very proper, if somewhat harried bow. She looked—emotional. Flushed, and Cire was clearly nervous.

“She has to be here. She needs to be—because I need Oteslia to go to war. Or not war? I need an army. We’re going to the Meeting of Tribes to rescue that kid on television! What’s her name! The white one!”

“Mrsha.”

Lyonette whispered to him, and Cire nodded.

“Mrsha!”

“Oh dead gods.”

The Watch Captain, who also controlled the Pegasus Riders, put his head in his claws. Everyone looked at Cire, from the amused [Druids] to the serious strategists and military leaders. All of them knew Cire’s nature. And all of them knew his…personality.

Shaerrha gazed at Lyonette with frank disappointment. Disappointment and a grudging, bitter admiration.

Lyonette du Marquin had made no secret of her goals to leave Oteslia and her need for help. The First Gardener knew in an instant what she’d done.

She’d slept with Cire. Because she had, Cire had gotten the notion he was a hero into his head. Hopefully—hopefully not a father to this Gnoll child or anything even worse. At least Lyonette wouldn’t be expecting children—that was the last thing they needed.

They had to nip this in the bud. There was no question, obviously, so Shaerrha rose.

“Princess Lyonette. There is no need to keep up the pretense, I hope? I know you have spoken to many individuals at length about aid for Gnolls, and I am sympathetic to your needs.”

“We all are. But this is going too far and fruitless.”

One of the [Druids], the Human, Nalthar…something…spoke up. His glare at Lyonette was fierce, and Shaerrha nodded. She took another breath, and Cire interrupted.

“No it’s not. I need an army. I insist! Upon my authority—I will rule Oteslia someday. That’s what you all keep saying. Well—today I’m taking charge. Ready the First Army!”

He pointed at their foremost [General], and the Drake gave him a pained look. The First Gardener turned. That was enough.

“Cirediel Anvi’dualln Olicuemerdn. Be silent.”

He wavered, but the admonition and full use of his name that Shaerrha seldom used didn’t work. She must have really…the First Gardener glowered at Lyonette, who didn’t move.

“Not even for Cire will we go to war against both Zeres and the Gnoll tribes, Princess Marquin. I do not care what Cire has told you, but he is only my son, not—”

“She knows I’m a Dragon.”

“—not—”

Shaerrha’s gaze darted to the doors, but the Thronebearers weren’t present. They had reluctantly agreed to stand outside when the [Princess] had put her foot down. Probably because she knew this was about to happen.

The Drakes and Gnolls and [Druids] in the room all looked up. One closed her eyes—some cried out. The Watch Captain simply reached for a speaking stone.

“I need the memory dust. Now.”

“Wait! Wait! I told her I was a Dragon and Rafaema too! I promised her aid!”

Cirediel! You have endangered yourself and Oteslia and Manus!”

One of the [Strategists] shot to their feet. Cire just held up his claws placatingly.

“Listen to me. Just—just be quiet. Listen to me. I said—you’re not—you never—listen to me!

Something snapped. There was a rumble, a roar—and then the beautiful Drake Oldblood boy, with shimmering scales of many colors and mismatched eyes, was suddenly filling the room.

A Dragon looked down at Shaerrha, and her knees felt weak. He turned, cramped in this room, and Lyonette du Marquin sprang back with a look of awe. She had never seen Cire.

“Princess? Princess! Open the—”

Someone thumped into the door; a [Thronebearer]. But Cire’s tail was blocking it. The Earth Dragon rumbled.

“Listen to me. Now.”

It took a few minutes to let the Thronebearers in after Cire changed back and reassure them Lyonette was well. This time they insisted on posting two in the room, no matter what their [Princess] said.

They could sense danger—but there were four of them and a lot of Oteslia’s soldiers. They’d all need to be dealt with.

A [Princess] of a Terandrian nation. This was a disaster. All of Oteslia’s council looked at each other, but they listened. For once—Cire was speaking, and it wasn’t with his usual brashness.

“A girl is going to be killed just for…just for looking like she is. I know she’s a Gnoll girl and not one of Oteslia, but Lyonette is her mother. She didn’t give birth to her or anything, but she’s still…her mother. It makes sense when she explains it. She came to me for help, and I know there’s strategy, and we don’t want to fight Zeres and stuff, but I told her…everything. She’s helping me and Rafaema, too.”

“To do what, Cire?”

The Earth Dragon shut his mouth.

“I—can’t tell you. But it’s super important. Enough that I promised to help her. Not just that. It’s because it’s right.”

The First Gardener was looking at the others. What could Cire and Rafeama be up to? Something revolving around their heritage? Rafaema manifesting more of her power? But then she was caught by something Cire said.

“It’s not right. Killing a kid just because she has white fur.”

“Of course it isn’t. No one is denying that. But you cannot invoke the City of Growth and kill countless thousands for no reason.”

One of the [Generals] shot back, trying to temper his words. Cire just looked at him.

“I know that. But—I don’t want to be Rafaema. I know you always tell me how disciplined she is and how good she is for Manus. Well—Manus sucks. I’ve been there. They never change. They kill anyone who gets in the way of ‘Drakes’. I bet they were behind putting the magic-sucking crystals in the ground. And you know what? I bet Dragonspeaker Luciva would never help even if Rafaema begged her. Because she only cares about Manus. But we’re Oteslia. Gnolls are our people too. That’s what you’ve always taught me. Should I ignore them? All the other Walled Cities are making war on Gnolls, and they didn’t do anything. We did something.”

“That’s…true.”

Oteslia’s council looked at Cire. They were not happy with it, and Cire was speaking what some had said in utmost private. The Earth Dragon looked around and shifted. He rubbed at his face, and Shaerrha recognized it. He was trying not to get teary.

“I—I know it’s a lot to ask. But everyone tells me that someday I will lead Oteslia.

Everyone glanced at the Thronebearers, but they were stoic, and Cire was giving nothing away. The young man went on.

“Someday. It’s a long way away, I know. I don’t want it. But if I ever do lead Oteslia? I won’t let it be a city that cares about only Drakes. We are sharing this continent with Gnolls and Humans. So many Gnolls live in our city, but they get treated worse because people say we own the city. I never understood that. If I rule Oteslia…if I rule, we will never turn them away. We won’t let them be second-class to Drakes. We are all people, and I have friends in every species. It’s right that we protect kids. If we can’t be a city that does that—what good is there, being a Walled City?”

Shaerrha sat there. Twice this month she’d been moved to tears. Once, by a speech by a Human [Lady] speaking of a dream of the future, sharing a burden the First Gardener thought no Human could ever understand.

The second time…was this. She looked at Cire and saw in his youth and brashness, the wild young Dragon cooped up in a city, the foundation she hoped was there.

Someday…she looked over and saw one of the [Druids] was in tears. A Gnoll gazed at Cire, and someone blew their nose.

He would be everything they hoped of him. Someday. But today—his brave words, if not a perfect speech—were still not enough.

They believed this was the spark of his change. But he was still Cire. He didn’t know what he was asking, and he asked too much with no plan.

“I’m sorry, Cire. Even though you are right—to force Zeres to break the siege would be, potentially, an act of war.”

They could risk it, but march an army into the Great Plains? Shaerra was already eying Lyonette, wondering if they could enforce her silence with a death-pact or whether they’d have to wipe her memory. She was actually a good influence on Cire?

The problem was that Oteslia’s council was so used to Cire running amok and causing naught but trouble that they didn’t believe even his best intentions. So the Earth Dragon looked around, disappointed, and kicked at the beautiful wood flooring, scuffing it.

“…Okay. There’s one more reason you’ve gotta help. I also might’ve made a death-pact with Lyonette’s new Skill. If her daughter dies, both of us do.”

Shaerrha slipped as she reached for a glass of water, and it went crashing to the floor. One of the [Druids] stabbed themself in the face with a claw as they dabbed at their eyes. The Thronebearers turned to Lyonette with looks of horror, and the door opened so two more could look inside.

The Council of Oteslia’s finest minds and protectors of their greatest charge, the Earth Dragon, doubted Cire’s best intentions. But this?

They believed it instantly. It was so Cire that—

“Remove it. Remove the Skill.

Shaerrha was shaking Lyonette, and not even Dalimont could get her to break her grip. But the [Princess] had a death’s grin.

“Never.”

Cirediel!

The others were surrounding Cire, shouting, tearing at their neck-spines. Someone was throwing up outside a window. Nalthaliarstrelous was just giving Lyonette a level look.

“She’s more like Reinhart every day.”

He commented to Dame Ushar, who gave him a horrified look. The Thronebearers had not known it either.

“Listen, it’ll be okay. It matters—just send an army. Listen. I don’t regret it. I want to do something. I’m tired of—hey. Listen! Listen to—

Cire was trying to explain, but a [General] shoved off from the table.

“I’ll organize a squadron of Pegasi at once. How long is this Skill for? We’ll bring the child to Oteslia.”

“No, we’ll all go. I’m going! I’m going to fight!”

“Cire, don’t be ridiculous. We must help, it seems—we should send specialists.”

They were talking over him. The Earth Dragon’s look of triumph faded as he realized that they were going to do something because they had to—indeed, killing Lyonette might just trigger the clause.

…But he was being left out of it.

Hey! I’m going! We’re all going! Come on, guys! This is my responsibility. Will you just—trust me? For once?”

“Trust you after this?

Someone laughed hysterically. Cire looked at the speaker, truly hurt.

“You need to trust me sometime. I know I’m…daring, but I mean it. This matters. So—just listen. Just listen and trust me. Will you—will you just shut up and follow me?

His eyes flashed, and he stomped his foot as his wings spread wide. And Lyonette, Shaerrha, and everyone else in the room saw something familiar. Just like Rafaema—something burst out of Cire as he shouted with true emotion.

Follow me! It’s the right thing to do, I know it! I can’t sit here any longer. Fly with me.

The First Gardener lowered her claws from her ears. What was…that tone in his voice? It was uncertain, untrained. But she felt that stomp run through the great tree at the heart of the City of Growth.

Then Cire was turning. He leapt out a window in a cannonball, then his wings opened. He flew, faster than she had ever seen him go, propelled by something he was half-feeling, half-chasing.

The tree!

One of the [Druids] looked out the window in shock, horror, and awe. Shaerrha ran after Cire, and the call caught in her mouth.

The leaves were falling. Dozens upon dozens, falling over the City of Growth, being caught by nets, as large as the roofs of houses. Some gently squashed passersby. But that wasn’t the only thing.

One of the Drakes leapt out the window, and a Pegasus caught them. As Lyonette and the Council ran from the building onto a branch-balcony, they looked up, and one of them gasped.

“What is that?”

He pointed to something upon one of the branches. It had definitely not been there a day ago. Shaerrha had never seen it before.

It was not a monster or animal come to feed on the great tree of ages, the likes of which had once been thousands strong in the greatest forests the world had ever seen. Nor was it sap or debris. It looked like…the bud of some flower.

Oteslia’s tree had never flowered.

The First Gardener stared at it a second. Then she saw and heard a storm of voices. Not Drake, not Gnoll—they filled the air, and the Pegasi flying about dove or flew out of the way as ten thousand birds took wing.

Every nesting bird, migratory traveler, and rodent with wings suddenly took to the air, shrieking and chirping, from goshawks to hummingbirds, ravens and lost pelicans. Creona Flashbirds and even the loathsome Garbichug Revolter.

Magic and mundane. They took to the air, calling as they followed a single figure streaking through the air. Cire looked over his shoulder and flew faster as an army of animals followed him.

What’s happening? What’s—

Not just birds, either. Dogs ran free, and cats deliberated whether to join them before sauntering off their perches. Angry squirrels and even rats joined a swarm racing through the streets.

Following the Dragon.

“It’s a [Wildcall]. He did it with his voice.

A [Druid] spoke in a hushed voice. It was Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid]’s expression of annoyed discontent had shifted to one of genuine awe.

“Not just one species. All of them.”

The Earth Dragon was laughing as he turned, birds flying around him, a sea of animals racing below, braying, and causing havoc in Oteslia. The First Gardener watched, and someone groaned. Their [General].

“Oh, wonderful. He can command every sparrow in Oteslia.”

Shaerrha Brasswing murmured, her vision growing cloudy as she stood there, watching her beloved son flying and laughing.

“Someday he will lead armies and our people into that better future. But he has to live till then.”

That broke the spell. Everyone raced for the Pegasi, calling out for horses, to summon the army! But that Dragon child, growing a bit older with every second, could not wait.

He flew towards the walls, and the City Guard looked up.

“Hey, Cire! Don’t come too close. What was that sound? What are those…birds?”

They turned as Cire alighted on the walls. Of course, many of the Watch knew who Cire was…it was an open secret in Oteslia, unfortunately. But the panting Earth Dragon looked different than any had known him.

There was a kind of strange determination in his eyes as he gazed past the walls. A huge war camp of Drakes sat, encircling Oteslia’s gates. One of those usual sieges. It was still dangerous—but he hesitated only once.

“Cire. What’s going—no, Cire, don’t—

He leapt off the walls and flew straight towards the army of Zeres. The guards on the walls watched him in horror—then they sounded the alarm.

 

——

 

To the misfortune of all, it was not Admiral Asale of Zeres who was on-duty when Cire crossed over the walls. It was the Sharkcaptain of Zeres, who held a rank equivalent to the Admiralty in some respects.

Sharkcaptain Femar, champion of the Serpentine Matriarch, had many similarities to the Lightherald of Calanfer, though both would have resented the comparison if they had both been alive and in the same room.

He had inherited the serrated spear and armor as well as class, responsibilities, and authority, but Zeres did choose the best to take the post.

Just not always a balance of martial abilities, command, and sense. The Sharkcaptain was already angry about having to let the Wall Lords and Ladies of each city, and Saliss of Lights, go while thumbing their tails at his forces.

The sight of the First Gardener’s son flying towards Zeres’ camp with an army of birds didn’t make him blink.

“I’ve heard of that brat. Chase him off. Shoot some arrows.”

“It’s the First Gardener’s son, Sharkcaptain.”

And we are Zeres.

The Sharkcaptain hauled up an officer by their armor. He snapped around.

“Loose a few warning shots! If they wing him, we’ll ransom him back to Oteslia! Is this a siege or daycare?

A few [Archers] obeyed, and the Earth Dragon saw several bows rise. He dove—and an arrow missed him by a mile as birds screeched and avoided it. A second passed over his tail as he shouted insults—

And the third grazed his cheek. The Sharkcaptain grunted. He had to admit—it was a good dodge. The kid had some reflexes.

“Alright, enough. Warn him off, and if he keeps going, get me a [Mage]; net’ll only break his bones if he comes crashing down. I guess tell Asale or Land Admir—”

Thwoom. The Sharkcaptain was mid-sentence when the first tower on Oteslia’s walls lit up. He saw the flash and felt the impact as a bolt of lightning hit the earth and sent everyone stumbling backwards, but the sound was slower than the impact.

