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(Casualfarmer has released their first novel, Beware of Chicken on Amazon! I encourage you to check out their story online and consider reading the story. I am on break for an entire month. Thanks for reading.)

 

After all that time, it was Izril they came back to. The split continent with three species, each acting as if they were the first and only ones to ever matter.

Drakes, children of Dragons, marching into the Great Plains as Gnolls killed Gnolls. Humans in the north watched with the aid of [Mages] along with the rest of the world.

The Ailendamus-Dawn Concordat war had come to a standstill. No more time ripples struck Baleros. A’ctelios Salash slumbered, and the Blighted Kingdom reported no clashes with Demons.

So it was Izril. Izril that a group of adventurers returned to. An Archmage sighted the place where she had met her match, a city extending into the waters, an open harbor with watchtowers like fangs, alight with magic.

The Walled City of Waves watched as Khelt’s fleet approached, led by two famous vessels. It could not see the army of weary ghosts who marched over sea.

The living did not see the end of another world. The lands of the dead were growing quiet. Ghosts returned to the living world briefly. Then there was only quietus.

Corpses of Seamwalkers littered the ground and ocean. The rest walked, crawled, or moved on towards Terandria or followed that army of ghosts to the end. And it was four dead gods now, not six, who vied for the last souls.

On Terandria, Erin Solstice watched the last stand of Terandria’s monarchs. She looked back home, where, a continent away, a Dragon began to wake from death’s embrace. She was mortally tired, but she wanted to go home. She wanted to wake from this dream.

Yes, a dream. The deadlands were fading away. Whether it was Seamwalkers or dead gods—an end had come to this long, empty world. The Goddess of Death stood, looking at this half-formed world like an architect returning to a ruined work of art. To make it what it should have been, what it had been or could now become—it all had to vanish first.

 

——

 

Only when the last lies were unveiled, when the truth shone and all debts were paid, would they be free of it.

An entire species was waking up from a nightmare they hadn’t realized they’d been having. Gnolls too saw the end of something.

The end of the Plain’s Eye tribe’s lies. The end of how they knew Doombringers. Whether tribes would believe the words unveiled by Satar Silverfang—whatever they became—the Meeting of Tribes was at an end.

This was the reckoning that had waited centuries to come. The long lies and deceit, a wretched Daemon weeping luck and tears as it stood behind Xherw. The Chieftain of Plain’s Eye howled as he fought, because he sensed it too.

This was the end. And not even Shaman Ulcreziek could predict what came next. The cost of it all was lives. Countless Gnolls and heroes of their kind.

The tribe’s camps were ablaze within the first minutes of fighting. The gathering in the center of both camps was an all-out war as Chieftain Torishi charged Xherw. Iraz and Reizet led their warriors forwards against Gaarh Marsh, Gire, Tkrn, and Mrsha’s friends and allies. Wer’s staff was a blur as he knocked down arrows loosed at Qwera, and Krshia seized Mrsha, racing back.

In fact—most of the fighting was to get away as warriors charged past children and families, Gnolls who did not have combat classes.

In the tales of great battles that Mrsha had been told, it was armies and [Knights] charging each other. In Lyonette’s stories, or when Urksh had told them—the sides were all brave warriors and cunning [Shamans] versus faceless villains.

Not people. But for every warrior who’d come with their tribe, there were six or even twelve Gnolls who were not fighters. And they were a panicked mass of bodies.

Fall back to the camps! Fall back—guard the tribes!

Shaman Cetrule howled as Silverfang warriors tried to create a defensive line. Plain’s Eye was doing the same. But in that chaos—Gnolls looked distinct, but they were from countless different tribes. You had to see markings to recognize your enemies. Remember which side stood where.

Some tribes were obvious. Plain’s Eye with the markings of eyes on their fur were the largest targets for the outraged tribes. Many had switched sides in a moment, when they looked at the Daemon of Luck and heard Belavierr’s words.

Too many stayed. Steelfur, Az’muzarre…was it luck, denial? Or did they just hate white fur that much?

It was a shockwave rippling from the center. Gnolls further away, who hadn’t heard or seen anything, glanced up as they heard the howling. Their blood chilled, and a terrible numb fear gripped them. Tribes looked up and saw the fighting and realized the worst had happened.

A civil war among their species. They saw the Earth Elemental, Khoteizetrough, raising a fist and bringing it down overhead, and they fought.

It benefited Xherw’s tribe. Many Gnolls did not know what had been revealed, so their tribe fought alongside old allies. In fact, more than one came to arms and found the warriors who had been at that gathering had switched sides.

The despairing Chieftain of Decles’ tribe, his fur dark red, flesh pale with shock underneath, lifted a paw and called out to his confused people.

We fight against Plain’s Eye. Deceivers! They have created a monster—put down your arms and come away!

“Liars! Look—they have addled even your Chieftain’s mind! He has taken leave of his senses!”

A Plain’s Eye [Shaman] howled. Confused Gnolls, each one bearing the Decles tribe charm, a twisted claw of some animal they had hunted to reach adulthood or bequeathed to children until they reached a mature age, looked at their Chieftain. He began to speak, and the words turned into a howl. An arrow struck him in the stomach, and the Decles tribe descended into confusion.

Madness. Someone was throwing fire through the air. Not [Fireballs], but swathes of flame which landed, burning, setting fur alight and catching on tents. Sowing more confusion as each Chieftain turned to their war leaders, gathering for a proper attack.

But all of this was—Gnolls killing Gnolls. They were one people. This was not right. Many warriors and people of each tribe had nothing to do with their leaders’ decisions.

It was only that at least one Gnoll had to die: Chieftain Xherw. Yet his warriors protected him and Shaman Ulcreziek. And on the other side—the Doombringers had to die. The traitorous leaders of the other tribes had to die.

Everything else was a casualty of that. They knew. It was the reflection in Iraz’s gaze, the haunted look in Chieftain Akrisa’s as they pointed or drew blades, watching the fighting begin.

This was the deaths of their people. How many would die? But neither group would relent.

The first great Gnoll of the Meeting of Tribes to die was from the Wild Wastes tribe. The [Barbarians] and [Nomads] of that huge tribe had looked at the Daemon of Luck and charged into the Plain’s Eye warriors.

They wore hide armor, and many had been trained to fight with an axe in each hand; they faced Gnolls with metal armor and overwhelmed their opponents with a whirlwind of blows. They were one of the greatest warrior tribes of their kind.

Even Steelfur’s metal coating wasn’t enough to stop the [Berserker]’s rage once it started. And the angrier the Wild Wastes tribe got—the harder they fought. Looking at that Daemon, hearing the lies?

A thousand warriors were storming forwards, led by a blonde Gnoll who grabbed a sword with a gauntleted paw and thrust it aside long enough to raise an axe of mithril. The gleaming blade fell once, cutting the side of a neck open. Grimacing, the warrior stepped away, but he kept advancing. His other paw drew a lesser throwing axe, and it whirled into a [Shaman]’s chest. A gasping Gnoll stared down at it, their garb running red.

Treachery! Where is Chieftain Xherw? Protect the Doombringer! You all—fall back!

Warrior Dorekh was shouting, drawing the Wild Wastes warriors around him out of their fury. He was turning to find Xherw, to kill him and end this strife, when the dying [Shaman] raised a bloody paw and whispered a last spell.

The world went dark. The Wild Wastes Gnolls were suddenly plunged into a complete and absolute darkness as one of the Eye Totems activated, blinding them. Either their [Shamans] failed to counterspell the hex or they were busy.

Dorekh did not panic. He howled, and the warriors howled back. Forwards! There were enemies attacking them; Gnolls cried out, and the Wild Wastes tribe charged into the ambush.

Fighting blind was a madman’s task, but they didn’t know where to run to. There weren’t many warriors in front of him; on reflex, Dorekh felt a biting blade trying to pierce his enchanted armor and reacted.

“[Viper’s Counterstrike].”

He cut down the Gnoll attacking him. Then he made a bark of sound. It was repeated a dozen times; the Gnolls behind him all confirmed who they were.

Bodies ahead. Dorekh felt their presence, less blinded than his other warriors. He could sense their fury.

“Warriors! Twenty! Ahead! Charge!”

He and his warriors slammed into the knot of Gnolls, charging ahead with such reckless abandon that they were knocked to the ground with their opponents. That gave them an equal footing, even blinded.

Find that totem! More warriors!”

Howls and the bark-signs that let the Wild Wastes warriors distinguish each other were echoing around Dorekh. He got up, tangled with the corpse of another warrior who had been able to see him, and knew they had to find that totem or fall back.

They would kill their own forces, but he was certain they were amongst Plain’s Eye Gnolls for the moment. So Dorekh followed the fighting and…halted.

The tenor of voices had changed. The screaming—Dorekh’s blind head whirled. There were hundreds, thousands of Gnolls around him. But—his axe rose, and he hesitated.

Enemy! Enem—

Dorekh felt someone try to stab him again, but his [Armored Fur] held it off. He swung the axe reflexively and stopped.

He’d—missed. But he had swung at shoulder-height, and he was not a tall Gnoll. Then—the Gnoll’s paw shot out.

“Who am I fighting?”

He grabbed the head of a struggling Gnoll far too short and light to be an adult. The Wild Wastes warriors were fighting…

Hold! I am Dorekh! Hold your blades!

The warriors around him hesitated. Dorekh felt the younger Gnoll tearing away. Now, he heard screams and sensed bodies fleeing around him.

Plain’s Eye’s tribe. The warrior felt the rage in the [Berserkers] around him and himself. It would be so easy…

Dorekh! They are attacking us!

A strangled scream—there were enemy warriors amongst the civilians. Yet Dorekh hesitated. He looked around, eyes blind, then shouted.

Wild Wastes—fall back! Find that totem or retreat! You stand amongst children and civilians! Lower your blades.

The uncertainty in the Gnolls of his tribe was palpable. Dorekh heard a sound. The fwit of a bowstring loosing. A cry of pain.

“Honored Dorekh—”

The Gnoll just grinned, his bloodsoaked blonde fur damp with sweat. They could not see him, and he could not see anything. All around him was screaming; he felt the tremendous impact as the Earth Elemental struck something, that howling from the center of the fighting. But the warrior just thought of one thing and replied loudly.

“Berr’s son knows when to hold his rage. I will not raise my axes. Who will be a true warrior?”

No one answered him, but the Wild Wastes Gnolls didn’t raise their blades. They tried to retreat, calling out, looking for the edge of that magical field.

It was dispelled first. Four minutes later, a [Shaman]—Cetrule himself—burned the totem blinding the warriors enough for their sight to return in a rush. The Gnolls, who had formed a circle, looked around, calling out in relief.

“Where is the enemy…?”

The civilians were fleeing in the distance, and the few Plain’s Eye warriors had drawn back. Then the warriors looked about. One turned, calling, and they knew already.

“Honored Dorekh? Dorekh…?”

They found his body trampled and abandoned amidst the few dead. All Wild Wastes Gnolls—killed with a single wound to the back or neck. Dorekh lay there, a bitter, bloodsoaked smile aimed at the sky. But even in those empty eyes, he didn’t look regretful. Just…resolved.

His tribe gathered around him, and a hundred warriors surrounded that body. His friends picked him up, and they howled as they brought him back to camp. The rest turned and charged forwards, throwing themselves onto the Plain’s Eye warriors. Teeth tore at necks, and [Berserkers] lost themselves to a rage.

A Gnoll climbed forwards out of a pile of dead Plain’s Eye warriors, a sword plunged straight through his chest and two spear hafts buried in his sides. He kept going, bringing an axe down on each head and ending each life, helmet or not, for another minute before he dropped without a word. His tribe avenged him in blood and slaughter and added more names and faces to that growing list on either side.

 

——

 

“Honored Dorekh is dead.”

It seemed that the world was a blur. The only things she saw were Krshia’s paws, Qwera’s look of despair. The howling and that Daemon behind Xherw, watching her.

Then Mrsha was being thrust into a tent as Krshia reached their fortified camp. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] collapsed, clutching at her chest. Looking back with an expression of horror that Mrsha had only seen once on a Gnoll’s face—that of Elirr seeing the Raskghar’s ritual.

“Qwera—Qwera, in here!”

Vetn and Tesy were next, thrusting the Golden Gnoll into the tent. Mrsha saw to her shock that Qwera had an arrow in her arm. The blood was running down the gold and white where the paint had been erased by Ulcreziek, but she just held one paw to her shoulder, grimacing.

