10.17 – The Wandering Inn

10.17

(The Witch of Webs, Book 12 of The Wandering Inn, will be out on the June 11th for audio and e-book! It’s taken a long time, but I have rewritten the [Witch] arc to be a lot stronger hopefully! Look forwards to it soon!)

https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Witch-of-Webs-Audiobook/B0CXFCNFKZ

https://www.amazon.com/Witch-Webs-Book-Wandering-Inn-ebook/dp/B0CW1JYNM6

 


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Earth, May 31st, 2024. 1:45 PM. Someone detonated a high-yield nuclear weapon in Los Angeles, California.

That was about all the news managed before the world went insane. People staring at the television or their blaring smartphones began screaming or calling family, and Inkar, staring in horror at the image on the largest broadcast screen in New York’s Times Square, dropped her ice cream cone.

“Uh. Is that bad?”

Tkrn looked at her face, and the screaming took on a fever pitch. His head turned as a siren began blaring, and then the entire square was turning into chaos. A person wearing a mascot costume was running, as if thinking the next explosion would land here.

Inkar heard every phone around her blaring some kind of emergency broadcast, and the air was thick with panic. She saw someone grabbing for their family—a middle-aged Human woman with a look of true terror on her face. Heard a second klaxon alarm begin to go off—

And then the world froze. Literally froze. Screaming people froze in midair, hair no longer affected by the air. A dropped phone stopped as though someone had hit the pause button, and Tkrn stared at Inkar’s ice cream cone, which had fallen. Pieces of the cone had fragmented upwards into the air, and he bent down and, amazed, picked a piece up and tasted it.

“What’s going o—”

He had been about to say ‘on’, but the word stretched out and repeated itself as Inkar reached for him.

“What’s going on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—on—

Flicker.

The simulation of Earth, the great Skill, [The World of You and Me]—looped for one terrifying moment, and Inkar felt herself repeating the motion of reaching out, her heart re-hammering in her chest, Tkrn’s word repeating over a dozen times. Then—abruptly—

Something tossed her out of the Skill, and she fell, stumbling, as Gnollish voices cried out, and she saw a glowing world behind her, shaped like Earth, flicker.

“The Skill! What happened?”

Adetr Steelfur emerged with a howl. Other Gnolls who’d been in the simulation of Earth stumbled forwards, ejected as well. Instantly, Tkrn and Inkar turned and began to shout.

“What did you do? What did you do?

Most of the Gnolls had seen what had happened in the moments before the simulation Skill went down, and Tkrn grabbed Adetr and tried to shake him. Since Adetr was made of metal, almost, that was more like Tkrn shaking himself.

“I didn’t do it! I saw the news—”

Gnolls were all shouting in confusion. One was dead white under her fur and staring up at the sky, as if transfixed.

Someone did it!”

“What happened?”

“I saw a bright light—”

The entire world shook. I saw it from where I was—

Who was responsible for that? It can’t have been normal! Unless—?

 

——

 

It took time for the shouting to die down, and when it did, Chieftain Feshi, Shaman Theikha, and the other Chieftains and leaders of Gnolls had arrived at a run.

“Is the Skill down? What happened?”

A group of a hundred and fifty-some Gnolls in the gigantic ‘Earth Tent’ that housed the Skill all tried to speak at once. Theikha turned to Inkar.

“Silence! Inkar, what do you know?”

The one actual Earther among the tribes spoke, trying to piece together what she’d seen.

“Someone dropped a bomb in Los Angeles. A nuke.”

“A what?”

Theikha frowned, but Feshi’s eyes went round.

“One of your world’s versions of Tier 8 spells? Or was it one of the big ones?”

There were different kinds? Inkar shook her head.

“I don’t know. Everyone was panicking; it was a worldwide event. Then the Skill—the simulation froze and kicked us out.”

“We all saw it. Wherever we were.”

Adetr nodded, and Theikha raised a warning staff.

“If the Skill is broken—Adetr—”

“It wasn’t him!”

Tkrn chimed in, and the Steelfur Gnoll stopped covering his head. Theikha gave Adetr an unconvinced look, and he pointed at another Steelfur Gnoll.

“They were with me! We were on the internet at a café. It wasn’t me!”

“If not you, then who? Random events happen, but nothing as dramatic as that.”

Feshi was an experienced visitor to the Skill, and another Gnoll who’d come running, Chieftain Mrell of the Demas Metal tribe, peered at the Skill worriedly.