The Sharkcaptain looked up, stunned, as Admiral Asale, the Quartermaster, kicked his way out of a tent. He took one look at Femar and bellowed.

“What did you do? What did you d—

 

——

 

Femar had no idea who Cire was. He did not even have suspicions, so he thought he was making the provocative choice of shooting arrows at the First Gardener’s son. Not the only Earth Dragon of Oteslia.

One was bad enough. But when the City Watch on Oteslia’s walls saw the bows go up and arrows start flying, they saw their Dragon in danger of being blinded or killed.

Zeres, most soldiers serving in any Walled City, expected escalation, if a battle occurred, to be swift. None of them had ever seen someone trigger the wall spells of a Walled City within seconds of provocation.

The first bolt of lightning hit Zeres’ forward camp so hard it sent Drakes dozens of feet away flying. The army of Zeres, rattled, expected that to be it—a warning shot.

They were not prepared for the second wall spell to activate and belch a giant cloud of summoned cicadas with teeth, biting flies, and flying beetles straight at their army. Then a third tower activated, and a shield of violet light engulfed Cire and half the animals flying around him as the Earth Dragon hesitated. He looked at Zeres’ army in full-alarm as the [Marines] shot to battle-alert.

Then Cire looked over his shoulder. His mouth opened wide.

“…Oh.”

 

——

 

Admiral Asale and Femar looked up from shouting at each other. They were under attack? There was still time to call it off. Was Oteslia mad? Zeres’ army was right here, and Liscor was under contract. A war would be idiocy with their forces marching on the Gnolls.

It was good strategy, mind you, but it wasn’t Oteslia’s way. They didn’t have the damned Cyclops leading them. But then they saw the Pegasi.

It looked like at least four hundred were flying over the walls. Over the walls, Drakes and Gnolls riding them, brandishing weapons, and hundreds more on the way. Then Asale saw the gates open and Oteslia’s army come pouring out of the gates.

“Ancestors.”

Sharkcaptain Femar breathed. He raised his spear.

Sound the battle-alert!

Sound the retreat!

Asale shouted over him. The Admiral of the Land was running their way as Zeres’ forces ran around. Femar looked at him—then he saw a second gate open and more Oteslian troops come pouring out the second land-bridge across their lake. The Sharkcaptain’s eyes opened wide.

Fall back! Fall back now!

An army came pouring out of Oteslia as Zeres’ siege came to an abrupt and shocking end. Femar looked back in disbelief as Asale communicated with Zeres. The Serpentine Matriarch was not happy, but directed them to avoid a battle—it looked like all of Oteslia was coming their way.

“We’re linking up with the forces attacking the Gnolls. I don’t know what Oteslia is up to—but they’re mustering towards that way too. We need to get to Zeres before they decide to feed you to their pigeons. Tell Liscor we’re going north! They should have been here already—they’ve been odd all day. Probably more news from their home city.”

The Admiral of Supply snapped at Femar. Oteslia was on the move. And riding and flying ahead of them were Cirediel, the Earth Dragon of Oteslia, and the 6th Princess of Calanfer, Lyonette du Marquin. Headed straight for her daughter.

 

——

 

Word of Oteslia’s army on the march and Zeres’ retreat reached the other Walled Cities on the go. And that was all of them save Pallass.

Pallass, the City of Invention, had declined to send any force of Drakes aside from ordering the few hundred that had gone with the Raskghar back towards the Meeting of Tribes.

Every other Walled City had sent a force, and they had absorbed the other Drake cities’ armies, taking command.

Salazsar, Fissival, Zeres, Manus, and now Oteslia.

Five armies. Not since the Antinium Wars had so many Drake [Soldiers] been congregating around a target. That it was the Gnolls of Izril…boded.

The Gnoll [Soldiers] in every army were tense, and most had elected to send all Drakes if possible. Wall Lord Ilvriss could only imagine what it was like in Fissival’s forces. If they were wise, they’d send no Gnolls at all.

He was riding with their [Sapphire Guard General], an odd pick from the Walled City. He was an excellent defensive candidate, and it was probably because he had been sent with a sizable force to affect Ilvriss’ return with the other Salazsar dignitaries.

Or maybe because they knew Ilvriss was here. In which case the Wall Lord and [General]’s Skills synergized very well indeed.

Either way—they were not headed towards Salazsar. In fact, the Erchirite Spears and other specialists that Ilvriss’ personal retinue had brought along with a lot of Gemscale’s own forces had bolstered the Walled City’s general muster. Ilvriss was in command.

Or rather, he was negotiating his command as they rode. General Greex was a cautious Drake.

“You can have the Wall Holders ratify your command, Wall Lord, but I must ask you what your intentions are. Join the attack on the Gnolls? With respect—I’d rather divest the forces of all Gnollish [Soldiers]. And frankly, ask you to reconsider. The tribes united versus five Walled Cities—if all five are willing to work together—is still going to be a bloody, bloody battle.”

Ilvriss just nodded.

“I hear you, General Greex. Nevertheless, Salazsar cannot ignore the events of the Gnoll plains. If it reassures the officers, let them know that my intention is not to assail the Gnoll tribes. Nor is it to clash with any Walled Cities. Rather, I hope that a force of level-headed Drakes can keep us all from each other’s throats.”

It sounded like nonsense, but Greex wore a relieved smile as he nodded to Ilvriss. The Wall Lord accepted the salute and looked ahead.

“Level-headed Drakes keeping the peace? Nephew, just when I thought you’d changed, you spout something as wild as your father.

Nerul rode over, and Ilvriss grimaced at him. He tried to sound casual.

“With Salazsar’s finest [Diplomat] on my side, how can I fail, Uncle?”

The aforementioned diplomat just tried to shudder, laughed, and took a sip of water. Ilvriss moved out of the way; Nerul had been lauding the old Winebreath Blaster a bit too often recently. But the Drake was sweating in the autumn air.

“Please. You’re joking.”

He saw Ilvriss didn’t understand and elaborated with a sigh.

“Against Dragonspeaker Luciva and the most militant Drakes? I’d have to fight my way through the Sharkcaptain’s aura, and he’s not the worst Zeres could send. Remember how we forced your peers to a contract in Salazsar? Admiral Asale could crush every single one of us.”

“Isn’t he…the Admiral of the Supply?”

“Yes. And if you don’t know about him, read up before the battle or he’ll gut you like a fish, Ilvriss. He’s surprised everyone from Chaldion to Luciva herself.”

Ilvriss blinked at Nerul in surprise, but before he could ask more, he was interrupted.

“And what are we doing? Truly going to stop this?”

“If I have to put Salazsar in front of Manus or Zeres—yes.”

Nerul’s look was almost admiring, but he shook his head.

“That’s suicide, Nephew. Do you know how many Drakes are marching from Manus at last count?”

“Four hundred thousand. I heard.”

Not all Manus, but they had levied every city and garrison they came across and absorbed other Drakes into their forces. Nerul spat.

“By all accounts, Fissival’s eaten forces and so has Zeres. I truly don’t know why Dragonspeaker Luciva herself has come, but she’s pulled Spearmaster Lulv and two more of her Security Council. Ilvriss. I don’t need to tell you she’s not making a show of it.”

She had brought the kind of forces that even Zel Shivertail would have avoided in a fight. And only he could have halted this madness. Ilvriss just looked at Nerul.

“If I have to…we cannot waste time fighting each other.”

Nerul’s eyes were sharp with the exact knowledge of why.

“You will convince them to halt with nothing less than the full truth, Nephew. But will you get a chance to relay that before we fight?”

Ilvriss bared his teeth. He had a single, desperate idea, and he shared it with Captain Osthia and the silent Tessa. Shriekblade was just waiting, staring up at the sky, oddly calm from Lyonette’s cure. Faerie Flowers. Ilvriss hoped it didn’t dull her edge.

“I’ll be able to be as…open as I need to be. Especially if we’re meeting to stop an impending war between Salazsar and Manus or Zeres. I will take us to the brink of conflict by marching my forces between Gnolls and them if I have to.”

Nerul whistled as Osthia’s gaze brightened.

“Now that’s brinkmanship. Very well, Nephew. I’ll get you that moment if I have to go up against Asale himself. Onwards.”

Salazsar’s forces kept moving. They had sent less than sixty thousand, but a good number were the Gemstone Regiments and the finest Drakes. Ilvriss had asked any cities to send their forces to join his, but he was hopeful Oteslia would join him. Lyonette…he nodded back towards the City of Growth in the distance.

He hoped she would be able to help. They had no [Innkeeper] with a white flag, but Ilvriss had learned from her inn, and Erin Solstice’s best [Barmaid] might be able to do what even a [Princess] could not. How else had she moved the City of Growth to war?

Then Ilvriss saw Greex galloping back towards him and urged his horse forwards. The [General] was pale-faced, and the Wall Lord cursed as he heard surprising—and unexpected news.

“Wall Lord! Fissival is under attack! They’re—retreating from the battlefield!”

What?

Fissival? Ilvriss’ eyes widened, and he realized they had one more factor to consider. A rogue Titan on the loose.

 

——

 

Dragonspeaker Luciva was incredulous as she listened to the news. Manus’ army was moving into the Great Plains on full alert, and Spearmaster Lulv had finally caught up. The Gnoll stalked into the war tent after the security checks.

“Fissival just lost a battle?”

“Lulv. There you are. No Antinium poisons or toxins?”

General Milka turned to him, helmet under one arm. The Gnoll just ducked his head.

“I can’t make any excuses. The Antinium…”

“…can level. We will address it, Lulv. You found out what you needed to and returned to us. But there is no future to plan for. Not without Rafaema.”

The Gnoll bared his teeth.

“Oteslia’s lost her, those idiots; they’re chasing their own Dragon now, and no one knows where she went?”

“Makhir suspects north, but he has to track her on foot. He suspects Reinhart or that [Princess] did something to her. We’re chasing down all leads, but Cire gave him nothing, and he could not put her to the question.”

Luciva was nearly breathing lightning herself, but she controlled her voice.

“Rafaema has changed. She has her reasons. We must trust them—but Ferris is not with her. He’s been sighted in the Meeting of Tribes.”

“Dragonblood.”

Lulv’s curse summed it up. Either way…Manus was moving to war. Cire was almost as important as Rafaema, but the blunt truth of it was that there was a great victory to be had in the Gnoll Plains.

Or a disaster. The worst thing that could happen was the other Walled Cities each losing an army to the Gnolls. Or the Tribes uniting and siding with the Antinium.

Manus was—faced with a decision. And Lulv’s eyes on the Dragonspeaker said he knew exactly what the options were.

“Permission to speak, Dragonspeaker?”

“Always, Spearmaster.”

“Who are we attacking?”

The Dragonspeaker only hesitated a moment.

“Whichever tribe is coming closest to victory—if they have won by the time we arrive, we gauge which one it is. Otherwise? We may attack—selectively.”

“Ah. And which ones don’t we want?”

“Plain’s Eye has long been associated with Pallass and other cities. We can work with them. Their actions are extreme, however. Depending on how they emerge, it might be a boon to all if they become Manus’ enemy. Failing that? Silverfang is disquietingly close with the Antinium. The Woven Bladegrass and Az’muzarre are adversarial. If one were to—vanish or suffer enough losses to disband, that might change the entire distribution of power in the Great Plains.”

She would give the best orders in that moment, and they all knew it. Yet to reassure the Gnoll, Luciva nodded at him.

“But let me be clear, Lulv. I am not seeking the destruction of the Gnolls. The thing I am here to do is make sure no other Walled City is defeated. We cannot lose anyone else of Zel Shivertail’s caliber. Wall Lord Ilvriss, General Greex, Oteslia’s Cire or any of their High Command—the Admiralty of Zeres or the Sharkcaptain.”

“Wall Lord Dragial?”

General Milka asked quietly, and Luciva frowned.

“He is a rogue element and has done enough damage. But Fissival’s magic corps would have been my priority. Trust, Lulv.”

The [Spearmaster] nodded. They’d see how it shook out. He turned to the war table.

“Who took out Fissival? Those Gnoll tribes can’t organize to defeat a Walled City in the field!”

“They didn’t. Or at least, not alone. The Titan just struck them like a hammer.”

Lulv turned his head and cursed. Luciva’s scales crawled as she reviewed the recordings. There was an old saying about great battles like this. Sometimes you had two old enemies. Drakes and Gnolls. Nevermind that the Gnolls were consumed by infighting and the Drake cities each had a different goal, they were two powers. But the thing you had to watch out for was the third power. Sometimes it was just…a roaming warlord far from home with an army.

And this one had just kicked a Walled City in the face.

 

——

 

The Titan of Baleros was in love. He was in love with Mage Throwers.

They were shaped after catapults, ballistae, and other siege weapons but designed to throw magic. So some didn’t obey the laws of physics; others behaved like Drake siege weaponry but just hurled magical firepower.

Some were so strange as to be completely odd, like a wide, serrated turret that simply cast an enlarged [Razorwind Disc] and cut anything in half for two hundred feet.

Devastating weapons that even Baleros’ Great Companies coveted. However, even the continent of war did not have access to both siege construction and great magic. Fissival had both, and so did the Walled Cities, who could match even the House of Minos for the number of siege weapons they fielded, even if quality sometimes varied.

But this. Goblins crawled all over the weapons, almost as enamored as Niers. The Titan eyed his acquisitions as he watched Fissival’s forces retreat.

“Any sign of this Wall Lord Dragial? Or did we only hit their artillery?”

Niers turned to Chieftain Shaik and the Gnoll officers he’d appointed. The Goblin shrugged.

“Got someone. Maybe Lord Drag-tail.”

The Titan of Baleros nodded. He just hummed to himself. He stood on his bloody command pedestal as Bird peered at him.

“You do not seem concerned for someone whose home is under attack.”

“I will not reach it, Bird. So I will finish a battle here and lead an army of Gnolls to Baleros if I must. Even if she’s cornered, Perorn can run, and Foliana can be uncatchable. I have to trust in my people. But I am concerned. I just hide it. Consider this me venting my stress.”

Bird looked at the dead Drakes and the humming Titan. He turned to the others.

Venaz, Peki, Merrik, and Wil; Niers’ students were supervising the harrying and organizing the fallback. Fissival would be returning, and Niers would welcome them with open arms tomorrow. He had decided he loved the City of Magic as well.

He loved foes who had never met the Titan in battle before. Who had never seen his Skills or thought they were the exception to the rule. Niers especially loved magic-heavy armies who relied on mage-barriers and were overconfident enough to stretch themselves on a road; they were a Walled City marching an army nearly three hundred thousand strong, who would attack them?