“Where’s—there. Ysara! Ys—

Qwera turned as Yerranola, the Selphid, kept shouting orders into the speaking stone. This was the war tent, Mrsha realized, and the [Strategist] was trying to get ahold of the confusion below.

Then—Dorekh was there. Mrsha looked up as the warriors brought his body back. It seemed like she blinked and he was dead.

That handsome Gnoll from the Wild Wastes tribe who had stood up for her…dead within ten minutes of fighting. Mrsha realized she’d been sitting there, right where Krshia had put her, in a state of shock.

Every Gnoll turned, and the howling from his tribe intensified. Mrsha looked at that resigned smile and the bloody hole in his chest.

“Treachery. He would not slaughter Plain’s Eye’s people, so one struck him from behind. Their totems—”

Mrsha heard the voices very distantly. She looked down at the body and then around the tent. Then she padded over to the tent flaps and gazed out. Not to enter the fighting. Just to see.

What she saw was the chaos of the Meeting of Tribes. Colorful stalls were on fire. Tents were torn down, and Gnolls fought each other, swirling around the center where Xherw and Torishi were still trying to kill each other.

He had a pair of axes in each hand; she had a single sword and shield. The two Gnolls fought as, around them, Az’muzarre and Steelfur’s warriors began to push Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur, and even Ekhtouch back.

Everywhere—Gnolls were dying.

 

——

 

The Gold-rank team, Plain’s Bow, was a group of seven Gnolls each holding an enchanted bow. Each one loosed an enchanted arrow into the enemy, fighting in a circle—but there were so many. They were adventurers, seven, not seven hundred.

One looked up and shouted.

Behind us! [Piercing Shot]!

She tore a hole through a Wild Waste warrior’s chest, but the [Berserker] was already dead. He jumped on her and, weaponless, tore out her throat with one paw. The adventurer’s companions shot arrows through the [Berserker]’s body, trying to pour healing potions on the wound, but the Gnoll was dead.

The [Berserker] collapsed, dead, but that opening—the Gold-rank team had pivoted towards Wild Wastes’ warriors. They turned back and realized the warriors in front of them were gone.

“The front—”

One loosed another arrow, but Adetr Steelfur took the arrow that rammed halfway into his shoulder and swung his axe into a face. Then he and Silverfang’s warriors were on the rest. The [Archers] tried to switch to their sidearms.

A Gold-rank team died. Nevermind that they had been Plain’s Eye’s. Like warriors of their level, they continued a few seconds after they should have died, but a gasping Gnoll just reached for the spear in her chest and then lay still. Adetr looked into those eyes.

The [Battle Seeker] had seen her end in his [Vision of Greatest Battle]. Only, then, he had laughed, trying to weather their storm of arrows. This?

He looked around as the last adventurer fell, stabbed from behind. Adetr was shaking.

Iraz! Iraz! Stop this!

He howled, but he couldn’t find Iraz in the chaos. Steelfur was still fighting with Xherw. Worse…they were winning.

Az’muzarre’s champions swung Dragonbone weapons, wearing ancient scaled armor which was proof against everything. A Weatherfur warrior saw their spear skate off that armor and raised a shield—but the Dragonbone mace cracked the shield and broke their bones. They looked up as the wielder of the great heirloom artifact brought the mace down.

Protect Xherw!

Chieftain Reizet was howling, and Torishi Weatherfur spun. She saw her people being forced backwards. Another loosed an arrow point-blank into a snarling Steelfur warrior’s fur. The arrow had been meant for one of Az’muzarre’s champions, but the [Archer] had lost their shot. The Steelfur warrior ignored the arrow and cut down the Gnoll.

Luck.

Xherw nearly took off her head. Torshi stumbled backwards, her shield deflecting another blow. His people were trying to surround her, and now she was retreating. But this was no honor duel; paws tried to grab at her.

Then a skeleton of a Minotaur whirled his axe through a Gnoll’s body, and Torishi heard a voice.

Chieftain! Here!

Feshi? Torishi turned, and Khelt’s undead guardians opened a gap. One of Az’muzarre’s champions lifted a Dragonbone bow and shot an arrow into a grinning skull’s head, destroying the undead servant, but the Minotaur simply stepped back from a mace and hit the champion so hard that the Az’muzarre Gnoll went stumbling backwards, Dragonscale armor or not.

Torishi snarled at Xherw, but she backed up. He pursued her another few steps—then realized he was in as much danger as she.

Everyone looked up as Khoteizetrough raised a fist, and Xherw and the Gnolls around him scattered as it descended. The Earth Elemental roared, and Torishi ran towards Feshi, cursing.

Kill Xhrew! He has to die—the luck Daemon too!

“I know! You have to fall back, Aunt! We need to form a battle line! We can’t kill that Daemon without preparation!”

Sure enough—arrows were passing through the Daemon. It had been revealed by Belavierr, but it wasn’t ‘there’ in the way everything else was. Even magical spells didn’t seem to touch it.

And its effect…Torishi saw it everywhere. A slipping foot that made one of her people falter long enough for a blade to ram home, a totem activating with the last words of a [Shaman]—

Reizet and Iraz. The two [Chieftains] stood with Xherw, and Reizet’s eyes burned as she pointed at Torishi and the Doombearers. But Iraz had hesitated. Torishi had seen it.

He’d hesitated a second too long. Or maybe he’d cast his lot in with Plain’s Eye for reasons she didn’t know, but the balance had been altered by a roll of the dice. His gaze was full of more uncertainty, but his warriors were fighting on Plain’s Eye’s side.

And Plain’s Eye was still the largest tribe of Gnolls. Torishi ran backwards as Khoteizetrough struck the ground again. In fact—he was the reason that both sides didn’t continue the chaos.

He was too large, too powerful. Plain’s Eye would not fight in his shadow when a single sweeping arm could kill hundreds. They fell back to their fortified ground while Torishi led the Gnolls around her towards the fortress of dirt and wood that had been raised.

She heard that Dorekh was dead and the Plain’s Bow team likewise. First two. Then more names began filtering into her hearing.

“Honored Bezis fell, Chieftain. I saw her fall, bow in paw. We couldn’t reclaim her weapon…”

“Five of the Steelsoul are dead. Khoteizetrough struck them, and not even their fur could save them. Five of them. Each one is over Level 30—”

“…[Shamans] Ceqe, Hiren, Polloriokh—”

The count was going on already. Adetr Steelfur looked like he was in shock as he counted his own tribe’s losses next to Shaman Cetrule.

And that was the first hour. Torishi watched, giving orders, as Feshi and Yerranola assembled each Chieftain and tribe into actual positions. The warriors prepared for combat and hesitated.

“Are we attacking, Chieftain Torishi, or defending this point? We have the advantage here, but this war won’t end without Xherw dead, and I agree with Feshi—that Daemon is throwing all strategy into chaos.”

Yerranola leaned on the table as the other [Chieftains] and [Strategists] agreed. Torishi looked out of the tent. She didn’t have to think.

“We hold this ground. If even one tribe comes to their senses…let Plain’s Eye retreat if they must. Xherw will die, but I will not rush into a slaughter.”

Plain’s Eye was out there, and by the fading light, she could see so many torches and bodies in the darkness, it seemed like the greatest army in the world had come against them. Many were, of course, Gnolls who had no weapons. But then, the same went for Torishi’s side.

Not every Gnoll was here, but too many. If they all died—Gnollkind would be shattered, possibly forever. A species could fade away from a blow like that.

Surely he knew it. In silence, both groups gathered and mourned their dead. Torishi waited, unable to see him but knowing he was there. How mad was he? How committed to this lie, to the death of Doombearers?

She had her answer in the morning. In the morning…Plain’s Eye uprooted their Eye Totems. They carried them up the hills and planted them, forming shields of magic. Steelfur’s warriors were the vanguard and Az’muzarre’s few the champions. [Shamans] cast spells by the hundred as the Great Shaman, Theikha, opposed them with Cetrule and every other magic-user on their side.

As the second day dawned, the Drakes advanced on them. The first armies arrived by midday. But by that point…it truly was an ending.

 

——

 

Plain’s Eye tried to kill them all. The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands], heir to the great tribe founded long ago, called on the greatest magics of his people.

Doomsday. Cataclysm. No more pretending.

Torishi watched as Shaman Ulcreziek and a thousand [Shamans] struck the ground, and it opened, forming a red chasm of glowing, molten rock. The magma vented upwards, a volcanic eruption aimed straight at her tribe.

She lowered her weapon and looked up, and the geyser of rock burned higher. Ten thousand Gnolls screamed as the first burning stones fell from the skies.

Annihilation. Xherw aimed that spell at the heart of his people to burn them to dust. Torishi looked up, wide-eyed, and her brown eyes saw the treachery. Even now, she hadn’t believed he would do this. It wasn’t Mrsha. It wasn’t one tribe. All of the Gnolls facing Plain’s Eye looked up as the sky turned red with fire.

Gnolls screamed in despair as the fire rained down—but only for a moment. Then the Earth Elemental, the being of the swamps, the great protector of Gaarh Marsh that had died and come back to life, Khoteizetrough, raised one arm.

He looked up into the sky, and the earth’s gaze burned hotter than the fire. He had been born in the death of the land. He was the last guardian of Gaarh Marsh. Khoteizetrough’s thoughts were surely as strange as the creatures he loved.

The vessel of nature rose and lumbered forwards into an awkward run. He raised rotted limbs, earth turned to mud and mulch.

It was just one more stage in this world. Khoteizetrough looked up with ancient eyes, a hollow of earth. He had always known this day would come. The vast being looked down at the fragile life and shielded them from the fire raining down.

The fire wave scorched him, and he bellowed. His body turned to ash, and his head melted as the burning lock ran across it.

Yet Khoteizetrough was more than a single body. He was an idea, the earth given a soul. More flames jetted up from the ground, but Khoteizetrough was lumbering through the Gnolls. Headed for that fault in the earth.

Shaman Ulcreziek backed away as the Earth Elemental charged him, but it was not the [Shaman] that Khoteizetrough sought. He plunged into that wound that Plain’s Eye had caused. Khoteizetrough leapt into the ground and threw his body into the break in the world. To close it. To mend the burning hole and avert disaster.

The stone bubbled where it touched his body. Magma bathed his mud body, setting fire to roots and plants. Animals, from toads and worms and all the creatures who lived across his body, fled or perished.

Khoteizetrough thrust one hand into the earth, and the Earth Elemental began to ignite. But its being was collapsing, filling the fault-line. The Earth Elemental swung its other arm at Ulcreziek, and the [Shaman] blocked it with a wall of stone that shattered and sprayed the Gnolls around him with chunks of earth.

Ulcreziek pointed his staff at Khoteizetrough, and the inherited eye of Plain’s Eye opened wide, wide in his face. That pupil moved slightly—and saw something.

Khoteizetrough was raising the arm a second time when it saw something on its arm. They crawled out of the pit in the ground, blazing, climbing up his body.

Fire Elementals. The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] stepped back as the Earth Elemental burned. Khoteizetrough howled as Gaarh Marsh screamed and pointed up. He raised one last hand as fire raced up his being. Then the vengeful face grew peaceful.

The magma venting at his feet slowed as Ulcreziek lowered his staff. He tried to call another deadly eruption to the surface, but something was wrong. The liquid rock was cooling. The Earth Elemental’s blaze faded as Fire Elementals suddenly winked out. Khoteizetrough lay down, and plants began to bloom where his muddy fingers met the ground. Waters rose and hissed as steam billowed around the crack in the ground, flooding into the land.

One last look. Khoteizetrough’s gaze met Ulcreziek’s, and the [Shaman] wavered. That one eye of his, the eye of his ancestors, watched as the last elemental died, and it wept. Ulcreziek saw that vivid stare fade. The intelligence of the land turned to plain mud, and then…

Khoteizetrough collapsed, and the earth shuddered. His tribe howled, a wound torn in their identity.

Mourning. Grief. And thanks. The death averted. The sacrifice of the last spirit of Izril to walk the land.

Was he smiling? The hill fell to pieces. Mud turned into splashing water as the Plain’s Eye tribe backed away from him. His body cascaded down, but the burnt ash began to bloom with flowers.

A small swamp formed around the Earth Elemental as he died. Where he fell, a hill remained and the land sprouted in magic. The body of Khoteizetrough filled the earth for a thousand years of growth.

But he was dead.

Gaarh Marsh’s [Shaman], Theikha, tears streaming from those old eyes, raised her staff and called the magic of her tribe, of every Gnoll with her, down on the Plain’s Eye Gnolls. The ground collapsed into gigantic sinkholes and the earth split as geysers of muddy water swept over their tribe. They ran past the blank mound of earth.

