[I am on my monthly break! Thanks for giving me all this time to rest and work behind the scenes. I will be back on the 25th for Patreons!]
“The greatest [Martial Artist] in the world is a [Spearmaster].”
“Mm. It may be true.”
Orjin sat cross-legged on a pillow in the most beautiful pavilion he had ever seen. Three Lanterns of Significance hung overhead, each placed such that the three lights overlapped in the entire mansion that sat at just the right remove from the Light-City of Meneretorre.
Well, it had just been called Menere once upon a time. But it had added the second part and constructed this mansion—and been gifted three of the greatest lanterns in the city’s possession.
Even now, the first Lantern of Aegis was keeping away the fireflies and other pests buzzing towards the water-filled gardens, another richness Orjin was unused to. He would have drunk from the water, but it was filled with expensive fish from around the world.
Besides, the Lantern of Dew collected water and, like the lesser stones that performed the same function, dripped constantly, a blue light streaming water to feed the ponds and this mansion’s wells. The last lantern was simplest.
The Lantern of Vigor made Orjin restless. The weary muscles he had—from sparring, the cut on his right arm—were all healing at a rate beyond even his Skills. In real-time, he could see the cut closing.
It did not save the Fury of Skies from needing to lie-down with a compress over his head. But it would bring him back up sooner.
As he sat upon a silk pillow, Orjin saw a long toothpick stab a piece of what looked like filament-candy. It was a wrapped, delicate piece of spun sugar—pale topaz, like the gem itself. Two cracked lips tasted the sugar, nibbling it, then put it down.
“Something’s in the center of this. What is it?”
“Toffee, Father. All the children like it.”
“I don’t. I don’t care for it at all. Give me a scorpion in syrup instead.”
A woman appeared, rolling her eyes. She looked matronly, like any number of [Innkeepers] or mothers—which she herself wasn’t. Of all of this man’s daughters, she alone had no children. She dressed herself in an apron; she’d been cutting bamboo shoots, another luxury, and the toothpick snatched one off a plate and inserted it into his mouth.
It was the kind of thing you could chew for ages: just roasted bamboo shoots. Patiently, the daughter put down the platter, and Orjin bowed his head to her. She was stout with thicker legs and plumper than most people in poor Pomle, and her hair was just black, her skin tanned.
Unlike the man sitting across from Orjin, reclining barefoot, she did not resemble a mass of calluses and scars. Her hair was not still seared a semi-reflective sheet of lightning-yellow from where magic had scarred it.
Her eyes were faintly orange, but not like his, like the boiling heart of a volcano. The daughter of Torreb the Unbreakable was named Itkisa, and she took care of him and managed the servants who helped keep up this mansion where he had retired.
Orjin liked her. Itkisa had seemed normal compared to the aura he had felt miles out from this city. Normal…but she spoke to Torreb like that.
“Don’t eat the entire plate, Father. Or you’ll have no room for dinner.”
She slapped his hand as it reached for a second shoot. The old man grunted. He waited until Itkisa was in retreat.
“[Generals] have not dared to speak to me so, much less slap my hand. You see what a chore family is? The greatest [Martial Artist] also has no children. No weak spots.”
“I do not know if that is true.”
This time, Orjin objected. Torreb switched the bamboo shoot to the other side of his mouth as Orjin took one and gently began to chew.
“You do not believe that? Why?”
The question was blunt—everything Torreb did was either blunt or sharp. Even meeting his eyes could be a challenge. When he was angry—and Orjin had not yet seen him truly angry—he could hit you just by staring at you.
The Fury of Skies, Solo…something…had made the mistake of arguing with Itkisa when she had joined their discussion about his cult. He still refused to understand why Orjin held it against him so.
“I do not believe your cult made it easy to simply walk away after women and men gave you everything, Fury of Skies. Nor were they all equals, even under you. At best, they were akin to those who follow warcamps and armies about. If you think that is equal to [Soldiers] or they cannot be mistreated—you are wrong.”
Like her father, she had no fear of speaking eye-to-eye to even a pair of Level 40 warriors. The Fury had insulted her lightly.
He was lying down. Orjin had never seen an aura manifest as strongly as Torreb’s. It was like—behind the withered form of Chandrar’s greatest [Warrior]—seeing a giant sitting there, cross-legged.
Torreb’s strength could manifest without him having to lift a hand. An aura’s blow had been enough to send the Fury of Skies flying through one of the paper-thin walls in the mansion. And Torreb hadn’t even lifted his blade.
Or rather—the long, edged club that he kept at his side, even now. It was seven feet long, made of some dense iron metal that looked like rust—and reminded Orjin of how people spoke of Gazi of Reim’s armor.
It was also, curiously, edged on one side while keeping a crushing side on the other. So a kind of mismatch between the two. Not that you’d do any traditional cutting with this hammer of a weapon. It weighed seventy pounds, and Torreb could swing it like a reed.
It was a Relic-class weapon they called ‘Torreb’s Fist’. The real name of the weapon was only known to Torreb. He had let Orjin lift it, a true honor.
Even being in his presence was an honor. Outside the mansion, Orjin knew, the city had aspiring apprentices, warriors who came to beg Torreb for lessons. His two other daughters and six various sons occupied roles as [Warriors], rulers of their own cities, and Torreb’s dynasty was flourishing.
He was eighty years old. A Stitch-man; Itkisa was a Human daughter, but most of his descendants were Stitch-folk. He was a Level 69 [Warrior]; the highest on the continent. Only Mars the Illusionist came close to his achievements, and she was younger than he was by decades.
Somehow, the Strongest was sitting next to him, so close that if Orjin stretched out his feet rather than sitting cross-legged, they could touch toes. Orjin knew he was no longer Pomle’s Strongest and Vandum had that role. But he couldn’t help it. Torreb kept treating him like that, and it was how Orjin thought before he caught himself.
Torreb lay on his side, chewing on the bamboo while he drank purified water out of a cup. Carelessly; it was crystal that didn’t match the style of this home, which he claimed was inspired by Drath and Chandrarian architecture both. Torreb noticed Orjin’s glance at the cup.
“Want one? It’s one of the cups I was given when I was in Terandria. Crystal clean enough not to taint purified water. I forget which kingdom gave it to me.”
“No. I was thinking.”
“What is the greatest [Martial Artist] to you? Mine would have no family.”
“It should not matter. Children or not—it is about perfection in style.”
“So a spear.”
“A spear has a reach longer than a sword. It is adaptable. But to me, the ultimate [Martial Artist] is even more universally capable. If you lose a spear, you lose your strength.”
Torreb spat half his bamboo shoot into the pond and watched as the water turned into a cloud of fish fighting for it. He smiled, licked his cracked lips, and sipped from the water cup.
It amazed Orjin that Torreb had something as mundane as chapped lips to contend with. But then…he was old. He could repair his hair; no Stitch-man went bald unless he wished to, but he had turned his hair white to acknowledge his age. He could have built his body strong and huge, like his aura.
Yet his lifestring was fraying, and it seemed that the string that defined the Stitch-man affected his body. The Lantern of Vigor was here to make Torreb’s rest easy.
He had scars. If he turned and the loose robes he wore shifted, you could see a scar like wings across his back where an Adult Creler had laid him open. His marked hair and flesh were scarred from fighting one of the last [Archmages] to die after Zelkyr disappeared.
Here sat a legend. And here they were, discussing martial arts. Torreb gently touched the great club-blade at his side.
“You are not wrong, Orjin. I should have known any Strongest would be bold enough to say that to my face.”
His eyes flashed, and Orjin felt a wave of pressure on him—but he ignored it. Then Torreb relented. He sipped moodily again and spat. No fish erupted in a flurry this time as the spittle landed in the pond. If someone had done that in the oasis, Orjin would have kicked them.
He had the desire to do that now, unconsciously, as any Chandrarian from dry lands did to someone who sullied water. Just for a second—
The club rose and fell. Orjin’s kick back would have carried him out of range—of anyone else. But he saw a blur—and two eyes burning like a molten core.
Orjin’s arm was raised—he caught himself, and Torreb halted the blow on the veranda outside. The fish had vanished—the blade of that club hovered a foot from Orjin’s raised arm.
Then the Named-rank grinned.
“You thought about it.”
“I meant no offense.”
The club rose lightly. Torreb went back to recline on his side again. He had gotten up with the club in hand so fast from that position—
“It will happen again. I felt it, you know.”
“I will try not to—think of such things. I apologize, Torreb.”
The great warrior just waved a hand moodily. Orjin himself was unsettled. He could read someone’s muscles moving, sense the intent of a blow—Torreb felt even the desire to kick him like a physical touch.
“Sit, sit. I do these things for fun, Strongest. Tell me what the greatest [Martial Artist] to exceed you or I looks like. Barehanded, really?”
His lips curled, and Orjin defended himself as he went back to chewing on his own strip of bamboo.
“No. Merely adaptive. You were saying you were defined by the Relic.”
“Sure enough. Take it away and I can kill a score. But it is a Relic-class weapon. I see your point. I am beholden to this weapon—because it is better than any I have ever found. You know, I used a strange axe for an age? Nineteen years I carried a hookaxe which I hated. But I bore it because the edge could slice mithril and I had naught better. I gave it to my first son, and he is besotted with the thing. I? I would toss this weapon aside if you handed me anything better. So I agree, then. Not a spearmaster.”
Torreb grinned. Perhaps the question was a test. After all—the two were trying to solve an age-old question.
What was the greatest [Martial Artist] like? It was a question Pomle had tried to solve for decades, pitting warriors and styles against each other, and it was a silly question because it had been around since the dawn of time.
But the philosophizing between the former Strongest and Torreb, the greatest [Warrior] of Chandrar, had a point. It was the pretext to something else—and Torreb indulged Orjin.
So the next thing Orjin said was controversial.
“The ultimate [Martial Artist] is a Garuda.”
Torreb paused, frowning.
“Because they can fly.”
“Yes. I know Xil—”
“I know him too. He can fly. Therefore, he is out of the reach of many of us if he needs to be. I dislike that answer.”
“Does it not make sense? I saw the Death of Magic—”
Torreb jerked, and the scarred flesh on his arm, criss-crossed from blocking countless blades with his skin, shivered. He waved it away.
“Don’t say that. Don’t—”
Orjin fell silent, and Torreb shook his head, bared old, yellowed teeth.
“If the ultimate form of combat is adaptive—then the greatest [Martial Artist] is…a [Mage]. For what is more adaptive and powerful than magic? Silvenia, the Death of Magic, or a Djinni is the greatest warrior, and we are insects waving steel and copies of that power around.”
That—hurt Orjin’s pride as much as Torreb’s. Orjin countered.
“But a [Mage] is not trained in the body.”
“Ah, but they could be. What if you had a warrior who honed their body and magic like a blade? Then the ultimate [Martial Artist] is a [Spellsword].”
Torreb’s eyes glowed challengingly. The former Strongest rested his hands on his knees as he thought. Itkisa came back with scorpions baked in syrup. She offered them, and Orjin took a bite as Torreb took three and was scolded.
“No. This is wrong. Your premise is correct, Torreb. If it were possible—the greatest [Martial Artist] might use magic and exceed any other. You, with your Relic, would exceed the same Torreb without. Yet…not everyone can practice magic. I was born without the gift.”
“I have only a drop of talent. Go on.”
Torreb leaned forward as Itkisa went to feed the fish from a basket. But she was listening. Orjin searched for words as he stared at the sky.
“The greatest [Martial Artist]—regardless of what weapon they use, what style—should be achievable by anyone. And they must practice a style that does not fall to the difference in enchanted blades. If they fight with their hands, a novice [Martial Artist] must be able to best a [Swordsman] of the same rank.”
Itkisa turned her head, and Torreb snorted softly.
“Impossible. A sword puts the advantage in a new warrior’s hands. Weapons advantage those with over those without.”
Perhaps more than he knew. Orjin thought of how Iratze had described guns. He exhaled slowly.
“If that is so—then Pomle’s entire method is worthless. If that is so—we should all pick up weapons. If levels equalize that by giving us bodies like diamonds and wings of our own, that is one thing. But if what we practice is useless or inferior, that is one flaw.”
He looked up, and Torreb bared his chest. He pointed to a long scar under one rib.
“Collos gave me this one. Before he died, when Pomle revolted, he defeated me, Torreb the Undefeated. My name, you see, only came when I was older. I outlived him, but he bested me with his hands. You want a warrior at Level 5 to best someone barehanded who holds a weapon. That is impossible, I think. But I tell you that your hands will threaten even the Deaths of Rhir in time.”
This was the answer that Orjin had come here to see. He saw the scarred flesh—like a winking eye of pale skin. Knife-hand. He bowed his head to Torreb.
“That is half of the answer I have come here to find, then, Torreb.”
“And the other half?”
“I do not know how to ask it yet.”
Orjin confessed. Torreb laughed, then rose. Itkisa looked up, and Torreb stretched.
“My sons and daughters and their children and spouses and more will be coming for dinner. Thanks to your [Secretary], they have all been lured in by these toffee-treats. Dine tonight with me, Orjin. Is that weak warrior still sleeping? You have time to find your answer.”
He picked up the club and walked across his mansion. Itkisa smiled at Orjin as the warrior rose, and he nodded to her.
“Would you care to use our baths or anything else, Strongest? We have clothes, bedding—”
“You are generous.”
The woman shook her head and gave the wandering legend a wry look.
“No. My father is rich enough not to care. And I think he finds your quest intriguing. You’ll have his attention some time yet. Especially because you are the Strongest of Pomle.”
“I am not any longer.”
Itkisa gave Orjin an appraising look, and he felt a light tingle run down his spine. She put the basket against her hip. Torreb claimed that she had taken the hardest job, caring for him rather than marrying. Itkisa in turn had claimed that no one would see her as anything more than Torreb’s daughter, an alliance to be won.
Orjin…wondered. But all the woman did was shake her head.
“That is not how he sees it. Come, you’ll lose hours to introductions, and my brothers may want to challenge you. They always do to warriors who win our father’s interest. Your [Secretary] truly did do a fine job, by the way. You would have had to wait in the bars or streets until Torreb went wandering.”
To that, Orjin could only agree. Salii had done what some people, Gold-rank adventurers, even Named-ranks of their own, [Warriors] and [Generals], all desired.
She had won him an audience with Torreb such that within a day of reaching this city, Torreb had personally told Orjin to meet with him, having already known his name.
The methods of Salii were simple—and unintuitive to many idiots. But idiots were everywhere. In any distribution of any nation of any species in the world—you had smart, clever people and dumb people and a lot of averages.
Someone had to fill the wide margin of people who fell for a trick or who didn’t reach the top. They were all the people who ran to the city of Meneretorre and expected, magically, to win an audience with Torreb.
In the same vein, these were the people who went to the Merchant’s Guild, heard they were now in possession of thousands of gold coins—and believed it. They would celebrate—even [Merchants]—and immediately send off goods or sign over deeds to land and property.
Not because they were stupid…well, not because they were that stupid. A clever [Merchant] who had made fortunes in good business could still be gullible because they trusted the Merchant’s Guild. If they backed the number, all was well.
So, for instance, you had a [Yellat Magnate]—yes, that was a real class—sending twenty thousand bushels of Yellats to a handsomely rich buyer in Illivere. The funding was arranged, after all. They were paid in advance, so they used their own [Guards] and wagons and horses to transport the goods because it was money they had already been paid. Same for the goods.
If, in the course of disaster, Pomle and foreign powers were to seize the goods, well, that was terrible and a loss—though Pomle had ransomed the [Guards] off—but the seller was out all those goods. But the [Yellat Magnate] had all that sweet gold that had been paid to the Merchant’s Guild.
…Right until the Merchant’s Guild realized that the gold they allegedly had in their coffers was an agreed-upon contract that drew from an existing, very rich account that had lots of gold in it.
Definitely. There was nigh on seven hundred thousand gold pieces in the account of one of Nerrhavia’s [Emirs]. They drew from the account to pay for a number of expensive purchases said [Emir] was making.
Food, water, even precious Healing Potions purchased at a dear price given the lack of Eir Gel. The [Emir] spent and spent—and that was fine because the gold was there. It was in the books.
But what it wasn’t was…in the vaults. As in, the tangible vaults where gold was actually, concretely piled up and guarded by Djinni. See, that was the problem with understandable idiocy.
The gold was all there, on paper, in neat notes that someone had written into their private books. You could follow a train of money going in, records—especially if the first entry had been written there by a certain Drake when she passed through Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Then all she had to do was, oh, [Remotely Write Ledger], [Copy Magical Seal], and so on. And then you had a definite trail of a very real [Emir] with tons of gold.
And that [Emir] would buy and buy until someone finally went to withdraw all that gold—and they would find no Vault #1157. They would realize there was no [Emir]. And all the happy [Merchants] and sellers who believed in the Merchant’s Guild would realize that their faith in the unshakable could be well and truly shook.
Salii would never have done this in Salazsar. It gave her a kind of guilty pleasure to do this here. She had been on the other side of erasing this kind of scam in the City of Gems, but she was in a war—and financial war was something she was good at.
Actually, it was sort of boringly easy. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was already a fairly corrupt nation with lots of embezzlement, so the Merchant’s Guild wasn’t nearly as stringent as it should have been. Dead gods, hadn’t they learned anything from the Golden Triangle scam?
Seven hundred thousand gold pieces vanishing wouldn’t kill a nation—only some business and people’s livelihoods, which she did feel bad about. But she did pick and choose targets. Nerrhavia’s Fallen had millions upon millions of gold pieces flowing through its veins daily. One fake [Emir] would do little.
A hundred would be a problem. Happily for Nerrhavia’s Fallen, it had at least a few sharp minds. A certain [Great Sage] had ordered all the Merchant’s Guilds to cease transactions not made in actual coin immediately.
And—at least one [Merchant] had avoided being completely divested of their assets. The thing about a good assistant was that the smart ones double checked the money was there.
To ‘Emir Defin Atlyreal’, on behalf of Merchant Boiregon.
I regret to inform you that your requested purchase will not be approved. I would appreciate it if you refrained from your fraudulent transactions and schemes regarding my master’s business.
Salii twirled a quill as she rolled her eyes. The crisp [Message] in the Golem’s own hand was disapproving, but a lot of people just assumed Emir Defin was a real name. House Atlyreal sounded close.