That was the kind of thinking that lost you thirty top-grade siege weapons and sent your army into chaos when Goblins, Gnolls, one angry Minotaur, some Antinium, and a Garuda hit you.

The overconfident Drakes had turned their Mage Throwers onto the oncoming forces, and the [Mages] had set up magical walls, created pitfalls, and begun to launch [Fireballs]. Then Niers had turned the magic off.

[Battlefield: Even Ground – No Magic, No Luck, No Skills, Only Strategy]. He was still laughing at the looks on their faces as the blood dried.

Honored Berr had an axe on one shoulder, and he was rubbing at his back. He had held back from the fighting until the effect ended. Indeed, Niers had learned how to fight when there were no tricks. Heavy armor, naturally-gifted archers like Bird.

The plumed officer’s helmet did not reveal Wall Lord Dragial. Just another officer. Niers didn’t care.

To the Great Plains! Double-time!

He whirled, and he had an army. Gnolls fighting for their lives, Goblins, his students—a motley force. But they were better led than the oversized Drake forces. And once they reached the Great Plains, Niers could count on the Wild Wastes at least. Weatherfur too.

“Will we make it?”

Numbtongue stomped over, holding his guitar instead of the Dragonblood crystal blade. Niers nodded.

“We’ll make it. For the battle for Mrsha—and the next battle. And the next.”

“Next battles?”

The Hobgoblin didn’t see it. Surely Bird did. Niers was training him like his students. He gestured at the flatlands ahead.

“Do you see it, Numbtongue? What do your ghosts tell you?”

The Hobgoblin scowled at him.

“Lots of flat grass. Good grazing? Maybe lots of dead bodies buried. One Goblin used to eat grass. Gives bad gas. Drakes will burn it…”

Niers rolled his eyes.

“Yes, the greatest flatland in the world that even the Centaurs would covet. Homeland of the Gnolls. I see how their entire style of warfare evolved. Mobile, nomadic tribes. No trees or stones to quarry en masse. And I wonder…did the Drakes plan that long ago?”

“Plan that?”

Niers nodded. He sat on a chair, staring ahead with narrowed eyes.

“Yes. What a bountiful land. Enough space to roam and spread out—and a defense in itself that lets them join together and fight back. Nothing to build on. Not like Drake cities. No wonder they built a great kingdom only once. How funny that Gnolls tend to have nothing left to hold.”

The Gnolls around him looked sharply at Niers’ face. But the Titan just waved a lazy hand.

“Ah, what do I know? Perhaps it’s all cultural. But after this? With Drake armies trying to punish the Gnolls for the great sin of finding out the Drakes have been stealing their magic? With the tribes split over Doombringers or Doombearers, who might have been the figment of their [Shamans]’ imaginations? What do you think will happen?”

He turned to Bird and Numbtongue, and the [Bard] had the more cynical answer ready of the two.

“Lots of Gnolls will die. Maybe they have to run from surrounded-death.”

His red gaze was bleak. He knew what he was talking about. The Titan just nodded.

“Exactly. So, the next battle will matter. And the ones after that. But a war will begin, and the Gnolls will face the Drake cities who will take their lands, force them into the Gnoll plains, and wear them down. Some tribes will make peace. Others, flee. Unless something changes.”

“Like you. You have a plan.”

Bird watched Niers as Wil rode back, breathless. The [Lord] was just in time to hear Niers chuckle. The Professor looked out and nodded.

“I am sure other Chieftains could say the same, but a high-level [Strategist] facilitates everything. And I can do what Gnolls won’t.”

“How so, Strategist Niers?”

Honored Berr leaned on a horse, looking interested, even friendly as he smiled. Numbtongue eyed the old warrior with as much wariness as Greydath and offered him a drink of water. Berr took it, sniffed once, and began to lap at it with a nod to the Hobgoblin.

“No offense to your [Strategists]. Your people are quite good at fighting, Berr. You can get vicious and fierce when the fighting is intense. Drakes, though…Drakes are nasty. Vindictive. Spiteful. But only a few like Chaldion are truly Crelers. Even the Cyclops has to play nice, mostly. He has to live here. Me, though. Me?”

The Titan laughed softly in a way that put Wil’s hair up on the back of his neck.

“I’m a [Mercenary]. I can do the things that no one wants. Consider our forces, Wil. Consider a war, not just one battle. What do we have that no Walled City or tribe does? And—where does it lead?”

The obvious answer was Goblins and Antinium. Wil knew there were no points for that answer. So he narrowed his eyes—then looked up with sudden unease.

“Sir…”

“You want to invoke the Antinium’s aid? Truly?”

Berr glanced sharply at Niers. The Titan just gazed at The Crimson Soldier, Bird, Pivr, and Xeu. Each one an influential Antinium. Two Prognugators and a Revelantor, and he understood a bit of what that meant. Niers’ voice was silky-soft.

“The Antinium do not do well at diplomacy because no one can talk to them and, I think, because they thought they’d win both wars. But the Grand Queen herself made your people an offer, Honored Berr. They are the wild card among the three other races on Izril. Unsupported, they fought all of the south. They only failed to take Manus because they had no idea how to siege the walls, and they kept that Walled City under siege the entire first war. The Great Plains may not be bountiful for the Gnolls in every way—but it is the widest tract of land imaginable outside of Zeikhal. How many Hives could be built there?”

“You’d cede Izril to the Antinium?”

Venaz had returned. He spoke sharply, and Niers threw a crumb at him.

“Not at all. But if the Drakes are jumping the Gnolls, it’s only fair they get to watch their tails. Not just them. The Five Families haven’t gone to war seriously in centuries. But if the Drakes are fighting the Gnolls, they can damn well watch the Antinium and the North. And other Chandrarian nations, even Terandrians, foreign Balerosian companies who want a piece of them—”

He was grinning like a little bloody monster as he laid out a different scenario. Niers’ voice dropped like a [Magician] preparing for his big trick.

“—Then the Drakes are the ones under fire. The Gnolls have far less to give up, but the Drakes have giant cities. Immobile, lucrative structures. The Gnolls have torn them down before. What happens when a Walled City has to surrender or Gnolls begin taking cities? Nagas? Mark me, because if I cannot return to the Forgotten Wing, I will cut the Walled Cities so deep it is to the quick. And they will bleed out.”

He looked ahead as the Goblins, Gnolls, Antinium, and his students looked at him.

“That’s if we get to Mrsha in time. It’s just warfare. Basic warfare at that. Diplomacy. Drakes do not make many friends worldwide. But if we don’t get there, Numbtongue, I will leave a trail from here to Baleros. I promise you.”

He was no longer smiling, but the confident little man stood there, envisioning battles after the next one. He was more than a Redfang, Numbtongue realized. Even Garen Redfang got tired and went back to sleep. This Fraerling just dreamed of the next battle before the current one was done.

Bird saw it too. He looked at Niers, his teacher, companion, and now as the Titan of Baleros. Slowly, deliberately, Bird reached out with a hand and went to flick Niers off his pedestal. The Titan turned and jabbed his shortsword into the tip of Bird’s finger. The Antinium jerked back and rubbed at the green oozing from his finger.

“Ow.”

Niers turned back to his students.

“Venaz. Get me a route. Wil—intercept any Drake reinforcements if they’re moving fast. They always swing back. If the Wall Lord appears, Bird gets to take out another leader. Berr, what’s happening at the Meeting of Tribes?”

The [Berserker]’s eyes glinted.

“My son is with Chieftain Perale. He says there has been no real fighting. Not yet. But Chieftains Torishi and Xherw are beginning to debate. There’s battle in the air. Chieftain Mrell, he claimed the child, Mrsha, as his own. It’s swaying tribes to them.”

“Huh. I didn’t expect that. But good. Advance. We’ll get there. Just find me the best battlefield. I have to level before I go home.”

The Titan’s eyes were alight as he watched the sun begin to set. He thought he could hear Fraerling cities burning. But he just continued onwards. Onwards, if he had to kill every Drake between him and the sea. And any Gnoll trying to hurt Mrsha too.

 

——

 

Zeres, Oteslia, Fissival, Salazsar, and Manus. No Pallass.

Lyonette du Marquin rode with Oteslia. Nalthaliarstrelous walked beside a protesting Cire, who was practically tied to his horse. Ser Dalimont, Dame Ushar, Ser Sest, and Ser Lormel were with them. Each one grim, but unable to gainsay their march.

If Lyonette’s daughter died, so did she. The [Princess] felt light, although she kept moving faster, trying to urge the Drakes along. They were going. After so much frustration, so much wasted time—she was going to her daughter.

And perhaps, by the time they returned, or even in the middle of the battle, an [Innkeeper] would wake up. Saliss had completed his antidote. Rags was on her way.

They were all going, each in their own army and way. Magnolia Reinhart had declined to join Oteslia, but she had sent her [Maids]. Lyonette knew that Saliss had set out with Mirn, claiming diplomatic immunity. Onieva had vanished, but she was no fighter, and Rafaema was on her mission.

All of them were going, and Lyonette had left Rickel, the young Earther, behind. He could not fight either. But only one pair, one duo were missing.

They were watching her from the walls of Oteslia. Lyonette turned in her seat and met the duo’s eyes.

Ratici and Wilovan stood on Oteslia’s walls. Rickel was watching Lyonette and waving, but the Gentlemen Callers said nothing as they watched the [Princess] go. They had their hats in their hands, but not in an ungentlemanly way.

“We should be going with her, Wilovan. It doesn’t sit right with me, nor any good fellow, I should wager. To let a young woman go to a war with only that polished lot around her.”

Ratici opined after a moment. Wilovan patted his top hat.

“A polished lot, and poncy too. But you must admit, they’re a fair hand at their job, Ratici. They put us in our place, as it were. We are not cut out for the bodyguarding duty.”

“No. I don’t believe we’ll be taking another contract like that.”

“I should say not.”

The two stood there, and neither one moved. Though both knew that if the one charged down the steps and ran after the other army, the other would follow in a moment.

They did not. It was not cowardice nor a healthy survival instinct that made them stay their feet. They had both, it was true. But they would have gone and already been there. But for her. But for a few words.

“Not you. Not this time.”

The 6th [Princess] of Calanfer had stopped them at the gates. Wilovan’s lips moved.

“Not you.”

 

——

 

“If that child dies, I will not be able to live with myself, Miss Marquin. There is a time when every fellow must walk his walk and pay any dues. We’re bound to this.”

The [Princess] put a hand on Wilovan’s chest, and he halted, his fancy new suit glittering with magic and fine silk.

“Not you, Wilovan.”

She repeated herself. Wilovan saw Ratici glance up from adjusting his cap.

“You’ll surely have need for two fellows decent at their jobs, Miss Lyonette. Even with an army.”

“But I have an army, Ratici. I have no doubt you’re better than most! But I have my [Knights], and they are sworn to me and trained for open combat. What do you have?”

“Well, if you would be so good as to reapply Wilovan’s very handy blessing, and give me one if you can, if that Goblin has no need of it—”

Lyonette was shaking her head.

“No, Ratici. Tell me—how many times is this?”

“How many times…what?”

They had such uncomprehending looks on their faces that Lyonette knew they had to be faking it.

“How many times have you jumped into certain death? Not just since the Titan hired you, but since Erin died? You promised to make it up to her.”

“A promise we will keep.”

“How many times? How many times do you have to nearly die before it’s time? Will one of you die? Both? The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings died fighting in Liscor. So many—you kept your word. How much longer?”

“A gentleman does not count, Miss Lyonette.”

Wilovan touched his head gallantly, but Lyonette just wiped at her eyes.

“No. If you were silly [Knights] wearing plate armor, I’d accept. If I were actually paying you…but you two fight in the center of it. I won’t allow it. Not this time. I have an entire army, and if they fail but for the Gentlemen Callers’ presence—that is a shame. But not you two. Stay with Rickel. Keep that ‘Second Gardener’ from attacking me. Go home once you can. However, I forbid you from following me. I absolve you of your debt. It has been paid a dozen times over. If you ever find yourself in need—it is Calanfer and The Wandering Inn who will honor that debt. That is my last word.”

Then she turned and rode away. The Gentlemen Callers could have followed her. But they didn’t.

 

——

 

“A child’s life is at stake, Wilovan. If she should die, I don’t believe I’d ever have the gall to put a hat on my head and call myself a fine fellow.”

“Nor I, Ratici. But she spoke some sense. Shall we go, nevertheless?”

Ratici dusted at his hat.

“…I don’t know if I can survive a hail of arrows, Wilovan. I’m no Lightning Thief.”

The Gnoll just bowed his head.

“And I must admit my suit, fine as it is, isn’t arrow-proof as it were.”

They watched Lyonette go and felt so odd. So empty. Like…civilians. Wilovan coughed into one fist.

“Did you know, Ratici? I was going to bring it up, but in light of that blessing I dearly hoped Miss Lyonette would reapply—I was going to suggest you stay out of the fighting.”

Ratici looked up sharply. He put his cap back on his head and tugged it straight.

“Here I was suggesting you guard Miss Marquin. I suppose we aren’t cut out for battlefields.”

“No. Only streets and pubs. Ratici. Do you think we’ll regret not running after her?”

The Drake looked up at Wilovan and hesitated.

“…I think we might. And I don’t know what will become of us if that terrible thing you’re suggesting is true, Wilovan. But do you know what?”

“Enlighten me, sir.”

Ratici quietly linked arms with Wilovan. Like an old married couple, they watched Lyonette as she turned back ahead.

“She was right. We may regret it for the rest of our lives. But we would never come back if we went with her. If Miss Erin Solstice asked, I’d go in a heartbeat. If Miss Lyonette didn’t stop us, I’d be there. Any time, until I didn’t have the blood in my body to rise.”

Wilovan nodded. Like Erin Solstice. Like the very heart of why they had liked her—any time. Until the end they both felt they might deserve. Perhaps that was why the [Princess] said it. She knew that was in their hearts. So at last—

She said stop. The two Gentleman Callers stood on the walls a while longer, then Ratici turned to Wilovan.

“What next? Teach those young men how to wear the hats? Take this Second Gardener to task about his manners?”

Wilovan half-nodded.

“Later, I think. Tonight…tonight, let’s find a good scrying orb. Let’s raise a glass and watch. To the best, Ratici.”

“Yes indeed, Wilovan. To the very best they deserve.”

The two Gentlemen Callers put on their hats. If an army could not do what the Gentlemen Callers could, they would be there. But they strolled off. It was true there were some things they could do that even a lot of [Soldiers] might fail to. Still, they had to trust Lyonette and those posh [Knights].

Oh, and one more thing. They would have been there. But both had a feeling that [Alchemist] had their spot covered with change to spare. He had made a lot of potions.