 

——

 

The last protector of Gaarh Marsh lay there. An Earth Elemental.

No—not just an Earth Elemental. A sentient being. Not a summoned being, but something that had a voice. Even if it had died…Khoteizetrough was a being from before this age.

It died, and everyone saw it, even miles away.

“This Waning World grows emptier.”

Someone whispered next to the Hobgoblin. Numbtongue finally tore his eyes away from the collapsing hill. He had seen the distant fire. He was running towards that battlefield, but his confidence was gone.

Niers Astoragon was gone. That [Witch]…Shaik’s tribe had vanished as Belavierr walked out of the fighting, and her summoned creatures vanished alongside them.

But the wounds they’d left were real. And now the Gnolls and the band from Erin’s inn were following someone else. Chieftain Orni of the Lomost Tribe watched Khoteizetrough with blank, horrified eyes. Then the [Witch] striding back towards the fighting.

“We have to stop her. Kill her. Find Mrsha.”

“Go into that? Are you mad? You saw what Plain’s Eye did. They raised a volcano. Great Khoteizetrough is dead. Dead!”

Lomost’s chief [Shaman] had come to a halt. The sight of that magic and that death had already broken his nerve. But a figure galloping from point to point in this army veered towards them as if she had heard. The Hobgoblin hesitated, a hand on his sword, but Perorn Fleethoof, the Centauress holding a bow, only gave him a long look as she raced over.

A Centauress. Numbtongue had met Palt, of course, but that was a single [Illusionist]. He was, like Jelaqua, a stranger from a distant continent, exotic and odd, but an individual.

What Numbtongue saw now was a species.

Three thousand Centaurs were riding…or was it trotting?…across the ground. Horse-people, taller than even Venaz the Minotaur, heads held high, armed with long spears or bows. And holding banners.

The Forgotten Wing Company. Numbtongue wasn’t sure what had happened after Niers vanished, but the Centauress hadn’t killed him, and she’d claimed to be on their side. Numbtongue had decided anyone who didn’t kill Goblins on sight might be an ally.

The students certainly seemed to trust her. Wil the Human, Venaz the Minotaur, Peki from Pomle, and Merrik the Dwarf all looked stunned, but were heading the divisions that Perorn had assigned. Now, the Centauress spoke crisply, enunciating each word, but as fast as lightning.

“Chieftain, Chief Shaman. That was the Earth Elemental of Gaarh Marsh, wasn’t it? Our ally for this battle. I take it that is an ill sign. Is this Plain’s Eye tribe capable of more mass-spells on that level?”

“That…I have never seen such workings en masse since the Antinium Wars. It must have been thousands of [Shamans] to cast that spell.”

Chieftain Orni was in almost as much shock as her [Shaman]. Perorn tossed her head. Numbtongue saw the exasperation warring with sympathy.

“Focus, please. Chieftain Orni, I need a guess. Can they do that again?”

The Gnoll broke out of her stupor as the Goblin Lord, Reiss, whispered in Numbtongue’s ear.

“Not again. At least—they’d exhaust themselves just to do that once. Maybe once more, but that would leave every [Shaman]—”

“—Mana depleted. Understood. We’ll prepare for the worst. Hob Numbtongue, appraisal?”

“Me?”

Perorn just stared at him, and Numbtongue hesitated. She addressed him with something approaching familiarity after the suspicion where she had nearly shot him in the chest.

“Uh…uh…Plain’s Eye’s [Shaman] used a ritual. Not just a mass spell. One [Grand Ritual]. He can’t do it again easily.”

“How do you know that?”

The Lomost [Shaman] stared at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin hesitated.

“Reiss told me. He’s a Goblin Lord and served the Necromancer, who had files on Ulcreziek as a great enemy of his.”

…Was what he didn’t say. The [Bard] decided to cross his arms.

“Special Goblin knowledge. Uh…from [Shamans].”

Perorn gave Numbtongue a searching look that made him uneasy, but nodded crisply.

“That had to be a Skill-empowered spell. Thank you. I am considering leaving your forces behind, Chieftain Orni, and advancing to engage the enemy with my Centaurs while you catch up.”

Wil protested as he tried to keep pace with the Centaur on horseback.

“Professor Perorn, you can’t! You’re outnumbered, and they’ll shred you with spells. We should attack together! Besides—you’re the only one keeping us moving this fast!”

It was true. Numbtongue turned his head and saw how fast the grass around them was blurring, despite the Hobgoblin only jogging along. Perorn frowned at Wil, but she nodded; she only looked like she was trotting. She must be as fast as a Courier, Numbtongue guessed.

He still would have preferred Niers, especially since the Titan could turn off luck and magic. In fact…Numbtongue uneasily looked behind him and saw another army following.

Fissival. They looked like a wave of glinting armor in the distance, and Numbtongue had been told that Manus, Zeres, Oteslia—everyone but Pallass had sent a big army.

His focus was just on Mrsha. Get Mrsha. He’d promised. Get Mrsha and…and find Erin. What had happened in Liscor?

He didn’t know. Perorn was the one who had to make sense of everything. She nodded to the others.

“Pick up the pace. Break out a quarter dose of stamina potion at eighteen minutes. We need to get there. Now.

The entire army advanced into a run. They would get there tired—but they had to. Numbtongue looked around as Perorn lingered near his group. When she spoke, it was with an eye cast along his strange band.

“Hob Numbtongue.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m Numbtongue.”

“That’s your military designation. Squad Leader Numbtongue, then. I’ve delegated the chain of command to my students. I am willing to put Peki in charge of your…unit.”

She looked at the Antinium, Cave Goblins, Gna, Salkis, Octavia, and the others riding along.

“Not all of them are combatants. I suggest everyone not prepared for battle hang back with our rear lines, but I have to confirm what your plan is.”

“Get Mrsha.”

Perorn kicked a clod of dirt back as she stepped harder in frustration. She looked at Numbtongue.

“That’s not a plan of battle. A rogue element is going to put your forces into danger. The Gnolls don’t know Goblins or Antinium. In that case—Sergeant Gna. Take a speaking stone. I need you to report your actions and respond to my directions. Is that clear?”

Numbtongue hesitated. It was, in fact, fairly reasonable. Perorn gazed at the Hobgoblin with narrowed eyes, and he nodded.

“Fine. We’ll listen. But we get—”

“Yes, yes. Your target. She may be safer where she is—although Plain’s Eye is assaulting their position, so I am completely willing to attempt a rescue operation. But I insist I communicate with Feshi or any leadership first and tell them we are on their side. Have your Wyvern keep circling; she may be the safest way to get that child out of combat.”

Perorn was…interesting. Unlike Niers, she was precise and prioritized lines of communication and very clear bands of command. Niers preferred some chaos he could instill in both sides and could drag out his preferred victory. Perorn made sure everyone knew what they were doing and what their backup was.

“Excuse me, Commander Perorn, but I believe you have forgotten I have beaten the Titan in chess. And I have given many orders. I am therefore in charge, not Gna.”

Someone waved a hand at her, and Perorn turned to stare at Bird. The Antinium was riding the wagon keeping pace with them.

“Are you a military officer?”

“I am a [Revalantor] of the Free Antinium.”

Perorn chewed on this a moment. Then she shook her head briskly, somewhat reminiscent of a horse tossing its head.

“…I don’t know Antinium command. Moreover, Niers described you as the most rogue element of all. Follow my directives.”

“But I beat Niers at chess.”

Bird pointed out, slightly upset. Perorn eyed him.

“That is not a measure of your battle ability.”

“Oh. I suppose this is very factually true. I withdraw my objection.”

She handled Bird with facts and logic. Indeed, even the other students had a different reaction to her. Wil looked like he was going to puke—again—from nerves. Peki flew down to report.

“That’s Yerra’s dirt fort. Still fighting. Lots of Gnolls clashing on lowlands, Professor.”

Perorn nodded rapidly.

“Then we aim for that. Numbtongue’s irregulars towards the hill unless the fighting line changes. Merrik, Wil—keep our infantry in a wide wing. Hold and screen our allies; don’t push in far. Try to draw them out. We can spread out the battle lines, and it’s to our advantage. Weatherfur’s known for cavalry; I’d prefer to maneuver.”

“Yes, Professor.”

The two nodded. Perorn pointed at Peki.

“I need you in the air for scouting.”

“Not fighting?”

“No; there are almost no fliers in our forces, but the Drakes have flying elements. Stay above and give me a battle picture apart from my Skills. I may need you to drop on enemy groups, but you are to hit and run, Peki. Three Skills maximum and then you are escaping. Understand?”

“Yes, Commander!”

Peki saluted. Perorn nodded as three of the four students relaxed slightly, understanding where they had to be and what to do, even broadly. Perorn trotted over to a final figure.

“Venaz, you’re in the vanguard. Venaz—don’t be an idiot!

“Professor! I have done nothing today that merits disapproval.”

The Minotaur drew himself up, frowning at her as he put a hand on his diamond greatsword. In response, Perorn grabbed one of his ears and pinched.

“I know that. I am telling you in advance because this is not a practice battle. This is not a moment for you to duel the enemy captain. You take no risks—you do the most damage or good soldiers die. This is me shouting at you now because I cannot waste time in battle. Don’t be an idiot. You’ve been warned. Understand?”

“Yes, Professor.”

The Minotaur, who was known for questioning even Niers, saluted her briskly and covertly rubbed at one ear as she trotted away. Perorn looked over her shoulder once.

“…Prepare for combat. We have to make an impact now and either resolve the battle or pull forces back. The Drakes will be upon us soon. We could very well face the Duelist’s Demise: we win only to lose the true battle.”

Every head turned, and Numbtongue looked at that line of Drakes again. Drakes…coming to kill all the Gnolls? Not every army put it like that, but the Goblin knew what he thought of their promises. His skin was cold.

Get Mrsha. He was supposed to be her big brother. The Hobgoblin ran a bit faster and looked around.

Bird was riding on the wagon next to Ulvama and Octavia. The [Alchemist] was frantically trying to make one more potion before they got there.

“Just…just stay safe. Okay? If you can grab Mrsha, go for it. I’ll get out of here. Fals is staying with me, and I’m an [Alchemist]. No one kills [Alchemists]. We’re known to explode. Okay.”

Ulvama looked at Octavia and, surprisingly, pulled the [Alchemist] into a big hug that squished Octavia.

“You don’t die either, strange cloth-girl. We get little Mrsha. Hey! Stupid small Goblins! Shaik isn’t here. Go sit in the wagon. You, you, you—”

She pointed at the Goblins marching with the Fellowship of the Inn. Goblins stared up at her. Rasktooth, Gothica…in fact, Ulvama even pointed at a few Antinium.

“You. You. You. All go sit. You all have bad class. Bad fighting. Go sit.”

For reply, one of the Antinium, Infinitypear, shook his head, and Rasktooth grinned.

“We fight! Even Raskghar get stabbed in feet and die.”

Ulvama glared at him, then at another Goblin. Grass Shell pretended not to notice her finger. Gothica? Gothica gave her the middle-finger.

“Make me.”

The timeless retort of a [Goth] Goblin. Fierre grinned nervously as she rode with Salkis, who was checking her daggers, and Gna, worriedly doing likewise with her gear.

What a strange group. Normen and Alcaz jogged alongside Pivr, who was rapidly speaking as he looked up for a sign of Snapjawt.

“I understand we are about to die. When do I remove my hat?”

He adjusted the little cap they’d given him, and Normen laughed.

“When it feels right, Pivr. A fellow knows when the hat comes off. It’s been…a pleasure.”

Alcaz nodded, and Pivr glanced at them.

“Yes, well, neither of you are going to die. You must introduce your concepts to my Hive. That is an order. I am a Revalantor, just like Bird.”

Badarrow was craning his neck too. Xeu, almost unseen, scuttled next to Touma the Great, who was determinedly munching on some berries. He offered some to her, and she ate from one palm. Then to The Crimson Soldier, who waved them off.

What a strange band. Apista landed on Bird’s head as the Antinium looked up. Bird gazed about and said the thing no one else was saying.

“I think we are going to die. I would prefer not to, but I have enjoyed your company. Even you, Pivr.”

The Fellowship of the Inn looked at Bird, and Pivr stared at him as Numbtongue closed his eyes. The [Bard] looked at Garia and Fals as the two City Runners slowed.

“You should go with Octavia. Bird is right. For once.”

“I am? I am. Yes. You do not have to go into battle.”