Locking horns with another expert in the field was more fun. Cognita had avoided and canceled the last eight attempts on her master’s property and apparently gotten so sick of Salii’s incursions that she’d found the [Secretary]’s direct [Message] scroll and sent her a warning.
Slowly, the Drake wrote on her scroll as she rode with Pomle’s warriors across the desert. The fighting was continuing under Vandum, and they were pushing Nerrhavia’s borders. No longer with a home—Pomle had gone to war, and Thelican had realized a roving force of [Martial Artists] was far worse than one committed to defending a stationary target.
Vandum’s [Martial Artists] destroyed Nerrhavia’s assets. They set fire to farmsteads, halted trade. The only question was how long they could poke Nerrhavia until the great kingdom decided to retaliate.
The first army was moving at them. Salii was counting how much actual gold she’d stolen that she could use to hire [Mercenaries]. A shame she couldn’t just buy out the Empire of Scaied’s armies, but she was working on multiple fronts.
It was engaging enough work, busy—if boring. The Drake yawned, then she wrote a slow response to Cognita on her [Message] scroll.
[Secretary] Salii in service of Pomle’s Strongest to Cognita Truestone:
I’m bored. What are you doing over there?
Cognita Truestone to Salii of Salazsar:
We each have our masters to serve. You find service in your work. Do not lecture me on how I choose to spend my time.
Salii to Cognita:
A correction to you. We don’t need to be defined by our ‘owners’. I never was. I just like to see my chosen gemstones shine. What’s your reason for polishing a rock?
She never got a reply. So Salii went back to consulting her notes on Orjin’s progress. She had convinced the town he’d fought not to go after him by suggesting—quite amicably—that they did not want to go to war with Pomle. She hadn’t said that he was the Strongest or that posting a bounty on Orjin would result in that. Because that wasn’t true. She’d just hinted.
However, sometimes you had to produce actual results with actual gold, and to get to Torreb, Salii had invoked her knowledge of how you met with powerful people. The secret was…
You never went to them directly. Unless you were, yourself, a Named-rank adventurer or a legend, it was a stupid idea. Especially if you were a [Secretary] trying to get Zel Shivertail’s attention on behalf of the Trisstral Alliance, for instance.
You never went to them. You went to their own [Assistants], their [Secretaries]. And if you thought Torreb didn’t have any—
You went through his daughters. It was not hard for Salii to find that one of his daughters, the one who managed his mansion and, thus, Torreb’s visitors, liked sweets. She especially liked Terandrian sweets like the cake, gelato, and so on that were coming out.
Now, finding a new product that hadn’t hit Chandrarian markets wasn’t hard. Tracking down a shipment of the stuff meant for, again, Nerrhavia’s rich nobles and courts wasn’t that bad.
Paying the [Merchant] to sell you the goods at a premium price, organizing a Courier to run it over to Torreb’s daughter—a mountain load of her sweets with a note about Orjin that was calculated to make Torreb interested in meeting Pomle’s Strongest—she neglected to mention that it was a previously-held title.
That was a job for a [Secretary]. The Drake calmly filed away Cognita’s [Message] scroll. The Truestone Golem might move, but Salii had a feeling she had sent that personal correspondence through a [Message] scroll Cognita owned.
It was always nice to build a contact list. She had the Blighted Kingdom, thirty-two Terandrian kingdoms, all four Great Companies, and in her spare time, she liked working up the chain of command to get more contacts. But what Salii was really doing was…waiting.
Waiting for Orjin to come back.
Visiting a great warrior was an honor. A privilege. The goal for any supplicant was to learn something they would never have the chance to gain otherwise.
That depended on whether said ‘great warrior’ was also a great teacher. Interning with Lehra Ruinstrider, for instance, might only give you a crash-course on how many engagements you could ruin in a city and how high you could run your food bill.
But sometimes you learned a valuable lesson. For instance—Yvlon Byres, a Level 40 [Silversteel Armsmistress], learned two things today.
The first was that [Aspect of Iron] made her skin change color. Or rather—it looked as if she had been dipped in a coating of iron. Her nose, her eyes, her flesh covered by a layer of armor perfectly molded to her features.
It was not just a cosmetic layer, either. For the duration of the ability, she was as tough to cut as iron. Not steel—but iron was damned tough. Any wound her metal body took would revert to a flesh-and-blood wound later, but it made the already tough woman into a force of war. For you’d have to wound iron to give Yvlon a cut that remained once the Skill ended. And that was one of the abilities she had gained from reaching one of the great capstones of a warrior in this era.
Level 40 was the true mark of accomplishment for many. Most would never rise higher. Level 50 put you on the level of a national asset—in that most nations had one. Level 60? You had reached the point of a continental legend.
Level 70 was unheard of save for world-renowned names from older times. They had said Az’kerash was one such—the Deaths of Rhir were rumored to be that level. Or…higher?
Yvlon Byres had already summited a point higher than her entire family had reached in the last hundred and sixty years. She deserved a party—a wild celebration if she chose to reveal her level. She was a candidate for Named-rank, in time.
And the other thing she learned this day was this: the Level 40 [Silversteel Armsmistress] could also fly.
She was soaring overhead, arms swinging wildly like the flapping of a great iron bird. If she looked down, she could see them below her. Gnolls with their mouths open, staring up at her.
Gireulashia’s own mouth was agape. Pisces’ head was slowly turning as Ksmvr ran after her, all four arms raised, as if the silly little Antinium were going to catch her. Ceria was laughing, as per usual. Yvlon wondered if this was another lucid dream. But the rushing air around her—the Gnolls gazing up at her—it was all so real.
Including the blurring ground beneath her. Growing larger, larger—then Yvlon hit the ground. In her iron form, she had probably doubled or even tripled her weight, and she’d been wearing armor.
The flying woman landed and left a crater in the earth. The snow cushioned her fall; it was a white veil over the land, feet deep in places. Yvlon went straight through the soft layer and embedded herself into the dirt.
The [Armsmistress] lay there, stunned. Then she sat up and heard the howling as the Gnolls ran towards her.
I think I broke every bone in my body. But she did sit up—which proved her [Aspect of Iron] worked. Yvlon Byres stared back—and she saw a figure four hundred feet away with dirty blonde fur, turning grey, throw back his head and laugh.
The Gnoll, who had thrown her farther than Gireulashia could dream, laughed as Yvlon stared at him. Merrily, as the other warriors around him flocked around that famous name.
Berr the Berserker. The woman of metal had reached the Great Plains of Izril at last, to learn from the warrior who knew how to control her temper. She got up, feeling fizzing in her veins. Adrenaline in her blood. She looked at Berr—and he stopped laughing. Yvlon saw him beckon her with a paw.
“What am I supposed to learn from this?”
Yvlon spat some blood from her mouth. Then she was running, heaving herself out of the wet snow and charging towards him. Her arms morphed into blades—and she saw him coming at her. A small Gnoll, shorter and reduced compared to the brawnier members of the Wild Wastes tribe.
Until he grew. Then—Yvlon felt the tingling on her metal skin. She felt her blood pumping through those metal arms. She shouted—heedless of the fact that she was a dangerous, living weapon.
“[Sword Art: Arc of the Moon]!”
Her arm rotated, and Yvlon activated the Skill without a sword. She cut the air as Berr charged at her. And he slowed—let the blade-arm cleave the air in front of him—and merrily grabbed one arm. Yvlon changed her skin into deadly pointed quills, like a porcupine, but the Gnoll’s paws danced away. Then he grabbed her legs—pulled as he rotated her in a circle before she could morph her metal foot into—
And then she was flying again. Yvlon flapped her wings and thought Bird would literally call her ‘Silverbird’ or something silly li—
Then she hit the ground.
“…Is she dead?”
Ceria stopped laughing in a kind of awe and horror as she saw Yvlon thump into the grass and snow of the Great Plains beyond. She shaded her brows, concerned, but Yvlon sat up after a second. This time, she didn’t stand back up. She just lay down as Ksmvr ran frantically over to her and began to shovel snow off her.
“Dead gods, she’s tough.”
Wil observed in a kind of awe. Merrik had two handfuls of his beard.
“She’s tough? Berr just threw her like a toy! She’s Level 40!”
“And he’s Berr the Berserker. If Yvlon Byres beat one of the greatest Gnolls living so easily, we’d all be dead, Merrik. It’s a good lesson for her if he’s to teach her, eh?”
Someone put the Dwarf in a headlock. Merrik struggled—but Feshi was so happy to see her friends again that she only gave him a quick rub of his hair. Then she realized she was in the presence of guests and hurriedly tried to straighten up and introduce herself.
“Chieftain Feshi? I’m Captain Ceria of the Horns of Hammerad. And here is Colth the Supporter. Delighted to meet you.”
Ceria liked Feshi on first meeting—she was young, had a good sense of humor, and like the students—a [Strategist], sharp and progressive.
However, the Gnoll Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe looked like she knew full well the weight of responsibility, so she shook Ceria’s hand seriously, then turned to Ksmvr and Pisces. Without hesitation, she greeted both—and she had another interesting quality.
“I am humbled by the Horns’ presence as warriors who fought so bravely to save my people. You are all honored guests, and I give you freedom to walk the camp—with the exception of the grand tent. Please, be welcome.”
She was direct and smiled at Colth, who bowed and presented her with a small box that turned out to contain treats and sweets from Liscor and First Landing. Another touch of a Named-rank adventurer meeting important potential clients.
However, Feshi was either humble or…she would bow her head and stare at the ground as if ashamed or shy—before meeting Ceria’s eyes and speaking directly. Then, if not talking, she would stare down…at the frozen ground and grass underfoot.
She didn’t seem that introverted, and Wil wrinkled his nose, but the Horns were amidst a flurry of people wanting to introduce themselves—and Yvlon was calling for Ksmvr’s help so she could make a good impression on Feshi. Then again, the flying woman had attracted a bunch of Gnolls to meet the Horns to begin with.
“What’s the lesson he’s teaching her? Anger management?”
Wil looked dubiously at Yvlon as Ksmvr helped her to her feet. It looked like her new Skill had run out—he clocked it at about fifteen minutes. Pretty good for Level 40. Fifteen minutes of being the toughest warrior around?
“Humility even at her new level?”
Venaz suggested. He was watching with Peki. The Garuda scratched her head.
“…Don’t let a [Berserker] grab you?”
Everyone laughed at that. And that included a light voice that came from a Gnoll—or rather, a Selphid using a Gnoll’s body. Yerranola was here, and she was standing right next to Wil, arm on his shoulders. She was sort of leaning on him, and she looked as cheerful as he remembered.
But more worn, perhaps? She still looked like the same old Yerra, even smelled like the Selphid preservatives, and she had the same energetic grin.
Surviving the poison made her look—older. The Selphid looked like Feshi, aged. She gazed around.
“Anyone want to take on Yvlon or Berr? I’d be all for charging in a year ago—right now, I think it’s better if we just watch and take notes. None of us are going to ever do that kind of thing. Even you officers had better keep away from those two in a melee.”
She meant Peki, Merrik, and Venaz. As officers who combined both leadership and direct combat classes, Yvlon and Berr were their worst nightmares.
Interestingly—only Peki opened her beak to object.
“I could fight them. So could Venaz with his greatsword.”
Everyone turned to Venaz, but the Minotaur, for once, didn’t extol the virtues of his personal attributes and species. He just exhaled.
“I’d rather hire them. Even if we clashed and survived—they’d tie down any officer they ran into. Then again, how do you stop one of the two?”
“Well, you can clearly throw Yvlon—or I’d bet trap her in a [Mud Pit] spell or something. Not sure what you’d do with Berr.”
Wil was surprised by Venaz’s change of tune, but he would believe Erin Solstice could do anything. The students broke into an interested chatter until someone interrupted their discussion.
“I am all for you children speculating, but as someone who has to deal with that kind of threat directly—the answer to Berr is an [Archery Captain] with [Volley: Piercing Arrows]. You keep the [Captain] back and hold off his charge with it. Sometimes, you go an entire battlefield without using the Skill. He doesn’t come at you—you don’t use the Skill. It’s like a counter—but if you use the Skill, you are then dead because he will charge and tear up any back line he wants.”
Every head turned, and Wil bowed respectfully to the Centaur watching Berr stroll over to Yvlon and help her up.
“Professor Perorn, you make it sound easy.”
Merrik grumbled, amused. The Centaur rolled her eyes.
“Easy? Merrik, the temptation to use a powerful Skill like that is something you have to hold onto the entire battle. Learning not to use a Skill is as vital as how to manage a Skill effectively. I have seen the Titan scare his opponents stiff thinking he’ll pull [Charge of the Strategist] out an entire battle. But he’ll just sit on it and threaten it the entire battle—which you have to take seriously or he will use it. That’s how you use and oppose a Berr.”
“Like a queen piece in chess.”
Wil murmured. All threat—you could bluff out an opponent’s hand. Then he felt someone else grab his head and give him a noogie as well.
“I knew Wil would make a chess analogy! I’ve missed you!”
Yerra laughed loudly as she clasped Wil to her chest. The [Lord] turned red, and Venaz nodded to Perorn.
“For however long we can stay—this feels like the Academy. Professor, we didn’t know if you’d be here.”
“I’ve riled up the Walled Cities. I’ll back off and come back. There’s a logic to how you work as a [Mercenary]. I wanted to meet the Horns of Hammerad anyways. Niers wants me to go to Liscor—but I would much rather support the tribes.”
“And we are grateful for your support, Professor Perorn. Or is it Commander now?”
Feshi’s grin was weary. Perorn looked at her, and the stern Fleethoof’s expression softened.
“Chieftain Feshi, that would be appropriate. I am a foreign [Mercenary] on Izril’s soil. I’m grateful for the Gnolls’ hospitality—but there may be times when the interests of my company clash with your people’s. I’m not looking forwards to that.”
Everyone quieted, and Wil’s smile and blush faded. Yerranola let go—and they looked at Feshi. The student would not be going to Zeres and on to Baleros.
The Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe ducked her head—then seemed to raise it with an effort. She looked at the Horns of Hammerad, Gireulashia, Nailren, and even Colth the Supporter, who was respectfully hovering behind Berr, who swatted at him like an annoying fly.
Not as a fan of them or as a visitor, but as someone who had to weigh their lives and their goals. It was the weary look the teachers had. No more theory, no more practice.
Wil felt a part of the uncertain fear and nerves Feshi had to be feeling—and he wasn’t even in her shoes! She looked at him and smiled.
“Let’s make it fun while we’re here. Now, come. The Great Plains have changed a lot since you were last here.”
She pointed, and every head turned to the distant gathering of Gnolls. The plains were still torn up. The bodies had been burned—but Wil still thought he could smell the scent of death. He saw the grass had turned to mudlands in a vast swath before it reached a hill. A depression had formed around the hill as well; the product of magical blasts and a literal volcano opening.
The hill was the remains of Khoteizetrough, the Earth Elemental of the Gaarh Marsh tribe. It was flowering, and the depression in the ground around that hill had turned into a small lake. The water had been filled by the rain—and by the Skill that Zeres had unleashed that had turned part of the Great Plains to mud.
The First Tide Skill of Zeres and their army.
Wil still remembered the sight of it. A hundred thousand Drakes marching over land—pulling the sea with them. Water, rushing past Zeresian [Marines], and a roar like a tidal wave. He thought he had seen how great armies fought.
They had been about to rush over Gnolls—enemies and allies alike. Sweep forwards and engulf the battlefield in a chaos of water. Only two things had halted them.
A line in the sand. The Beriad—a hundred Antinium [Crusaders] who held back the City of Waves for minutes. Fighting, surrounded on all sides—falling into the surf. And—the King of Khelt, charging into Zeres with an army of the dead who feared nothing at all.
After that day, Wil could claim he had seen great and terrible war. He had seen scrying images of Terandrian wars between kingdoms—[Knights] jousting each other, valor and virtue on the battlefield as entire regiments surrendered or a [King] was forced to yield in single combat.
It seemed to him that the Professor’s constant ridicule of Terandrian warfare was deserved. For Wil had seen a real monster on the battlefield. And Belavierr did not yield.
The fighting had continued, tearing up the ground so that it seemed not even grass would grow from the dirt—which had absorbed bodies and buried them deep. And amidst it all—that woman stood, casting down hails of needles that tore through flesh and bone and armor. She killed with a twist of her fingers, snuffed out lives by the hundred.
And still, he had seen people rising up to meet her. Rising—like the Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe. A ray of sun shining down from the skies, and a Gnoll blazing with sunlight taking on the Witch of Webs. He had thought she would win—until the ground itself opened and dragged her down.
This battle had taken Chieftain Torishi, sending her down to her doom at the hands of the Stitch Witch. The fighting had spilled up the hill, around a fortress of wood and dirt—the place where the Doombearers’ allies had made a stand.
All of this—and Wil had been there. Hacking down a Gnoll with his hands covered in blood, seeing one of his clones—feeling a spear going through his neck. Shaking and shaking as he used his Skills. He had been right here. It felt like a dream.
Later, far later, Wil felt goosebumps as he remembered—but there were no more bodies. The ground was ripped up, and he saw how this land might never recover. Yet beyond this, despite it all—he saw one mote of true color besides the hill where the Earth Elemental lay.
Beyond this terrible battleground, something rose. A few holes had been put in it, but the colorful grand tent was still massive—and it overlooked a kind of permanent settlement of Gnollish yurts. Yet even now, Wil saw evidence of wood and even stone buildings going up.
“The Meeting of the Chieftains’ tent still stands.”
Venaz observed. Feshi shook her head.
“We call it the Meeting of Earths now. Visitors think it’s some kind of [Shaman] or [Druid] term.”
She smiled crookedly. Wil looked at her and knew partly what lay beyond there. He felt a thrill. Out of the ashes of the last era—came a new one.
“The Meeting of Earths? That’s a big tent to have a bunch of laptops. Maybe they’ve got a bigger version of that diorama of the solar-thingy?”
“Solar system. It probably has lots of drawings. We should check it out. Didn’t Inkar mention it? Maybe she’s got some of those pictures on her phone drawn out.”
Pisces whispered back. The two [Mages] knew that some of the Gnolls could hear them. Gire began giggling, and Ceria raised her brows.
Of course, they both knew about Earth. More than the Gnolls, no doubt. The big tent to hide the secret of Earth was appropriate—if slightly obvious.