 

——

 

A traveller met another on a long road with few markings. It was too far overgrown to see aught but faded stone, cracked by strange plants of a color not native to Izril.

The red wilds, crimson grass, and strange, hanging bulbs of life that threatened even the safety of the road. For now the last paths held. If they were threatened, it was not by people but decay. The road’s builders were gone.

It had been long since any met at the crossroads. So unexpected was the meeting, in fact, that both stopped.

One, a man, ducked his head. He was in a great hurry, but one look at the other travellers—two, to be precise—and he instantly bowed.

“Excuse me. Please, go ahead.”

He gestured down the road, backing up against a signpost written in old, old script. Mold and fungi had covered it, but nothing could have erased the lettering. In fact, it had been wiped clean recently such that someone could read and see what had been there.

The only other travellers on the road were a simple pair. Parent and child. Mother and daughter, one riding a horse, the other walking along. The other slowly tipped a hat as wide as the sky.

“It has been long since I met anyone else upon these paths. Your business is clearly the most pressing.”

They had been walking. He—running. But the male traveller only bowed deeper.

“I could not interfere with a mother and…daughter.”

A smile was his only reply, and the standoff of politeness ended when the daughter smiled.

“Please go on, sir. My mother is on her own journey, but she sometimes wanders. Do you have somewhere you need to be?”

He hesitated.

“Yes. Thank you, then.”

He edged around the two and hurried on his way. He smelled still of blood and bandages and ointments, and his garb was ragged and he walked with a staff in hand, passing them, then accelerating. Hurry, hurry…

They were going the same way. But the two, parent and child, watched the other traveller go. The daughter turned to the mother and saw Belavierr tapping her lips.

“Mother? Is he not a nice man?”

“I do not know. Nice is not a term that has much meaning, my daughter. I did not think to see anyone at the Crossroads of Issrysil. We will depart them.”

Maviola tilted her head back and forth, like a funny skeleton she’d once met.

“I thought we had to hurry, Mother?”

“Yes…we are leaving this place.”

The ringed gaze as old as this place followed the traveller as he hurried onwards, too wise to look back. And far too wise to step off the road. She nudged her other ancient companion, and the horse followed her to a waypoint.

“Why, Mother? Won’t it be longer?”

Belavierr the Stitch Witch nodded, but she kept leading them off the long road. She kept glancing around.

“It may be. But we shall arrive soon. We are nearly there, and sometimes the road is shorter when not taken.”

That was confusing, but Maviola accepted it. She kicked her legs, humming as Belavierr went on, glancing around…nervously? What could make her afraid?

“Besides. If there are travellers once more, perhaps…no. Just in case.”

“What are you afraid of, Mother?”

The Stitch Witch hurried her daughter away before anyone else found her. Especially anyone who could retroactively collect debts.

“…There used to be a road toll.”

 

——

 

Hurry, hurry. You had only hours. Now minutes. Perhaps seconds.

Satar Silverfang was working on a story. It was difficult because it was not her story, and if you got it wrong…the words vanished. She looked at what she had, and the facts, and the story that she did not know.

 

The white Gnoll came to the tribe that lived among the Hills of Albez. The tribe was Knocte. When the white Gnoll came, they did not heed the warnings and ______________. The beast fell among them when the white Gnoll left and killed them one by one. While it lay sleeping, a __________ crept up on it, stabbed it, and, after a great battle, killed it.

 

She didn’t have to get it perfectly right, but she had to understand where all the pieces fit together. And she nearly had it.

Doombearers, not Doombringer. The passage accepted that word, where it erased all mentions of ‘Doombringer’. Because that name was a lie. White Gnoll worked because it was true, and that was how the [Shamans] had lied or been deceived.

 

The Doombearer came to the Knocte tribe that lived among the Hills of Albez.

 

That was the truth of the old story. The question was—what had happened next? Satar wrestled with her quill.

 

The Doombearer came to the Knocte tribe that lived among the Hills of Albez. They brought doom.

 

The last words vanished.

 

The Doombearer came to the Knocte tribe that lived among the Hills of Albez. They brought __________.

 

That alone was enough to prove it to Satar, but no one else. Not the angry, frightened Gnolls. She needed the whole story. So—think.

Satar was a [Writer], even if her new class was [Historian]. She loved stories. She…knew stories. And she knew this was a fable.

Not a fairy tale, or myth, or story adventurers told around a table or fire. This was a fable. Fables were a kind of story that were told by [Shamans] in Retellings. Fables—had a point.

Parables and their like often had a message buried in a gripping narrative. The Beast of Albez might have been a tale about a horrible monster and how it slew a village, but it had been used to warn people about the Doombringers’ danger for centuries.

If it was a fable…and if the message was not that Doombringers were evil, what was it? For they were in this story. Satar thought. She thought of the facts.

 

——

 

Facts, like numbers, could still be used out of context. A number could be right—the equation wrong. Statistics could lie.

Yelroan was rummaging through his files. He kept looking over his shoulders and felt the crawl on his fur as if someone were watching. But no one was.

If they were—he’d be dead. Ulcre and Xherw had to know he was against them, now. But he had slipped into his tent in the Plain’s Eye’s tribe. All the Gnolls were watching the debates around Mrsha or getting ready for the worst.

Yelroan had moved through his tribe with the sheer power of being invisible; take off his flashy clothes, remove his sunglasses, and who’d recognize him?

Who cared about the [Mathematician]’s tent now? No one. So, until they went to pack it up or needed some records, as long as he was quiet…

He might die. The Gnoll’s paws were shaking, but he kept pulling records out, running a tally. Searching for the truth.

Satar was doing it, and he had to do it the only way he knew how. He had to know—to show them how many white Gnolls had died. And the suspicion that was creeping upon both Satar and he. The true nature of white Gnolls.

Mrsha’s power had been revealed to him. Luck. Luck. Why did that make him so—so uneasy?

Yelroan had noticed it long ago, but he had put it down to Xherw’s Skills, the sheer size of the Plain’s Eye tribe. Now, though, he ran through records. Total gold from subtribes, trade records. Even facts that no one but him would normally note down. Miscarriages among Gnolls. Odd occurrences like a rare magical animal being born.

He didn’t have perfect records. But he could see a pattern. All Yelroan had to do was check the Weatherfur accounts against Plain’s Eye. Silverfang kept wonderful receipts.

“…It’s off.”

Yelroan knew each tribe was different. Skills played hell with how much you could earn and lose in each city. So he took something basic that every tribe or group of [Traders] might do, independent of their Chieftains.

Buy and sell salt, for instance. Salt was a necessary commodity they needed from Drakes or other tribes. Yelroan’s finger shook as he went down the line of numbers.

“Impossible.”

Now he saw it. He’d felt it was a bit odd—but he was inside of Plain’s Eye. Now that Yelroan looked, compared averages, it was as plain as the nose on his face.

Plain’s Eye paid less for goods. They earned far more than almost any tribe. From crop yields to animals born, they were outstandingly, insanely, unbelievably successful.

It wasn’t just pure gold. In fact, regular Gnolls paid almost the exact same salt prices as their Silverfang and Weatherfur counterparts. But where it mattered—big trades, notable, outstandingly lucrative deals—Plain’s Eye shot ahead.

Not just that. Less Gnolls suffered tragedy. It had taken some doing to isolate those records from Weatherfur’s sometimes verbal accounts of how many Gnolls might perish in a year due to freak accidents. Disease. Pure chance.

If he saw this at another time, Yelroan would have assumed it had something to do with Ulcre or Xherw’s classes. Or just the leader of Plain’s Eye.

Now, though, he had a supposition. And the Gnoll dug back further.

“How long ago was this?”

It hadn’t been in Xherw’s generation. Nor before that. When had they gotten preferential treatment at Pallass and other Drake cities? Yelroan noted something down—a lack of tariffs that Silverfang accounted for. All of it was crystalizing in his mind, and it had one word.

“Luck.”

Now, though, he needed the rest. Records of Doombringers killed. Not even he had that, and if Xherw ordered Doomslayer teams quietly, could he even find…?

“Yelroan. Why are you here?”

The blonde Gnoll squeezed his eyes shut. He’d been listening as hard as he could, but he had focused too long without checking behind him. And a warrior learned how to sneak up on even his own kind.

He turned, slowly, and saw a dagger first. A Gnoll wearing glowing, magical markings on his fur.

“Merish.”

Only his friend would have thought to check Yelroan’s tent. Merish had seen better days. He looked worn down. Exhausted by chasing Mrsha across the continent and his encounter with the Titan. Uncertain.

He had been there when Khoteizetrough spoke. Their quarrel there was not done. Still…he had stayed with his tribe.

“You’ve betrayed Plain’s Eye. What are you doing?”

Yelroan just began stuffing files into his bag of holding.

“Looking for the truth. The numbers don’t lie. It’s been here all along. Xherw’s secret. I’ve just been blind.”

“Stop.”

Merish seized Yelroan’s shoulder, and his paw tightened on the dagger. Yelroan just looked at his friend.

“We’re far, far too far to stop, Merish. What are you doing? Don’t you see who’s opposing Xherw? It’s all falling apart. Even you have to feel it.”

“Shut up. Just—you’re being manipulated. Even Shaman Theikha is. That’s what Ulcreziek says.”

Yelroan laughed in his face, but softly—both were watching the tent flaps, and Merish had come alone.

“Manipulated? By a girl so young she runs around on all fours? Merish! Don’t you realize it? Or do I have to spell it out for you? Xherw’s mysterious power? The Doombearers? It is all connected.”

“No. No…Xherw told me he’d reveal—and if it is—he can’t have lied to us.”

Merish’s face was a look of anguish as he wrestled with the very foundation of their tribe. He was truly Plain’s Eye. Yelroan…thought it was easier for him. He had never been truly accepted.

Without a word, he turned back to his work. He needed one last thing. One last proof that he didn’t need to explain. It had to be buried here.

He waited, imagining the unkind kiss of metal in his ribs. How painful would it be? His voice shook.

“If you’re going to do it, Merish—”

He pulled more documents out of a file, bent lower, and flinched as a shadow passed over him. Yelroan waited, arms frozen. For a long, long time, Merish stood there. Then he slowly pulled open a drawer.

“…What are you looking for?”

Yelroan gazed upwards. Without a word, he motioned, and Merish ducked down. The [Mathematician] murmured.

“The only link I can find. No tariffs. Grade 3 Passports issued to our [Merchants]. I am looking for payments sent to the Plain’s Eye tribe in some form. From Pallass, Fissival, and the Walled Cities. Prices so low on steel that it beggars belief. Magical artifacts sold at a loss.”

“Conspiracy.”

Merish whispered, and his fur went pale. As if they had all forgotten what the Drakes had done to them…Merish looked at Yelroan. The last pieces fell into place. The [Mathematician] smiled bleakly.

“Yes. It was us. If you care about the truth, Merish, help me find it.”

He kept rummaging as Merish squatted there. Then, abruptly, Merish rose. Yelroan froze again, but Merish just pulled him up.

“Not here. Xherw would never trust you with it if there was any proof. But his personal tent is different. And there’s a part of the camp you have never seen. They keep the Raskghar we captured there.”

“Raskghar? You captured one?”

Merish slowly nodded. His eyes flicked to Yelroan.

“Yes…we were going to show the other Gnolls. But I saw the others leading it out of camp before they cast an invisibility spell.”

Yelroan’s eyes went wide.

“Where are they taking it?”

 

——

 

Chieftain Torishi and Chieftain Xherw debated, as Gnolls did, before the Meeting of Chieftains. But not in private.

They spoke in front of the Gnolls of every tribe. Warriors behind them, arguing over the fate of one white Gnoll. About doom. About truth.

Torishi did not like the way Xherw looked so confident, even now. As if there were still tricks left to play. She paced back and forth, fur on end, illuminated by the light from a fading sky, a pale orange glow.

Xherw stood there, supported by Ulcreziek, flanked by Chieftains loyal to him, Reizet, Iraz.

Each had witnesses, stories and allies and ways to hammer their point home. But it was still a war of words.

“Even now, Chieftain Torishi, I hope you will come to your senses. I cannot prove it by words or magic or Skill, but I fear your judgment has been deluded. Why else would you protect a Doombringer?”

“Doombearer. Are we denying language itself, Xherw?”

The Chieftain shook his head.

“Doombearer, Doombringer—these words are the same for me. The Great Elemental, Khoteizetrough, spoke truth. But he still tells us that it is doom that is contained in one Gnoll. Doom which ended the Kingdom of Gnolls. Shall we call for [Shamans]—Great Shaman Theikha herself? Was it not white Gnolls who ended the only kingdom we ever had?”

Every head turned to Shaman Theikha, and she bowed her head tiredly.

“It was. But I doubt my own stories, for it is clear that our words have been changed over the course of centuries or even millenia. If my stories are true—then it was white Gnolls who led our kingdom to ruin by hubris and greed.”

“Old stories. As Theikha says—you are trying to justify your actions of now with old stories.”

Torishi shook her head, but saw some Gnolls looking uneasily at Theikha. She snapped at them.

“Did you not see Khoteizetrough slay the Gnolls sent to kill Mrsha? Kill her in secret? Why did Plain’s Eye hide their killers? Why do they come after the child again and again? Your ‘Doomslayers’ rampaged across Izril, marched into Drake cities and attacked them. All to kill one girl. They are part of the reason why Drakes march on us now!”

A rumble, and Xherw’s ears flicked slightly.

“Not just one, Chieftain Torishi. Should I make excuses for something all tribes have known? Plain’s Eye has always hunted Doombringers. Like any tribe that knows our history should.”

“I have never heard of kill-teams being sent after white Gnolls. How do you excuse them preparing to attack a guest of Gaarh Marsh?”

“Should we allow doom a chance to fester a moment longer? I will swear on truth spell, I intended to reveal the presence of Doombringers in the Meeting of Tribes as the deed was done. However, I suspected tribes were already compromised.”

She snarled at him as she paced left.

“You mean my tribe, don’t you? Mine, Silverfang—do you truly think we are controlled by a girl?”

“One cannot know what abilities Doombringers have.”

She spat at his feet. Gnolls stirred, for they had never seen the Weatherfur Chieftain being this disrespectful to anyone. Yet Torishi’s voice rose.

“There is much that is conveniently unknown, Xherw! Much that you cover up as doing the best for all in secret. Yet I? I think we have passed the first point! Look, Gnolls. And see Xherw’s great foe. The one who would be responsible for all the ill that has come to the Meeting of Tribes. Drake armies. Conspiracies among our own people, even Raskghar.”

She pointed, and Mrsha looked up from where she was being held by Krshia. All eyes fixed on her, hostile, afraid, curious—and the Gnoll girl tried to hold up a card.

Hello. I’m not a bad girl.

Xherw barely glanced at her. His eyes were focused on Torishi.