No one moved. Garia was gulping, but it was Salkis who retorted.

“We all agreed to save that little Gnoll kid. No one’s backing out. Death or glory or both. Let’s do this.”

Numbtongue sighed, and Ulvama pretended to go to sleep. The [Shaman] turned her head away so no one would notice her face. Numbtongue just looked at the Goblins, Antinium, and other strange people. Each one had a future. Dirtmouth, Goblins who hadn’t made something of themselves yet, Antinium lacking a name…

They had journeyed across Izril, further than most of their kind would ever go. No—not even Klbkch had gone as far. They had run with the Titan of Baleros. Now, they were joining a civil war.

The army of the Forgotten Wing and Fellowship of the Inn and Gnolls reached the Meeting of Tribes just before midday. What they saw was chaos.

Gnolls struggling against each other in vast clashes, drawing back…they had lots and lots of horses, but the center of it was that push towards the hill. The rippling earth showed [Shamans] trying to change the elevation itself.

The corpse of the Earth Elemental was a backdrop to the howling. Numbtongue looked into that sea of bodies for a white Gnoll. Perorn just lifted one hand.

Forgotten Wing Company! Gnolls of Izril! Prepare to charge!

Her Centaurs trotted into place behind her. The Gnolls gathered up as the Fellowship looked for the hill. Perorn’s hooves were planted in thick grass. Fleethoof inhaled the air of a different continent, and it felt different.

Where was the jungle in the distance? It was drier—this glorious flatland was amazing! As were those mountains to the north—the distant High Passes. She felt the urge to race across the ground and never stop, but her leg hurt.

Even so—she looked ahead at a folk so much like Beastkin it hurt. War…she knew war. This was unlike any she knew, but she was a mercenary. Perorn lifted a hand, and three thousand Centaurs advanced at a trot.

The Gnolls didn’t notice them at first. Oh—they saw the reinforcements, and both sides swung out a line of fighters to prepare for them. But they saw the distant Centaurs as ‘Humans on horseback’, if they could even make out the lack of fur.

It was as Perorn began to canter forwards with her battalion that the Gnolls realized a different species was riding at them. They turned and saw the horsefolk of Baleros riding forwards.

Faster now, a little faster. The Centaurs were running. Then galloping. Then…it seemed like they kept going faster, faster than you dreamed was possible.

Not just because of a Skill, but because they were Centaurs. Horses were their cousins, yes, but horses, even the best and most intelligent, didn’t train like Centaurs did. They could be taught to fight in battle, obey incredible commands, but they were still animals. The greatest horse and rider were a married couple, two minds in harmony.

Centaurs were one being, and they rode, whooping and raising spears and lances behind Fleethoof. They charged at their cousins of the plains, another nomadic species, as a Weatherfur Gnoll shouted.

They’re on our side! The Forgotten Wing company!

Even so—they waited warily despite Feshi’s assurances. Waited to see Perorn’s target. Fleethoof never wavered. Like an arrow, she charged straight at Plain’s Eye from the side. The Gnolls turned to meet her, looking for spear walls they didn’t have. They charged instead, howling, and the Centauress lifted her off-hand as she loosed a first arrow.

Now!

The Centaurs cut right as the Gnolls charged at them. The bewildered Gnolls saw the Centaurs turn at almost a perfect right angle, thundering past them and loosing a hail of arrows in their faces. Gnolls dropped, screaming, and Perorn’s head was already turning.

Strike in—eight beats!

She pointed, and a wedge of Centaurs followed her into a group of [Shamans]. Centaurs raced towards them, and the Gnolls turned as lances struck home. For eight seconds, Perorn was loosing arrows at point-blank range. A Gnoll charged her from the rear, and she kicked with both back hooves. Centaurs around her did likewise, trampling over their opponents. Then they followed her out, and she was galloping again, circling.

Cavalry on our left!

“Engage them! Galloping Razor formation!”

Gnolls on horseback saw the Centaurs breaking free and went to intercept. In response, the Centaurs split down the center. They flanked the Gnoll force, attacking from both sides and peeling off when the riders tried to attack left or right, exposing their backs to the other direction. Then they kept going as the stragglers were cut down by another hail of arrows.

Perorn, who had endured that brief siege and waited for so long, felt free. She raced ahead of her command, pointing them onwards. As far as you could run—that was her battlefield. She struck across the entire rear of the Plain’s Eye tribe, riding onwards rather than sticking in one place.

Until their [Shamans] noticed her and the arrows rained down. Centaurs screamed as the earth opened, and a barrier of stone rose at shin-height to cripple any Centaur who crashed into it. Perorn loosed an arrow which landed in the distance and blew apart a group of [Shamans].

Keep moving! Watch for geomancy spells!

She kept loosing arrows, watching Gnolls die. If only they hadn’t come here with swords and arrows. She would have loved to run in this place.

If only. But her ears were filled with her students’ chatter now. The battlefield’s orders. And always—always—Perorn’s head kept turning in every direction. East. West…south…three directions. She rode a bit faster. Hurry, hurry…

The Drakes were coming.

 

——

 

On the second day of the fighting, Mrsha saw Khoteizetrough die. She watched as the noble spirit inside him flickered out. What she knew…what she refused to believe was that it was all her fault.

Theikha told her it was not, and the little girl nodded up as the old [Shaman] wept and rested, worn so thin from her battle with Ulcreziek and the other spellcasters that her paws shook and her fur turned greyer with exhaustion.

Mrsha looked out and believed it was not all her fault…because it could not be. So many Gnolls had not gathered here and did not fight and die for one person.

It was all of the Doombearers who had died. It was that weeping Daemon. It was for the sins of Plain’s Eye. The only thing that tore at her, even now, was how many Gnolls were on Xherw’s side.

Tens of thousands of Gnolls, maybe hundreds of thousands; Mrsha didn’t know. Just a sea of faces, so much sound she was deaf and overwhelmed at the same time. They might not even be bad Gnolls. But they were killing the goodest, the best people Mrsha had ever known.

Her people. They came up the hill as the ground sank, reversing the advantages of height and all the fortifications. Pushing up, following Xherw and Iraz and Reizet, the three warleaders, as each picked a place to drive in.

Unstoppable, even as the fighting spread out around this place. They fought with luck and hate on their side. As if they were the heroes of this story.

And if they won, they would be. For another thousand years until the truth forced its way out. Placing themselves in Xherw’s way were…the Gnolls that Mrsha wanted to be.

Not one. Not just one. She wanted to be all of them.

A ray of burning sunlight shone down through the clouds around Torishi Weatherfur. She had marked herself like the rainbow, but the Gnoll walked forwards to war with Feshi’s warriors of Khelt meeting Az’muzarre in combat. The oldest of Gnoll tribes met warriors more ancient than they, who feared their relics not at all.

The sky was split, as if someone had sundered a glass ceiling above and each splinter of glass was a different piece of weather.

Rain lashed Plain’s Eye as mist engulfed Gnolls who fought in its secret veil. The sun blinded yet more as the wind blew arrows back in the attackers’ faces.

However, if Weatherfur and Theikha had won control of the sky, the ground was pierced by a hundred totems, each of which cast fire downwards. One projected a cone of light that sapped the strength of any in its gaze. More simply blinded or created bubbles of magic that protected Gnolls within, accelerated their healing or rest.

Mrsha wanted to be Torishi, who battled Xherw as the two Chieftains engaged and then fell apart. For every blow enhanced by luck, for all the strength he had to hurl Gnolls around like they were made of feathers, she replied with a thunderous blow that unleashed an actual bolt of lightning from above. No mere Tier 4 spell, but an explosion that made Mrsha’s ears ring and sent Gnolls sprawling in every direction.

Across from Torishi, Adetr Steelfur fought towards Iraz, and the Chieftain of Steelfur watched his nephew advance, fighting his own kin. Silverfang warriors led by Beilmark, Cetrule, and Akrisa fought alongside Wild Waste Gnolls against them.

He was howling, a sad warrior made of metal, so tough that no one could bring him down. A warrior who was doing the right thing, like Chief Warrior Merish, who might be evil…but was fighting against his tribe, tears running down his face.

Reizet advanced fastest of all, with her champions and their stupid weapons taken from a Dragon’s corpse. Even Gaarh Marsh couldn’t stop them as Plain’s Eye Gnolls supported Az’muzarre’s charge.

The Chieftain of Az’muzarre looked like she was falling down a cliff. She had jumped, and the wild light in her eyes said there was no way to ever go back. So she had to slay the ground itself. She only halted when she met a wave of Gnolls wearing Demas Metal armor. They fought, their blades coated with oil and water matching Az’muzarre for a few moments. Then arrows were raining down as Longstalker’s Fang supported Demas Metal’s Gnolls.

Tkrn fought on the ground, next to Inkar, who was holding a bow. He was shielding her, and he was proof that even a silly Gnoll [Guard] who did bad things could look like a hero. But Mrsha’s eyes were drawn to her biggest friend time and time again.

Gireulashia Ekhtouch faced half of Ekhtouch with their own people. Chieftain Firrelle pointed a sword at Gire’s chest, and the [Paragon] lifted a spear in one paw. But she was so uncertain. So…guilty. Yet she was fighting because her little friend needed her.

It was all tragedy. Mrsha saw Vetn and Tesy crouched next to Qwera and Ysara. They had all decided to protect her. Krshia was shooting arrows somewhere, and Satar was helping Cetrule in the magical war.

“They’re coming. Where’s Wanderer?”

A group of Plain’s Eye Gnolls pierced the defensive lines and came up the hill as Az’muzarre cut into the heart of the battleground. It looked like three long, sharp spears of enemy Gnolls had pierced the hide of the defenders. Mrsha saw Qwera glance at her—then a white Gnoll hurled himself down the slope.

The [Grasshopper’s Run]. Wer did an actual somersault over a group of [Archers] and landed in the center of the Plain’s Eye Gnolls like a [Fireball]. His staff whirled, breaking heads and bones—but he was one Gnoll. More spread out around him as Yerranola emerged from her tent.

“[Rallying Banner]! Hold that gap! [Empower Officer: Wer]!”

Mrsha just watched. She had her wand in one paw, but she had been told to stay put, and she didn’t want to get anyone hurt trying to protect her. She was waiting.

Was this it? Vetn was shaking. He hadn’t drawn a sword. The Thief of Clouds didn’t fight.

Upwards, the Doomslayers came. They ran into a group of [Maids] next. Mrsha saw the women wearing dresses fighting like [Assassins]—but briefly. They withdrew, blood on their dresses. They were not soldiers. A single Gnoll fired a crossbow into the warriors, and Ferris drew a blade as the warriors reached the command area. He joined the guards, cursing, as Mrsha looked down and saw the luck burning in the Gnolls.

She fought for it and felt Qwera doing likewise. They drained away some—but the Gnolls were made of luck. It was in every blow they landed, every crossbow bolt that snapped, poorly made or finding a fracture point, bouncing off a collarbone rather than shattering it.

“Vetn, Tesy—grab Mrsha and run!”

The little Gnoll looked up as Qwera snapped. Yerranola exploded forwards, Rampaging, as the Doomslayers charged into the camp. Ysara drew her blade and cut down one Gnoll, and Mrsha looked around. Surely there would be…?

There wasn’t anyone. The Doomslayers saw her, and Mrsha’s white fur was like the world’s largest magnet.

Kill the Doombringer!

They ignored Yerranola and Feshi and even the other [Chieftains] and Cetrule in the rear. They should have attacked them, but they were Plain’s Eye and saw only her. Mrsha felt someone grab her.

“Time to go. Tesy. Hold on!”

The Thief of Clouds charged into the white-scaled Drake, and the magical painter, Sellme, Tesy, yelped as Vetn threw him over his shoulders.

Qwera!

The last thing Mrsha saw of the camp was Qwera punching a Gnoll in the face and being knocked down as Ysara swung her blade left, right, fighting three Gnolls at once. Then—Vetn dodged a Doomslayer so fast Mrsha felt her stomach forget where it was supposed to be. He charged down the hill, saw the fighting all around, and—

Leapt.

Heads rose as the Thief of Clouds took to the air. He flew. Mrsha and Tesy screamed, one wordlessly, the other in a shriek as Vetn leapt for safety. But he’d miscalculated. He’d jumped too high, and one [Shaman] saw him as the leap carried them through the air. Mrsha’s head turned with Vetn and Tesy’s—they felt that one eye.

The wrath.