The two Horns were missing a tiny bit of context. But they didn’t get the sly grins on the faces of some of the Gnolls, including Feshi herself. They were watching Yvlon and her introduction to the Wild Wastes tribe.
Pisces Jealnet watched as Yvlon Byres had to be half-carried by the Wild Wastes warriors to the settlement. Burly Gnolls, many [Berserkers] or [Barbarians] of one of the Great Tribes of Izril, were joking and complimenting her.
“Stop feeling my arms.”
She growled, but weakly. A merry Gnoll was marching them all forwards. Berr himself. He looked calm and friendly—and he had thrown Yvlon like a discus.
“Forgive my apprentices, Yvlon Byres. They admire anyone they think is tough—and you have a reputation. The Silver Killer of Izril. And friend of Mrsha the Doombearer! Mrsha the White! Mrsha the Infinitely Cute!”
“I can see you’ve met her.”
Ceria grinned, and Berr winked one yellow eye at the half-Elf.
“I was glad to hear she was well and with her mother, yes? But I was so sad to not meet Zeladona I nearly wept. Then again, she seemed intense. My apprentices would have lost too many limbs in the trial.”
“But Honored Berr, the chance to meet a legend is worth an arm!”
A younger Gnoll protested, and Berr skipped over. The Gnoll covered his head—so Berr punched him in the stomach. It looked light, but the Gnoll winced and clutched at his stomach.
“That’s what someone who’s never lost a limb thinks! Zeladona is a moment—your arm is forever! I don’t think Pallass’ warriors are as happy about their limbs. Besides—all that one knows is the blade. Miss Yvlon has much more than that to learn amongst us. By the way, the first thing to remember is that even a Troll could throw you like I just did, Yvlon Byres.”
“What? I must weigh…”
Berr’s eyes glinted.
“Yes, yes. You’re heavy and dangerous. All they have to do is be able to lift…half your weight? Then they just spin and spin and toss.”
Pisces was impressed Berr understood the concept. The Gnoll frowned at Pisces. Then he laughed and slapped Pisces on the shoulder so hard the [Necromancer] winced.
“Ah, [Mages] and their words. Yes, call it that. They’ll centrifugal you, Yvlon. And if I was them, I’d centrifugal you off a cliff or into a spell.”
“That’s, er, not how you use the word, Honored Berr.”
Pisces hesitated. He was tempted to sniff. But the old Gnoll was slightly intimidating, even to one of his academic credentials. The Gnoll just slapped him on the shoulder harder.
“It’s fine, it’s fine! We’re Wild Wastes Gnolls. Barbarians. You [Mages] are very funny about words, yes? I suppose I should expect more now magic is upon us again. Well, never let it be said that the greatest good in the world comes without any downsides!”
Pisces blinked. That sounded like a compliment—then he saw one of Berr’s pale yellow-brown eyes wink at him.
Every Wild Wastes warrior in earshot laughed at this. He was—clever! Pisces was so flustered he fell silent—but then they passed by the place that had been the battleground where so many had died, and all fell silent.
The Gnolls stared at the dirt, the wound on the Great Plains, and Berr kept smiling, but silently. The Gnoll settlement was at least four miles away; only the intense flatness of the Great Plains made it possible to see so far.
“Er—Honored Berr. I wonder if Chieftain Feshi—that is, whoever is in charge here understands that the battlefield yonder is…filled with death magic?”
Pisces grew even more nervous. Honored Berr’s head turned as several Gnolls glanced up sharply.
“Chieftain Feshi is not in charge. But she is among many equals—yes, we know, Adventurer Pisces. Dead keep rising from there. We have saved most Gnoll bodies, and each one we find as undead we lay to rest. But I think it will unearth Drake bones and perhaps even long-buried ones for times to come, eh?”
“It will. And, er—it may attract undead for ranges up to a hundred miles.”
A Gnoll groaned, and Pisces hurried to clarify.
“Not all at once! Slowly! But any buried corpse, animal or otherwise not properly disposed of, might gather here. This is a phenomenon in necromancy—I don’t quite know how you would stop it…”
He was afraid Berr would grow angry or demand an answer Pisces didn’t have. The [Necromancer] had never actually thought of how you’d…de-magic an area like this. He hadn’t cared.
What a shallow [Necromancer] he was, as Az’kerash had said. No formal training. Pisces pointed weakly at the mound that had been Khoteizetrough.
“The earth magic and more plants might counteract it, but so much death…even plants will struggle to grow here.”
Berr listened in silence, scratching at his furry chin while staring at the wasteland.
“Yes, I know. Khoteizetrough is also lying there. Earth and death. The Gaarh Marsh tribe claims that even if they go back to their swamps, this mound will produce a bounty equivalent to parts of the heart of the swamp.”
“What will be done, then?”
Yvlon looked at Berr, who had agreed to teach her the instant she had presented her case. The first thing he had done was challenge her to that spar, and if he wanted to impress his credentials on her—Pisces supposed he had done that.
But Berr seemed relaxed. He looked at the death magic, the memorial to the Earth Elemental, and gave the Horns a very Gnoll-like answer.
“Why, nothing. Gaarh Marsh will keep some apprentice [Shamans] and some of their tribe here. They shall harvest the hill, help it grow.”
“But the death magic…the undead might try to tear down the hill. And they will threaten your people here.”
Yvlon pointed uncomprehendingly at the tents in the distance. Berr nodded.
“They will. So we shall send young [Warriors] here to quell the undead nightly. I think it is already something of a custom. What was the terrible necessity of patrolling this place to find the dead and stop the undead now becomes a way of life. In a hundred years, perhaps the ‘Nightwalk of Xherw’s Folly’ will become a rite of passage or a habit of any warrior who comes from here.”
Struck, Pisces looked at the old Gnoll and saw Berr staring ahead. The old legend of the Wild Wastes looked forwards in time—then back at Pisces.
“It is good to think ahead, you see. I am glad my Chieftain does it. But if we endure, I think we will take this place and make the best out of it we can. Who knows? Maybe Gnolls will run around raising dead bodies for fun like you.”
He nudged Pisces again. The [Necromancer] blinked.
“[Necromancers]? Are the Gnolls going to train mages, then?”
“Are we? Are we?”
The Gnoll raised his voice, and the warriors around him laughed. He slapped his chest.
“I am lazy, and I hate reading books. I would rather have stories told over a fire or them read to me—but are we going to train [Mages]? You are funny, Horns of Hammerad. You speak of the future as if we are not already in motion. Come.”
He pointed ahead, and Pisces saw in that growing place, that city, that Meeting of Tribes permanently enshrined here? Perhaps—a kingdom in the making? Or just a gathering that would not convene once every twenty years.
The [Mages] of the Gnolls were already here.
This was the place where tradition had met with lies. History and fact and tribes had taken sides. Truth and necessity.
Good and evil reduced it too much. That was how some people might tell the story, but Xherw had believed he was doing the best thing for Gnolls. There were certainly winners and losers, but the tribes had decided on more than just the fate of Doombearers here.
From the war in the Meeting of Tribes came magic. Magic…returned to Gnolls after so long. The new lands—and also—
The knowledge of Earth. So three things were here—Gnollish tradition, Earth’s knowledge, and magic, and they were creating something new in their place.
“Each tribe will send representatives here. I think that is the best way. We will not give up our old grounds to Drakes, for they will never return. But Gaarh Marsh will keep its [Shamans]—just as other tribes send their warriors to learn, young to mingle. Plain’s Eye was too powerful on its own. We must mingle at all times, not every twenty years.”
Chieftain Feshi Weatherfur told Gireulashia the conclusion the Chieftains had reached. It was not a consensus among all; many tribes were shattered or had simply left never to return. But the ones who had stayed had decided upon this.
“Will we call ourselves a nation?”
Gire asked the obvious, and Feshi avoided the answer immediately.
“We will need unified laws, at least. Rules for armies passing through this land. But it should be a trading place. Walls…that sounds too much like Drakes.”
“They have a point. Walls are nice. They keep most monsters out.”
“And have sewers? Gnolls whose entire job is to clean such things? [Landlords] who are paid just to own and upkeep land? I think that goes too far, Chieftain Gireulashia. A permanent gathering appeals to me more. Far more.”
Chieftain Perale of the Wild Wastes was one of the greatest [Chieftains] present along with Feshi. He wrinkled his nose at the thought of becoming City Gnolls, and Feshi agreed hesitantly.
“Perhaps more Gnolls will make cities—but here we should keep to the old ways. We have pushed forward many steps, Gire—but too far and we will lose the tribes that change slower. Theikha has said this, and I agree. Az’muzarre will never accept a city, and we do need their help.”
Gire snarled reflexively. She looked around—then realized she had seen some of the famous tribe’s warriors in the distance. Feshi raised her paw.
“I know they took Xherw’s side. They are in disgrace and have lost much, Gire. I was the one who offered to let them stand sentry along the Great Plains. We cannot push out the other tribes. We are too hurt.”
“Even Plain’s Eye?”
The [Paragon] was angry, but Feshi’s rebuttal was swift.
“Plain’s Eye did not know what Xherw did. They have all been marked as Doombearers. That is painful enough for what they believe. And Chieftain Merish—would you wish him poorly? He has had to quell constant fighting, and he is taking his tribe to the new lands; they will never co-exist here. It is a difficult journey that he has already begun. Will you say he deserves worse?”
Gire hesitated. Merish had helped save Mrsha, even if he had been a Doomslayer before that. She kicked the ground.
“…That wouldn’t be what I’d say, no. Fine. Fine. Where’s the magic?”
She changed the subject, and Feshi pointed ahead. Gire looked and saw…the first part of this new gathering. In the center of a wide plaza in the midst of all the tents—and, it seemed, trees being grown by Gaarh Marsh—was a gathering of excited Gnolls.
They were surrounding, arguing over, studying, and occasionally turning the pages of something in the open for all to see. In fact—it was attracting a certain [Necromancer] and a half-Elf, who practically sprinted over to see—
“The spellbook of the Silverfangs.”
It was right there. Gire couldn’t believe it. She dashed over herself, leaving a trail of wind behind her. And the first thing she heard was—
“Waaaaaaaaaaaaard of Preservation! Ward of Preservation!”
A Gnoll was shouting as he waved a wand over a hand-carved wooden box with a lid. Some Gnolls were clapping their paws to their ears.
“Shouting it doesn’t make it work, fur-brain! You drew the ward wrong.”
“Did not. I have copied it perfectly!”
The Gnoll shot back. Another Gnoll was painstakingly drawing the rune straight off the spellbook as Gire, Pisces, and Ceria all stared. The young Gnoll—barely fourteen—compared it to the one the adult Gnoll with the wand was drawing.
“Yes, see? You have a crossed line here—”
“Oh. Damn. Let me try again. Ward of Preservation—”
Gire’s tail began to wag as Pisces peered at the pages of the spellbook. On one huge, glossy page filled with magical writings was the spell the Gnoll was presumably trying to cast. On another…
“[Ward of Purity] and [Ward of Preservation]? What? This spellbook has wards? No way!”
Ceria exclaimed as she read the magical instructions. Pisces stared at the box the Gnoll was trying to enchant, then turned.
“Are you trying to cast this spell, sir?”
The sweating Gnoll raised his wand and swished it back and forth as if to make the spell work.
“Humans? Wait—I know you! And yes I am! I think I’ve nearly gotten the hang of it.”
It took all of Pisces’ power not to smirk—Gire noticed his muscles straining with the effort. He turned it into a cough.
“I’m sorry, Sir Gnoll, but I have to inform you—[Ward of Preservation] is an exceptionally difficult spell for anyone outside of an [Enchanter] class to just…cast. Let alone learn! As you can see, it’s a triple-layer spell circle.”
He pointed at the ward’s insignia, which were, in fact, laid out on the page in three different spots—with an arrow connecting them. In short…it was how you wrote the ward down.
First one magical circle that you ‘connected’ to a more complicated rune on top. Then another—then another. It was how you drew magic—of course, more complex variations existed which required more than two-dimensional space.
Gire, from her studies, understood that some [Mages] had to take advantage of multiple ‘layers’ to create a working conduit. Get one thing wrong and at best the spell didn’t go off. At worst, something unpredictable happened. Ceria frowned.
“I can’t believe this book has [Ward of Preservation]. I thought it only went up to Tier 3 magic!”
The Gnoll gave her and Pisces a blank look as the [Necromancer] tried to save his time.
“This is Tier 3. The book says you can go up in power, but the base spell is Tier 3. And I think I’ve got it. I just had the rune wrong. Waaaaaaaaaaaaard oooooooooof—”
Some of the Gnolls were rolling their eyes, but the bemused Pisces looked offended. Not that he thought Gnolls were incapable, but Tier 3 magic was something a Level 20 [Mage] would struggle to learn.
“Sir, I could help you with a lesser ward. But in my experience, you work up to it. One does not simply cast [Fireball].”
The Gnoll obligingly stopped again for Pisces. He had a big top-hat—no relation to the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings—and a [Trader]’s coat with big, purple pockets and faux-gold trim.
“I know that. If I was learning the spell, I’d be more cautious. But I’m not.”
“Er…I don’t follow.”
Gire’s eyes lit up as she, true to her nature, figured out what he was doing in advance. The Gnoll flicked his wand, and she thought she sensed his weak mana pool—produce a spark more mana, and it flowed into the inactive ward.
“I’m just copying it outright. Far simpler. Duh. I won’t know how to cast it, but—[Ward of Preservation]! Hey, I got it!”
The ward flared into power, and Pisces nearly leapt into Yvlon’s arms in terror, thinking the ward had backfired. But it hadn’t. The magical activation made Gire’s own burgeoning [Mage] senses tingle. Then it just…glowed with innate power, sucking in magic around it.
“Aha! I did it! I…ooh. I feel woozy. Maybe it was too high-level after—”
The Gnoll looked around, put a paw to his head, then toppled over. Ksmvr helped catch him with another Gnoll, and they laid him down gently.
Pisces gobbled with his eyes wide. All the Gnolls clustered around, oohing as the little box was inspected.
“Lovely work. He was shouting the spell all day, but he chose a nice box.”
“Careful, you idiots! Don’t disturb the rune or Vorm’ll throw a tantrum! Rightly so! He’ll want to put some varnish or protection over that right away or it’ll rub off.”
The Gnoll, Vorm, was coming around. Vorm, or Vormhir as he was known, sprang to his feet, lifted the box up, and crowed.
“Here it is! Here it is! I—didn’t realize how much mana it took. I poured three days of it into this damn ward. I suppose my emporium won’t spring up overnight—yet! But if I get eight Gnolls producing it…”
“How did you do that, sir?”
Yvlon was fascinated. Pisces and Ceria were terribly offended for some reason, but Vorm was only too happy to explain.
“I copied the spell, of course. Straight from the book. It’s so easy even I can do it. Me, a Level 7 [Copycat Spellcaster]! Well, it won’t be Level 7 tonight. Heh. Heheheheheh.”
He rubbed his paws together. Gire supposed he hadn’t really been fully out if he hadn’t heard a level-up. Pisces pointed at him, almost accusatorially.
“You—this is impossible! I’ve never seen a [Mage] just copy from a book like that!”
“Books we have, Pisces. This is a teaching tome—remember? The best I’ve ever seen. Rihal Imperium—dead gods, you can copy spells right out! It’s not like having old Rievan saying ‘concentrate your mana’ and doing a stupid sketch on the board.”
Ceria snapped her fingers. The Gnolls laughed, but Vorm was too busy speaking.
“That’s right. It’s easy—well, it takes mana, and I would rather memorize this so I could quick-cast it—but it’s easy enough to copy a spell down. And look! It may not be large, it may not be as high-level as an [Enchanter]’s. But this box I’ll sell you for four gold, sir, and it will preserve anything you want in it. What do you say to that?”
He presented Ksmvr the box, and the Antinium scratched his head.
“I would rather pay two gold. It is not a big box.”
“How about three and ten silver?”
“Due to the nature of bargaining, I must now offer two and ten. Which means we end up on three.”
Ksmvr offered back. The Gnoll hesitated.
“Er—no. I want at least three and six silver.”
“Oho. I have been bested. Here you are.”
Ksmvr dug in his belt pouch until Ceria slapped his hand down.
“Ksmvr, I can preserve things…wait a second. Three gold for a box with [Preservation]? How big can you make that ward?”
“Bigger, I think, but it takes more mana to activate. This was a trial run. But give me a year—a month and I’ll be selling these. Do you know how much a Wistram-quality artifact like that goes for?”
Ceria frowned, and Gire’s perfect memory had the answer.
“I saw a box about the height of a nightstand being sold for a hundred and eighty gold pieces. It went down to a hundred and sixty-eight, but this was in the Walled City of Pallass. One imagines they go for more further out of a trading hub.”
“Exactly. Whereas mine will be cheaper, smaller admittedly—but I will ruin Wistram. And every other seller of basic charms!”
Vorm lifted the box overhead with something like a mad cackle. The other Gnolls had apparently heard this before and agreed absently. But Pisces and Ceria traded a shocked look.
“I know. At least double the price to six gold!”
“No, Pisces. I think it might work! [Enchanters] are one person, but if you get eighteen Gnolls who can copy—wait a second.”
The Gnolls around the spellbook were reading from the pages, and now that Vorm was done, arguing over which page to turn it to. And they were learning from the spellbook, but in some cases—
Copying the damn magic!
“You can’t copy magic! Where is the magical training? The practice?”
Pisces objected on behalf of all [Mages], somewhat haughtily. Vorm patted him on the shoulder.
“I believe that is in the hundreds of years we were exiled from Wistram.”
“Ah—I only meant—”
The [Mage] grew embarrassed, and Vorm grinned.
“That may come. But we are Gnolls! World travellers—and yes, I will not deny it—copycats! Plus, this book is easy to learn from. So easy—see? There’s your [Mages] in training. Little rascals.”
A bunch of Gnoll children with wands had apparently forced the spellbook to a favorite page. They crowded around and then began to shout.
“See? See! It’s like that! [Wind Jet]!”
It was a Tier 1 spell that produced a blast of compressed air. Ceria and Pisces twisted around, and Gire ran over.
“Let me see. Let me see!”