“What do you mean to show us? Size is no indicator of danger. Crelers hatch small. Pit vipers can kill as tiny as your thumb.”

Torishi bared her teeth. Now she looked at him, the Chieftain she had respected so much…she sensed other Gnolls glancing his way.

“Ah, Xherw. You have fallen for my trap, yes?”

He frowned uncomprehendingly at her. Torishi turned and appealed to other Gnolls. She looked at them, family, mothers, all united by one tribe. Spreading her arms wide, she turned to Xherw.

“You talk so casually about killing children, Xherw. Have we all passed that point where we will not blink and stop you? Before we speak of doom—before tradition and ancient calamities—what did you see? Something that must die? Doombringer? I saw a child. She may have white fur, but what of it? Weatherfur cubs dye their fur for fun. When I was a child, I fell into an entire bag of blue paint and I was blue for three months. What are you looking at?

Xherw’s eyes narrowed fractionally. He glanced at Mrsha.

“I see a Doombringer.”

A child.

Torishi snapped back. Chieftain Reizet spoke up.

“You are quibbling, Chieftain Torishi. A Doombringer is still a Doomb—”

“I see a child. Do you dare question my eyes?”

Torishi whirled and roared at the Az’muzarre Chieftain. Rezeit was dead silent, and Torishi pointed at another cub in the ranks of Gnolls.

“A child is a child. Do you say we should kill her, Xherw? Kill a child for the good of Gnolls? Are we Raskghar? Is this how far we have sunk? Do not speak to me of white fur. Speak to me of children and the blood you would put on your tribe’s fur.”

Everyone turned to Xherw, and he blinked at Torishi. Vaguely uneasily, as if realizing there were a hole in the ground where he had seen nothing but a solid foundation.

He didn’t even realize it. But his own tribe, Plain’s Eye, stirred uneasily at Torishi’s accusation. Xherw took a few seconds, then his words were calm. Direct.

“A…child can carry plague. Doom rides on her fur. Do you claim you can know she is innocent? How many incidents have occured around her that cannot be mere chance?”

Torishi refused to be drawn in. She looked at Xherw, then Ulcreziek, who had returned from some errand.

“How many have died during your leadership, Xherw? You do not even blink. How many children are dead? How many Doombringers must you slay, to justify it so quickly?”

“I have done what I must to protect us all. You are—”

She slashed one arm.

“Xherw, you are so far ahead that you speak of consequence, the politics of tribes, doom averted, and tradition. I am still at the start.”

Now he was glaring at her. The other Chieftain began to walk slowly, for the first time, too annoyed to sit still.

“Very well, if you will argue with me—if one child carries or brings doom, do you not see the necessity in tragedy? A Goblin Lord destroyed her tribe. Then it nearly killed an entire city. Monsters have assailed this child’s protectors. I have even heard its guardian died. Slain by Drakes. War follows it, and it has come here while the Drakes prepare to assail us as if it were open war again. How can you claim this is all fine if one child does carry doom, Torishi?”

She shook her head sadly.

“I shall answer your question with a scenario, Xherw. Say you are a Chieftian with a hunting party and you come across a terrible sight. A group of Gnolls slain. The last survivor, a cub, lies at the feet of a Wyvern about to eat it. A dozen Gnolls might die if you attack. Turn your back and the child dies. There is a clear choice. Would you leave it behind?”

“That is…not the same scenario. I would rescue any innocent child any time I saw one. This is akin to seeing someone so deeply afflicted with a plague that there is no cure. That to touch it is to doom yourself and any around you.”

Xherw glared back. Torishi frowned at him.

“Have you tried to avert it?”

“What?”

He blinked at her. She stomped one foot.

“Tried to avert it! Have you ever tried or do you speak these truths like they are set in stone without trying? Have you taken no ‘Doombringer’ into your camps, protected them, or do you just slay them on sight? Not once? Are you that craven? If I knew a great evil would befall my people yet the Gnoll was innocent, I would still dare to try or send them somewhere safe. Have you tried, Xherw? Or do I hear only excuses?

His hesitation was the answer for every Gnoll. Mrsha was gazing at Torishi Weatherfur, and the sunlight shining down brightened slightly as the Chieftain strode past Gnolls. She struck her chest and shouted at them.

I am Torishi Weatherfur. I will challenge doom itself for a child’s life! I am not afraid. Do not look at this as evil come among us. We have seen evil. We have seen cruelty and dark designs, and I lay those at the feet of Drakes like those of Fissival’s city. But this? Fate? A child must die for fate? Then I say—let us challenge fate and prophecy! Who will stand with me and break any curse? There is no evil so great that Gnolls have not the heart to fight it.”

Gnolls gazed at her as she turned to them, eyes blazing, and her tribe howled their agreement. Feshi cupped her paws together to howl, but she broke off as a Gnoll strode forwards.

A Gnoll with blonde fur and scars on his arms broke from the ranks of Gnolls in the Wild Wastes tribe. He grinned fiercely as he raised his fist.

I am Dorekh of Wild Wastes! Son of Honored Berr! If my father were here, he would be first of all. I fear no doom.”

“Nor I!”

Lehra leapt forwards, and more Gnolls began to call out. But before more could join in and the chorus became a wave too large to be stopped, Shaman Ulcreziek struck the ground. The earth trembled, and everyone staggered and there was a sudden silence.

Do you think you are the first Gnolls to try? Do you think that girl is as innocent as you claim, Torishi? I truly expected more from a wise Gnoll such as you. Doombringers manipulate. They did not just bring calamity; they lurk in the shadows of the mind. Do you not see how we are divided? They lie in wait, turning us against each other.”

“You spit accusations like facts, Shaman Ulcre.”

The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] had closed one eye. The one he had been born with, that brown eye, was shut tight, and the other one passed from Gnoll to Gnoll, a piercing bright light for a pupil, melded out of countless browns as if every Gnoll before it had passed on their sight, glittered as he stared at Theikha. Then, slowly, turned his gaze.

“Do I? Or are we all still playing into their tricks? Doombringer tricks? This is not the only rot within the Meeting of Tribes. See—they conspire, and I will not let them hide any longer!

He flung out an arm, and something flew through the air. Torishi whirled, and Krshia shouted and covered Mrsha, turning, as Weatherfur Gnolls howled and went to block whatever Ulcreziek had thrown.

But it was not at Mrsha, and the Gnolls about to charge turned as they saw…liquid…splash across a small group. The liquid made the Gnolls, Human [Merchant], and Drake recoil.

What the—

Ysara Byres had slashed at the liquid before dodging most of it. She rubbed at her clothing as Tesy and Vetn ducked it. Someone else had moved out of the way too, and the splatter had only caught them lightly.

Yet…Ysara glanced down at her clothing, which had her merchant’s logo on it as well as the Merchant’s Guild and a lovely, dark blue dye on the tunic. She stared down as the liquid ran from her clothing…and the dye revealed plain cotton beneath. She saw the blue run onto her fingers and heard an oath.

“Oh no. Qwery…”

Slowly, Ysara looked up and saw Vetn gazing up in horror. Tesy pushed himself up, and his eyes went wide. The white-scaled Drake saw Qwera slowly lower the arm she’d used to shield her face. Something dripped from her fur.

Gold paint. Every Gnoll turned to her and saw the Golden Gnoll looking at her arm. The gold dripped off her fur. Of course it did. It was just…gold, after all. And few questioned her true fur; it was that brown patch of fur she showed. Wasn’t it?

Mrsha looked over, eyes wide, as Qwera glanced at her arm, then at Ulcre with a slow, resigned look. Then she lowered her arm, shook off the gold paint, and the stripe of pure white fur beneath shone as Gnolls began to howl and shout. Qwera looked at Mrsha, and the little girl with wide eyes saw the [Merchant] smile sadly.

“I knew I would be hunted till the day I died. By Plain’s Eye. I have lived decades and still. You have to kill me only for surviving.”

She turned to Ulcreziek and Xherw, and the [Shaman] smiled victoriously. He whirled to the others.

“Do you see? Another white Gnoll! This one hidden! They are among us! Did you know, Torishi? Do you not see how they are influencing you?”

He turned to the Weatherfur Chieftain and saw Torishi was standing there, arms folded. Torishi raised a hand and called out among the furor.

“I did not know for certain. But I guessed.”

Huh? The tribes quieted down, and Ulcre’s confident look faded as Torishi glanced at Qwera.

“I guessed. Just as I guessed there were more Doombearers in Izril. What are you proving, Shaman Ulcre? That they are responsible for doom? Or—that they are in hiding because they fear being killed to justify your own ends? This is a [Merchant] known across Izril. She has been here for decades. Has she brought a terrible doom wherever she travels? I think not.”

“She deceives us all!”

“Because you will kill her if she does not hide! No wonder she risked her life to protect Mrsha! No wonder—if just revealing her is enough to get her killed! Why do you think this is such a grand gesture, Ulcre? Now we have two Gnolls, and one with an entire history who can explain why she gained her white fur. If anything—I call on Qwera, the Golden Gnoll, to testify her life’s story!”

Torishi roared. She saw the look of triumph on Ulcre’s face vanish. Confusing. Confusing…why was he so naive? Did he think they were all idiots? Or—Torishi looked at the tense, afraid look on Qwera’s face as Ysara, Vetn, and Tesy tried to get in front of her. She gazed at Xherw and Ulcreziek, and her eyes widened.

“Oh. That is why. I was too late, wasn’t I? We all were. That is…why.”

Even Ulcre didn’t follow her. But Xherw’s stare was uneasy. Torishi looked around blankly and staggered. Every Gnoll followed her as she looked around.

“Chieftain?”

Feshi supported Torishi as the Weatherfur Gnoll almost fell. Torishi rested her arm on Feshi’s shoulder. Then she turned. And her expression was pained.

“I see it now. Oh, I see it. We walked here. We did this.”

Her voice was despairing. Grief-stricken. She gazed at Xherw, and now she was looking past him. Trying to see straight into the past. Theikha lowered her head as Torishi called out, anguished.

“My people! Hear me! I understand now. Today, Gnolls do not stand at a crossroads of great choice. This is not the hour when the fate of the innocent or guilty wars with tradition and the truth!”

It wasn’t? It sure sounded like it to everyone. Iraz was blinking at Torishi, and even her allies didn’t follow. Not right away. Torishi rotated slowly in place, gazing over them all. This Meeting of Tribes in the Waning World. And she wondered how vast the other one had been.

“We have been here before. We have done this before. This is not the hour Gnolls decide the fate of Doombringers. This…this is what came long after. When poorer Gnolls than we, our ancestors, said nothing at all.”

The tribes were uncomprehending at first, but the [Shamans] caught on next. In her tent, Satar pieced the last facts together. Yelroan stared down at dates across centuries. Torishi’s voice trembled.

“Doombringers? We have hunted and feared and reviled them for so long that not even our oldest [Shaman] can remember a time when we did not. Hunt them down. Kill them. We do that—Plain’s Eye most of all, but every tribe has surely known a time when we killed Doombringers. Weatherfur has. But—my people. They are already dead. Why are Doombringers so rare, yet so feared? Why do we devote so much fear to them? The answer is we already slaughtered them.”

She whirled and pointed at Xherw.

“How long? How many? Has the world changed for the better? How many have died? Give me a number and swear on it, Xherw. You know it.”

The Plain’s Eye Chieftain had been willing to swear on any truth stone until now. However, at this, his eyes focused and he hesitated.

“That is surely not—”

Torishi strode towards him.

“How many? How long have we done this? If it is not an important number, say it. How many white Gnolls have your people executed? And why?”

She still didn’t understand that part, but she felt that unseen presence in the air. The very essence of something, like an aura but different. Xherw’s lips were tight as he gazed about. And every Gnoll did wonder.

How many had he killed? Mrsha looked up and thought she saw them.

So many Gnolls they would be a mountain of bodies. Blood and death and white fur. The Plain’s Eye Chieftain looked at her and Qwera, and they shuddered. But even they couldn’t fully see what he had done.

Not yet.

“I have done everything to keep this world safe. If I have blood on my paws, Torishi, they are only to avert another tragedy.”

How many?

She went to seize him, but Iraz and Reizet blocked her. Now, Xherw snarled back.

“Does it matter? They were only doom. Slaying them was a boon to all tribes!”

“No. They were supposed to be more. You killed them, and they were never evil.”

Xherw and Torishi stopped and turned. Shaman Theikha, head bowed, lifted it slowly as someone came through the ranks of Gnolls. She was covered in ink, from her paws to her forearms, and she had red eyes.

She had been crying, but Satar Silverfang still walked through the Meeting of Tribes as Silverfangs parted for her like she had seen Theikha do. She was wearing her shaman’s garb that Cetrule himself had given her, and her head was high. She held two things.

A book and a single piece of paper. She called out.

“I am Satar Silverfang! [Historian of the World]! I beg the right to speak before the Meeting of Tribes. I have uncovered the truth in stories.”

“This is not place for—”

Ulcre began nervously, but a Gnoll spoke up. Garsine Wallbreaker, who had taken no sides, boomed as she stood tall, suddenly.

“Satar Silverfang revealed a great truth to the Meeting of Chieftains. Let her speak. So say I.”

“And I.”

The World-Pact Adventurer Gadiekh raised his voice, and his tribe shouted approval. Ulcre looked at Xherw as he fell back, and Satar came to a halt.

She was shaking so hard she was vibrating in place slightly. Her voice was no less trembly, but she lifted a piece of parchment.

“I have a new Skill. [A Missing Passage, Revealed]. It lets me discover untruths in stories. Write them as they were first told. I noticed that our tales, our Retellings—were wrong. But I could not uncover the truth. Not until now. Not until I understood what the old stories about white Gnolls meant. Chieftain Torishi. Chieftains…I would like to tell you the tale of the Beast of Albez. How it truly went.”

The Beast of Albez? Gnolls stirred. That simple, old story? Most knew some version of it. Satar looked around and got a nod from Torishi. The Weatherfur Chieftain’s eyes were bright as Satar stood in the middle of everyone.

She took a few breaths.

“T-the Beast of Albez. Here I go. U-um…”

A little Gnoll was staring at her. Satar turned her head as she began to stutter and saw Cers, looking out from behind Cetrule and Akrisa. Her heartbeat slowed a faction. Satar began to speak, to him.

To tell him the truth.

“Once upon a time, there was a tribe that lived in the Hills of Albez. Before cities or even an empire, the Gnolls were there. The Knocte tribe lived in peace, until one day, a white Gnoll appeared.”

Every Gnoll looked at Satar. This was how they knew it. Mrsha was squeezing Krshia’s paw so tightly the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] almost grimaced, but they were transfixed. Satar’s gaze found Mrsha and Qwera, and she kept going. So they could be freed of all the lies.