Ulcreziek pointed at Vetn and twisted his fingers. The Thief of Clouds cursed as a gust of wind like a hammer struck them in midair. They began to drift towards Plain’s Eye.

We’re going to land in the center of them! Tesy! Do something!

The Thief of Clouds actually kicked an arrow out of the air. Tesy’s paintbrush blurred as his art book flipped open. What could he do? What could he paint—

Wham.

All three hit a brick wall in midair. They dropped straight down as Mrsha saw Ulcreziek stare at the brick wall falling around them. They landed in the middle of the fighting.

“It’s the Doombringer! Kill her!”

Protect the child! Hawkarrow! Loose!

Gnolls cried out as Vetn landed. The Thief of Clouds was stunned, but he rolled, still with Mrsha and Tesy under one arm. He kicked a sword out of one warrior’s grip and caught it, dropping Tesy in the process.

Sellme scrambled up as the Gnoll hesitated. Mrsha saw a young woman wearing Plain’s Eye markings as Vetn hesitated, sword in hand. Then he cast the blade down. His own arm shook.

Vetn! Fight! Don’t—

The Thief of Clouds backed away. Mrsha saw the Gnoll fumble for a dagger, snarling. Mrsha pointed her wand.

[Stone Dart]! The stinging stone cut the Gnoll warrior’s fur. She snarled, lunged at Vetn, who backpedaled—and fell over as she tripped on the trip-grass Mrsha had conjured. Vetn could have picked up the blade and run her through. He didn’t.

“I can’t. I won’t kill…we have to get away. Where’s…? Tesy?”

He whirled, but the battle was engulfing them all, and the Drake had vanished. Mrsha realized that Vetn wasn’t just bad at fighting. He refused to. She was being protected by a pacifist! In horror, she tried to wiggle free. Nothing against Vetn, but where was a [Warrior]? 

Plain’s Eye was charging at them, howling with manic frenzy. They had to kill the Doombringer, the one responsible for all this evil! Vetn leapt towards safety, but even he couldn’t dodge and weave forever in this chaos. He stumbled, crying out as someone slashed his side. Mrsha tumbled free from his grip and ran towards safety, dodging through feet. She heard shouting.

Protect the child! Where is she?

“The camp—rally towards headquarters! It’s in danger!”

“Centaurs! Centaurs?

What was that last bit? Then Mrsha ran straight into an armored foot and stunned herself. She saw a Gnoll with a beautiful cloak of feathers turn.

“A child? Get her t—Doombringer.

The Gnoll warrior recoiled and lifted his spear with a snarl. Mrsha raised her w—where did it go? She looked around and saw it lying behind her. The Gnoll thrust down with a howl of rage. Vetn and Tesy saw Mrsha and screamed.

Mrsha!

The spear stabbed Mrsha in the stomach, and she cried out—but softly. It didn’t hurt that bad. She stared up at the Gnoll with tired eyes. So this is how it felt? It didn’t hurt that…

The Gnoll warrior stared at Mrsha and stabbed her three more times in quick succession. The Gnoll recoiled.

Ow, ow, ow! Wait a second—it really didn’t hurt that bad, but it still hurt! Wait a second. The Gnoll looked down at her chest.

Had she done it? Had she leveled in battle and gained [Fur of the Fortress]? Lyonette’s boon Skill? Had her mother…?

No, there was no golden light nor had Mrsha heard the Skill. But her fur was tough. As tough as any Steelfur Gnoll’s suddenly! A Skill? No…wait a second…

Mrsha sniffed at the wet liquid on her fur as the Gnoll warrior abandoned the spear and drew an axe to split Mrsha’s head. He raised it, and Saliss of Lights raised a vial.

“A child.”

He exhaled, and a spray of acid blew across every Gnoll for three dozen paces. Mrsha saw the warrior recoil—then begin to smoke and scream. She stared up as the Drake, eyes perfectly calm, two little voids, walked forward. He was naked save for a single sword hanging on his alchemy belt, and his orange-yellow scales flashed as Gnolls turned.

The last bit of [Stoneskin] potion he’d poured over Mrsha dripped from her fur as she gaped at him. Wh—Saliss? But he was supposed to be—

Then someone picked her up.

“Got her! Saliss! Where am I going?”

A Drake that Mrsha had never met picked up the Gnoll as Mirn whirled. Saliss pointed.

“Anywhere not here. Get back, Mirn. I’m going to kill everything.”

Something about the way he said that…a few Gnolls looked around from the sudden wave of acid and spotted him. It might take a second, but he was distinctive. Then they recognized him.

Saliss of Lights.

A Named Adventurer. A Drake of Pallass. Saliss didn’t wait for the outcry to begin. He just uncorked a flaming vial and tossed it. Then he followed it by an oily substance that exploded as it mingled with the flare of fire, raining down flaming gel over Plain’s Eye.

He tossed those two vials and unleashed another spray of acid. And then he threw a final potion, which became a liquid that turned as hard as stone in another moment, immobilizing a group.

All three attacks in a moment. Saliss was so fast that all six vials were in the air and exploded at the same time. The Drake drew a sword and began running through Gnolls immobilized by the stone-liquid as he uncorked a vial. He took a breath and exhaled flames, as if he’d been granted a breath attack—but it emerged from the vial instead.

A Named Adventurer on the battlefield. No…not just an adventurer, but someone who knew how to fight on a battlefield as well as kill monsters. Gnolls died, and the entire battle line collapsed in front of Saliss.

His eyes. They weren’t the friendly, joking Drake. They were a scary person who killed so fast that Mrsha was still staring at him when Mirn began to carry her away.

However, for once, Saliss wasn’t the highest-level person here. Or the only one. No sooner had Saliss finished breathing fire than someone walked out of the smoke and ash.

A Drake of Pallass. Their Named Adventurer dies.”

Saliss threw a vial so fast that the speaker wasn’t even finished when it burned across their armor and body. But the acid smoked away harmlessly. Saliss took one look at the Gnoll encased from head to toe in a strange armor that was like…

Skin? Rough, grey-blue skin? No—it had teeth around the helmet. And it was armor. The Gnoll was one of eight.

All wearing Kraken armor. Saliss cursed. He tossed another spray of acid at the faces, but the Gnolls were carrying shields and blades of Kraken ivory.

“Mirn. Back up.”

“I’m trying. I’m try—no!

Someone snatched Mrsha away. Vetn grabbed Mrsha out of the Drake’s arms, and he was running. Saliss half-whirled as Mirn pointed. He didn’t recognize Vetn any more than the Thief of Clouds did him.

Someone’s got her!

Saliss backed up, cursing, but the Kraken-armored Gnolls charged him. In response, Saliss just webbed their feet down…and watched them tear through the webs like they were spiderwebs, not as tough as steel.

Get back here!

Mrsha patted Vetn’s arm urgently. Wait, wait! That’s my favorite naked Drake! Wait!

But she couldn’t get his attention nor did she have time to write. Her speaking amulet? Where was it? It must have been lost–her bag of holding was gone too and there was no time for Mrhsa to stop. Vetn ran. This time, he was dodging back into friendly lines, and now Mrsha heard the shouting.

Centaurs! They’re fighting with us! Don’t shoot at—

What Centaurs? Izril didn’t have Centaurs! But then Mrsha heard horn calls coming from the right. She saw another force of Gnolls, smaller, but still an army throwing itself at the Plain’s Eyes’s flank. In fact…she thought she saw an odd body amongst the Gnolls, but that was impossible.

There were definitely no Antinium…

Got you!

Vetn went down as someone tackled him from behind. Incredibly, Mirn had caught up with them. Tesy leapt on Mirn as the two fought.

“Get him off! Mrsha—run!

Mrsha did not run. She didn’t know who that Drake was, but he had to be with Saliss! Therefore—no!

She tried to stop Tesy, but the Drake was so fast. He sketched a hole and dropped Mirn into it in a moment. The [Painter] and [Thief] turned to Mrsha, and someone roared.

Mirn. Mrsha.

Mrsha looked back and froze up. She couldn’t help it; something terrifying pointed at her, and the Thief of Clouds and Sellme wavered. Even Plain’s Eye looked up in horror as the Gnolls wearing Kraken armor backed up, calling for support.

They thought they were Saliss’ match without the Named Adventurer’s complete arsenal of potions. They had forgotten one of Saliss’ greatest potions was…

Shapechanging.

A Minotaur with an octopus’ tentacles—a blend of both, but gigantized, a warshape—held the dead body of one of the Gnolls. Neck broken. Saliss had seen Mirn vanish. He locked on the two strangers.

Dysmorphia, fury, and the sight of Vetn holding that child—Saliss of Lights stormed through Gnolls who parted or were knocked sprawling.

What is that? Mr—

Vetn tried to dodge, and a hand grabbed his throat. The [Thief] of Clouds tried to twist, and a hand struck hard enough to crack bone. The Gnoll cried out, and Saliss whirled.

Get off him!

A chain appeared on one arm as Tesy’s paintbrush flashed. Sellme tried to chain Saliss to the ground, and the iron chain snapped and turned into grey and black paint as Saliss tore free. Mrsha ran into one leg and tried to stop Saliss, but the Drake didn’t notice. He was going to kill them! Vetn grabbed Tesy and rolled sideways, but fast as the Thief of Clouds was—he saw a tentacle stabbing, the tip coated with a poisonous stinger, and blurred.

[Impossible Dodge]! But he made a mistake. It was a feint. The Named Adventurer struck downwards at the two with razor claws.

Mrsha screamed. Blood spattered onto the ground as Saliss’ poisoned claws opened flesh and scales. The Named Adventurer halted, another arm raised to crush bones. Vetn and Tesy stared up.

Mirn?

The Drake was bleeding. Mrsha spun towards the hole in the ground and back to where Mirn was standing. He had emerged from the hole and travelled twenty feet so fast that she hadn’t seen it. How…?

Saliss’ voice was distorted in the war-form. The Drake looked at Mirn.

What are you doing, Mirn?

“What…what are you doing?”

The [Protector] stood there, shielding Vetn and Tesy. Saliss had raked his arm and chest, cutting through the armor, but Mirn had shielded them. With a Skill. Vetn and Tesy, holding each other, looked up at Mirn. And Saliss’ battle-crazed gaze focused on them. Then on Mirn.

“They’re…?”

Then the air began to hum, and everyone looked up. Then down as the earth began to split.

“The [Shaman]’s sighted us. Take cover! Now!”

Saliss grabbed Mirn and Vetn, and Tesy grabbed Mrsha. Vetn screamed at Mrsha.

Who is that?

He looked at Mirn and Saliss and then—at last—the two groups recognized each other. Tesy mouthed. He’d recognized Mirn’s class. [Protector].

“Are they…?”

Then they were amidst fighting again. This time it was Steelfur who found them. Saliss dropped a potion and tossed Mirn at Vetn and Tesy.

“Keep him safe!”

Then he was fighting Gnolls who were as tough as steel, scattering potions with one hand as he fought. Mrsha ended up running as Vetn and Tesy carried the Drake.

“Damn…poison! Get to safety. Saliss is supposed to get us—”

Steelfur was pushing even Saliss back, raining down arrows as he protected his face. They pursued Mrsha, howling, and the little Gnoll looked around but realized they were fleeing away from the battle now. At least they could run!

They broke free, a hundred or more metal Gnolls pursuing them, and Mrsha realized that, no, that wasn’t true. They had been ambushed! Another wave of soldiers ran at them, and Vetn and Tesy turned.

“They’re in front of us too! Go right—”

Then they saw the little Gnoll girl bounding forwards a few steps. Mrsha nearly fell on her face. Tesy and Vetn looked up and froze as a small group charged towards them. Wait a second.

That was a Goblin, not a Gnoll. His eyes were crimson, and he was tall, therefore a Hob. In fact, he was muscular, and someone had actually given him a clothing budget, not the rags or clothing taken off the dead most Goblins wore. He had trousers and a shirt with a woven tree with little blue fruits stitched just above the breast—all under some chainmail and armor.

But Mrsha knew it was there because she’d picked it out for him. The sword the Hobgoblin carried was semi-transparent, a glowing crystal blade. Yet it was not the sword which sparked and glowed in his claws.

It was that guitar, slightly worn from being used as a club yet carefully maintained, glowing as lightning played along the strings. And, of course, the Goblin [Bard] was riffing on it.

A song like the electricity crackling through the clouds. Even the Steelfur Warriors had to slow a moment to try and figure out if they were seeing this correctly. A Goblin with a guitar? And was that a Gnoll on horseback behind him, pointing a sword as Antinium, Goblins, a girl with pointy teeth, and a grinning Drake all stood in a line? Two men tossed their hats to the ground, and an Antinium with wings did likewise.