She pushed the Gnoll children aside to get a good look—which wasn’t hard because most were Mrsha’s age. But the children had been accessing the spellbook for ages, so they all ran over to a contraption as one with red stripes on black fur like an inverse tiger pointed a stave.
“[Wind Jet]! Now do it right! Or I’ll go Berr on you!”
She raised a fist, and Berr, hearing that, laughed. Gire turned—and saw nine children including their leader raise their wands.
It was probably the only spell they knew. But the sight of nine children casting Tier 1 magic was a sight, even to Pisces and Ceria! And they aimed it all at a strange object that turned out to be…a giant tablecloth. The wind pressed, rounding the fabric as the white cloth billowed into—
A sail. And the little converted handcart with the mast pushed across the flattened ground and then to Gire’s awe—
“I’m doing it! I am the Wind Runner!”
Their leader screamed as she clung to the sailcart—like she had seen and heard the Wind Runner of Reizmelt would push with her wind.
“Let me on! Let me on!”
The other children instantly tried to climb up, and the precarious little sailboat slowed. Their leader kicked their paws off.
“No, there’s only enough wind for me! Push me! Keep casting!”
The sailboat got thirty feet, accelerating until the Gnoll children lost the spell—or ran out of mana. The crowing Gnoll in the seat laughed until she hit a rock—and then crashed. But she came out of the wreckage shouting.
“Let’s do it again! We need a bigger boat! And more people!”
“I can’t believe my eyes. It’s like—not even half-Elf villages have kids casting magic that fast. This is like—”
“Stories of magical kingdoms. I had heard that the Kingdom of Incantations, Tourvecall, was like this. But not even they have—these children can’t have been learning more than three months!”
Pisces murmured. The Gnolls beamed, and then Gire and the adventurers saw more Gnolls popping over to check something and trotting off.
“Excuse me. Can someone turn the page to [Firespark]? I want to learn the Tier 0 spell. I’m going on a hunt in two days. Could I learn it? It would beat not having kindling.”
A Gnoll [Hunter] nervously came forwards with a wand in his paw. The other Gnolls conferred, vouchsafing that he could do it in that time. One offered to give him pointers as they turned the spellbook to the page.
“We are going to copy all the wards and magic. There’s no holding spell—but there’s countless things an amateur can copy over. By Torishi’s will, I will become a [Mage] and my tribe will not want for artifacts.”
One Gnoll bearing Weatherfur’s markings vowed aloud. The Horns and students of Niers looked at each other. It was Wil who murmured.
“I should tell my father to stop backing and investing in [Enchanters] and the artifact trade. Or rather, send a caravan here.”
“It’ll take the Gnolls time to completely upset the world markets.”
Merrik countered, but Yerranola smiled widely.
“True! If they were alone. But you haven’t seen the newcomers yet. Not many Drakes dare to even get close to the Great Plains—but I heard Magnolia Reinhart is petitioning the Chieftains to allow her to send her own Humans here to study in exchange for vellum, paper, magicore, and all the things we need to do magic properly.”
“Magnolia Reinhart! That snake! Where’s my [Message] scroll? Damn—there’s no way House Kallinad can beat that!”
Wil rifled through his possessions then practically threw his bag of holding on the ground in disgust. He saw an opportunity, but the thing about opportunity was that it was always a race. And Magnolia threw elbows in getting there first.
This was one aspect of the new Gnollish gathering. The other—was audible to Yvlon as she spoke to Berr, who was watching the learning of spells with a smile—and, clearly, no interest in participating.
“Ksmvr, are you going to read the spellbook?”
“I am only exceptionally curious, Yvlon. May I?”
She watched him run off and begin shoving Gire for a spot to see. Berr, watching, laughed.
“All these little Gnolls—there’s one fool who keeps casting [Flash Step]. He wants to become a Courier. And Honored Ferkr should be back soon. She has all the Gnolls not given magic innately running until they puke. Even some of my Wild Wastes tribe; she promises they’ll learn magic like she can.”
Thinking of Grimalkin, Yvlon nodded.
“It seems to work. Honored Berr, I hope I’m not taking your time with all this going on. I can pay, but I don’t need that much help. Maybe pointers—”
She saw the old Gnoll turn his head—and his look was amused.
“Yep. I’ll steal your gold. But you need me quite badly, I think.”
“I’m—not that badly off. I’m hardly a [Berserker] myself.”
Yvlon flushed. Berr eyed her.
“If you were, you might deal with this better. What was your aspiring class growing up? House Byres…”
“[Knight]. But I am an [Armsmistress].”
The Gnoll laughed.
“Humans and their [Knights]. No wonder you’re bad with your temper. You are not the worst I’ve seen—but bad enough, hmm? Especially at your level.”
“I’m really not—”
Yvlon almost raised her voice, then kept it cool and level. Berr, though, just raised his brows.
“Yes, you are very calm. I can see I have some work to do. Come seek me out later this evening once we are done with introductions.”
“I can manage my rage.”
The [Armsmistress] insisted. She wanted to make that clear. She knew she had work to do, but—she felt defensive. Berr raised his brows.
She realized he’d punched her in the jaw only after her face snapped back and stung. Yvlon cut her lips on her teeth. She lunged, arms turning into—
“[Drain Fury]. There you are. See?”
The haze of fury drained out of Yvlon in a moment—and it was a lot. The Gnoll caught her, and her morphing arms turned back to normal as Ksmvr, Ceria, and Pisces turned in alarm. Berr put Yvlon back on her feet.
“I…you just…anyone would be angry if that happened!”
She spluttered, and the [Berserker] laughed in her face. Yvlon felt herself getting angry again—but she was shaken.
He had drained a lot of fury in that moment, and bereft, she felt a lot emptier. How angry had she been…? The Gnoll nodded reasonably.
“Adventurer Yvlon—what you say is true. Anyone would be angry. But you are more dangerous than ‘anyone’, and I did not say that you alone would benefit from my lessons. Just that you need it most. When I am done with you, you will be at least able to avoid hurting your friends in battle. Come and I will teach you more. Now…”
He and Yvlon heard something, and Berr winced.
“Now, I will get a drink before the racket begins. The magic is all very well, and little children with spells make me think it was worth living to see the change of an era. But what it does to Deskie? She’s also sensitive about her silly Earth-things. She exiled me from her tent just for pointing out how it sounds.”
Sighing, he hurried off, shaking his head. Yvlon heard a loud plonking sound and an odd—well, it didn’t hurt her ears. But she imagined that a Gnoll who had to listen to it for ages wouldn’t find it so agreeable.
What was it? The answer was—the other thing Gnolls copied was from Earth.
The reason Rose hadn’t rushed out to meet everyone was that she was with Honored Deskie. Another gathering of Gnolls not interested in magic so much as the Meeting of Earths tent and what it contained were in a tent next to Honored Deskie’s.
The Longstalker’s Fang [Magical Weaver] was an odd person to throw in with the new world wholesale…until you realized the elderly Gnoll had a lot to love about Earth.
“Sewing machines. Spinning wheels. Techniques from Earth—I love their many knitting needles. But this I shall love—once we get it done. Is old Berr complaining about his ears again? Gire, come here, you silly child, and help us with this!”
The [Paragon] ducked into the tent respectfully, and her eyes lit up the instant she saw what was being worked on.
To Yvlon, it looked like a mass of long threads stretched out across beams of wood, all contained in a very complex…coffin?
“What’s with this thing? And that racket?”
Ceria put her fingers in her ears cheerfully, and Deskie scowled.
“It makes sound—we’re just lacking the hammers or whatever working properly. Chieftain Adetr, your people need to improve the levers and such.”
A Gnoll made of metal turned and stared at Yvlon—she was as struck by seeing another person made out of metal, as was he. But the last Steelfur Gnoll with metal in him turned and, with a deep sigh, bowed.
“Honored Deskie…my people are working with Chieftain Mrell’s and learning as much as they can, every hour. But this is complex. It’s probably the size of the…springs, here. We cannot just copy it.”
He touched a series of joints on one end of the interior of this odd device. Now Yvlon got a better look at it, she realized everyone was staring at the inner workings. The outer, once you closed the lid, looked simpler, if still odd.
Black and white teeth and three metal pedals were the front of this strange box—and when Deskie impatiently prodded one, a lever on the inside struck a string—and promptly missed part of it and jammed on the way back up.
“Well, do it faster. My string is not the problem—and I want to hear it.”
Her eyes shone—for here was a Gnoll who had gone to Earth and fallen in love with one object. Deskie, who had listened to all kinds of music all her life, had heard harpsichords.
But never a piano. She had made it her goal to bring one into reality, and it was apparently Steelfur who led the cutting edge of trying to reproduce Earth tech.
Adetr, the [Chieftain] of the Steelfur Tribe, looked put-upon. The great warrior was not at home with his new position—but he had an Earther to help, and Rose was delighted to see the Horns and ask for news of Liscor.
“I want to go back so badly—if only to see the new inn! But I need to help Adetr. We’re making pianos! And everything else. It’s so—cheaty!”
“Let me guess. They’re just copying stuff?”
Ceria looked amused. Rose waved her hands.
“Worse! They look up blueprints on computers, then come out with the exact measurements! Or one gets a temporary job as a mechanic—some of the Gnolls in the Jadehammers tribe are even worse, though. They’re trying to make a blast furnace, and Chieftain Mrell is on the hunt for titanium ore.”
“It only makes sense. Why should we copy cake when we can build something actually useful?”
Adetr muttered. Rose thrust an elbow into his side and winced. Then she grabbed Ceria’s hands.
“They’re so scary. Everything Earth does the Gnolls want to copy and ‘do better’. And magic, too! Did you see how they just copy down spells?”
“We saw it. It’s great. Um…how do they copy this out of computers? Dead gods, do you have multiple computers? And here I thought Numbtongue was the only one with an expert. And an addiction.”
Ceria’s brows wound together as she tried to parse through the confusing statement. She understood copying a design—it seemed incredible someone had the blueprints for this piano lying around, but maybe Inkar had a picture?
Rose didn’t seem to realize the disconnect that was making Honored Deskie giggle like a child. More Gnolls were appearing, like Honored Satar who clutched a handful of papers to her chest. She had copious notes on her new history of the world, and she caught Rose speaking.
“Yes…but it’s so fast! Then again, Erin’s scrying spell nearly made me die of a heart attack. Tell me how it happened! Tell me about Zeladona! Tell me everything!”
“Rose. Honored Rose—I think you are making a mistake, yes? I don’t believe our visitors know about the Meeting of Earths tent. Or if they do, they seem not to realize what is inside. But we are on the same page about Earth.”
Deskie’s eyes twinkled. Pisces, Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr all turned and gave her a suspicious look. Rose clapped her hands to her mouth.
“No way. Inkar never said—?”
“We know all about it, the world of which we are mutually acquainted with, Honored Deskie. We have Earth rooms of our own in the inn. Quite informative.”
Pisces spoke slowly, but he felt a sudden premonition coming over him. Don’t sniff. Don’t sniff or sound superior. Because it’s going to come back and make you look stupid.
He had run into Erin Solstice too many times to not notice how the Gnolls were nudging each other or grinning. Ironically, it was poor Yvlon who nodded and smiled.
“We could bring more devices back from the inn if it helps the tribes. I’m sure that Erin’s friends would be quite willing to share if it helped.”
At that, one of the Steelfur Gnolls laughed so hard he doubled over. Adetr kicked his tribemate, but the Gnoll laughed and laughed. Until tears came to his eyes. Satar chuckled along as she bowed to them, and Ceria smiled at Krshia’s niece. The Gnoll who was doubled over in laughter stopped at last and exhaled.
“I’m sorry—I’m sorry, honored guests. It’s just—ah, you should see it! The things we paid for in the blood of tribes. What a gift. What great days! Better to laugh than weep blood.”
He turned away—and Satar’s smile turned pained. The Steelfur Gnoll walked off, chuckling—his fur tawny brown. He had not known that was the color of his fur he was meant to have. He had been born with steel grey fur like his tribe and lived with it all his days.
But Chieftain Iraz was dead. Few even said his name. He was a traitor.
“Satar…Silverfang? It’s a delight to meet you. Honored Krshia sends her regards. And, um, I have a bunch of letters from the Silverfangs in Liscor, and I think Chieftain Gire has brought supplies and gifts from Liscor.”
“My mother will be grateful for it. Aunt Krshia always thinks of her people here. How are they?”
Satar shook Ceria’s hands. She looked different than how Pisces had expected her to be. He remembered the nervous Gnoll stuttering on the broadcast he had seen recordings of, delighted and awed to know her people’s legacy had endured in stories.
This Satar was older, and it took him only a moment to realize why. Her tribe was in ruins. She had lost a member of her family.
Shaman Cetrule, the [Shaman of Purity], was dead. Something clicked in Pisces’ head, and he looked after the Steelfur Gnoll who had gone off. Pisces whispered to Ksmvr.
“Ksmvr—you studied the tribes.”
“I have furthered my education into the places we go, yes, Comrade Pisces.”
“How…how many tribes lost a Chieftain or Shaman or someone of importance?”
Pisces thought he’d been quiet, but Satar’s ears pricked up. She answered with a bow.
“If you are asking how many tribes lost an Honored member, Adventurer Pisces—the answer is all of them. If you are asking how many were lost in total…over four hundred is my count. Four hundred and forty-two. Not all tribes would have more than a dozen Honored Gnolls. Some, like Plain’s Eye, had hundreds.”
Pisces turned red.
“I didn’t mean to offend—”
Deskie interrupted, much to his relief.
“Offend? I am glad someone asks. You are Inkarr’s friends—how is the girl? Is she still with that silly Tkrn? Here is Honored Satar, who is one to offset so many Honored Gnolls who pass. She will record our history anew. We are torn, like a tapestry unmade by strife. We are rethreading it all, and she is one of the Gnolls who is recovering our history.”
Proudly, she touched Satar’s shoulders, and the Gnoll girl flushed. She bowed and held out a piece of paper.
“I am writing the events of Gnolls as I see them. It is not complete—but would you do me the honor of signing your names? I can then say I met the Horns of Hammerad.”
Yvlon blushed with embarrassment, but Ceria’s eyes lit up. She instantly scribbled her name down, and Pisces peered at her handwriting.
“Springwalker. That is the most disgusting signature I’ve ever seen. Something like this is more appropriate.”
He signed his name legibly with a flourish. Ceria pointed at him with a huge smile.
“You’ve been practicing your signature. And here I thought Yvlon and Ksmvr were the only people getting a new class. I guess Deniusth has a rival [Showoff].”
The Gnolls gathered around to meet the newcomers chortled as Pisces tossed the quill at Ceria, and Yvlon plucked it out of the air to write her name as if she were signing a legal document.
“We’re hardly that famous, Ceria. You’ll want to talk to Colth, Historian Satar.”
“Of course—but you were here, Adventurer Yvlon. You fought for the tribes. If anyone deserves to have their names written, it would be you. I am only sad I missed some of the legends who came to the Meeting of Tribes. But the King of Destruction signed his name. I levelled from that.”
Nothing would do but for everyone to see a page with Flos Reimarch’s huge signature followed by all the Seven who had been present. Satar held it up, smiling wanly. It was an odd feeling. Pisces had met the bandaged King of Destruction, but it felt at times like a fever dream.
Not reality like standing here and seeing Gnolls mingling around a piano. It had surely happened, though. The evidence was in Satar’s new levels. In fact—
“Satar! Honored Satar, we made a sailboat out of winds! Write us down, please? Emorah! I’m going to be a great [Mage]!”
The striped Gnoll girl who’d performed the spell earlier raced over, waving her wand with the gaggle of magical Gnoll children. Satar instantly fended them off, swatting with her paws as they leapt around her.
“No, and no! I told you, I am not writing down everything you do.”
“Please? Let me sign a page! I’ll be famous one day!”
The vitality of children never ceased to amaze Pisces. Some of them ran about, laughing, playing with magic as if this were still the Meeting of Tribes and this was all new and great. But perhaps that was a way of coping as well.
Every adult looked exuberant at times, bone-weary at others. There were no tears that Pisces saw outright, but perhaps they’d been shed and the Gnolls were just—continuing onwards after something they couldn’t give full voice to. Moving for the need of it. Pausing at times to remember.
He…knew how that felt.
“If I’ve offended your people, I apologize sincerely, Honored Deskie. I was only asking about the Honored Gnolls who fell to understand…I do not want to diminish the events that have taken place.”
Pisces murmured to the old [Magic Spinner] as Satar slowly wrote down Ksmvr’s full title, including his collection of trees which he was happily reciting from memory. The old Gnoll just gave him a bright stare that reassured him as she gently patted one hand.
“Young Human, it is hard to hurt us with words at this point. I understand. The truth is that you likely cannot see what we have lost. It is hard to see a gap in the ocean when someone takes a bucket of it. But we are not so unending as that. I would say—if you want to know what it has cost us, look for the Honored Gnolls you can find.”
Pisces gazed about the Great Plains. He turned and saw…Adetr, stomping off to deal with some Gnolls who needed help lifting a wagon stuck in the mud. Nailren, who might be Honored, was greeting the Hawkarrow tribe. Pisces saw Gire…Satar…he looked around for more clusters of leader and follower.
Honored Berr, for instance, strolled about with his crew of warriors. You could spot experts like Honored Deskie by their age, a certain quality of marking about them—or their followers, apprentices and Gnolls who helped them with their chores.
Pisces…looked, and he realized he didn’t see many such gatherings. He turned to Deskie, and her eyes were now overbright.
“How many remain…?”
“A better question. I am told you come to see one of our great [Tailors]. Shedrkh. He is here—though his tribe took Plain’s Eye’s side. More artisans were spared the fighting than warriors. The truth, Adventurer Pisces, is that we look plentiful here, and we have made this new gathering because we must. I think…when we count again and Satar writes it down, a fourth of all the tribes of Izril may have been said to have met their end this year.”
Pisces inhaled, and Deskie clarified.
“Not all were wiped out. But they will have to merge—they have lost their Chieftains or too many to continue as they are. Some have lost their lands to Drake cities—that is the cost.”
A fourth of all Plains Gnolls? Pisces looked around, and he still could not see it. Around him were more Gnolls than he had ever seen in any other place.
But that was just his simple mind playing tricks on him. He wished he could comprehend it, to respect and mourn it. He could not—but the signs were there.