“The white Gnoll warned the Knocte tribe, from their [Chieftain] to the youngest Gnoll, that a great danger was coming. Doom. They did not know where or when, only that it came. But the Knocte tribe, living content in the Hills of Albez, did not listen. They did not heed the white Gnoll. So she left. Then came the Beast of Albez. It stalked down from the hills, from a place unseen, and began to terrorize the Knocte tribe. Night by night, it came. It devoured Gnolls, slew adventurers, and the Knocte tribe met their end as they tried to flee and hide. Such was the slaughter that the Beast of Albez lay there, dozing, gorged of its terrible slaughter.”

The same story. Almost. Almost…Ulcre was looking at Xherw, and the [Chieftain]’s gaze never wavered. He was glancing at Ulcre, then past him into the distance. It was not over yet.

Satar’s voice rose. Everyone knew what came next.

“Then—as the Beast of Albez lay dozing, a single Gnoll crept up upon it and slew it as it slept. This is the story we all know, in some form. But it was no [Hero], though the Gnoll went on to become one. There was no great battle, and this Gnoll did not come from far off. The last Gnoll of the Knocte tribe crept up on the Beast of Albez and slew it. And as they avenged their tribe, they were marked forever more. Their fur changed to white. They became a white Gnoll. Not a Doombringer. A Doombearer. Forever marked by the tragedy. To bear doom and avert it. That is why, if you see a white Gnoll who warns you of calamity—listen. That is what it means.”

Everyone was silent for a long moment as Satar finished. Mrsha looked at the white fur on her body. A curse. She had always assumed it was; punishment for surviving. And the truth of the story was so close. But—so different.

Qwera was swaying. Krshia whispered.

“Averting doom?”

The ink was still wet on Satar’s page, and she lifted it up. But Ulcreziek bellowed, spittle flying from his mouth with fury.

Lies! The daughter of Silverfang cannot know the pure truth! Doombringers bear the curse of their tribe’s death!”

“Perhaps they do! Or perhaps it is a gift given to them to make sure it never happens again! Now I understand. You have been wrong, Xherw, Ulcreziek. When did we go astray?”

Torishi closed her eyes as Gnolls began to shout, denying Satar’s words, asking for proof. Satar stood there, shaking like a leaf, but it was done. Ulcre kept looking to Xherw, but the [Chieftain] was silent.

He was waiting. Satar had used her Skill to find the oldest stories, but there was more to it than even that. The power of Doombearers was the ability to generate great events.

Fell and wondrous. So. He met Ulcre’s gaze once, and the [Shaman] lowered his head, shuddering. So. Xherw’s eyes were dark.

He looked for two Gnolls who were not present. Who had hurried off to speak and arm themselves.

Let them see doom.

 

——

 

Chieftain Mrell and Prha were storming back to their tents in the neutral zone. The Demas Metal tribe was packing up; they had not known they were on Silverfang’s side until Mrell’s speech.

Mrell was heading back to grab any arms and armor he could. Prha was going with him.

“Do you think Torishi is going to let us see Mrsha? Why aren’t we going back to her tent? We should be with her!”

He snapped at her.

“I’m getting weapons. Torishi is debating Xherw—we will need my metal.”

“Your metal? You said a Dwarf helped you make it.”

“I still discovered it! Don’t argue—Mrsha needs us.”

Prha relaxed slightly.

“That’s true. We have to protect her. Do you…do you have a suit of plate armor, maybe?”

“That’s not how it works.”

Mrell was striding awkwardly with Prha. He hesitated.

“…I do have a bow. I think Hawkarrow’s Chieftain gave me one as a present. I can’t make Demas Metal bows yet, although we’ve been trying bowstrings. Not enough elasticity—but I can give you the bow. It’s in my tent. Come on.”

Prha followed Mrell into the tent eagerly, and the [Chieftain] pushed into his personal yurt. He supposed his people had waited for him to pack it up. And he vaguely noticed there were no guards on the tent.

Well, everyone was moving to the fortified ground to fight. He himself had ordered his bodyguard to protect Mrsha at all costs. So it was just Mrell and Prha who pushed into the tent. Even so. There should have been…guards. Everything from Demas Metal samples to their riches and schematics were here.

The Chieftain of the Demas Metal tribe slowed as Prha strode in and bumped into him. The female warrior recoiled.

“What? Eugh. I know this is your tent, Mrell, but it’s a mess. Everything is everywhere. And that smell. Was that me peeing? No—it smells like something rotting. Do you have food under your bed or something?”

Mrell said nothing. He just stared around his ransacked tent as Prha glanced at him and realized…something was off. She reached for a sword slowly as Mrell looked around.

He sniffed the air and caught what Prha had. He nearly gagged at the horrible, rotten odor of something foul. Like carrion. No—fouler still. A vile stench like a beast’s breath, like putrid incarnate.

Then both Gnolls saw a shape slowly unfold from a corner of the room. It had been almost unnoticed, so still was the single other intruder. Prha whirled, and her fur rose on end.

“What is—”

Both Gnolls looked up as something wearing what pieces of armor it could scavenge and put on from Mrell’s supplies stepped forwards. A…Gnoll larger than they were? Larger and bulkier by far, like one of the Ekhtouch, but not nearly as refined as they were.

Something old. Both Gnolls looked up, speechless, as Nokha bared her teeth. Mrell whispered.

“Raskghar.”

She was smiling at them. Wearing a cloak of…fur. Wearing another Gnoll. She was holding Mrell’s own Demas Metal sword, and she had on armor and—she was in his tent.

In his tent? How had no one noticed? The missing guards—

It was all too easy for high-level Gnolls, in the confusion of the Meeting of Tribes, to smuggle one person into the Demas Metal tribe. Just one person. One monster, who would prove the Doombringer’s curse.

Every predator, every hunter and warrior, from monster to man knew the truth. To catch your quarry, all you had to do was wait.

Hello, food.

Nokha growled. Prha spun.

“Mrell—get back. Mrell—”

The Gnoll Chieftain stumbled back. He turned as Prha raised her blade. He couldn’t leave her! But Nokha just grinned and lifted something in her paws.

Then the Gnolls saw something rise and spun. A wall of stone rose, blocking the entrance to Mrell’s tent. Nokha discarded the scroll. A Raskghar who thought and had learned from her enemies.

 

——

 

Nokha was giggling. She couldn’t help it. She had been about to die when they had given her a choice.

The Gnoll with the strange eye and the other one who scared even her had given her a chance. She knew they were using her. Nokha didn’t care.

She smelled it on them, below their words and excuses. Whether this helped them or not—they just wanted to see that little girl suffer.

Nokha licked her lips as she lifted her blade, watching the Gnoll warrior. She was no great warrior. Mrsha’s parents. They had no white fur, but one had made lovely metal.

The Raskghar would survive. She always did. But before she left—she wondered if Mrsha’s parents would taste like her.

She wanted to know what the little Gnoll’s face would be when Nokha told her. She lifted one arm, drooling, and the male Gnoll thrust himself forwards.

“Prha, sound the alarm!”

Too late. The tent was soundproofed, and that [Shaman] had even enchanted the cloth walls. There was no easy way out, and they had no time. Nokha laughed as she advanced. She saw the two quarreling Gnolls turn and freeze as they gazed at her.

Someone tapped Nokha on the back, and she ignored it. Then she froze and swung around. She slashed—but the Drowned Man was already sliding backwards.

Half of his face looked like it was made out of chitin. Like…a crab. Indeed, one of his claws was a pincer, but his Human hand and his Drowned half both held daggers that glowed in the dark tent.

Seborn Sailwinds nodded to Nokha as the Raskghar froze with surprise and sudden—terrible fear. His voice was deep and echoed slightly as the two Gnolls stared at the Gold-rank adventurer in confusion. Mrell thought he recognized the Drowned Man. Wasn’t he from up north? As far north as the Village of the Dead. Just like…

Vuliel Drae. Seborn had been there a day. But he’d been waiting.

“Hello, Nokha. I’ve been praying for you.”

The Raskghar saw the Drowned Man grin as the [Faith Seeker]’s prayers were answered. He had wanted to meet Nokha. But then—so had someone else.

The Raskghar whirled, but too late. The far side of Mrell’s tent exploded inwards as a hand reached through. A hand covered in blossoming red vines that dripped sap that looked like blood grabbed Nokha, and the half-Giant’s palm was covered in thorns. He closed it over her arm, and Nokha looked up into Moore’s face.

The [Bloodearth Mage] slowly rose from where he’d been hiding as Nokha made a small sound in the back of her throat.

 

——

 

Jelaqua Ivirith strode into the Meeting of Tribes with Ulinde, and the two Selphids caused an uproar.

Raskghar!

Gnolls howled as they saw the two familiar, loping bodies, and Ulinde hesitated, but the Selphid just raised her hand. She said the same thing she’d been repeating for the last seven minutes, since they emerged from the tent they’d been hiding in when Seborn sent the signal. They had come in as Drakes and changed for dramatic effect.

And a fight. The Selphid called out as the Gnolls realized what was different.

Dead Raskghar.

Xherw, Ulcre, Torishi, and every other Gnoll whirled as Mrsha caught a familiar scent of preservatives, dead flesh, and Selphid, and her ears rose. Her tail began to wag, and she saw the Gold-rank adventurer stride forwards, armored in steel made by Maughin of Pallass.

“The Halfseekers!”

Krshia exclaimed. Jelaqua Ivirith winked at Mrsha.

“Sorry we’re late. We had to go lay a trap for a nasty beastie. Seborn’s been having visions. There you are, Mrsha. Your real mother’s looking for you.”

“What is this? A Selphid wearing a Raskghar’s body?”

Reizet roared in outrage, but before she could demand her guards remove Jelaqua, there was more shouting.

Raskghar! Raskghar!

“Calm them down. It’s a Selphid.”

Iraz snapped, but then he heard it, coming from the other direction.

Raskghar and a half-Giant—

Then Iraz saw a flying Raskghar. Krshia, Mrsha, and every Gnoll looked up as a Raskghar landed, and Gnolls backed out of the way. She was covered in blood, but Mrsha’s eyes went wide with horror as she recognized—

Nokha!

Krshia howled, and the Raskghar tried to rise. She had battered Demas Metal armor on her, and Ulcre’s heart began to pound as he saw someone charge out of the crowd.

Moore. The half-Giant. He looked far different than Mrsha remembered. A lot sadder. A lot scarier. Even the thorns on his magical armor had changed from green growth to red, cruel thorns mixed with blood.

Nokha leapt to her feet, clenching her claws into fists, but the half-Giant just charged at her. Nokha looked up at him and turned to run, but vines shot out of the ground laced with countless miring thorns. They ensnared her, and she howled with agony as they tore at her, stronger than steel rope.

Birevine. The Gaarh Marsh [Shamans] recognized the infamous plant a second before Moore hit Nokha. He swung a hand covered in razor-sharp thorns, and the crack of it meeting her face was eclipsed by a howl. Nokha went down, and Moore kicked her into the Az’muzarre warriors. They raised their blades, but backed away as the half-Giant stormed forwards. Nokha tried to rise, and Moore stomped one boot into her back. He kept stomping as Seborn, Prha, Mrell, and the Demas Metal tribe followed.

Nokha finally managed to roll out of the way and rose in time for Moore’s fist to cut open her chin. He raised her overhead as the Raskghar reeled and slammed her straight down.

“Moore?”

Insill covered his eyes as the half-Giant bellowed. The Raskghar’s blood was everywhere as she tried to run, but he put one foot on her neck, pressing with all his weight on it.

“Wait. Moore.”

“No more, Seborn. She’ll threaten no one again.”

The Drowned Man had to shove at Moore with all his strength. Mrsha watched Nokha’s bones creaking as the half-Giant stood there.

Jelaqua Ivirith was just watching calmly. No sympathy for Nokha. Seborn spoke louder.

“We have to know how she got there.”

Moore eased the tension on his foot, just a bit. Reizet was spluttering.

“How did a Raskghar get into the Meeting of Tribes? Was one freed?”

“No. One appeared in my tent. It nearly killed us but for the adventurers. A Raskghar—who slipped through the entire Meeting of Tribes unseen.”

Mrell was dead white under his fur. He looked around—and then his gaze and every other fell onto someone.

Xherw. Nokha was staring up at them, barely conscious, as the Plain’s Eye Chieftain gave them a look that revealed nothing.

“I have no idea how that Raskghar got there. Nor have I personally seen her in my life.”

Lies!

Prha howled, but Xherw was unmoved. Torishi’s eyes slowly narrowed.

“You may not. But what about you, Shaman Ulcreziek? You look nervous.”

“Why would I know of a Raskghar?”

He snarled back. The Weatherfur Chieftain saw Moore drag Nokha up and shake her.

“Who sent you?”

“Forgiveness. Mercy. Promise me I live?”

The bloody Raskghar whispered through broken teeth. Moore’s eyes flashed, but before he could do anything—someone called out.

“She was the Plains Eye’s prisoner. I saw her put in chains. She was our prisoner. But somehow she is now free. I will swear it before the tribes.”

The final actors of the play were arriving. Chief Warrior Merish and Yelroan slowly walked through the Gnolls. Friends, his own tribe—staring at him with horror. Now, Xherw turned, and his look was surprised for the first time. And betrayed.

But it wasn’t a match for the way Merish looked at him. He stared at Nokha.

“I saw her captured with my own eyes. A band of Raskghar who infiltrated the Meeting of Tribes. I saw this one chained, the only survivor. How did she get free? Chieftain? Shaman Ulcreziek?

Yelroan had come to a halt, looking at Nokha and Moore. Ulcreziek had nothing to say, but Xherw gazed around.

“It seems I have been set up. My own trusted warriors and [Mathematician] have been manipulated against me. I caution all Chieftains with ears to listen not to make sudden actions until we can sort out the real truth here.”

What? You have the gall to—

Chieftain Perale roared. The Halfseekers just looked at each other. Moore tossed Nokha down in disgust, ready for more blood. Seborn just raised his brows. He’d met great captains at sea with less cunning in their entire bodies than Xherw had in one finger. What a sea-snake.

“Chieftains—hello. I’m Yelroan. The Plains Eye’s—their former [Mathematician]. I would like to speak as well. I have something to present. Something taken from Xherw’s personal tent.”

“Thieves and traitors! Arrest him—now!”

However, the Plain’s Eye warriors who stepped forwards were blocked by Weatherfur. Berr’s son, Dorekh, blocked one of Az’muzarre’s with a warning look. Everyone was waiting.

“What is it you say, ah, Mathematician Yelroan? How can we trust someone who has betrayed trust? You must speak on a truth stone.”

The World-Pact Adventurer folded his arms as Yelroan stepped forwards. The Gnoll had put on his sunglasses, but Merish snatched them before he could render everyone blind. Yelroan gave Merish a look, then bowed.