“What is t—”

Thwoom. The bolt of lightning blew Mrsha head-over-heels forwards, and she looked back and saw the metal Gnolls…metal Gnolls either collapsed or getting back up. One pushed herself up with a howl.

“Kill th—”

An arrow sprouted from one eye, and an Antinium with a bow fired another one, then waved.

“That is Mrsha. This was easy. Hello, Mrsha.”

Charge!

Sergeant Gna screamed, and Vetn, Tesy, and Mirn dove out of the way as the Fellowship of the Inn charged. Saliss, who’d ignored the bolt of lightning, looked around and nearly punched The Crimson Soldier.

What.

He stared as the Antinium leapt and took down the first Gnoll with a knee to the chin. The Crimson Soldier knocked another Gnoll flat, sweeping the legs, and engaged two more as Rasktooth and Infinitypear stopped to stomp on the Gnoll.

Numbtongue? Bird? The Hobgoblin drew his sword and cut through a Steelfur Gnoll. Mrsha looked around wildly and saw a green shape striding towards her. Ulvama grabbed Mrsha and promptly pinched one ear.

Stupid girl!

The [Shaman] whirled and immediately began to run away from the fighting. The confused Steelfur Gnolls howled as they backed up.

“Goblins! Antinium! Traitor—”

They were still Steelfur. One took a cut across their chest without flinching and locked blades with the Gnoll [Captain] leading this strange band. They were about to overpower Gna, but the biting insects coming off Gna’s blade made her struggle as they burrowed into the skin under her fur—and Gna forced her back.

[Hob’s Strength]. She heaved, panting, and the Gnoll fell…mainly because a little Goblin had tripped her. Gna finished off the downed warrior as Gothica lifted her umbrella. A Steelfur warrior struck the umbrella, and their enchanted blade bounced off as if Gothica had a shield. They were still snarling when Fierre grabbed them and threw them into Garia’s punch.

Ulvama was still hugging Mrsha and trying to figure out if she was hurt anywhere when Vetn and Tesy caught up. The [Magical Painter] had a paint brush raised, and he’d painted two decoy-Drakes who stood there aggressively as Mirn lifted a wary blade, but Vetn looked from Mrsha to Ulvama to the rest of the Fellowship.

“What’s going on?”

They had found her. Mrsha looked up with wide eyes at mean…poking, food-stealing…Ulvama. She turned and saw her big brother, Numbtongue. Badarrow loosing arrows by his side.

And there was her little brother, Bird. But so many people she didn’t look for, like Fierre fighting next to a Drake with onyx scales that Mrsha didn’t know. But there were Antinium and Goblins, and they had come…

For her. Mrsha’s eyes were filled with disbelieving tears. As if she couldn’t see the huge smiles of relief on their faces. Garia and Fals, and Apista landed on Mrsha’s head, fanning her wings in triumph.

There they stood, forming a line of defiance against Steelfur and the other Gnolls. Pivr tossed his hat into a Gnoll’s face and then leapt on the warrior, biting and slashing. Normen and Alcaz hummed as they beamed.

This was it. Xeu lost an arm as a Gnoll brought down a blade on the Prognugator from the side, but Gothica stabbed the arm, and darkness enveloped Xeu long enough for the Antinium to scurry away.

Friends made on their long journey. Fighting to the end. Gna struggled next to Dirtmouth, and Salkis backed into Fierre, and the Bloodfeast Raider ducked to let Fierre kick a Steelfur Gnoll eight feet and shatter half the warrior’s ribs.

Reinforcements. Mrsha turned just in time to see no less than three Wil Kallinads leading groups of Gnolls into the fighting. Merrik took point in one vanguard, pressing into the enemy from the side and—held the line. He didn’t surge forwards, he just battled, but suddenly Plain’s Eye had two fronts to fight on, and the confused Gnolls suffered as arrows began to rain down.

Alongside Merrik, Venaz was leading the Wild Wastes [Mercenaries] forwards. They cut through their opponents, headed straight for the command camp. Mrsha saw a little figure bounding through the fighting. At first she thought it was a Drake—then she saw the colorful scales, the neck-frill.

 

——

 

Viri found Merish as the [Shamanic Warrior] heard the reinforcements. Merish raised his axes, a snarl on his lips, and someone brought down a staff hard enough to stun a Steelfur Gnoll. Merish lunged, blades swinging, and looked up.

“Viri?”

“You’d better be on my side!”

The little Lizardman had tears in his eyes, but Merish just shoulder-charged another Gnoll. He helped Viri up and looked into his gaze.

“I’m sorry. You were right.”

That was all they had time for. Viri lowered the staff he’d been about to hit Merish with. He whirled and pointed a claw.

There! We’ve come to help!

The [Shamanic Warrior] turned and saw the army assailing Plain’s Eye from the side. He recognized Lomost and other tribes. Fighting with…Centaurs? A Minotaur with a green crystal greatsword?

And of course—

[Berserkers]. They carved a path straight into the embattled command tent as Honored Berr and his fighters followed Venaz, stemming the overrun area at last. Merish heard horns blowing to fall back.

“Adetr—fall back!”

Iraz! Iraz—let go of me, he’s right there!

Adetr pointed two hundred feet away, as if there weren’t an army of Steelfur Gnolls between him and his Chieftain. Merish wrestled him back. They met at the command post and found aid had arrived.

But it was still…Merish looked around.

Gnolls killing Gnolls. No Demons here. The Gnolls on the Doombearers’ side fell back as Plain’s Eye was forced to regroup. But—

 

——

 

They were still dying. Gireulashia killed one Ekhtouch Gnoll who had honed their use of the spear. Not a [Spearmaster]; they were not recognized by any Walled City. Nor had they met one in battle.

Did it matter? What was a class? What was perfection? Ekhtouch loved to ask these questions. Every day, Gire had known the Gnoll with a spot on his right ear of white, the only ‘flaw’ in russet red fur as rich as anything, practicing with a spear.

Decades of practice. Dead. She would have led him in battle, become a [Chieftain] of his. That glorious spear practice, that refinement…he didn’t see her coming. When he did, he turned and tried to use [Elephantslayer’s Thrust] on her. Only to remember she could match his Skill. Exceed it.

She left the spear in his chest as she felt the blood on her fur. Every face stood out to her. The fighting Gnolls. Her people who were dying.

All because of her. Firrelle. Gireulashia advanced on her Chieftain as Firrelle turned with a red blade in her paw. The two looked at each other, and Firrelle wavered.

“Gire.”

The [Paragon] cast the javelin she carried in her other hand. Firrelle parried it, mid-word. Her sword began to trace a sword art, and she hesitated. She looked up at Gire, and her eyes were filled with uncertainty as she gazed at the [Paragon]. A girl. Hope of their tribe.

She hesitated. Gire saw it, and her own eyes were round as orbs. She had expected a great battle. Prepared herself for Firrelle to fight to the death with all her levels.

A moment’s hesitation.

[Basic Perfect Action: Quick Slash]. Gire took Firrelle’s head off at the shoulders. The [Paragon] dropped her blade. Caught Firrelle’s head.

“Firrelle?”

The [Chieftain] of Ekhtouch died so fast that Gireulashia never saw the next words form on her lips. The tall girl stood there, holding Firrelle’s head, as Ekhtouch came to a standstill around her. Firrelle’s body collapsed, and Gire stood there.

“Firrelle?”

The Gnoll who had raised her as much—more, far more than her actual parents stared up at her, and Gire looked around blankly. Suddenly lost.

Chieftain Firrelle of Ekhtouch was dead. A fourth of Ekhtouch was already dead and…Gire stared around.

“What is all of this for? Why did we do this?”

She looked at the Ekhtouch warriors who had been fighting her. Then at Firrelle’s head. A girl, waiting for the Gnoll to speak and explain it to her. Suddenly…totally, utterly, and forever…

Lost.

 

——

 

Yes. No matter what came next, the cost was already too high. For Gnolls…this was a fell day.

Venaz of Hammerad knew it. But he still stood, head bowed, and watched.

He had been laughing a moment ago. Even in the heat of battle—even knowing what was at stake, Berr the Berserker, Honored Berr of the Wild Wastes tribe, had still been laughing. That defiant laugh of a warrior, because he could not weep now.

Then he had looked around, and they had told him.

Honored Dorekh lay there, preserved by magic, and Berr stopped. That wild grin faded from the Gnoll’s face, and he shrank. He was a short Gnoll, old, very old, fur turned to grey rather than its original brown.

Of course, Venaz knew that body held a warrior as fierce as any he had ever met. That Berr could grow and become a mighty force was obvious.

But it was gone. Now, only an old Gnoll knelt and touched his son’s fur. He looked into the deathblow from behind. Around him, the Wild Wastes Gnolls who had not been here when the fighting began howled or covered their eyes.

One group of Humans stood with Berr. The [Berserker] who had come from Terandria to learn control was shaking.

“He—he was kind to me. He was kind to me, and they killed him. When he spared them. He—he—

He was shaking with a violence that would erupt into madness. Venaz’s hand was on his greatsword’s hilt, but Berr just raised his head.

“Calm yourself, Solen.”

“Honored Berr. I cannot. He—he is your—how do you feel nothing?”

The Human man was weeping and shaking with a fury that made Venaz’s skin crawl. But Berr just looked at him, and the rage drained out of the other [Berserker].

“Not here. These are your friends. I told you. Wait. It will never leave you. Look at me.”

Berr knelt there. He stared down at his son’s face.

“My son is dead. Dorekh held his blade. He died to avoid killing children. Just like I showed him. He…”

“It was an act of selflessness, Honored Berr. Courage. We could not see. We—lost track of him.”

Berr gazed at one of the Wild Wastes warriors who was with Dorekh. He nodded slowly.

“My son is dead.”

Venaz’s fur rose as he looked at Berr. Everyone waited, but the old Gnoll’s eyes just glimmered with tears that fell onto his son’s fur. He bowed his head. Then he rose.

“I will bury him later. Where is the girl we are bound to protect? Where is Xherw?”

He turned, and Venaz gazed into those eyes. Berr’s voice was wrought with grief. He wept—but there was no anger on his face. No hint of it. The Minotaur backed up, and Berr turned to Solen, then a wounded Torishi.

Even she bowed and stepped back. For even when he looked into Berr’s eyes…Venaz didn’t see what he knew was there. Berr waited. Torishi shook her head.

“Xherw is regrouping. But with your aid—we may end this. With this Commander Perorn? Surely. We must—and then pivot to face the Drakes. Fissival is closest with Salazsar—Zeres and Oteslia behind them. Manus from the west. We must face them all, perhaps.”

 

——

 

Xherw knew it too. And he saw the Centaurs rampaging across his lines. A [Mercenary Commander] from Baleros.

How? He didn’t see it. It almost didn’t matter. Goblins and Antinium were fighting with the Doombringers. It was part of their…

He had ordered Ulcreziek to slay Gaarh Marsh with the [Ritual of Land’s Cataclysm]. That Khoteizetrough was dead was a tragedy.

Nevertheless. Xherw saw the future clearly, and it was this: he would rally the Meeting of Tribes. End the fighting. Quell the other tribes. To do that…some tribes had to vanish. Silverfang. The Doombearers as individuals. Gnolls would live.

When he turned to give Ulcreziek orders, the [Shaman] looked deep into his eyes, just like Iraz, Reizet. They could not find a hollow void of a soul, only a firm conviction. A confidence that not even this moment could shake.

But what did she see? No Gnoll could make that faith waver. But perhaps the woman who stood in the center of a battlefield, smiling slightly, who looked into his eyes and Ulcreziek’s with a gaze older even still—

Yes. That was when Ulcreziek saw that shadow of doubt creep in. For Belavierr was smiling. Smiling and offering Xherw a scroll.

“Just your signature here, Chieftain.”

Ulcreziek thrust it aside with a snarl. Belavierr, undeterred, watched as a pale-skinned undead girl with bright red hair scurried over to pick up the scroll and dust it off. Then she adjusted her hat.

And she kept smiling. For the Spider had finally found her prey: someone who needed her offer.

“Do not turn me away so quickly, Chieftain Xherw. As I have said—I am willing to fight for your cause. It has been an age since last the Witch of Webs took to the battlefield. I have not made war for centuries upon centuries. But I have not forgotten it. All I ask is a small fee. We may negotiate the rest in each instance.”

“Chieftain. You cannot be considering this. Not her.”