The Gnolls of Silverfang were telling Ceria she had to see the inside of the Meeting of Earths tent, and the half-Elf accepted with great interest on behalf of her team. But later. Satar was taking them to see Chieftain Akrisa so they could present Krshia’s gifts and introduce themselves.
Deskie snagged Nailren by pulling with one paw as she took a seat next to the piano-in-progress. Wincing, the Gnoll stumbled over, and Pisces saw all the hairs on one side were pulling towards Deskie as if she had hold of them.
“Nailren, you thoughtless child. Stop singing your new verse of Great Plains Sing and give me Inkarr’s thread she’s bought me already. Let me see you. We shall have a cup of tea.”
He sighed as he produced bolts of cloth bought for Deskie from [Witches] and the north, and as the Horns navigated onwards, they came across a shouting little Gnoll boy.
He had orangeish fur crossed with brown, the brightest that any of the Horns had seen thus far on a Gnoll. He was also armed with a big training axe.
Not a training sword, but a fairly dangerous axe, weighted but made out of wood and blunted. It was heavy enough that Pisces, acquainted with practice weapons, guessed that it was a replica of the real thing.
An axe over five feet long—he would have called it similar to the blades Cenidau’s northern warriors used, long and straight with a hooked axe head on the end. They were called ‘dane axes’ for reasons that he had never actually figured out. He’d never known who nicknamed it, but the term was older than Cenidau.
Anyways, the weapon could be light in battle. Two to four pounds…but a practice weapon was weighted to build the wielder’s strength. This child of perhaps nine was holding one that could weigh ten pounds or more. His arms shook with the effort, but he was shouting and he had on an oversized piece of hide armor.
“I am Oldr Steelfur! I will become the next Chieftain worthy of Chieftain Iraz! The greatest warrior Steelfur has ever known!”
He was shouting on top of a wagon as he swung the axe around. Satar inhaled when she saw him, and Adetr spun.
“Oldr! Stop shouting that!”
Some of the Gnolls looked over with glares. But the little boy kept shouting.
“He was the greatest warrior of our people! I am going to replace him and bring back our fur! You—you traitor, Adetr!”
He howled at Adetr, and Rose looked anxiously at the last metal Gnoll—but Adetr just turned away from the angry Gnoll boy. Most of the older Gnolls seemed to visibly and consciously turn away rather than pick a fight with the child. With effort, Pisces saw—some walked off fast.
“Oldr, stop shouting. Come here and sit with me. If you truly want to be a great warrior, come and pay your respects to Chieftain Nailren.”
Honored Deskie called out to Oldr. The boy flattened his ears and hesitated as he saw her beckoning. Before he could make up his mind—someone raced up the wagon and launched into a flying headbutt.
With a cry, Oldr went over—the headbutt of the second Gnoll hit him straight in the jaw. He still held onto his axe—but he and the other Gnoll began punching and biting at each other. Right up until magic flared, and Pisces heard a shout.
“[Flame Paw]! Shut up! Shut up! Iraz was a traitor! Cetrule was the greatest warrior.”
“He was not! I’ll kill you! Cers!”
“Hey now! Cers, stop fighting with Oldr!”
Satar ran over. She tried to pull the second brown Gnoll off the first, and Pisces realized—this was her younger brother. And—he was using magic?
“That wasn’t a [Mage] spell. Is that kid a [Shaman]?”
Ceria raised her brows. She didn’t get an answer from Yvlon—the [Armsmistress] strode over and gently tried to free the two boys.
“Stop fighting, you two. Listen to your sist—”
Oldr had a bloody nose, and Cers had a knot on his head from the haft of the dangerously swinging practice axe. But his paws were on fire—Yvlon was fearless of the weapon or flame as her metal arms stretched to separate the two.
Unfortunately, the two furious Gnolls were so angry at each other that they kept fighting. Cers thrust out his paw.
A spray of hot ash and sparks blasted at Oldr as the other boy brought his axe down. Yvlon yanked them apart, and the axe rang off one arm. She winced. Then a jet of hot ash sprayed half her left side.
Satar was horrified. She’d leapt away. Cers and Oldr saw the [Armsmistress] recoil—but she didn’t drop them. Instantly, both of them went limp and stared at the Level 40 woman smoking slightly as ash cooled off her face.
“That…would have hurt your sister. Good children shouldn’t fight. Got it?”
A smiling Yvlon held both boys up so she could meet their faces. She was definitely smiling, despite the pain. Cers and Oldr looked at her teeth and nodded rapidly.
“I am so sorry—Cers, get our guest a towel and water. Oldr, something for her burns. If I catch either of you fighting today, I will have you both picking up cowpats for a month.”
Satar shouted, and they ran to do her bidding. She turned to Yvlon, who winced.
“Those were—high-level Skills for children.”
“They levelled. Cers is trying to be his…father. Shaman Cetrule. Oldr took Chieftain Iraz’s death badly. He keeps shouting that, even though it hurts so many. And they fight each other constantly. I’m sorry you had to see it.”
“The forbearance of some of the Gnolls amazes me.”
Pisces spoke quietly. If he had been half as vocal claiming Az’kerash was a hero, he could only imagine how badly his father would have beaten him. In fact, he’d been hit for failing to practice.
“It…Adetr is taking a lot of the blame for his tribe. I’m just glad there’s been no real fighting. Lots of smaller fights, but no Drake armies. No tribes have gone to war yet. Merish left rather than face it.”
Rose spoke quietly. Pisces thought of Yelroan and nodded heavily. He patted Yvlon on the shoulder.
“Good job on keeping your temper. Perhaps Honored Berr is already having an effect?”
Yvlon’s smile was crooked as she accepted a wet towel.
“I don’t attack children, Pisces. But if either of those two brats hits me again, I will bury them up to their heads in the ground. With dirt. Not violently.”
She clarified as Cers stared at her. She gave him another smile, and the boy ran off. Pisces hesitated.
Maybe she should start her lessons sooner rather than later.
The Horns, [Strategists], Ekhtouch, Nailren, and Colth were welcome guests that night. The Gnolls didn’t throw a huge feast, but Chieftain after Chieftain came to thank the Horns for their help, ask about Mrsha, and often, to meet the Horns—or the [Strategists]—for their own fame.
The one person who was the odd man out was Colth. He observed the Titan’s students and Perorn Fleethoof, that legend, trotting over to Feshi to talk about some ‘ceremony’ to the Gnoll girl’s surprise and minor paranoia.
Which was logical when it came to the Titan. Colth, though, didn’t try to poke his head up with all the Gnolls about.
He hadn’t fought for them. So he leaned on his Skills instead. Colth had met countless classes and learned from them all.
Including, as it happened, the [Layabout] class as well as [Outcasts] and [Riffraff]. All literal classes, if rare.
Sometimes, you wanted to be [Invisible to Decency] or have [Unnoticed Presence]. Like he’d told Ksmvr—there was a Skill for everything.
That meant most Gnolls left him alone, even Chieftains not concentrating hard on him. Colth strolled up towards the Meeting of Earths tent. He wanted to know the big secret. He had an inkling; The Wandering Inn was not very good at keeping secrets.
Unfortunately, he had only completed one lap of the tent—which was warded by [Shamans] and had two alert guards by the entrance—when someone seized his ear.
He let it happen with a groan. He could have dodged, but one did not simply cast Tier 3 magic. In the same vein—one did not want to offend Shaman Theikha.
“Ah, I remember you, you little scoundrel.”
“Shaman Theikha! You’re looking younger than ever! Vibrant!”
“Mm. And you are curious, Colth. Too curious. Come—don’t let this one in without my express permission. If you must snoop, you will do it with things I am comfortable with you snooping about.”
The great [Shaman] of Gaarh Marsh pulled him away, and Colth went in fear for his ears. She plopped him right back down in a seat at the feasting, and he looked around.
“Where has Chieftain Feshi gone?”
“I believe her mentors have decided to honor her one last time. A graduation. We will not disturb that—nor Adventurer Yvlon her training.”
Yvlon had sought out Berr the Berserker before he could get too drunk, and they had headed off. Colth wished them well. But what could a talented, perceptive—yet not-as-well-trusted—individual like he get up to?
He was happy to learn from an expert like Deskie, but Colth wanted to be part of this. Sadly—he hadn’t shown his loyalty to the Gnolls, and it was too late. And until he heard from someone else in his monthly contact, he wouldn’t know what the hell Erin had actually said that had the world stirring.
Theikha finally let go of his ear and turned. She sniffed loudly, then called out.
“There is one use for a too-talented Named-rank adventurer like you, Colth. And that is to put you with someone equally talented whom we must help—and who is just as equally difficult to get information out of. I introduce you to Wer the Wanderer.”
Colth the Ultimate Supporter looked up—and a Gnoll with white fur turned from where he stood, still alone even now. Wer, known as ‘Wanderer’ to the secret cabal of Gnolls who were debating if they still needed to hide, looked up.
The one Doombearer of old blinked at Colth, and the two sized each other up instantly.
Well, well, well. A competent man.
They both had the same thought. Colth smiled and stood up, hand outstretched. Wer shook it slowly, and Colth glanced at Theikha.
“What can I help such a famous Gnoll with, Shaman Theikha? Is this about expeditions to the new lands? Defending the tribes from Drake interests?”
He had seen Nailren talking with Chieftain Eitha of Hawkarrow, and Gnolls surely would be heading to the new lands already. Apparently, this Chieftain Merish and his disgraced tribe were already on the move. The Horns might be swept up in that, and Colth was along for the ride as they seemed to have a knack for finding events of moment.
Deniusth could claim to be ‘first’ in chasing the artifact thieves, but Colth thought he was the one with the real shortcut. And sure enough—Theikha raised one brow as her eyes glimmered with the spark of earth Khoteizetrough had left her.
“Partly, Colth. But I think someone of your expertise is wasted on something everyone is doing, yes? Wer, I have finally found you someone who might survive your Skill, yes?”
Wanderer looked unhappy as he came over to sit. Colth’s ears perked up as the Gnoll replied to Theikha.
“Honored Theikha—I can take us into the Crossroads of Izril, but my entry is not the same as the one the [Innkeeper] wants us to find. And I can only take the amount of people I can touch—maybe six at best. It is one thing to use them—another to explore. I nearly died exploring twice there and vowed to never try again. There are things in there that even the Stitch-Witch does not tempt. I did not see her leave the road.”
Colth stared at Wer—then at Theikha, and the [Shaman] smiled.
“She is not an adventurer. They are mad enough to try. Colth?”
He tried. Oh—but he tried. As Ceria glanced at them and sidled over to their spot, as Gire’s ears perked up—Colth suppressed it as best as he could.
But his smile? It was true and eager—but it also looked a tiny bit sinister as it spread over his face. It was just an unfortunate thing. Some people laughed like horses. He had an evil smile.
In the Great Plains, there was only one person with a smile more villainous and diabolical than Colth. That was because that kind of smile tended to scale with age and deed.
It was the ability to smile—or laugh—without a shred of self-analysis. Without embarrassment, to let out one of those world-ending guffaws in the middle of a crowded room. You laughed like that while you stood in a wasteland of flames or watched a castle falling to rubble.
You developed a smile like that if you had seen something that made you never care how someone thought it looked. But even a villain’s grin was only how it seemed to other people.
Sometimes you put that smile on your face to avoid showing something else. Like a grimace of sadness. Someone had to be the Creler in the situation.
Even if the moment didn’t call for it. Perorn Fleethoof rolled her eyes, but only when no one was looking. For the Titan was hamming it up and possibly also turkeying around at the same time. He stood there, not in a private ceremony as they had agreed.
The damn Fraerling was on his podium in one of the Forgotten Wing company’s classrooms, and he had somehow convened them.
All of them. He had pulled Cameral off the front, summoned Umina and Marian from their break. Kissilt was still muddy from the ride in; there was Jekilt, Xelic, Reniz, Angelica—
They looked almost like strangers now to the students in the Great Plains. Indeed, the two groups stared at each other with wide eyes.
Venaz took in Marian’s leg, and she nodded to his greatsword. Both looked—humbled in some way. Wil tried to catch Umina’s eyes, but she seemed embarrassed.
As if she regretted not going with him. Feshi was breathless.
“That would be Lord Astoragon. Or Strategist Niers—gah, that sounds terrible—Chieftain Feshi. Class, this is a classic example of where personal relationships interfere with your duties. A former student of mine will have a nuanced and more friendly atmosphere with me. But in public, she should remember her status. Exceptions exist—they always exist, but I would caution you all to watch how you come across.”
“Dead gods, Niers. Rein it in!”
Perorn snapped at him. Feshi turned red under her fur, but the laughter from the class was also subdued. The Fraerling strutting across his podium turned to look at her, and for a second, he seemed sympathetic.
As if he knew all too well what was upon them. As if he regretted his lack of time and knew there was no choice. He had been in that Gnoll girl’s shoes.
Then that smile returned to Niers’ face. Erasing the [Strategist]’s sympathy and replacing it with—the Professor. But not a heartless Fraerling. Niers kicked a bell on the end of his lectern.
“Silence. Alright. The jokes are over. I have convened our class early for one purpose. I am at war against the Dyed Lands and the Jungle Tails company. Students—you had better return quick, because classes are going to be practical and failing grades come with a coffin.”
He smiled at Wil, Venaz, Merrik, Peki, and Yerranola. Then his eyes shifted to Feshi again.
“…But I am sorry to say one of our students will not be returning to us. This happens quite often, you see. Class, one of our number, Feshi Weatherfur, will no longer be a student in the academy. I am sure you have heard why. Time is unkind. It forces us to grow and to step into roles we are not ready for. Today, Feshi graduates formally. But the instant she took command of her tribe—she was no longer a student. She went first of you all. Who expected that? You, Jekilt, Venaz?”
He looked around, and a few students smiled. Feshi’s heart hurt as the Titan turned back to her and fixed her with an older look.
“You may not feel ready, Feshi. You may not be ready. Yet, students, I want you to look at her. At your classmate, whom you know well. Whom you have fought against in simulations and in homework and assignments. She’s passed you. She has the responsibility of an entire tribe on her back. There is no class I can teach that will give you the lessons Feshi will learn. There is no way any of you will catch her in levels.”
Niers took a breath and exhaled long. He was dressed as if he were about to lecture a classroom—so brightly, so the students could see a navy blue coat and green feather in his hat. His boots clicked softly as he turned, everything magnified by a speaking spell.
“I don’t envy her. I’ve been where Chieftain Feshi stands. If I knew what was going on—proof no one can know the future—I would have spent hours, months more giving her lessons. Preparing her for…”
Niers looked ahead blankly.
“Spirits. Treachery. Politics with the Walled Cities. Dead gods. There’s no time. I graduate you in four years and I feel like I’ve been teaching tadpoles who just grew a tail. It’s too soon for you lot, all of you.”
“Oh, come on, Professor. Some of us came to you as [Mercenaries]. I was thirty-one when I enrolled here.”
Jekilt protested mildly. The oldest and most accomplished student got a few chuckles. But Niers just turned his head.
“I thought Tulm, for all he was a genius, was too young when I graduated him early, Jekilt. Indulge me my sympathy. Indulge me this. For the next time Chieftain Feshi and I meet, I might be hired by a Walled City or her enemies to bring armies against her. And I will, for the right price. Every trick I taught her, all the forces of the Forgotten Wing company…there is a possibility that someday I will call upon Foliana and tell her what Feshi’s favorite food is. Which is Silkap on honey-baked rolls. Disgusting. You don’t mix sweet and savory like that.”
The students fell silent. Feshi gulped. Wil had the oddest urge, trying not to laugh about the food critique. Perorn?
She coughed, and Niers turned to her. That look of weariness faded. Perorn spoke crisply.
“Professor Astoragon. In this moment, be it too late, be it only formality—I would invite you to send your student off. Class, this is a tradition in our academy. Even if a student must leave us, for personal reasons, because they have begun their career early—because of death—they are not students. Rise now. Feshi Weatherfur. Please approach the scrying orb.”
The young Gnoll did. She walked forwards, fur patterned with Weatherfur dyes far brighter than the ones she’d had on Baleros. She had a kind of shawl; a cloak of bright fabric. No armor; Torishi had been wearing the armor of Weatherfur’s Chieftain when she vanished.
The artifact came from Honored Deskie. She wore the black diamond dagger of Serept at her side, and she looked uncertain. A Silverfang earring hung from one ear; a powerful charm on the other. A gift of Az’muzarre she had chosen because it was from an old tribe.
Old and new. Niers Astoragon faced her, still smiling like that, but the gregarious grin fading with each moment.
“Feshi. I hope you will forgive me. I am not the best at ceremony. I never have been.”
“You could have fooled me, P-Professor.”
She hesitated and didn’t know what to call him. Professor sounded right. One last time. Niers’ eyes glimmered, but he would have denied any moisture. He coughed into one fist.
“It’s all in fooling people. Bear that in mind. I have a little scroll…which Perorn will give you. Notes. I hope you’ll bear them with a grain of salt as I’m no expert on Izrilian politics. I dabble. I wish I could be there in person. But a Centaur will have to do a Fraerling’s job. Professor Perorn?”
His heart wasn’t in the jabs. So the Centaur, standing next to the orb, lifted a rather large scroll and passed it to Feshi. Then she drew something else out of a bag of holding. Niers spoke loudly, then.
“Feshi Weatherfur. I am delighted to graduate you from the Forgotten Wing’s Academy. As the Titan of Baleros, I declare you a full [Strategist]—a student of mine with the daring to go on an adventure. In your case, you also had the vision to listen when many would hear only what they wanted to hear. You were one of the few who understood the treachery at the heart of your people. When it mattered most—you were there. When your tribe needed you, you stepped up. These are the qualities of a leader. Remember that you have that capability in you. The days of your lessons are behind you. But I would not be your teacher without a final gift. Therefore…”
He gestured, and Perorn slowly opened a case. Wil inhaled, and Marian murmured as everyone craned their necks to see. Niers’ smile was back, just a bit.
“—It is the height of arrogance, I’m told, to give a bow as a gift to a Gnoll. But I notice you have no personal enchanted weapons beyond that dagger, and so I bequeath to you a weapon from our armories. A suitable weapon for a Chieftain who shouldn’t be on the front lines. It is called ‘the Sailor’s Signal’. It may not be Relic-class, but it came from one of my journeys at sea. I hope you find it useful.”