“Can anyone re-enter?”

“Not yet. It doesn’t look broken.”

The world was still hovering there, but when a Gnoll tried to stick their paw into it and re-enter the simulation, they just waved their paw around and pulled it back, as if it were no more than a fancy illusion spell.

“This might be a sign we’ve overloaded it. Or that the glitches are getting worse.”

Nervously, one of the other Gnolls muttered. There were nods from around the room, and Theikha’s frown deepened further.

“This is not a good time for a disaster like this. The exhibition is tomorrow!”

“We’re not showing off the Skill, though.”

Inkar tried to sound reasonable, and it was ‘we’, since she’d be helping from behind the scenes, even if other Gnolls were going to demo the actual products. Plus, she had a decent rank as Honored herself as well as Earther.

Theikha gave Inkar a sardonic sniff as the great [Shaman] of the tribes looked around. Her heart was beating faster than normal; you could hear it, like a background thrum amidst all the whispers and tension. But it wasn’t racing; a good sign.

“I need every Gnoll focused, not worrying about the Skill. To begin with, everyone, clear out of the tent. I would like volunteers. You, Chieftain Mrell, Shaman Atgre, yes, Shaman Satar—fifteen warriors, and a handful more experts to monitor the Skill. Everyone else leaves. We will see if it reactivates. Then, I will have testimony from each Gnoll as to what they saw. If someone did cause this, they may speak to me privately, yes?”

Her words organized the chaos, and Gnolls soon began to file out of the tent. Inkar wondered if someone had caused the incident, but if so, who? It wasn’t like those weapons just grew from trees. And [The World of You and Me] faithfully recreated security and weapons; even with Skills, you couldn’t just waltz into a military compound.

But maybe it was echoing Earth’s real events? Not a comforting thought. The clocks and dates kept moving over, far faster than the days were passing in this world. It already had disturbing implications, but the Skill might be dying.

Well, the first thing Tkrn and Inkar did was report to Inkar’s Chieftain, Eska of Longstalker’s Fang.

Eska was a [Chieftain of Herds], more comfortable managing animals than reviewing engineering plans or googling how lightbulbs worked in the Earth simulation, but she well understood the crisis. She sat up, abandoning her comb, which she’d been running through a sheepdog’s fur. The huge, fluffy creature sat up, ears alert and wary, sensing the tension.

“What did she mean, the Skill is having…glitches?”

Inkar tried to explain, as best she could, as Deskie, the [Magic Spinner], Pulsg, the chief [Shaman], and a few more Gnolls in the know strode over.

“It began about a month or two ago. You know how there’s a limit on occupancy for the Skill?”

“Hrr. Two hundred, yes? I’m on the waiting list. I’ve only gone three times.”

Pulsg’s voice was slightly hurt. He shot Tkrn and Inkar a reproachful glance, which both tactfully ignored; Inkar had permanent access as the resident Earth expert, and Tkrn, as her partner and bodyguard, got to tag along whenever he wished.

In practice, that often resulted in a lot of free ice cream waffle cones while they helped a Gnoll with a computer or check out the right book from the library. Tech support for Gnolls wasn’t a field Inkar had envisioned herself in, and yes, she was no great tech expert herself.

But she could at least ask a friendly [Librarian]—er, librarian—for help and explain nuances of Earth to new Gnolls needing a guide.

The Skill was the greatest boon of the Meeting of Tribes, the remaining Gnollish groups present in the center of the Great Plains of Izril. It was a secret, a resource of information beyond any other—and right now, it might be failing.

Small wonder every Chieftain and Honored Gnoll was worried. Though some, like Chieftain Eska, just shook her head.

“I went in twice just to see what it was like. It was…an experience, yes? Truly mind-opening. The food and sights made my mind feel as though it were cramped, then as open as the Great Plains itself. But I cannot fathom beginning to study that world. This makes more sense.”

She picked up a stick and tossed it, and the sheepdog raced after it. Inkar could sympathize.

“What is this…issue with the two hundred allowed in each month?”

Honored Deskie had also not been in the simulation as much and tilted her ears as Inkar explained.

“Fewer and fewer Gnolls have been allowed in, Deskie. First it was just a few short of two hundred. Then a dozen short. Now only a hundred and fifty or so can enter at each time.”

Tkrn nodded.