Ulcreziek whispered, but Xherw did not turn away Belavierr as lightly. He was looking across the fighting, and he saw a second army joining the forces of the Doombringers. Xhrew gazed at Belavierr.

“Your terms are too high, Witch. You will not have the luck of Plain’s Eye. Nor your other demands. You do not offer your services to Torishi’s lot.”

Belavierr’s smile never wavered.

“As a matter of fact, I did. However, given the…personal feelings I have towards certain members of their side, I may have offered a price without negotiation.”

“Which was?”

“One thousand.”

The [Witch] twinkled at Xherw and Ulcreziek. The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] longed to attack her and feared that he’d fail and be destroyed. A thousand souls, living, dead, and yet to be born. But the [Witch]’s offer to Torishi…

“I offer you my services for practically nothing, Chieftain Xherw. Of course…I will unleash none of my greatest magics. For a pitiful fee. How shall we bargain? Not the Daemon, then. Nor any other of my more ambitious requests. Half.”

“No.”

Belavierr frowned. She twitched slightly in irritation and stared at that presence hovering over Xherw’s shoulder.

“A…third.”

“A quarter.”

“A third. That is my final offer. My hat upon it. I will have a third at least—a third, and I will fight with every spell and Skill, if not my treasures, until I fear for my life.”

The Stitch Witch stood there, smiling, and Ulcreziek had never seen a darker bargain yet. He had witnessed all Plain’s Eye had done and knew everything they had tried. All the secrets that were hidden.

Yet she…she had begun part of this, and she was in their history. As evil as Raskghar. He whispered to Xherw.

“Chieftain. You cannot…”

For answer, Xherw simply reached out and took Belavierr’s fingers. The Daemon of Luck groaned as the Stitch Witch smiled. One third of their luck. She reached up and began to draw a strand of something from it. Ulcreziek felt his stomach growing sick at the sound and sight. He backed away as the curious girl, Maviola, watched.

That smile never left Belavierr’s face. Now it was a happy little crescent. A polite curve of the lips, very small.

Hiding the grin of a monster, as wide as the curve of the horizon. A nightmare’s bared teeth and laughter.

The Stitch Witch coiled the string of luck around a bobbin and tucked it away in her dress. Then she rose.

“Very good, sir. Maviola. Stand behind me. It is time to teach you a lesson of simple rules.”

She walked out of Xherw’s tent, and the Gnolls saw her then. A woman with dark blue robes and an impossibly large hat. Two ringed eyes of orange, layers of immortality. That smile. She looked around and raised a hand.

“I am Belavierr.”

Her contract with Chaldion of Pallass was at an end. He was cunning enough—for a Drake. He had insisted she keep all traces of his bargain secret. However—he had failed to consider that Belavierr would seek employment of her own.

Thin strings rose around Belavierr. As Saliss of Lights turned his head from the fighting, as great Gnolls looked about, a Named Adventurer raised her blade.

“Belavierr!”

Lehra Ruinstrider pointed the Blade of Mershi at the Stitch Witch, but it was quivering. And the cobweb of string that rose around Belavierr looked…wet. It was dripping with blood. The thread—what was it made of?

Belavierr walked forwards, past retreating Plain’s Eye Gnolls. Towards the uncertain warriors who looked at her. She ignored the arrows, which snapped in midair before they ever got close. Spells were unraveling before her.

She touched one of those strands lovingly. Then she took a handful in her fingers and tugged. The strands trailed across a cluster of Gnolls. They pulled tight and sliced the Gnolls into pieces. With her other hand, the Stitch Witch raised a single needle and flicked it into the air.

Whispers. Then a buzzing as ten thousand struck across the air. They pierced eyes and flesh. The [Witch] sent one swarm of needles into the Gnolls—then another at the Centaurs. Belavierr stood there, and her eyes in that smiling face looked around.

For the little white Gnoll. She never said a word. She never cast a spell in that direction nor even so much as breathed at her.

She just smiled and smiled. Then she began to kill everything she laid her eyes upon. Slowly, as if remembering how it went.

 

——

 

The Stringbreaker, the Witch of Calamity, the Spider stole into view. She killed Gnolls with flicks of her hand, and that monster was a match for any horror of Chandrar.

She had mixed and mingled with them in the past, in fact. Now—she was killing the Gnolls trying to protect Mrsha by the hundred. With such casual glee that it made any sane watchers sick.

It could not stand. But who could fight her? Saliss of Lights called a challenge across the battlefield, and the world bloomed into alchemical fire around him—but he would not last long.

Nor even would the Stargnoll herself. How many would she kill?

All of them?

Never. A pair of golden flames watched the Witch, and for a second, Belavierr hesitated. She looked left, then right. Then straight at Fetohep of Khelt as if she could see through the scrying spell, despite the time delay.

The King of Khelt said nothing at all. His hand simply shattered the enchanted glass scrying orb. When his head rose across the sunlit sea, he gazed at their destination.

Izril. And the closest landmark—Zeres. The City of Waves.

“We’re too far away. They’re in the Meeting of Tribes inland—the Drakes are nearly upon them. We’ll never make it!”

Someone else was agonizing over her scrying orb. The plaintive voice of Ceria Springwalker drifted over to Fetohep, and he turned.

“We will make it, Adventurer Springwalker.”

The Gold-rank adventurer looked up at him, but Fetohep did not elaborate or add to that statement. They would make it. There was no other option.

The City of Waves lay in the distance, and between them and shore—a damned armada. The people at the railing were counting ships.

The King of Destruction was conferring with the anxious leaders that Fetohep had gathered. It was the Herald of the Forests who brought up the obvious.

“Zeres’ entire fleet is headed our way. They have [Marines]. Skills for sea. We have two [Pirate Captains], despite our forces’ level advantage. What is our plan?”

She turned to Fetohep, and the King of Khelt nodded around them. Adventurers, a [Hero], [Kings] and a [Queen]…all waited on his words.

“We will head up the largest river inlet. Captain Rasea’s skills will allow us to sail where ships cannot. Have no fear of turning the vessels; they will run aground.”

That—wasn’t the question. Fetohep just looked past the City of Waves. He only turned back when Flos caught his arm. The King of Destruction had what might have been a grin past all those bandages.

“I have fought Zeres once before, Fetohep. Even Amerys could not break their walls. You must have a plan.”

“I do indeed. Unhand me, King of Reim. I do not have time to waste on Zeres. I do not have time to waste…anywhere. Serept is gone. So is…”

Fetohep trailed off and looked at a figure standing at the railings. Salui half-turned, but he didn’t complete Fetohep’s thought. It was Vizir Hecrelunn who interrupted.

“Their immortal shades are gone? How is that possible?”

“They are fighting for Khelt. Serept, the half-Giant of Khelt, is gone. The 5th king of Khelt is gone. Serept, the Diamond Smith, is gone. He is gone, and the City of Waves ignores every warning.”

Fetohep pointed at the fleet in the distance. Perhaps he was mindful…no, he just acted as if he were being watched via scrying spell, regardless of whether he was or not.

“They stand against us when Khelt fights for everything against foes that every nation recognizes. Drakes march against Gnolls like the cowardly scavengers they have always been. Their greed and arrogance to drown out the light of a species once more.”

His audience on the ship and from afar realized that Fetohep was not just monologuing, but pacing up the deck. And his voice…already loud since he had no lungs nor air to breathe, was growing.

As Khelt witnesses me, and by Khelta’s words and my own, and every ruler who has ever known a modicum of civilization and glory, I look upon Zeres’ spite with the contempt of Chandrar. When Khelt called for aid, Drakes were lacking! When Gnoll cried out, it was the Drake foot who kicked at their fingers holding onto the edge of every cliff! In their vanity, they now seek to delay me a second?

He pointed at the walls of Zeres. And his voice rang out across the sea.

“IN THIS HOUR, I WILL GRIND ZERES’ WALLS TO DUST AND SET FLAME TO THE SERPENTINE THRONE. IF I MUST DRAG THAT WORTHLESS RULER INTO THE SEA, I WILL DO SO. NOT ONE SECOND. NOT ONE MOMENT. PART, YE WARRIORS OF ZERES, OR I WILL EXTINGUISH YOUR LIVES AND CONSCRIPT YOU IN A WAR THAT YOUR WORTHLESS SOULS MIGHT BE REDEEMED IN THE SLIGHTEST.”

 

——

 

The ships heading for Sand at Sea didn’t waver as the King of Khelt howled at them. However, no one could argue they had not been warned. Drakes stared into the distance at that ship coming their way, the sandstorm across the waters. They saw a single figure raise his hand.

Brace for magical attack! Brace for combat!

Their [Captains] warned them, and the crews of [Marines] stood ready. They had been sent to hold Khelt off from Izril—he had already threatened their Walled City. Of course they knew that something terrible was happening. But they had orders.

They were watching a fleet of about fourteen ships, not counting the Illuminary and Sand at Sea, which were both considerably more dangerous than the warships or transport vessels created in the modern age. No matter…over three times that number were poised against them and far more in harbor.

Zeres was a modern superpower at sea. Once they reached the firing radius of Zeres’ walls and towers, Khelt’s fleet would be in even greater danger. The King of Khelt just had to answer the Serpentine Matriarch’s will.

He refused to even acknowledge it. So the Drakes armed ballistas and siege weapons mounted on their ships; weapons that many navies didn’t even have, aside from the House of Minos.

Then their [Admiral of the Sea] received the first worrying report from one of the crow’s nest scouts.

Sir! A vessel is maneuvering to join Khelt and has declared a temporary alliance with them! 165-170!

One ship? The [Admiral] was waiting for Khelt’s move, but then he felt a terrible, wriggling suspicion in the back of his head. Slowly, he rotated to that angle and saw…

It. A ship bearing down in the waters. A sight to make even Zeres’ [Admiral] curl up his tail. Decorated with spines and still bearing the blood red slashes of when a Vampire had crewed it—but the markings on the side were still there.

Unlike The Pride of the Wellfar—this ship had a tally of kills at sea, and it had over a thousand vessels it had sent to the depths over its existence. But then—this was the Velistrane.

The Capital-class ship of House Reinhart had returned to Zeres. This time—it had come to answer the city’s last reception of Magnolia Reinhart and subsequent siege of Oteslia.

All about starboard!

The [Captain] nearest the Velistrane turned, and the fleet broke off to counter the second threat. The Drakes lost some of their confidence. Were they going to take on Khelt and a relic from the past? If they won, they’d seize three of the greatest ships at sea. And Zeres had fire support.

Then the air began to ripple, and they realized…they hadn’t seen anything yet. Drakes looked up at what was now familiar mist…and the [Sighters] began to scream down contacts from the crow’s nests.

“Warship, unknown class—estimated Wyvern-class Warship at 15 degrees!”

“Citadel—repeat Citadel-class warship 330! Citadel—”

“It’s a damned armada! Repeat—summoned armada. No—it’s—”

 

——

 

Ghost ships. Ksmvr was already screaming as he stood at the railings and stared at the rushing water. He screamed louder when the first ship crewed by ghosts came out of the mists.

Aaah! Aaah! What is that?

A grinning [Pirate] was steering a skipper beside an [Admiral] standing upon a vessel that looked like it had gone through a war already. A giant hole gaped in the sides, and something had riddled the deck with more holes.

Yet they still sailed on. The last fleet of ghosts. Rasea Zecrew ran to the railing of the Illuminary. Her cheering crew went silent, and even the Revenants of Khelt raised their heads in awe.

Ships long dead to the world, but still in the stories of [Sailors], crossed the ocean. Ancient ships like the Velistrane. Even Dragonships.

An armada of the dead. Fetohep saw them appearing, and Zeres broke into chaos. But those ships were not bound towards Zeres. A [Pirate King] lifted his hand to Rasea. He grinned, eyes as wild as any storm, and pointed a blade ahead.

Take me with you! Where are you going?

Rasea screamed at them, but the ghosts just pointed. They were sailing towards something, their damaged ships crewed by ghosts who had served with them in life, enemies—even landfolk.

They cut across the Drakes’ prows, and the fleet of Zeres recoiled as Fetohep’s head turned.

“We are running out of time.”

“Your Majesty! What are all these ghosts—they’re ghosts. What is going on?

The rest of the crew had seen ghosts at Ailendamus appear. They turned to Fetohep and realized the King of Khelt still had his hand in the air. Fetohep’s head slowly turned to regard a [Knight] of Samal.

“They are going to war. This was not my doing. Perhaps Zeres shall relent?”