The bow looked like barnacles were still growing on the sides of it. It looked like the shaft was made of ancient coral—or some undersea wood, but when Feshi, breathless, took it and flexed it, she saw that it behaved much like a regular bow.
It was stiff. A shortbow—but one pluck at the ancient string and it felt strong, and she saw no sign the artifact was fraying.
“Try an arrow.”
Feshi didn’t know what to say. She took an arrow from a quiver that Perorn offered and put it to the string. Instantly—she saw the tip of the mundane arrowhead light up.
“It’s bright. Is that a [Flare] spell?”
It looked normal to Feshi—but everyone else covered their eyes against the glare. It lit up the entire gathering with a bright orange light. Niers winked.
“Try a shot.”
Feshi turned, aimed across the Great Plains, and loosed the arrow. It streaked up—then she saw the tip of the arrow brighten to what the others must be seeing. A streak of orange across the skies in an arc. When it landed—the detonation of light was blinding.
“It may be useful on a battlefield. Just be careful; your own forces will be blinded too.”
Perorn closed the case and smiled down at Feshi. The Gnoll [Chieftain] looked at the bow.
“Every arrow does that? Professor—”
He was standing to one side, making the students line up so they could say something to her. First was Marian, trotting on an artificial leg. The Titan looked back at her.
“Call it a graduation gift. I’m not giving Venaz an artifact. If you think it’s too much—call it a bribe for goodwill between your tribe and my company. Which is a gift by any other name.”
He looked at her then, and she snuffled. The Titan pretended not to notice as Perorn put an arm around her student. Perorn glowered at him. He just had to put on a show when he could say all this in private.
But that was his way. Niers Astoragon stood there and looked at Feshi. As her friends and classmates began to say goodbye, he came out with the last part. He spoke past Feshi as he looked to the others.
“Students. Am I going to expect all five of you back here?”
Wil. Venaz. Merrik. Peki…and Yerranola. Of all five, the Selphid was the last to nod. But nod she did. She looked at Feshi as the Chieftain turned.
These two were the best of friends. The Selphid gulped.
“Feshi. I want to stay. Part of me wants to stay. But I can’t. I…”
“This isn’t your people. I get it, Yerra.”
Feshi sniffed. Her nose was all stuffy, and she dearly wanted to blow it, but everyone was staring at her. But the Selphid instantly shook her head.
“No! It’s not that. I—”
She was lost for words. She grimaced; her weaker body, poisoned and still needing the antidote, moved within the Gnoll body she had been given. It was Merrik who figured out the words. The Dwarf put a hand on the hammer at his side.
“Feshi. That is, Chieftain Feshi. I hope that if I was ever in need of work, you’d think of a [Flagstone Farland Commander]. Barely Level 34, but with a lot of potential. A unique class name—you can write that down and make it a tongue twister.”
Peki’s head turned, and her beak opened. Wil blinked and cast his eyes sideways. Merrik was a [Stoneshorn War Leader]. Level 29…
No longer. Maybe it had been when he fought at the Meeting of Tribes or thereafter. But he had gained five levels in mere months. The Dwarf looked at Feshi, his eyes brimming with tears.
“Not just because we’re friends, but I hope you’d hire me. I would do it for a song too—but not yet. Not yet. It’s not just that I feel I have something to learn in Baleros. If ever you got an application from a Dwarf, an old friend—it should be at least from someone Level 40. I can’t help you. Not with your tribe. Not yet. You don’t need another commander. Give me a year. Two, tops, and I’ll put in my resume.”
“That’s what I was going to say. But he said it right—like the stupid Dwarf he is!”
Yerra burst out. She sniffed orange tears that leaked out various orifices including her ears. Kissilt muttered.
Jekilt kicked him. Feshi hugged her friends and then looked at the Titan. The Fraerling looked amused and nostalgic as Wil nodded and Venaz awkwardly hugged Feshi.
“That’s a good way of looking at it. Students, I will see you in class by the end of the month or I will fail you every day you’re late. It is alright not to be ready—no one is when the time comes. But it is our wish, we teachers…even me…”
He looked at Feshi and exhaled. The young Gnoll seemed burdened, her back straightened, and she let her shoulders relax and her chin rise as the Titan spoke.
“Someday—Chieftain Feshi Weatherfur’s name and whatever the world nicknames her should ring across Izril’s shores. To Baleros. The dream of every teacher is that their students will one day surpass them. I’ll be waiting.”
Her head snapped up, and she finally met his violet eyes with her brown ones. He held her gaze with all the intensity in his body. And she blinked—but didn’t look away.
There was some artifice to this moment. He did have something to say of all his personal students, and it was always true—but he had graduated thousands. He always said what he said. They were never ready. That he wanted them to surpass him.
He had said the same thing to Tulm the Mithril. It was not for him to decide who he found worthy.
The thing about being a teacher was…you should make each student’s graduation feel special. It was about them. And someday—those words would come true. Niers Astoragon stepped back and bowed his head slightly.
Of all his regrets in this moment—
He wished he could have shaken her paw. But this would have to do.
It had been about four months now since the Meeting of Tribes. Four months, and Feshi still felt wounded, though she had emerged from the battlefield with almost no tangible wounds.
A good [Strategist] kept out of danger or they were a liability. She had learned that lesson, at least. But she wished, in part, she had gone out and been a shield.
Torishi. Iraz. Even Chieftain Reizet of Az’muzarre and Firrelle of Ekhtouch. A part of Feshi wished they were here, even if they had been traitors.
She was not ready for this. The Professor knew it. Niers had put on this little occasion for her, and she was truly touched.
But it scared her.
It brought home exactly how unprepared she was. How badly the Gnolls were hurt. She had overheard Deskie’s conversation with Pisces Jealnet. It was true. There were still Gnolls enough to fill your vision in a place like this wherever you looked.
But one sign of the devastation wrought on their people was this: before, if you came to the Meeting of Tribes, or any tribe, you might know one great Gnoll.
Honored Deskie, for instance, of Longstalker’s Fang. But the truth was there were probably five or six other Honored Gnolls that, if not as famous as she was—were still acclaimed and talented individuals who could do much.
Now? Now…say Honored Deskie of Longstalker’s Fang. Add in Honored Inkar and Chieftain Eska. Say ‘Feshi Weatherfur’ and associate that with the Weatherfur Tribe, and her [Chief Warrior] and…that was all.
Legends were dead. Some heroes of old, like Garsine or Gadiekh, had lived. But Xherw, Firrelle, Iraz—
They had no more great Gnolls to balance the Walled Cities. How soon before the Drakes came pushing in? Feshi was filling Torishi’s place, and she felt small.
She wanted to go back and tell Merrik he was wrong. That she didn’t just need him at Level 40—she needed him now. Part of Feshi wanted to beg for the Horns’ aid—but that would not save her people.
Gnolls had to replace those who had died. If she had gone to a younger Feshi and laid this upon the student’s head, it might have broken the younger [Strategist].
She sat and had cups of liquor with Perorn afterwards. The potent Glass Eye liquor in bowls they sipped from, so clear it barely reflected the night sky above. The Centaur sat on the grass.
“I hope you don’t hold it against Niers. He makes a show of everything, including his emotions. It’s impossible for that man to be genuine. It’s all a performance. I fear he’ll struggle with finding someone—well, he has had that problem as long as I’ve known him. Since I was a foal, actually.”
It was disconcerting for Perorn to talk to her like an equal. If the Centaur felt it or thought Feshi was too young—she knelt in the grass, eyes calm and sharp. Reassuring. Feshi took a shuddering breath.
“Professor—no, Perorn. May I be candid?”
The Centaur nodded with a smile.
“Please. I know how difficult this is.”
Feshi ducked her head. Her fur blew with the cold—no snow yet, but it kept falling on the Great Plains, and outside the encampment she could see thick snow piled up—and great tracks where Gnolls melted it to allow them to roam.
A cold winter for them. Yet she felt warm. Feshi was not collapsing inwards from the stress and pressure for one reason alone.
“You were raised by Three-Color Stalker…Commander Foliana. I never had the courage to ask.”
Perorn shifted her upper-torso to look at Feshi. They were sitting under an awning of Feshi’s tent, near a fire she had carefully set up not to threaten the tent but close enough to warm the two. A canvas roof shielded them.
“It’s not something I talk about…In those days, she was a Named-rank adventurer and I was a child she found. She collects things. Being raised by a giant squirrel who eats everything was an experience. I can’t say it made me normal. But perhaps you understand.”
Feshi was Torishi’s niece, and she had been gifted, a [Strategist] sent to Baleros. Yes—she understood the pressures of expectation and living in someone’s shadow.
“Part of me wants to believe Torishi is alive. The rest knows she is not. Her Skills are gone. She’s dead. And my tribe is reduced. Xherw, the Drakes, Belavierr…we may no longer be a Great Tribe. Our Chief Warrior Dormeth, Thoekha the Spearmaster, Thundercaller Samirhe…dead.”
Perorn listened quietly.
“You have a fine tradition of warriors and a base to rebuild. I have seen [Mercenary] companies rebuild from worse.”
“Am I that [Chieftain]?”
For answer, Perorn sipped from her bowl.
“…There is a saying among Forgotten Wing when it comes to responsibilities of rank. We have fine discipline, but Niers has always had a policy in our books on warfare that allows a subordinate to overrule a commander even in battle. It’s highly rare—I can count on one hand the number of times it’s happened. We investigate and form a tribunal if anyone survives, but it’s not an immediate death sentence like Drake or Dullahan military law would have it.”
“I like that. Gnolls would let it happen. Merish opposing Xherw is a rare example of that too. However difficult.”
Feshi murmured. Perorn nodded.
“That was how the Forgotten Wing company formed. Bad orders that got everyone killed—except for one detachment under Niers. He refused to lead them into a slaughter and took them into the dungeon…well, you know that story. Our doctrine is the same. If you are qualified and know it—you must step up. I think you’re the only person who can fill Torishi’s place.”
The Gnoll was warm from the liquor, the fire, and from something else. On this cold night—she looked at Perorn.
“Do you have high hopes for me, Professor Perorn? The Titan told me he does—and I want to believe him. But I can’t help but notice…”
She too had realized there was some repetition to how Niers spoke. That, perhaps, he said this of all students. Perorn looked guilty. She stretched out her lame hind leg, sighing.
“That’s the problem with teaching brilliant students. I think he sincerely hopes the Gnolls will regain their footing, and I am certainly on your side, Feshi. The Drakes would have to pay me a lot for me to even consider attacking the tribes. But I am a [Mercenary].”
She was honest, at least. Feshi’s smile was pained—but it deepened. She sat there.
“I hope in time I will prove I was worthy of what the Professor said. I just fear…we study high-level rulers, Perorn. Like the King of Destruction and how his ambitions made him so famous. I thought, when we heard of how ego both helped and brought down such great empires—I thought I would be a logical leader if I had to be. Now? I fear I’m mad like them all. Is that a good sign or bad?”
Perorn stopped with one arm lifting her cup of clear liquor up to her lips. She turned—and the ordinary Feshi, fur painted with colors, but not engulfed in a ray of light or moonlight like Torishi, sat there. She was no heroine—not yet.
Her class had not yet defined her to the naked eye. Yet she had one quality that might place her with Torishi or even ahead of her. One thing…
If Niers could have seen Feshi now, he wouldn’t laugh. He would have looked at her—like a rival, perhaps, or as someone on his path to madness. The wind blew Perorn’s greying hair as Feshi pointed down.
“I do not know whether I will save Weatherfur or lead it to ruin. But already, Perorn…I suspect the Titan sent you here as a kind of gift to the tribes. The bow I thank him for, but he might offer a bit more, wouldn’t he?”
“…He wants boats and allies a continent away. So yes, if there’s something he can give you within reason, he might consider it for a pact.”
She was sharp. Perorn saw Feshi staring down. Down—then the Gnoll’s eyes rose. And there it was.
A bit of madness.
“Then tell him—I would like experts. Not warriors. But artifacts. Tools. We have some knowledge, but I have called upon the Antinium. In time, I will want his company, himself, because he is an expert. Adventurers. But I want…[Diggers]. I am going down, Chieftain Perorn. My tribe will settle this land, but Weatherfur will remain here. Right here, where Torishi fell. I saw it. She fell perhaps miles, perhaps mere hundreds of feet. But I will find where the Stitch Witch sent her. The Kingdom of Gnolls.”
The hair rose on Perorn’s flanks.
“That place is surely a great treasure trove. And the most dangerous place I could imagine digging up. A Named-rank dungeon.”
Feshi just nodded.
“I will find Torishi’s remains. It will be my end, Perorn, or the salvation of my tribe. Is that mad enough to impress the Titan and Commander Foliana?”
Slowly, the Centaur raised her bowl. She touched it to Feshi’s and smiled sadly and distantly. The Gnoll was younger than her by far—but as she sat, her eyes tracing downward, as if trying to see through the seam of the earth…Perorn thought of a Squirrel Woman and the Titan whom she had seen so many times. Then at Feshi’s expression.
“I think it is.”
And she felt remorse. For all the people she loved and respected?
They were all a little insane. Feshi smiled absently, and she stared down.
Dig. Dig into her homeland. Into the heart of what was lost. No matter what she unearthed.
[Conditions Met: Strategist Chieftain → Strategist Chieftain of Reclamation class!]
[Strategist Chieftain of Reclamation Level 33!]
[Skill – Tribe: Shovels of Archeology obtained!]
[Skill – Epochal Earthworks Rise obtained!]
[Vow – I Will Find Her Bones, Or Perish Searching sworn.]
[Skill – Eyes: Guiding Light obtained!]
Chieftain Torishi fell under land, by the Stitch Witch’s eye. She found the Kingdom of Gnolls. There she waited. To show her people what they had forgotten.
In the halls of their past. Before she died—Chieftain Feshi would find Torishi’s bones and bring that entire lost chapter of her people’s history under the sun’s light.
That was the new Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe.
Yvlon Byres found the old Gnoll, Berr the Berserker, sitting by a fire outside the main Gathering of Tribes. He had no fear of monsters, and he had lit the fire to keep warm. He was tossing bits of something into the flames, and Yvlon’s nose wrinkled as she approached.
She had not realized this, but the Great Plains, being so grassy and tree-less, meant that Gnolls needed alternatives to wood. Some would harvest the long grass and burn it liberally—but another method that the Wild Wastes tribe used was traditional, if disgusting to the northern Human.
He was burning cow pats. Once dried, the poo was actually a very good fuel source. It stank, though the Gnoll seemed not to care. He looked up as Yvlon approached.
“Ah, good. Are you willing to pay me? I’ll charge you…hm…a thousand gold per day.”
“A thousand gold per day?”
He bared his teeth.
“I know you’re rich. Gold-rank adventurers are. It’s cheap to you.”
It probably was, but it offended Yvlon. She sat down, cross-legged, and took a breath. That was a mistake; the smelly fumes made her cough.
“Ten days would put me up to the cost of an artifact!”
“Hrm. Cheap, to master your own powers. I’ll even teach you one of my Skills.”
That made Yvlon’s head snap up.
“You can teach Skills?”
Berr flicked some grass into the flames.
“Yep. What kind of a famous [Berserker] would I be, to have pupils coming from Terandria and all over, if I was not good?”
Yvlon had seen the huge Human [Barbarian] that Berr had taken on as a student. He was drinking and dancing with Gnolls in good spirits at the fire. Berr nodded at him.
“He will be done soon, I think. He’s mastered one Skill.”
“What Skills do you have? That you can teach, I mean.”
Berr counted on his paws.
“Let’s see. I taught him [Divert Rage]. The best way to do it, I think. He will never be whole again, though. He slaughtered his family and friends in his fury. War will call him, and maybe, I think, he will meet his end there. I hope he will balance it. I cannot fix your life, Adventurer Yvlon. Only teach you how to manage this.”
He looked up at her. The Human shifted uncomfortably.
“I—I know I have to work on my emotions, Honored Berr. But I maintain that I am not a mindless—I have a Skill.”
“Yes. [Berserker’s Rage]. It’s bloody, isn’t it? The Skill?”
The Gnoll’s eyes seemed to glow by firelight. Yvlon glanced up, and he grinned.
“You have a different problem than that grieving man when he came to me. He knows he enters furies. He is a warrior like me who needed control. You? The first thing I must do, it seems, is convince you that you have a temper to begin with.”
“I know I do. I’m just not—”
“Like him? Like me?”
Yvlon bit her lip as Berr pointed at the bare-chested man laughing as he danced and then at himself. The Gnoll exhaled.
“Let me put it to you another way, Yvlon. When you enter your fury—when you fight—how does it feel?”
“Like I lose control. I forget pain and—attack.”
Yvlon flushed just saying it. It was embarrassing—Berr shook his head quickly.
“No, no. How does it feel? Does it feel—fun? Good?”
He eyed her, and she recoiled instantly.
“No. Of course not. I’m ashamed by it, truly. It’s a loss of control. No one should have that happen. I’ve just had—reasons—justifiable, I think, when I was angry. I fought an Adult Creler, and my arms were practically falling off. It’s a crutch I’ve relied on, and Colth pointed it out for me. I attacked my team. That’s why I’m here.”
Berr’s lips moved as he stared up at the night sky. He seemed—exasperated. Unlike every [Sword Tutor] or other instructor Yvlon had ever had, he didn’t have the professional veneer.
“My, my. I hear you saying things like a child. Repeating what you think it is good to say. Are you claiming to me unleashing your anger does not feel good? Is it not right to be angry?”
Yvlon was getting annoyed, and knowing he could probably sense it, she clamped down on the emotion hard.
“Not at all. But it is a weakness any opponent can exploit. It’s a vulnerability. Some anger is justified…”
“…But you would never fight angry if you could? Is not every warrior angry in battle? I have seen Golems fight—beaten them. Fury is what makes us different from them.”
“Not just fury, Honored Berr. That’s so—primitive. There’s also determination, valor, discipline—”
“You don’t respect anger, though. Humans sometimes act like that. Yet you are the angriest of your entire team by far. To hear stories of you attacking a Creler with your own arm, beating down thousands of [Guards] in Nerrhavia’s Fallen—”
“That’s an exaggeration—”
The Gnoll ignored her.