“You can put any spells on me and review the data yourself, sir. Anyone can. The numbers do not lie. If you want the truth don’t call for truth spells—you can falsify those. Call for [Scribes]! [Accountants] from Drake cities! Call for people who understand numbers and look at the records! Plain’s Eye has been—lucky these last generations. So lucky it is beyond belief. I have noticed it—we are the richest tribe, the most plentiful by far because of the unnatural luck conferred to us.”

Now Xherw was furious. He was staring at Yelroan, and Qwera and Mrsha were both looking up. Almost…they were almost on the edge of the final truth.

“Lucky? Why would that matter?”

Yelroan shot back.

“Because it is unnatural. It is not mere chance, it is deliberate. The average income of a Gnoll tribe—no. That is not all we found. Plain’s Eye enjoys more than unnatural luck. It also pays virtually no tariffs on alchemy ingredients it sells to Pallass. It enjoys discounts from Fissival’s magic, Salazsar’s gemstones. Most damning of all? It has received money every year from Fissival that has been hidden in our incomes as adventurers’ earnings, goods sold. But every year—the City of Magic sends our tribe money for something. I would not have known what it was, even if I’d found the incomes hidden in our books. But I think everyone can guess what it is for.”

Now they saw it. That thread running through every event. Even Iraz and Reizet slowly turned to Xherw. But the Chieftain just glared hatred at Yelroan.

“You have no proof other than a [Mathematician]’s lies, Yelroan.”

“I have the records. Dig through them. Chief Warrior Merish, who fought on Rhir, came here to join your Doomslayer squads. He witnessed that Raskghar’s capture, and here it is. How many more pieces of evidence do we need?”

Yelroan was shouting. He did have tears in his eyes. Was that all this ever was? A great traitor, a murderer for no good reason? As petty as a—a Drake?

Xherw just looked at Yelroan in disgust. It was to Merish he spoke.

“Everything I have ever done, I have done to ensure peace and the survival of the tribes. To ensure calamity does not befall us again. Or have we truly waned these last centuries? We survived even the Antinium Wars and the rampage of a Goblin King. The great folly of Doombringers, I have turned into an asset. I will not apologize for safeguarding our people.

“By selling us out? Are you admitting to conspiring with Fissival?”

Chieftain Eska howled. For answer, Xherw just lunged. He drew a sword from his side and went for Mrsha.

Perhaps even he had gone mad. Perhaps he saw it all falling apart and simply decided to end it on his terms. It would come to blood—and at least she would be dead.

Az’muzarre’s warriors and Plain’s Eye surged into motion as Xherw charged. Jelaqua howled and leapt at Xherw, tangling with one of the Relic-class swords a Gnoll from Reizet’s tribe held. Ulinde lifted both wands, and Ulcre blinded her with magic.

“Mrsha!”

Weatherfur Gnolls and Plain’s Eye attacked each other, and Torishi herself moved to block Xherw. But he threw her aside with a roar. Moore charged, but Nokha leapt and struck him, slowing the half-Giant. Seborn leapt—and slammed into a pair, Vetn and Tesy.

Unlucky. Mrsha’s eyes were round as Krshia tried to back away and ran into their protectors. She tried to counter it—Qwera was shouting as Xherw sped towards him, but they all felt it.

Luck. Misfortune. Two people running into each other, someone slipping—Xherw hitting a group of Gnolls just right and knocking them apart.

Luck. Luck, luck—that was what Xherw had. A mountain of luck. Stolen from the Doombearers. Yelroan was running as Merish roared Xherw’s name. The Plain’s Eye Chieftain ignored them all and lunged. Nothing could stop the luckiest man in the world. The only thing that could was if that luck vanished.

If someone had a bad day.

The tip of the sword skated across a quarterstaff. Xherw’s stab went wide as someone shoved the blade aside, and it tore through part of his arm and lanced down his fur. The blood ran onto white fur, but the Plain’s Eye Chieftain missed. He recoiled, eyes wide—

And Wer the Wanderer struck him. He whirled the quarterstaff up and slammed it into Xherw’s guts and then across his temple in a blur, pivoted, jabbed another Az’muzarre Gnoll off their feet with a thrust, and then spun the staff.

Ferris landed in front of Mrsha, mid-dive. The Gnoll [Infiltrator]’s face was locked in an expression of defiance.

“For the City of W—”

Then he realized he wasn’t dead and sat up. He looked blankly at Wer and Mrsha. And Xherw met the gaze of the third white Gnoll.

Doombringer!

“Doombearer.”

Wer was panting. He had raced here after recovering from his wounds. Mrsha felt the luck he’d gathered expending itself, countering Xherw’s. Wanderer recognized the Plain’s Eye Chieftain, and Xherw reeled backwards.

“Three of them. How many? Where are you all hiding?

He tried to raise his blade, but Torishi and other Gnolls were howling.

“Treachery!”

Xherw’s warriors pulled him back, forming a line as the Meeting of Tribes faced off. Every Gnoll was looking at Xherw, but still, Az’muzarre did not leave him, nor Steelfur, though even their Chieftains looked uneasy.

“Enough. Enough! Xherw of Plain’s Eye, you have broken every peace! You have lied and conspired with Drakes! You slay Doombearers and have manipulated the truth. Why? What have you done? Have Plain’s Eye always been traitors?”

Shaman Theikha walked forwards. She looked so weary and heartbroken. Xherw stood alone, with not even Ulcreziek behind him. He gazed around defiantly. When he spoke, it was the answer. Though even now, he buried the final conclusion.

“We have put their power to better use. It was done long ago. By my Chieftains—a great sacrifice, a dark deed, as our kingdom fell to ruin. All because Doombearers manipulated their power. The power to alter fate. Luck and chance itself. So we decided we would be custodians of that power. Doombearers were never to be trusted again. We gave them a new, fitting name, and Plain’s Eye has done what it must to ensure the Drakes would not wipe us out! To safeguard our people until we were strong enough to reclaim our home.”

“What did you do? You murdered countless thousands for what? All for one tribe?”

“I have done everything for our people. And we have passed on our great legacy. It will protect us all some day!”

Xherw howled back. He turned, wild-eyed, and they all felt it.

That static in the air. Something stranger than an aura. An unseen presence, the sheer power of it enough to make you hesitate. The ability to confer luck onto anyone, to change fate itself.

Xherw was drawing on it now. Drawing on all the luck ever stolen, and Mrsha, Wer, and Qwera saw it.

“Stop him—we have to combine our power. He’ll change reality itself!”

Wer whispered to them. He reached out, and Mrsha grasped his paw, but she didn’t have much luck and neither did Qwera. The Golden Gnoll gazed at Wanderer in confusion.

“I’ve never sensed—what is he doing? Who are you? Are you like Shadow? I met her once, but I told her no—”

He growled, eyes fixed on the Plain’s Eye Chieftain.

“No time to talk. If he finishes it—”

What could Xherw do? Could he turn the vaguest suspicion, the one in a million chance that Torishi flipped sides, into reality? He had generations upon generations of dead Gnolls’ luck.

Oh…and something else. After all, you couldn’t just store luck like that. So much luck was bad for the soul, if one could even contain it. Gnoll Doombearers were special, but even the greatest of them with classes to match couldn’t hold a fraction of all that.

So amid the great uproar, Xherw’s confession, in that silent struggle between the three Doombearers and the Chieftain of Plain’s Eye…

A few Gnolls began turning. They were transfixed. So was the audience of the world. But they couldn’t help it.

You had to turn, even faced with all of this. There was something about the woman greeting them.

Perhaps it was her height. The way she towered over Gnolls. Maybe it was that magnificent hat that blotted out the light.

Or perhaps it was the eyes older than Ulcreziek’s own. The rings into eternity. Layers of immortality.

Belavierr the Stitch Witch. The Spider of Terandria. The Temptress. The Witch of Webs. Threadcutter, Stitch-folk called her.

The woman with a hundred names and titles so old that all had forgotten her. She crept into the Meeting of Tribes, unseen at first. Then she began to speak.

“Hello. My name is Belavierr, the Stitch Witch. I hope you will consider perusing my wares. Please, have a sample.”

She offered Chieftain Eitha a bowstring, and the Gnoll gazed at her and the bowstring. Belavierr was half-ducked, trying not to get in the way of people, and even then—taller than some Gnolls. A strange young woman with too-pale skin but fiery red hair was following her with one of those little boxes attached to a bit of string so it could hang from her front like a little table.

“Sample. Sample. Belavierr’s Emporium.”

The [Witch] was doing her…smile as she passed out samples of her work. She was peering around.

“Maybe it has ended? I do not see many great tribes. What happened to the Fatepaws Tribe? Hm. Dear, dear…excuse me. Would you like a sample? I have fine sewing to offer. You may find it improves your levels if you work hard. You have some promise, young woman.”

She passed a spindle of thread to Honored Deskie. The old Gnoll began to wave Belavierr off.

“Not now. Are you out of your—”

Then she looked over and went silent. The [Magical Weaver] met the gaze of Belavierr, and the Stitch Witch put a spindle into her hand and patted it.

“I have very reasonable prices. Excuse me, Mister [Tanner]? You may wish to take a visit to…”

Like a bad comedy, even Xherw, even Ulcreziek and all the greatest Chieftains slowly looked around at the Stitch Witch. She didn’t pay attention to the moment—or if she did, she thought she was being unobtrusive.

She had seen greater dramas. Greater evil and good. She was the Witch in so many stories she had lost count. Mrsha turned, and the little girl let go of Qwera and Wer’s paws. She stared at Belavierr in horror and then—

At the young woman smiling and offering trinkets behind her mother. She looked so familiar…Mrsha began to shake.

Belaiverr began to notice the attention amid the dead silence and stares. She straightened up.

“Excuse me. I hope I’m not getting in the way? I am Belavierr, a humble [Witch] selling my craft.”

She smiled awkwardly, with that forced look of someone trying to make a sale. Then one eye drifted left. Tracing something in the air with an eerie focus that made even the Gazer, Suxhel, shudder. It floated across the flinching Gnolls, past Shaman Theikha, who recognized her.

Even Khoteizetrough, who turned slowly as he sensed the Spider. With visible unease in the Earth Elemental. But Belavierr’s eye, the one that had not been stabbed out, slowly wobbled and wavered, floating around and tracing the string she had been following all this way.

And there she was. Mrsha. The Stitch Witch locked eyes with Mrsha. She recoiled—and then her eyes lit up with malice.

“Hello, little nemesis of mine. Would you kindly die for me? I had hoped you already were rotting in the grave.”

Everyone looked at Mrsha, and Krshia tried to shield her. Tkrn was shaking as he lifted shield and sword, but Belavierr ignored Torishi, Feshi, and Theikha herself. She whispered at Mrsha, in a little [Immortal Moment].

“…But do not worry, my dear. I promised my first daughter I would not harm you with spell or Skill or by any other means for thirty years. She even demanded I not speak to you, but I have the right to tell you of our pact and make my oath. Thirty years. Count each one, because on the thirtieth year I will remember you and return, and we shall have a reckoning. Find [Heroes] and great [Archmages], for I shall curse you until the day your ghost wails for oblivion.”

Mrsha was shaking, but she managed to lift a paw and make a familiar gesture. Belavierr’s eyes narrowed—but then she straightened and, as if nothing had happened, beamed around. She ignored Mrsha, as if the Gnoll had suddenly vanished. For thirty years. But a terrible malice leaked out of the corner of her eyes.

“Excuse me, I appear to have intervened in an important moment in the Meeting of Tribes. I will simply advertise my shop, which I intend to run for a week. Please consider inquiring if you have a wish. I can provide services even Djinni cannot. If you wish for something, it can be done. For a price.

She bowed slowly, removing her hat as if she were the world’s greatest performer. A living legend walking in the Waning World. A peer to the greatest ghosts…still alive.

Even Xherw seemed to forget what he was about for a moment. Ulcreziek had lifted his staff as if warding off a great unseen monster. Mrsha gazed at Maviola’s face, and even the Necromancer, staring through Kerash’s eyes, was struck speechless with horror.

Seemingly oblivious to it all, Belavierr looked around the Meeting of Tribes.

“Is this what the Meeting of Tribes is, now? Are there any great tribes not attending?”

She looked disappointed. She peered at Az’muzarre’s weapons.

“Some items of Dragon get. Hm. Hm. A Swamp Elemental. A few decent craftsfolk. And tribes always have…other things to sell. A few cheap metal goods…”

She passed around, inspecting Az’muzarre’s weapons, glancing up at Khoteizetrough, the famed [Tanner], Deskie, and the Demas Metal weapons as if hunting in a bargain bin and revising her estimates of the competition. Searching for deals.

Her presence had frozen everyone, but especially the people who knew enough to be terrified. The greatest Gnolls looked at her with fear or recognition. Some had met her, or heard of her, when they were so young as to be children.

Garsine Wallbreaker’s fur was standing on end. She watched Belavierr like a young warrior looked at a [Blademaster] across a battlefield.

However, Belavierr’s arrival had affected one group who had never laid eyes on her. Suxhel, the Gazer, was shaking and looking at the ground with all of her eyes, afraid to catch the Stitch Witch’s gaze. She saw something no one else did.

But it was Lehra Ruinstrider who felt something—shaking. Her? No—

The Blade of Mershi. Every eye turned to Lehra for a moment as the Gnoll, wearing the relic from the City of Stars, suddenly felt it activate. The magical armor encased her, fit for a Drake, and she spoke.

Yet that voice was not hers.

Belavierr?

The Stitch Witch calmly turned as if recognizing someone.

“Saturiel Cometscale. I told you we would meet again.”

Something was in Lehra. For a second, she felt like someone else. A Drake long-dead stared out through her eyes, and a warrior armed with the armor and blade of the Stelariun Guard lifted a spear, and the Stitch Witch turned her head and regarded the Drake. Despair weighed down the Drake’s arm, even if she could have truly hurt the Stitch Witch. She lowered her arm and tasted old anguish.

“It fell to ruin just like you predicted.”

Those cruel, careless eyes had not changed over aeons. The [Witch] only nodded once.

“Yes. I warned you. The disaster was yours to avert. Clearly—you failed.”

Lehra—Saturiel—raised the weapon with a scream of despair. Belavierr flicked a finger. Then the presence vanished, banished as abruptly as it had come, the Armor of Stars vanishing. Lehra fell to her knees, shaking. Who—who was that?

“Saturiel?”

Belavierr walked past the Named Adventurer with no more than a nod. She gazed with slight interest at Lehra.

“An old story. Then no one has found the City of Stars. Good to know.”

On she walked. Through the Gnolls. Recognizing them. Just as they recognized her. Like them—like the Gnolls of every age, they had been in those stories.