No, not even for that. The City of Waves began to glow as Khelt’s fleet turned. They weren’t actually heading for the City of Waves; they were making for the largest river that ran inland, towards the Meeting of Tribes. They could, with luck, actually get within ten miles of the fighting, as the Meeting of Tribes had naturally settled near one of the great rivers.

But Zeres would attack them first. So Fetohep of Khelt sighed.

“Vizir Hecrelunn. You will hold down Zeres.”

“Alone? Me?”

The [Vizir] made a sound that might have been closer to a squeak and caught himself.

“That is—the [Vizir] is capable of anything. However—”

Amerys. Join him.”

The King of Destruction’s head turned, and a woman floating in the air and watching the ghosts looked up. A [Necromancer] nearly swooned into Yvlon’s arms. Pisces looked from Hecrelunn to Amerys.

“Did he just say—?”

Did Flos Reimarch just order Amerys to attack Zeres a second time? Both great [Mages] turned to Fetohep.

“We cannot just fly at the walls alone. I tried that last time. I need a siege or they’ll take me out.”

Amerys pointed out in a reasonable voice as she floated over to Fetohep. The King of Khelt was still pointing at Zeres…now he looked somewhat silly.

Somewhat, but Trey had an uneasy feeling as he watched Fetohep. The Revenant King was smiling. He was always physically smiling with his emaciated face—but he was smiling. On a hunch, Trey backed away and stood behind Gazi. He peeked out from behind the Gazer as Fetohep addressed Amerys.

“You will have an opening. Strike their walls until we are out of range. The Walled Cities may try another tack—but as long as our fleet is safe from danger until we disembark, that is long enough. They may try what they will, then.”

“Interesting. Get me an opening and I’ll greet them again.”

The Archmage of Chandrar’s eyes flashed. Fetohep just nodded.

“You may wish to begin flying.”

She did a double-take as Hecrelunn rose into the air. Both turned to Fetohep, but he was still pointing…

At Zeres. Now, everyone caught a trace of something in his voice.

“…ts…Trey Atwood. Attend me.

The young man hesitated, but Fetohep was beckoning urgently with his other hand, and the young man stood next to Khelt. Now he felt it. He heard it too, but Fetohep just addressed him as if they were in his palace, looking over his city.

“Tell me, Trey. You see Zeres?”

The City of Waves was wide; it embraced the tide, like a many-fanged trident. Towers rose, threatening destruction, and the port could hold multiple fleets. Trey hesitated as he saw multiple gates that could be sealed; they were open for now, ready to disgorge more ships.

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Consider the towers.”

Each one was different. Trey looked at them; one looked almost scaled, built in mimicry of Drake scales. Another was like a hissing head of a serpent. Each one was glowing with spells. Fetohep sneered at Zeres.

…en th…tell me, Trey. Which tower offends your sensibilities most?”

Trey saw every head turn to Fetohep. He hesitated.

“I, uh—”

“Any one. Tell me. [Op…

Trey looked at Fetohep. Then he pointed at the one like a snarling serpent and clung to the railing. Fetohep’s smile didn’t change, but his golden flames grew brighter.

What was he doing? Everyone edged closer, and even Ksmvr forgot his terror of water to approach. Now…they heard it. Fetohep had been breaking off to speak to Trey, but that pointing finger…it was a low mutter, so fast that it had been lost in the background.

“[Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. Openthevaultsopenthevaultsopenthevaultsopenthevaults—”

He was…using that Skill again and again. But why was he doing it so much? And no one had seen anything appear. So wh—

Trey looked up. His bladder tried to empty itself. Slowly, the [Hero] of Zethe gazed upwards. He stowed his sword. Alked Fellbow lowered the relic that Fetohep had given him. He could probably hit Zeres from miles and miles away…but he had a feeling he wasn’t going to need to.

Trey knew what Fetohep was summoning. It might be the largest object in Fetohep’s armory. It was, in the King of Khelt’s words, an eyesore. He had complained for four hours to Trey once about its inconvenience.

Even if it were a halberd designed to be wielded by a Giant, it was made of gemstones, King Serept’s largest creation.

It was longer than most of the palace and had to be contained in a room designed just to hold it with dimensional magic. Now—Serept’s largest weapon was hovering over Sand at Sea. The Revenant [Captain] looked up, and the undead light in his eyes diminished.

“Your Majesty—please don’t drop that on us.”

Fetohep was laughing. The gemstone spear was three times as long as the warship, and everyone decided Trey had had the right idea. But the halberd was hovering there as it kept appearing—and it was beginning to rotate.

It began to spin, and it hovered, quivering with what Trey could only describe as…suspended momentum. As if it was being held in place by something. If Fetohep could have broke into a sweat—

But the King of Khelt just pointed at Zeres. The Drake ships were moving out of the way of that gigantic weapon. Now, the sendings from the Serpentine Matriarch had lost their authoritarian tone.

He wasn’t going to—

“In the name of King Serept of Khelt! The 5th King of Khelt sends his greetings to Zeres. You wretched little lizards paddling around in the spray. [Open the Vaults: The Gemstone Giant’s Halberd of Khelt].

Fetohep roared, and the halberd launched itself past Amerys and Hecrelunn. The [Vizir]’s jaw nearly fell off his face as the gemstone spear left a shockwave of air after it. And it was aimed at—

The Walled City of Waves was the greatest remaining Walled City on the waters. Its walls had thrown back armadas. It had even survived the World’s Floods; it had endured wars l—

The Halberd of Serept crashed into the tower and rammed halfway through it. The discharge of magic and force of the impact made the City of Waves quake. Every spell in the towers and the walls flickered and went down for a second.

Drakes who’d been gathered to watch the battle at sea had thrown themselves down when they saw the polearm coming. Now—they looked up in horror at the fortune beyond Salazsar’s yearly net worth embedded in one of their towers. Stone showered down, and the alarms began to ring as the Serpentine Matriarch emerged from her quarters to see the blade’s tip aimed at her palace.

Then she saw the glowing woman shooting through the skies, trailing a hundred bolts of lightning in her wake. Zeres’ fleet was pursuing her, the [Admiral of the Sea] maneuvering far, far away from Khelt in case Fetohep decided to hit a ship with another weapon on his own authority.

The Serpentine Matriarch didn’t have time to countermand his orders. She looked up and closed the drapes as Amerys, the Archmage of Chandrar, the Calm Flower on the Battlefield, waved down to Zeres. Drakes old enough to remember her looked up in horror as the King of Destruction’s [Mage] came back for a rematch.

A storm descended over Zeres. The morning sky had already begun to turn dark. Now—stormclouds gathered at unbelievable speed, drowning out the sunlight. A brighter, closer radiance replaced it.

The flash of lightning and thunder. Amerys trailed through the air, a lethargic dancer barely able to keep on her feet, swaying, each step carrying her across the sky in a flash of lightning.

“Ah. Now I feel younger.”

Her voice was a crackling whisper from the clouds above. Then the lightning began to fall, striking the walls, forcing Drakes into cover. A few unwise fliers rose up and fell, burning. The magic on Zeres was returning, though, and tracers of magic, invisible to all but [Mages], were locking onto Amerys.

Then the wall spells began to fire. Magical arrows, plumes of magic, and anti-flier spells designed to strike at the same speed Amerys was flying began to crisscross the air. In response, the Archmage of Chandrar began to step faster, dodging the deadly spells.

Some splashed across a barrier of magic around her, but she was dodging, flashing across the sky. This…

This was familiar. The Archmage of Chandrar was laughing. She could not do this long. She knew Khelt’s fleet was moving upriver, out of direct range of Zeres. She just had to buy them…

The towers were the greatest threat. One was projecting lines of [Dispel Magic] across the air like a net. If she ran into that—

Amerys’ magic flickered a moment as she passed through one of those spells. She dived, recovering herself, and then remembered.

She needed an army not for the spells, but for—

The Drake [Archers]. They had a bead on her, and their Skills were far more unpredictable than magic. Amerys saw a group aiming for her and braced.

Then a meteor struck the walls, and Vizir Hecrelunn descended. The horrified Drakes looked up into the bright red light of the Revenant of Khelt. He did not step like lightning; he flew, and the spells that tried to strike him down vanished as he created a dead space of magic.

Ahaha.

A wide, incredulous smile filled Amerys’ face. There he was. Just like Eldavin—a legend not meant for this day and age. A being on par with any Archmage…no, beyond them.

Beyond her? That barrier was beyond any spell she knew, and as she watched, he pointed and sent a meteor streaking down to strike a tower. As simply as she threw lightning. Two [Mages] of different kinds and eras regarded each other. Amerys called out first, her voice teasing.

“Great Revenant of Khelt. Shall we compete at spellcraft? For a legend of Khelt—is that all you’ve got?”

For all his magic, Hecrelunn was patently uneasy as Zeres’ defenses threatened to overwhelm his barrier. Amerys or Hecrelunn alone might burn in the minutes they needed to buy. Together?

The [Vizir]’s chin rose, and his eyes flashed. He replied as the two flew over Zeres, raining spells down.

Woman, the [Vizir] Hecrelunn will match you in magic. He will surpass you in every other conceivable way.

His gaze was that of a dead man sneering down at the world. He had magic to equal any Archmage of today. And he was a [Vizir]. Amerys’ laughter was the lightning bolts raining down from the sky. Wild and sad.

Look what we’ve forgotten. Look at me, Zeres. She struck them a hundred times in a minute. But the Drakes just shouted up defiance. And their army…Amerys’ head turned. She could not see them, but she felt the sea marching onto land. A wave of scales and armor. The Archmage bared her teeth in sympathy for the Gnolls. The Drakes had reached the Meeting of Tribes.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: These three chapters are actually one chapter as written but I have split them up like last time for clarity’s sake. Read on.

 

 

Razia vs the Gods by Lanrae!

 

Skinner by AbsoluteZero!

 

Mrsha Sending by HolyChicken!

 


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19 thoughts on “8.83

  1. (Volume 8 helpers and typo finders: Arcane, ArtsyNada, Blue Juice, Bobo Plushie, DM Rat, Gorexn, Gunmandude2, Kehl, Linnet, Litwickee, Mr Wiggles, Nef, Nobody1111, Oshi, Quynin, Qwiliman)

    • Two men tossed their hats to the ground, and an Antinium with wings did likewise.

      Pivr tossed his hat into a Gnoll’s face

    • ‘Doombringer’ -> ‘Doombearer’ – a few instances

      “His body turned to ash, and his head melted as the burning lock ran across it.” – ‘as the burning lock’ -> ‘as burning rock’

      “Normen and Alcaz jogged alongside Pivr, who was rapidly speaking as he looked up for a sign of Snapjawt.” – ‘Snapjawt’ -> ‘Snapjaw’

    • When Gnoll cried out, it was the Drake foot who kicked at their fingers holding onto the edge of every cliff!
      When Gnolls

    • I just don’t feel like ‘rode’ is the right verb for centaurs – “Centaurs were one being, and they rode” ‘..and they ran (like __)’

      Thanks again for the magnificent storytelling, these chapters have been awesome.

    • A minor continuity error.

      Mrsha loses her wand in this chapter:
      “Mrsha raised her w—where did it go? She looked around and saw it lying behind her.”
      She is then carried away by Mirn before she can recover it.

      However, Mrsha then has the wand in the next two chapters:
      “Ulvama threw a handful of fire as Mrsha waved her wand, tripping up a Plain’s Eye Gnoll.” ~8.84
      “The Gnoll lifted her hand, and Mrsha’s wand blazed with magic.” ~ 8.85

      This seems the easiest chapter to fix it in.

    • “The Stringbreaker, the Witch of Calamity, the Spider stole into view.”

      Belavierr is normally the Threadbreaker. Although the title could be inherently variable.

    • “Had she leveled in battle and gained [Fur of the Fortress]? Lyonette’s boon Skill?”

      She already has [Fur of the Fortress] from the beavers, the Skill she got for protection from Lyonette’s boon would be [Barkfur].

  2. Normen and Alcaz jogged alongside Pivr, who was rapidly speaking as he looked up for a sign of Snapjawt. —> Snapjaw

  3. “Get Mrsha. He was supposed to be her big brother”. Sobbing.
    SO MANY PEOPLE DIED/WERE TRAUMATIZED IN THIS CHAPTER. I just want Erin to be alive again and to drag everyone into some sort of super mega therapy session. Teriarch can teach Mrsha some druid spells and make Gaarh Marsh jr. Saliss can take a nice break from war as Onieva. Giri and Marsha can be a kids again. And everything will be alright. Lemme dream.

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