“—You did that when angry. If I took that away from you, you would be half the warrior you are. You are strong because you get angry. You just lack control. Or do you disagree?”
Yvlon did. She did not like that characterization of her. Especially because elements of Berr’s statements were hard to refute.
“Rage should not feel good.”
“It’s a moral failing.”
The Gnoll’s blank face looked so unhelpful that Yvlon snapped.
“Honored Berr, your approach to wisdom doesn’t seem to have much nuance.”
At that, Berr began laughing so hard he rolled onto his back. He nearly laughed himself into the fire as he slapped at his sides and held his chest.
“Wisdom, she says! What am I, a [Sage]? I am a warrior, Yvlon. A warrior—I am not here to tell that [Barbarian] how to live well! I teach you how to fight. You—are a poor fighter because you attacked your team. If you want wisdom, go poke Theikha! Go ask Deskie if she’s found it, or anyone but me. Is there wisdom in charging into enemy lines? Is a [Berserker] wise? Did you come here to master your rage or not?”
His head rose, and he gave her a semi-annoyed glare. Yvlon hesitated. She had thought—this was akin to meeting some kind of [Monk] or—someone who would teach philosophy along with control of her emotions.
But it was not. He was literally Berr the Berserker. The morality didn’t factor in—in fact, she had the distinct impression she was annoying him with her quibbling about whether anger was a useful emotion.
“Th—I apologize if I’ve offended you, Honored Berr. Control of my rage will do. I just don’t think I have the same problems as some.”
He sat back upright and frowned at her.
“No. You do not. It is different with you—look yonder at my latest apprentice. He’s about to lose his temper.”
He pointed back over at the Human [Barbarian], and Yvlon saw the huge man, seven feet tall himself, taller than the average Gnoll, no longer dancing.
It seemed in the minute she’d taken her eyes off him he’d found a reason to get angry. Or rather, someone else had.
It wasn’t hard to figure out. The social dancing around the bonfires could get intimate. Which was fine, and this traveller and his companions had probably stayed around the Gnoll tribes for months, long enough to develop close bonds with the Gnoll people.
—Unfortunately, flirting with a fiancé, spouse, or whomever one of the [Barbarian]’s dance-partners was had gotten too intimate, and someone was objecting. Another Gnoll roughly the same height as the [Barbarian] had interrupted the dancing and was shoving the man away.
And the [Barbarian] was getting pissed. It was a hair-trigger. Even Yvlon herself, who had a bit of an anger problem, hadn’t ever seen someone go from laughing to snarling that fast. Wild Wastes Gnolls were watching, and two women—a daughter and wife?—were talking to him.
He brandished a fist—but the Gnoll was either stupid, fearless, or made the mistake of assuming just because they were the same height, that was all that mattered. Yvlon saw how much muscle the [Barbarian] had packed on and guessed he might outweigh the Gnoll by sixty pounds of fat and muscle.
Anyways, the brandished fist earned him a shove that sent him stumbling back. The [Barbarian] stared at the Gnoll, who raised a fist—and lost his temper.
“Hmm. Time to see if he’s learned his Skill yet.”
Berr was watching. He looked calm, but he had gotten onto one leg, resting on a knee, ready to move. The [Barbarian] threw his head back, howled in fury—a shriek of rage that had every Gnoll jumping back in alarm. He turned on the Gnoll—and then as Yvlon watched—brought his fists down.
“Damn you! Damn you with—mists-damned—hunting horns call you—Creler eggs in your eyes! Coward! I’ll—”
His voice was a stream of insults as the Gnoll and his partner stepped back fast. But the charge of the [Barbarian] and bloodbath didn’t come. To Yvlon’s surprise, he turned—and began to punch the ground.
He kicked at the soil, brought his arms up, and slammed them down, and a shower of dirt sprayed up. The [Barbarian] went kicking and punching, literally tearing up the soft earth. A cloud of dirt sprayed up as people stepped back, and Berr snorted.
“There. See? [Divert Rage].”
“He’s throwing a tantrum on the ground.”
It looked like that to Yvlon. Berr just smiled at her appalled expression.
“He is an angry man. He angers fast—laughs loud and comes out of it quick. It is a useful trick. That was one of his final tests. See?”
He pointed, and Yvlon saw, to her amazement, the Gnoll who had been pushing the [Barbarian] come over and clap him on the shoulder as the panting man knelt there. The [Barbarian] looked up—then leapt to his feet with a wild laugh.
“Honored Berr! Honored Berr, you tricked me again! Damn you! I did it, you see?”
He turned and shouted loudly. Yvlon glanced at Berr, and the Gnoll laughed.
“Wait, was that staged?”
“Mm. We are not stupid enough to let him go without making sure he knows how to catch himself, yes? You see, you and he both need my help. But he just needed to learn how to turn his anger aside. You…you get as angry as he does, but you don’t let it out as fast.”
Berr was analyzing Yvlon, and she folded her arms defensively.
“Definitely not. I might lose my cool in battle, but not that fast.”
“No, you keep it inside. Like a [Knight] in his armor until it’s so much you pop. Not better, just different. But you have some control. I spoke to your team. They tell me your temper has been getting worse. The straw for you was when you attacked them in a practice session. And a friend—a Goblin?”
He was referring to the Numbtongue incident. Yvlon turned red.
“I was provoked—but I have no excuse. I did attack them all.”
Numbtongue worst, but she’d hit Pisces and Ceria, and Colth had been spared only because he’d managed to take her down before she tagged him. And yet, there was a reason she still claimed she was better than the [Barbarian]. And that was…
“You did not hit the Antinium, Ksmvr, though.”
“No. I never would.”
Even when raging, Yvlon had not punched Ksmvr. Berr sat there, head cocked to one side. He nodded.
“No wonder you do not quite want to be here. You have more of an ego than that [Barbarian].”
“No, shut up. Hrr. You think you can maintain control without my help or with just ‘little lessons’. To first begin teaching you—it seems I first must convince you that you need to learn.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
She was getting really tired of this back and forth, but Berr just rolled his eyes.
“You are here because you feel you should be—but you do not exactly come to me begging, Adventurer Yvlon. You do not want it as badly as you should. I will now convince you.”
Berr stood up. He pointed to Ksmvr, who was running around with a wand in his hands—all four of them—with some Gnoll children. Yvlon squinted, and her mouth fell open with delight. Had he picked up a Tier 0 spell already? She wanted to go to him instead of wasting her time here. Right up until Berr whispered to her.
“You’ll kill him some day. With your own hands.”
Yvlon twisted around slowly. The flash in her pale blue eyes was far, far more dangerous than the [Barbarian]’s short-held rage.
Berr walked around Yvlon.
“You are angry. But believe me when I say it. I have seen this before. You will not hit Ksmvr if you break out into a fury against me. I believe it. He can calm you down. You love him like a great friend. A lover?”
“He’s like a brother to me. A little brother. I would never harm him.”
“Mm. And so let me tell you what will happen if you walk away from me. You will get angry. You will lose yourself in battle, and Pisces and Ceria will either stay with you, or not, or learn to avoid you in the heat of your anger. But Ksmvr will not. He will realize he is perhaps the only person in this world who can calm you, can shield others from your wrath. He will do it again and again—and one day, in your blindness, you will kill him. Maybe not with your own hands, maybe by accident, when you mistake him for a foe. Perhaps in your fury you will just leave him to be cut apart by the enemy.”
Yvlon felt a chill on her metal arms. She felt sick at the idea—and a creeping, cold fear in the heat of her anger made her truly afraid, because she could see it happening.
“I don’t want that.”
“No. So there is your reason. Now, do you want my lessons or not?”
Berr faced her across the fire, and Yvlon Byres shook slightly. She clenched her hands, stared down at the silver—and then burst out.
“Honored Berr—would you listen to something shameful? Would you hear me out? I have—there’s a reason this is hard.”
She was red-faced, but the old Gnoll just walked around the fire.
“I’m listening. Whatever you say to me I will never repeat.”
Yvlon searched for words.
She was afraid to tell him what lurked inside her chest. Yvlon looked back towards the campfires, but all the Horns were far out of earshot. She hesitated—but the Gnoll who sat there was the greatest warrior she could hope to confide to. She could have talked to Colth—
But something in her said that Berr might understand. There was a connection there—be it in Skills or something else. That he was a stranger helped in some perverse way to lay out her true feelings that she was afraid to tell her friends. Perhaps because he could judge her impartially. Yvlon hung her head, and the words spilled out. A confession.
“I—I—want your lessons. I want control over my fury—and at the same time, I don’t want it. I thought I could be this perfect warrior like my brother is. Like my sister! But I’m not. I always had a temper, but I never showed it.”
She remembered the great desire to punch Ryoka’s face in, even back when she had been in the Silver Spears. Berr nodded. Yvlon stared at her arms.
“But every achievement I have made—in Albez, against the Adult Creler—I have been angry. I’m afraid that if you teach me control, you’ll make me weak. I’m afraid that—I won’t have the strength to put myself in the way of an enemy. Someday, our luck will run out. When it happens—I should be the first to go out fighting.”
Tolveilouka. She was shaking with the admission, breathing hard.
“I’m afraid that if you take it away from me, Honored Berr, or temper it—I won’t be brave enough. I’m not, on my own. When I faced Skinner, I ran away. I fear I need it.”
The [Berserker] heard her out, the confession Yvlon was too afraid to tell even to Ceria or Pisces or Ksmvr. She stood in silence, the cold wind across the plain blowing as the flames blew into embers. And what Berr said next was this:
“It is well I am not teaching you a lifestyle like a [Sage], Yvlon Byres. Because I will not take your anger away. What I will teach you will let you live longer, I think, and save your friends. But take away your rage? No. No, no, no. I am Berr. Do you think I, of all people and classes, would make you weaker?”
He tapped her on the chest, and Yvlon saw his smile, reassuring, through yellowed teeth. He was missing a few. She stared at him.
The old Gnoll’s eyes gleamed. It was beginning to snow now, and the cold grasses picked up a few snowflakes falling from a shower over the Gnoll plains. Yvlon shivered; her metal arms made her more susceptible to the cold. But Berr’s voice drew her in.
“We are warriors. To the death. If you wanted to not be angry—I couldn’t help you. I would say, ‘seek out the Healer of Tenbault’. Use potions. Meditate or something. Our anger is an all-consuming thing. We will use it to kill—and kill great foes. I am only teaching you how to make it stronger. I think I know what I must teach you, now. Not to divert it, like I do to some. For you—you will learn to do what I do. Which is to stop yourself from lashing out—and to store it. I will teach you [Catch Yourself] and [Banked Fury].”
Yvlon’s ears pricked up. Two Skills? She looked at the old [Berserker] and realized he had never actually gotten more than a bit snide or annoyed the entire time she’d talked to him. Odd for his class.
“Would that work?”
He grinned wider.
“You want to be stronger, Yvlon Byres? I hear a lot of talk about control. But you are not like that, are you? You hit Level 40 days ago—and already you wonder, what will Level 50 be like? Hrm. Yes. I should have led with that. I will make you stronger. Stronger, such that your foes will fear you. Let me teach you the first lesson. No one fears a [Berserker] who is always mad. That is like…a dog who always barks, you see?”
Yvlon blinked at him. The Gnoll tapped himself on the chest.
“There is a saying among Humans, isn’t there? Fear the ones who are always kind? That is what you should embrace. Your friends know you to be angry. Your foes, too. So when you rage, does it scare them or do they think ‘ah, now I can use that against her’?”
He was making sense. Yvlon whispered.
“So you’re telling me to save it. Is that what you do?”
Berr, the kindly old man, looked at her. And his eyes were bright.
“It’s all within me, Yvlon Byres. I get angry. Very often. But I am a master of it—so I store it. Right here.”
He tapped his chest.
“All my rage. All my hatred. Sadness, too. It will never come out around the young of my tribe or even in sparring. But when I need it—it is there. And the foes of the Wild Wastes tribe, of Gnolls—even the Walled Cities fear it. That is what control will give you. When you rage, your enemies will flee or shit themselves enough to fuel a thousand campfires. When you use it—it will kill any foe.”
Yvlon’s eyes opened. Her reluctance—her nerves about Honored Berr teaching her—for the first time, became desire.
“Yes. Yes. Please teach me that. Can you? Does—I can’t even tell you’re angry, Honored Berr.”
He cackled with amusement. Then looked morose.
“Ah, I forget I am old. So stories of my youth are faded. Maybe I should show everyone more. I am angry right now, Yvlon. For you—I will show you it. If you truly want to see. So you know that you and I are made of the same flesh and heart. But I warn you—”
His cheerful eyes froze over a bit, as if with the cold.
“…It will not be pleasant. Even for a second. Do you want to see?”
Yvlon did. She did—even as her internal sense of danger began to spike. Somewhere distant, Ceria Springwalker looked up as her [Dangersense] began to ping softly. Berr inhaled and exhaled.
“Then stand right there. Oh—and use your [Aspect of Iron].”
“I—alright. [Aspect of Iron].”
Yvlon’s skin turned to metal. She felt heavier—and strong—but she was reminded of how Berr had tossed her. And he hadn’t even been mad, then. Her heart picked up, and her skin, metal, erupted into goosebumps.
It was just a second. She thought she even saw it. Like—a man opening a dam. Or a door. It wasn’t like drawing a bucket from a well. It was opening a door that led to a sea waiting to rush in.
You couldn’t harvest a tiny bit of it. It was all-consuming. The snow falling on her cold arms, her shivering—stopped. Yvlon Byres looked up a second—and rain fell on her face. Wet—but warm, no longer snow. It drizzled over the Gnolls around the fire, and they yelped. The [Barbarian] looked up and twisted around.
Honored Berr stood there for just a second, and the smiling Gnoll reminded Yvlon Byres as her head snapped down. Reminded her of something that was still in him, even months later. That he would never let go of.
“My son is dead.”
Yvlon Byres saw the old Gnoll’s face begin to—twist. His arms shook—and the grey fur still bearing hints of blonde rippled as he snarled. A look of rage over his face—an anger so fierce it made her heart jolt.
A father’s grief. A warrior’s rage upon seeing his people slaughtered. All his fury at Xherw. Everything—exploded out of Berr, and the falling snow turned to rain. Then steam.
His lip curled. Tendons stood out on his neck as his yellowed teeth came together. His snarl grew wide—wide—she thought it would tear the skin of his face. His eyes bulged and—
His face kept changing. Yvlon backed up, the woman made of metal staring. She had never seen—
Someone snarl so much his face distorted. His writhing muscles bulged as if flexing—but they kept growing. As if the contortions of rage were literally pulling his body, making it grow.
His face. That look of grief and rage cracked with the sound of his jaws opening, and he was taller now. He had been shorter than Yvlon—now he was an inch taller than she was. Still growing. Rising—as if the smaller Berr could not hold back whoever stretched out of him, clawing at the sky. Then she realized who this was. A name for a different Gnoll—the terror of Drakes and his foes. This silent scream that tore the air—this face, twisted with fury such that she could not recognize the merry Gnoll in it—
This was Berr the Berserker.
Her bones were shaking. He had not howled yet, but the growl of fury vibrated her bones and organs and ears. That fury—Yvlon had no [Dangersense], but she knew she was in danger.
That fury had to have an outlet. She was braced for the charge. His paws would tear her metal arms off her body. Slaughter his foes in armor with his bare claws.
He—was going to kill everything. Gnolls, adventurers—Colth was on his feet and shouting, and the other Horns and Gnolls were staring.
It couldn’t happen. Yvlon was terrified. She felt part of Berr’s rage baking her metallic flesh—how could he halt it? How were you supposed to control that fury?
Two eyes red with blood, like a Minotaur’s, fixed on Yvlon, and she waited for violence. Berr stood there, and in the heartbeats between fury’s outlet and carnage—as that growl rolled over the Great Plains and echoed under the winter sky, he turned his head.
Then—the [Berserker] stared out across the tribes of his people and focused on something. Yvlon lunged to catch him—but the Gnoll did not move. He just looked out with the rage of a lifetime and the desire for nothing but destruction.
His eyes lit upon a Gnoll cub staring at him, one of the Wild Wastes’ Gnolls. One of thousands, gazing at Honored Berr in his fury.
Sinew to crush mithril moved as Yvlon grabbed his arm—feeling fragile and waiting—but then she looked up and saw it.
How did you hold that much fury inside you? How did you not let it vent out like it did in her rage that had killed an Adult Creler? The answer was…
Ksmvr stood in the Meeting of Tribes. And as Berr had said—even if she had the rage of Berr in her—she could not hurt him.
Would not. Berr did not look at Ksmvr. He looked at the young of his tribe, his Chieftain Perale, and his other sons, who watched him with trust. Honored Berr.
Yvlon saw the mountain of fury not vanish but compress. He grabbed it, that Gnoll, and pulled it in him. Into a box. Folding it into his frame as he shrunk and as that snarl slowly undid itself. Shrinking—with the willpower to hold it. The determination not to let them down.
And one more thing.
Berr shrank and relaxed—until he was light as a feather, and Yvlon realized she was holding him in a bear hug—and he was smiling and patting her head with a gentle paw. Then she saw him fully.
A great warrior, sitting. Sitting in the laughing Gnoll rubbing her head and asking her to let him go. Waiting. Waiting and waiting…for the moment he could let himself out.
Let himself exist—and that existence was pure destruction. On a battlefield, with no one but foes around him.
“It will be hard to learn. But they will fear you. There is no limit to this, Yvlon Byres. No foe I fear. Do you have the rage to bring Dragons out of the skies and crack the High Passes?”
He looked at her—and Yvlon Byres stared at Berr. She took one shuddering breath as the snow began to fall and felt just a hint of that being within Berr before she let go. Then she touched her own chest and said…
An aura could split clouds in the sky. Torreb showed Orjin that as they sat outside on the second day. He grimaced, then showed Orjin another scar.
He had legions. His body could have been re-sewn, but Torreb trusted so few—and he claimed that his cloth body was stronger than any material he could want.
“My Skills change my cloth. It would take years to make this body as strong again—and I do not have the time. You see these marks on my shoulder? They ache. They do, now and then.”
They were…bite marks. A circular scar. Torreb’s grin was toothy as well.
“A Gnoll gave me that when I fought in Izril. It hurts sometimes, and I think—Berr is raging. I have fought so many legends. He gave me that when I killed his Chieftain. Another legend. Now dead. The ones that survive are not the ones who are most famous. Collos defeated me—but I outlived him. Which is greater?”