“It’s hard to track. Gnolls enter and exit constantly if they’re allowed in that day. Adetr started a log, and the number has gone down and stayed down most days. On a good day, it’s a hundred and eighty.”

“Hrm. It sounds like we’re taxing it.”

Deskie murmured, and Pulsg laughed.

“Can one tax a Skill?”

The older Gnoll shot the comparatively young [Shaman] a reproving look.

“Everything can grow tired. Even Skills, or so I’ve felt. Perhaps it needs to be recreated? Or it runs on some power that we have failed to give it?”

Everyone looked at each other. Tkrn coughed.

“If it needs the creators, Rose and Yelroan have to return. If it’s power…that’s not good either. What if we turned it off and on again? That works for computers.”

The ‘technical guru’ of the Gnollish research team gave Inkar a toothy smile. She just sighed.

“Someone caused the bomb to explode. That is my guess. But how? Even Adetr couldn’t do that, and he’s raided military bases.”

And gotten thwacked with Theikha’s staff for it. Inkar didn’t envy whomever was responsible for this mishap. Still, Eska just tsked.

“It had better not take Mrell’s focus, or Adetr’s. We’ve spent too long preparing for the exhibition tomorrow! Deskie and all our [Spinners] and [Weavers] have been working nonstop—not to mention the other tribes and their woodwork.”

“At cost! Finding good timber in the winter was a nightmare.”

One of the [Traders] growled, and the others nodded with feeling. Inkar tried to focus.

“Yes. The expo.”

“Is that what we’re calling it? Expo? All these newfangled terms. What happened to trade fairs?”

Deskie complained mildly and patted Inkar’s arm. The [Worldly Traveller] took her paw, smiling.

“It’s a word that attracts attention because it’s new, Honored Deskie.”

The [Spinner] harrumphed.

“Yes, I know that. But we did use to call them just Grand Bazaars, the likes of which tribes came to. It has the same feel as one this time, even if we’re not bound to sell more than the new Earth things. Do you think the dignitaries might buy something else? What if we showcased some products?”

She glanced with real disapproval at the single tent that had been erected for tomorrow, and Eska broke in.

“I asked about our animals or your clothing or bolts of fabric. Chieftain Feshi declined, Deskie. Nor do the dignitaries seem interested. The ones from Chandrar might buy some of our fabric; the Stitch-folk from the southern side of the continent especially. Nerrhavia Fallen’s dignitary didn’t give me a second glance.”

Pulsg nodded with an expressive face.

“The Terandrians are mixed too. The one from…Kaaz? He wouldn’t stop asking questions about what we are selling. The same from Desonis and Nadel, yes? Very interesting who sent an ambassador and who will watch. Major countries like Ailendamus declined to send a single person, yet Nadal rushed their person overseas. By Courier no less.”

Travelling to the Great Plains of Izril on short notice was difficult, hence the expo taking a month to set up. But for the start of the new year, it was going to be something. Inkar was excited, despite her worries about the Skill.

“And is the Minotaur group here? I wanted to introduce myself to them.”

And use my Skills to say hello! Eska chuckled.

“The Minotaurs remember how to come as guests. Yes, I have an entire crate of all kinds of rare fish from their isles for tonight. And one of them brought a bunch of cute giant rats. Capybaras?”

Pulsg, who hated seafood, sighed, but Deskie smiled and promised to introduce Inkar herself as they pointed at some of the guest tents set well away from the Earth tent, but in close proximity to the other tribes. Guests from all over were ready to see what the Gnolls were selling tomorrow.

Visitors from Chandrar, Baleros, Izril, Terandria—yes, even Rhir. Inkar hoped it would go well. The amount of gold it might pull in orders would do a lot for the Gnoll tribes after all they’d suffered last year.

And we’ll get to see how they react to some of it. But the Skill faltering in the Earth Tent was a bad omen. Inkar hoped it didn’t foreshadow things to come. Even as she walked off with Deskie, who was only too happy to tell her about the other species who’d come by and who was worth meeting, Inkar had to wonder.

How had someone exploded that bomb in the Skill to begin with? And why?

 

——

 

When she finished her piano lessons for the final time, Nerrhavia gave herself a little treat. Just a bit of fun. A warmup; some practice.

After all, this place was fake, and she had a small wager with herself on whether it could even accurately display what would happen if one of the earth-shattering weapons went off. As it turned out, she was half-right.

The Skill would soon fail and eject her from the fake world before the blast even really finished going off. It was still entertaining to her.