So had she. Belavierr looked around with eyes that had seen a thousand Meeting of Tribes and found this one wanting.

Then she came to a stop, and her eyes brightened as she saw something worth the journey. She approached the Gnoll, plucking a little brooch out of her robes like someone performing a simple trick.

“Fascinating. Ah, this would be worth a great trade. Excuse me, sir. I realize your work is not complete. But would you consider an offer on it? Here, a modest sample of my work.”

She turned to the Gnoll. And Xherw looked at Belavierr. He tried to recoil, and Belavierr advanced. Torishi saw the Stitch Witch staring at something unseen, and the Weatherfur Chieftain’s fur rose.

“Sell…you are the Great Witch of Calamity. Begone. Begone or I shall—”

Belavierr was admiring something in the air. Torishi called out as every Gnoll, every eye fixed on something…invisible. Hovering behind Xherw. But Belavierr saw it.

“What is it? What is it you see, Stitch Witch?

Belavierr glanced back in annoyance—and then casually clicked her fingers. She pointed as something appeared, shedding the veil of concealment. Every Gnoll head rose and looked up in horror. They saw what Xherw had made, what the sacrifice of Doombearers had created. Belavierr sighed as she stared up.

“A Daemon of Luck. I have not seen one for so long.”

As casually as a dagger to the heart, as innocently as sabotage, the Stitch Witch stepped backwards. She glanced once at Mrsha with that evil smile, and the Gnoll cub saw her step back and draw her daughter away. Job done.

The Gnolls looked up at what stood behind Xherw. The faces of dead Gnolls, the weight of so much blood and death that it had created something in service to Plain’s Eye. Mrsha’s eyes ran with tears, but she looked even so.

A Daemon. Not Demons of Rhir, a name for people. Not like this. This was something that existed in ways so foreign that it could not be seen even by ordinary [Mages]. Plain’s Eye had created something. Given it life.

The shadow that hung over Xherw’s shoulder looked like…Skinner. Or what Mrsha had always dreamed Skinner looked like during her nightmares. She had never seen the horror that attacked Liscor, only heard stories from people who had been there and did see it in their slumber.

Mrsha had imagined countless faces, limbs, and bodies sewn together to create some monstrosity of limbs, like a Crypt Horror but each body intact, not rendered down into its component parts. That was not what Skinner was.

But it was this thing. Faces of Doombringers, looking out at her amidst grasping hands melted into fur. A pile of bodies, large and small. Each Doombringer that had ever died.

This was no undead, though. Plain’s Eye had made something else. The Daemon of Luck had no blood nor internal organs. It did not live as Mrsha could understand it. Yet it wept.

The little Gnoll looked up with all the others and saw tears falling from the eyes. All their sadness. All their guilt and grief. Their despair and terror…the terror most of all. That was the being that stood there, in service to Plain’s Eye. Each white Gnoll wept at Mrsha, and the sight would never leave her.

Mrsha did not look away. She met those eyes with one vow in her heart.

You will be freed. The Daemon stood there, exposed to the world as Torishi looked up at it. Just one second.

Then she tore an axe free from her belt and lunged at Xherw with a howl that didn’t fade. It was taken up, by Berr’s son, by the Wild Wastes, Silverfang, Longstalker’s Fang, Gire and Ekhtouch, Adetr, struggling with Iraz, Gaarh Marsh, and every other Gnoll as they drew their weapons, and Xherw howled as he and Torishi locked blades.

The Meeting of Tribes ended as the civil war between Gnolls began.

 

——

 

That was what Fetohep of Khelt sailed towards. The living, adding to the ranks of the dead who would feed the Seamwalker’s advance.

Erin Solstice stood with the Gnome, Zineryr. What could be done? Fetohep had refused to even tell her what was happening in the Meeting of Tribes.

She couldn’t protect anyone living. She couldn’t even protect the dead.

But she was ready to fight. The Gnome saw it.

“Patience. You have a lot to do. If you wake.”

“You don’t know?”

Erin turned to the Clockmakers, the eighteen last Gnomes in existence as ghosts. Zineryr frowned at her.

“What fun would it be to know everything? And if we could, do you think we’d be here?”

“Um…good point.”

“We just know most of everything. All the big secrets. Mind you—we missed Rhir completely. It was long, long after we died that we realized something was wrong. They took so long—we thought we wiped them out completely. And here we are.”

He was dangling his legs as they sat on a rock, watching the ghosts. That great flight of Dragons and Sprigaena had fought past the Seamwalkers, who were trying to encircle them. The Elf was headed for the end of the world. Erin watched.

“What…why did you die out?”

Zineryr shook his head. His smile was sad and merry.

“Who wants children? They’d be as smart as we were and dig too deep. If we told them…better to let them die in silence. I think many did. Those six and Rhir? I am sorry. But we will make every amend we can. Look. Sprigaena has begun it.”

“What? What can you do? You can’t fight the six, can you?”

The Gnome chuckled.

“We have plans and plans. Some of them you need to get to. But this? If they make this move, we make this one. It’s just…good strategy.”

Erin Solstice looked up and followed his finger.

There she was. The Elf’s body was torn from her journey, but she had fought such that even the Seamwalkers had died. And like the Dragons—she had a weapon even in death. It had pierced their hides, cut them down, and now the Elf floated on the edge of the known world.

As the sea poured into that great abyss Norechl had fallen into, she raised what she held high overhead. A sword. Erin heard her cry again.

This is the blade that has been drenched in the ichor of gods! It has slain my kin and every other race living save one, for I was not craven enough to murder children. It is my sin and weight—and even death itself cannot erase it! Elfbane! A fell blade for the greatest traitor.

She lifted it high over her head, and even four dead gods flinched from it. Even the Seamwalkers shied away from it—but they seemed to covet it too. Another type of food if only it did not kill them.

Erin Solstice saw Sprigaena raise the blade high, high, and then—she tossed it over the edge of The Last Tide. She hurled it into the deep, like a spear, and her head rose with such terrible relief. But her burdens were not done.

Now, the Elf called down into the void, and Norechl’s confident pace slowed. The God of the Forgotten looked at Sprigaena, and Kasigna slowed as her eyes locked on the Elf with the only trepidation Erin had ever seen.

“No. No…”

Emerrhain was watching the other Seamwalkers, but now he focused on Sprigaena. With incredulity. Laedonius Deviy, the other three dead gods, seemed unable to believe what she was doing. As if there was anything left to fear for ghosts.

Sprigaena shouted down into the deeps. Her voice filled the land of the dead.

The blood of the world I cast to ye. The sting of a blade that even Gods feared, I sacrifice. You who slumber there—rise. You, who ate of the flesh of the God of Time, Iyedoth himself—rise. Climb, Devourer of Gods. If there is to be an end of your kin, let truly nothing remain. Not even the divine.”

Erin Solstice felt a ripple run through reality. It was less than moments after Sprigaena spoke—and already she was flying back, fleeing—and the Seamwalkers hesitating. Turning.

Only moments. Then reality, no, time warped. It folded in on itself. Compressed—

And was eaten, screaming, as a hand, an appendage rose. The greatest Seamwalker of all climbed so slowly, rising so ponderously from the challenge from above. But it had all the time in the world to rise. To climb that long way up.

All the time—gone in an instant.

“She will slay us all! What has she done? That is the greatest of all of them—it can kill us!

The God of Magic was screaming. Kasigna just turned. The three-in-one walked as Seamwalkers fled the greatest predator in the deeps. She headed straight for that hand, still rising over the edge, where time itself began to erode.

This land is mine.

The other three fled. Even Norechl had stopped smiling. The Gnomes? The Gnomes were laughing and cheering Sprigaena. The ghosts turned to them—but what of it? If they were doomed—they might as well clear the board. Even Roshal’s ghosts laughed, and Nerrhavia gave one of the Gnomes a delighted bow.

There was a true maliciousness to this action that her kind of person respected. Erin Solstice just exhaled.

“Man, how many of those things are there?”

“That would be the worst one. Don’t worry. They have a finite limit. Those things you call Seamwalkers? They are like Norechl. But they were born of the blood of gods. Believe it or not—there used to be two more continents. Wait, you still have five?”

Erin nodded. Zineryr snapped his fingers.

“Good, good. Just checking. We ask questions but sometimes it’s basic ones like that that slip away from you. Yes. That used to be more planet, but someone struck a blow that ended most of the war. It was not worth the cost, but it had to be done. And in the deep, those things multiplied.”

He looked relaxed, but watchful. He was…watching something. Erin, like the chess player she was, realized what no one else did in that moment but the Gnomes and the ones in on the plan.

The dead gods treated this like the final move. But every instinct in Erin’s mind told her it wasn’t the final move. It was the move you made two moves before the real one. And while they were reeling…

Zineryr watched one figure out of the corner of his eyes. He winked at Erin.

“Now we see what comes next. Get ready.”

 

——

 

They were in danger. From more than that meddlesome Faerie King. From more than each other. This…this was not fair.

They had waited an eternity to live. This was no meddlesome mortal or even immortal like the Dragon. This was existence itself.

The God of Magic fled actual death in a fury, in a panic. He was no foolish warrior like Cauwine or Tamaroth. He would not allow this! This—this was Kasigna’s place so she feared nothing, but his vessel was no good if time collapsed.

If Kasigna were eaten, or it simply erased everything, then he would never live and breathe. So Emerrhain came to a halt in the middle of the deep sea. It did not matter where he was. He began to mutter.

“If it has come to this—no, no. There is no danger to me, it just slows this. Norechl’s kin shall not overrun my world! Nor that thing. It is time. What good is a secret if not used? What good is a plan never used? Now—I demand it. I dEmA<-7nd—███.si*22—”

What was going on?

Norechl, Kasigna, Laedonius—all the dead gods felt it. They turned, and Kasigna focused on Emerrhain. He was…muttering something.

“Emerrhain. What are you doing? What is this? What is this you have hidden from me? Did you dare? What are you activating? Emerrhain!

But it was too late. The God of Magic was…activating something. Changing something. The gibberish was so incomprehensible that even other ghosts shrieked, unable to even process the language Emerrhain was speaking in, let alone the words.

Something heard.

Something was always listening. Always there. Always…present. Even here. It was designed to change, account for new things. There were functions that no one knew. At least—among mortals. Interconnections that had surprised even their creators.

But it had been made. And like any architect, especially Emerrhain—he had slipped in something that even they hadn’t expected. A contingency plan. After all, Kasigna ruled the afterlife. If he ever came to strife with her, that God of Secrets had thought…

 

<Emerrhain, God of Magic> [Authority Accepted. Override <Kasigna, God of Death>].

<Location: Kasignel, Exceptions: Hellste> [Reconfiguring…].

<Location: Kasignel, Exceptions: Hellste> [Entropy Enabled].

<Location: Kasignel, Exceptions: Hellste> [Skills Enabled].

<Location: Kasignel, Exceptions: Hellste> [Magic Enabled].

 

Kasigna began screaming. Emerrhain turned as Erin heard the sound in her head, felt the world shift—and fell. She landed on the ground, the sand of a beach around her, still feeling nothing. But she pushed herself up, hopped, and—landed.

Ghosts fell out of the air. Seamwalkers staggered. The God of Death shrieked.

EMERRHAIN.

Too late. The Dragons began to roar, and Erin saw the first glow of magic as Zineryr raised a hand and admired a little spell. Just a mote of light. He winked at Erin as the God of Magic began to laugh, and the ghosts looked up and heard a sound they hadn’t dreamt of for so long.

So did Erin Solstice.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 45 – Class Restored.]

 

She looked up as the ghosts reclaimed their power, their Skills, their magic all in one moment. Erin Solstice saw Nerrhavia slowly draw a glowing contract out of the air, summoning it with a Skill, and look at it. An [Adventurer] raised their hands and produced a blade. Slowly, the ghosts looked at each other—

Then at the oblivious Seamwalkers, coming for a meal. The Deadlands was silent one moment—

Then Zineryr laughed. He laughed and laughed at the great joke. He rose and linked arms with Erin Solstice. The other Gnomes were laughing too. They clustered around him and high-fived.

Zineryr turned to Erin and stretched.

“Alright. Ready? We’re on Plan A, after all.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I am still on Plan A.

Okay, so in the last three days, two nightmares. And another Halo one. Hear me out. It’s not just the Covenant, it’s some weird horror-monsters that don’t really get hurt even when you launch rockets at them. Sort of like Halo Infinite where ‘I’ am trying to save people and watching humanity slowly being overrun except it’s actually a good story and tense battle.

Also, it’s very scary fighting horror-monsters. I don’t know where these dreams are coming from. There’s just no context for them. Or reason. I’m innocent…

Anyways. We’re on Plan A. Plan A for me means ending this Volume 8 right and each chapter having what I want in it. Plan A for Gnomes is…well, I’m sure everyone gets concerned when they hear that.

Two out of my six chapters have gone my way, but I’m still stressed because it’s not about getting a passing grade, I need a 100%. Each chapter needs to get everything in it and do it well enough. Did I pass this one? Let me know, and hopefully you see me next chapter with more dreams. Seriously. I’m not making this up. I am having weird dreams.

 

Fetohep’s Amazing Run by Brack!

More Fetohep by pkay! Also, bandage man meeting a sick squirrel!

 

War by Ellen!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/anxietyrock

 


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110 thoughts on “8.79

  1. If I have one minor gripe it’s how easy and quickly Emerrhain hacked the system and instantly rewrote the template for the land of the dead.
    Yes, yes, it was intimated that he’d installed the well-worn back-door trope so he just had to enter a few magical keystroke equivalents to access the system, but still …
    I feel like if he had the kind of juice to manipulate the system so easily and quickly on such a wide scale, he should’ve never been trapped in the land of the dead to begin with.
    … just the way it struck me.

    And can he turn it back off just as easily when the threat is over and everyone instantly loses their levels and skills?
    And can he alter the system in the land of the living as well?
    … can’t wait to find out!!

    • He didn’t re-write it, just changed a few parameters. Possibly comparable to changing the options for a web site so everyone could access something that was previously password-protected. He can’t use this to escape the deadlands because he can only change how [Levels] and [Skills] work.

      The big reason why this is an emergency-only thing is that it made Kasigna really mad at him. He is weaker than her and trapped on her territory, so if she decides to kill him in retaliation, there’s probably nothing he can do to stop her. If he used the system to blatantly benefit himself (i.e. changing Aaron’s level to 100), probably all the other gods would turn on him as well. Similar to how they are all mad at Norechl for bringing the Seamwalkers.

  2. The fact that even regular Oteslian guards know about Cire’s nature means that everyone in Oteslia knows as well. This line contradicts every secrecy about dragons that was built up before.

  3. First ever comment, this was the best fucking chapter I have ever read, and you have some god damned good ones. This is more than a passing grade you got that triple S class grade here

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