Orjin shook his head.
“Fame does not matter to me.”
“It matters to me.”
Torreb snarled. He touched the great club at his side and looked at Orjin.
“Do you know why I sit with this here? Do you know why, Strongest? Not just for you. I earned my name Torreb the Undefeated after I passed Level 60. Collos was dead—then I named myself that, and I never lost again. I swore I would make the name Torreb echo in Chandrar. It is why I was glad…that the King of Destruction waited so long to come back.”
They had been drinking late into the night. Or rather, the Fury of Skies had; Orjin was not much for the thick liquor the Lantern Lands produced, which they called ‘Soul Oil’ after the look and the way it seeped into your body over minutes after imbibing it. Torreb had continued into the day, and he was either maudlin, still drunk, hungover, or all three.
“I…was afraid of him. Afraid they’d call me to do battle against him and his Seven. Mars…I met her as a [Gladiator], not as the champion she is. I could kill her. She could kill me. I am afraid of that struggle. I am glad I am an old man, scarred and wounded. So old that they only dare hint to me I might return but let me retire.”
His pride was there, but there was a crack in it. Fear. Orjin had seen it sometimes, in warriors of Pomle. He poured out his heart to Orjin, as if the former Strongest were the only person who might get it.
Perhaps that was true. Torreb still had the thick, viscous, dark purple liquid in a cup. He drank from it.
“—I will not reach Level 70 before I die.”
“It is only one level. You may live for a while yet, Torreb—”
“I. Will not. Reach it. Do not tell me how levelling works, Strongest. Do you know what the requirement to reach every capstone is?”
Orjin bit his lip. Torreb dispensed this wisdom along with reminiscing without care. He looked up, his eyes unfocused, and exhaled a plume of fumes that Orjin swore he could almost see.
“—Achievement. Perspective. Do you see? It gets harder the higher you go—but the secret I realized is that it requires a change in yourself. At earlier levels, it is small. Learning a new form of blades. Overcoming a great foe. But to reach Level 50—where you now are—you will need to reinvent part of yourself.”
“A great loss. A change in your body. Realizing what your martial art is. But you will change, Strongest. The Skills will shape your entire being. Vandum—has taken Collos’s mantle. His body will break magic—but that journal you found. Let me see it again.”
Orjin proffered the copy Salii had made for him. She had copied even the age of the pages, and Torreb handled it reverentially.
“He was Level 59. Before me. You see? I was Level 58…when he beat me, the last defeat I ever took. But I found my way forwards. Collos was stuck. He could not understand where to continue. So he never levelled. When I reached Level 60, my entire world shifted. I stood upon the body of a Jaw of Zeikhal and screamed that I would die if I was ever defeated again. I vowed it upon my life—and so I am terrified and was granted the power to change. How will you change, Strongest?”
He looked up, and Orjin did not know.
“This is why I have come here, Torreb. But could you not change again to reach Level 70? It might give you another decade.”
The old man was silent. Then he shuddered—and that look of terror passed over his face.
“No. No. You see? I’ve failed. I am too afraid to try. I do not want to throw myself against the King of Destruction or risk facing Mars. I am incapable of that change. I could slay a million lesser foes and never level once. You, though…a great achievement could make you Level 50. Defeating the greatest warrior in Chandrar, for instance. I am old. That is why I sit here, retired, in safety. I’m old and weaker. You are the Strongest. Despite the difference in levels—if you grabbed me and I had not this weapon in hand, there is a chance.”
He glanced at Orjin as the bladed club lay next to him. The [Superior Martial Artist] made no move. He had no intention. Torreb grinned—then he leaned over, and the air turned hostile. The fish fled—then turned belly up and rose to the surface as they fainted. The lanterns shining overhead twisted as their light seemed to avoid him.
“Do you want to try?”
He was ready to kill Orjin in that moment. Terror, a killing intent so great it was making pedestrians in the city below pass out or run, screaming, and the weight of his aura like a half-Giant, pressing Orjin down, all struck the former Strongest. Orjin said nothing, did not move, as sweat beaded on his back.
Itkisa shouted, and Torreb’s fury abated in a moment. He sat back, and tears sprang to his eyes.
“If you find your answer, Orjin, Strongest of Pomle, do not come back. Not at Level 50. Don’t touch my legacy.”
“I do not want to touch it, Torreb.”
The man furiously drank from his bowl again as his daughter strode over. The fish woke—and dove in a panic as Itkisa looked at the pond. Some kept floating, belly-up, dead of fright. But Torreb just nodded, emotional now.
“That’s why I like you, Strongest. You and Collos both never cared for that…what is a [Martial Artist]?”
And they were back to square one. But Itkisa interrupted the two.
“Father. Why don’t you rest a bit? You have disrupted the entire city, and you’re drunk.”
“I only drank…”
“A barrel, Father. A barrel of Soul Oil.”
“There was a time when I could have drunk three and pissed it. I wandered Chandrar’s Great Desert for a week and a half with not a drop to drink. Yet the ground quaked like my heart when the Jaw of Zeikhal rose—and I beheld a foe I could not defeat. So there I forged Torreb, like heroes of old had. Every day since then has been less glorious than that moment.”
The old man muttered. He drooped, but never fell asleep—not with Orjin nearby. And the warrior of Pomle looked at Torreb and had one conclusion.
“The greatest [Martial Artist], Torreb…is not one such as you. We have made a mistake. I have. I am not searching for a person. I am searching for a path. It is not I who am flawed; my martial art has no purpose other than strength. If we follow it, I, Vandum, we will all stop where you are. I must find what Collos was missing. I see it now.”
Torreb’s head rose—and he stared blearily at Orjin. Then his eyes brightened.
“Yes. Yes. I want to see it. Find it, Strongest. Itkisa. I will rest now.”
She helped him up, sighing. Then she turned to Orjin as Torreb walked unsteadily towards his quarters to rest.
“My father has always had a poor temper, Orjin. I hope you’ll forgive him. It’s a mark of respect, in his way. Your friend, the Fury, has finally roused himself from his own slumber. He claims he is dying. Perhaps you could fill a few hours until evening? Torreb should be up by then and in a better mood.”
He ducked his head in thanks, and she followed her father. Yes, he had more to learn here and the war called to him. Salii told him all was well, but he felt restless.
Still, he was not entirely wasting his time. Or so Orjin believed. Itkisa interested him and the Fury of Skies was another element along with Orjin’s quest.
Besides…he thought it would be worth staying for one more reason. He had seen more than one legend of Chandrar. Orjin had lived in Pomle all his life. He had seen new stars like Nsiia, knew some like Xil, and now Vandum, and Salthorn by name. He had known Collos.
If he was right—Torreb did not have much longer to live.
The Great Plains sang that night. Gnolls singing Nailren’s new verse—and celebrating. It was not an entirely joyous event free of worry or pain.
They had lost so much. What they had gained, the tome, the knowledge of Earth—it could not mend those wounds. But it was a road forwards, and these people were great travellers.
There was something that Ceria admired in that. They were adventurers in spirit, these Gnolls of plains, who had travelled around the world. Perhaps, though, this was the knell of their species. Perhaps this age would be their last.
But they were going to go into it pushing for something new. Searching, digging down, travelling. Learning.
She had now visited one of the Walled Cities. Ceria had not had the time to view all of Chandrar’s great empires, but she had seen the strength of their history that was longer than Terandria.
Ceria had grown up in the Kingdom of Erribathe. She knew the foundation of Terandria’s traditions and customs and kingdoms. Baleros…not yet. Someday, she vowed, Baleros. And Rhir too.
The House of Minos where Calruz came from, the Empire of Drath—she wanted to see it all. A half-Elf’s life felt short for all of it, but she had seen Wistram and glimpsed the door that locked the true mysteries above.
In all her long travels, it seemed to Ceria that what defined something about the Gnolls was that air of…possibility. They had customs. They had traditions. But especially now, if the world changed such that stone became cheese, it might bring down a Walled City like Pallass. If Earth collided with this world in a literal sense, the Drakes might cling to their cities until they were brought low.
But the Gnolls would probably step off their world’s firmament and march onto Earth’s soil and go exploring. Not all of them, maybe, but they were reaching out. So the last proof of that was in her hands.
“Dead gods. Dead gods. Dead gods. Dead—”
“Yvlon. You’re drawing attention. Please stop.”
The [Armsmistress] had punched out a [Gladiator Champion] in the arenas of Nerrhavia’s Fallen with her bare fists. Right now, she was quaking in her sneakers. Her hand shook so badly she could barely take a bite of tiramisu.
Ceria—sipped from the latte and licked at the whipped cream on top. She felt at her ears again and encountered rounded skin, not the points she was used to. Then she glanced at her hands, or rather, the one that used to be bone.
Somewhat to her annoyance, it was a prosthetic one, not a fun skin-and-flesh one, but she rather liked that Yvlon had gotten lucky.
The simulation had apparently decided that instead of fake arms, Yvlon instead had a very fetching silver coat on with long sleeves and some trademarked logo on the back in the shape of House Byres’ crest.
They were rolled back right now, revealing her flesh-and-blood arms, which had tattoos in silver, and silver fingernails. Her pants were plain black and businesslike. She also wore sneakers, but that was because she hadn’t known how to dress herself leaving her apartment.
Pisces Jealnet looked like he normally did, with those square glasses, half-moon and so pretentious that Ceria couldn’t stop laughing about it. He had some too-white designer clothes that made him look like this world’s version of a fashionista, expensive.
The glasses weren’t even prescription.
Ceria had been wearing high-heels—and just like the [Prankster] and chaotic half-Elf, she had torn jeans and a t-shirt with some band’s logo on it. She also had a beanie. The heeled shoes were hard to work in, but Ceria had pulled up a chair and was putting her feet up with the heeled shoes dangling off them—which was getting her a look from the servers.
Ksmvr? He looked like some kind of student, with a blue jacket over a cardigan sweater, and he had on a tie. He beamed with all his teeth like a Drake or Gnoll and he had frizzy hair he would occasionally wrinkle then sniff at his hands.
He kept feeling at his nose, too.
“Comrade Pisces, Comrade Pisces. My sniffer-thing is leaking. This is disgusting.”
Ceria rolled her eyes with great fondness.
“Ksmvr, it’s a nose. You’ve seen noses the entire time you were with us.”
“I have never had one. I hate it. It is gross and full of things.”
“Please don’t show us.”
Yvlon kept going, but she did manage to eat the tiramisu. Her hoodie’s sleeves were rolled back, and the barista who stopped with a second order of drinks looked down.
“Oh, wow. That is an amazing tattoo.”
Yvlon jumped and almost went to cover her arms, but the silver tattoos ran all the way up and down her arms, ending on her shoulders. They looked suspiciously like the strange forms her arms had taken during her fever dream.
“Where’d you get it? I have one myself—”
The smiling barista tried to chat up the nervous Yvlon, but to Ceria’s amazement, the man seemed to sense how wildly nervous Yvlon was and backed off after a moment.
“They’re almost like real people.”
She muttered to Pisces, and he looked up from reading a newspaper. He pushed his spectacles up and sniffed.
“That would be the—entire point of this Skill, Ceria. And I might add—we have our powers, even if we look objectionably Human in Ksmvr’s case.”
The Antinium blinked—and then nodded. He pointed up at one of the too-tall buildings.
“I believe I could climb all the way to the top with judicial hops. Should I attempt this, Captain Ceria?”
“Nope. The Gnolls will throw a fit if we interrupt their research—apparently you can destabilize the simulation if you fight enough. Berr apparently got the entire thing shut down for a day. Let’s enjoy the ride, enjoy the ride. Alright, who’s got the most money?”
Obligingly, the Horns emptied their pockets. Ceria was disappointed—until Pisces brandished something.
“You’re so behind these times, Ceria. Credit card. I’m told it’s the key to everything here.”
“Oho. Then I think I have a plan. As your fearless leader—the first thing is one of those movies Kevin can’t shut up about. Then I am going to find the most entertaining thing on the list that Deskie gave me. Um…paintball? Warriors like that, Yvlon.”
“I would rather sit here for a second. My stomach’s upset.”
Yvlon shuddered, but Ceria nudged her.
“Yvlon, you’re in another world. How often will you get this chance? Come on, look around!”
She pointed around the city at all the Humans and beamed so hugely the Horns all smiled at it. Ksmvr raised a hand.
“In that case, I would like to fly in a plane. I shall now line up and purchase a ‘ticket’ whereupon I believe I must wait for at least three hours. And apparently, you may be inappropriately touched or shouted at if you bring any edged weapons with you.”
“…Is that fun, Ksmvr? It sounds boring.”
“I am having a Human experience, Captain Ceria. If I get bored…hmm. Maybe I will do this alone. Comrade Pisces, I have a plea for our time after this ‘movie’.”
“I could indulge you, Comrade Ksmvr.”
Pisces was delightedly tapping at an iPhone. He was…Ceria saw a very explicit image, and Pisces slapped the phone as a decidedly inappropriate video began playing.
“Pisces, you rogue! Stop that!”
The Humans were staring in great disapproval, and a barista came over to tell Pisces that was definitely not allowed. Red-faced, he apologized then hissed at Ceria.
“I didn’t mean for that! I was looking up anatomy! I was told they had excellent documentation and got—I just typed in ‘intimate anatomy’ and then I was here and—”
“What’s the app-thingy I’m supposed to open? Which one did you use? So I can make the same mistake.”
Ceria ignored Yvlon’s glower as she innocently prodded at her phone. Ksmvr was tapping Pisces on the shoulder.
“Comrade Pisces, Comrade Pisces. After we are done with the movie, may we please go together?”
Yvlon raised one hand, peering at her fingernails—also painted silver.
“I’ll do it, Ksmvr. These two are going to be arrested by the Watch. What would you like to do?”
He happily took her hand and seemed amazed at the feeling of his fingers touching hers. Ksmvr wrinkled his nose.
“I would like to drive a car, please. I believe I have the requisite documentation.”
Yvlon eyed the speeding things nervously, but then she shrugged.
“We can’t die. Why not?”
“Now you’re getting into the swing of things. And hey—there’s something about a ‘convention’. With swords and everything. Some ‘fantasy story’. You should go there and see if anyone’s got a sword.”
Ceria saw Yvlon brighten up at the familiar concept. Ksmvr clapped his hands happily.
“Then we shall go to a movie! Then I shall ‘drive’ us to this convention, whereupon Yvlon can see how dueling is practiced.”
“I, uh, may spend some time on this internet.”
Ceria and Pisces stared at the phone. Yvlon and Ksmvr gave them a look, and only one of the two had the decency to blush. Ceria rubbed her hands—then spread them and laughed. Moments before they were ejected from the outdoor café—she laughed and looked around this new world.
She had somewhere else she wanted to visit. The Horns of Hammerad got up.
They went to see a movie. Somewhere in the middle, Ceria got ejected for laughing too loudly whereupon she was found later being kicked out from a library. Pisces found a coroner’s of all things, and they tried to arrest him for inspecting dead bodies.
But it was hard to arrest a man who could quite literally vanish and [Flash Step]. By the time Pisces caught up to Ksmvr, he found a very sad Ceria being ferried around the city. She was sad mostly because Ksmvr had learned how to drive and spent an hour teaching himself, and he refused to crash a car into anything. She brightened up when she got to the convention center, though.
The Horns of Hammerad had no idea where Yvlon was for three hours—mostly because they had no ability to locate her since they had forgotten to register each other as contacts via phone or any other service. They only found out where she was when they saw a bunch of posts online following a certain young woman.
Yvlon Byres, holding an American football like she had no idea what to do with it, body-checking someone into the ground was all over the web, in video clips. After all, she might look frailer, but her arms and body were still tough as metal, and she was stronger than any Human thanks to her Skills.
It wasn’t even entirely her fault; some idiot had let her onto a football field. When she emerged, trying to dodge cameras and questions, Pisces, Ksmvr, and Ceria were waiting with ice cream cones stacked so tall she spotted them even in the crowd. Each one had ten flavors.
There was more to this simulation of another world, of course. Practical things, like Gnolls taking apart pianos in music schools and getting in trouble or ones busy searching up anything they could think of on the world wide web. But they let the Horns have their moment. After all…
If only they could be here in reality. Someday…Ceria shaded her eyes, pointed up, and shouted at the Horns as they ran past some very angry men who wanted a word with Yvlon the impossibly strong. Local law enforcement or this world’s version of the Eyes of Pallass.
“That thing! I want one! Horns of Hammerad—last one to the airplane doesn’t get to fly it!”
Author’s Note: Despite the ‘week off’, I spent most of it writing. Volume 1 is nearing completion. There are still more edits to be made, including line-edits if I ever want to organize this to go to print.
Polishing something like the Volume 1 up to that standard is pretty hard, but I made good progress. I even wrote ahead a bit—but I will save that chapter for a good while later. Mostly, though, I am looking forwards to a break-break. This is the last chapter before I can take time off and those are always hard.
Taking reasonable time off helps with an ongoing project more than working every day. It feels counterintuitive, but it is the lesson I have learned from writing this story so long. So apologies if this month feels lighter on chapters you are reading but it beats working in secret during my break.
What else? Well, I played that new game that everyone’s talking about. Hogwarts Legacy! The conversation about boycotting the game makes me glad I’m not on social platforms. But it’s a shame that the debate is around playing the game to begin with. Because I think that kills the conversation about how terrible the game is to play.
If you like nostalgia, it’s fun. But I think it’s not actually a good game on its own merits. It could just be that the relationship with the author and other factors make this a biased experience, though. Another reason for writer anonymity! Anyways, that is all from me. I will see you in a week and will wait for Silksong. We’re all just waiting for Silksong. Thanks for reading.
Stitchworks Catalogue by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!
Ceria by AnnaP!
I drew a fanart with Ceria Springwalker from @WanderingInn by @pirateaba , which I'm reading non-stop right now. It's not my favorite character in the book, but there's so little art with her😱 It's not fair😡. #WanderingInn #TheWanderingInn pic.twitter.com/06yKOwlpfZ
— Anna P. (@GR8AP) February 5, 2023
Duel and Animated Shaestrel by Lanrae!
Orjin vs the Siren by Brack!
Rotation by LeChatDemon!