There she stood, a woman with brown skin, wearing silk clothing in a traditional outfit she assumed was the closest this world had to her customary garb. She stood in a deathly quiet command theatre of some kind.

It had all kinds of glowing screens and buttons as opposed to magical artifacts and maps on paper, but she recognized the nature of the place, even if the appearance changed. Dozens of Humans stood there, faces transfixed with horror.

They were swaying, unable to look away from a screen marred by fire. Some were trying to reach for weapons, glancing at her out of the corner of their eyes. But they couldn’t move.

And the Immortal Tyrant was laughing. Merrily. She had requested a view of the news channels and people reacting to the moment.

Oh, the Skill was very well made. It struggled to capture the full reality of people. It was still just a simulation. But for a moment, something real flashed across millions of half-souled people. A presence gave them a fraction of the true despair and terror they would actually feel.

It amused her so greatly. Not merely for the reasons one might think of her. The woman wore beauty like a contemptuous shield against her sins and laughed as though she had never been held to account for her deeds. The kind of laughter some people burst into when they saw a terrible tragedy and had to suppress. Hers grew louder when the blood pooled, but it wasn’t hysterical.

It was the laugh of someone who didn’t care who heard it or how they sounded. Full-throated, brimming with confidence. It filled the room, and it was unapologetically delighted. To the small cluster of non-Humans in the room—non-Earthers, real people—it made them all shiver.

Some with delight. Several with abject terror or fury.

A woman with blazing golden eyes had halted, hand reaching for her side—but she had no weapon. She stood there, fists clenching, eyes filled with grief and loss.

And fear.

A man standing in front of Nerrhavia and regarding the destruction with mingled awe, covetous greed, and wariness half-turned. His face was sharp, and while his Human form was less magnificent than his old body had been, he still seemed like a poised marionette or a sinister conductor of an orchestra.

He half-bowed up at her, eyes open with adoration and respect. A smile of his own on his face.

—An older man looked up from the images of horror on the screen, and his own gaze was disturbed and horrified. But he had none of the hatred towards Nerrhavia. Just a kind of wariness and awe of his own.

Those three, at least, Nerrhavia noticed as she laughed. Each reaction confirmed what she knew of them. She allowed herself to fully fill the room with laughter. Nostalgic. Not wild; refined, for all it was filled with her gaiety.

After all, she had laughed like this time and time again. Watching similar sights from afar. One should laugh at the destruction one wrought. Not that she had made it a policy to commit such acts often.

In the thousand years she had lived as the Immortal Tyrant ruling over Chandrar, her empire one of the greatest ever to exist, Nerrhavia had gone for centuries without a single act of mass bloodshed. She had triumphed in peace and war, at least, in her estimations.

At times, she had called for blood and drenched lands in oceans of it. But she didn’t need such weapons at all times to ensure peace. She was Nerrhavia.

Her name still echoed across Chandrar. Stitch-children still went to bed terrified of her name. Her infamy and ‘misdeeds’ were still legend.

From that, know her.

Nerrhavia. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was a superpower, the largest nation of Chandrar—born out of the shattered remnants of her empire after she had been deposed. All its might and reputation, if fading, was like snatched crumbs of authority fallen from her lifeless fingers. Not a single student of history would be ignorant of her deeds.

And yet—Nerrhavia’s laughter cut off, and she stared at the glowing image of destruction—

“Yet I was only humbled once in my existence. The company of ghosts merely made me equal. How pleasant. How disappointing.”

She trailed across this war room, looking from face to face. Then turned as the simulation began to crash.

“I have no equals in this fake world. Come, children. I have finished with fantasies.”

She waved a hand, and the conductor-like man, the old watcher, even the golden-eyed woman glaring at her all fell into place as the other ghosts instantly moved. Her will was unquestioned. If some of them hesitated—they walked with her out of the simulation.

Three dozen Gnolls walked out of [The World of You and Me] and into chaos. At least, they looked like Gnolls. Nerrhavia felt the fur covering her body and twitched her ears idly a few times before adopting a shocked look.

No one noticed. A few of the more keen-eyed Gnolls began to, and she crooked a finger and redirected their attention, moving an invisible finger to turn their heads to stare at Adetr Steelfur or Inkar. She nodded at one of the Gnolls.

“We go before the Great Shaman arrives.”

They slipped away, simply backing out of the crowd and around the glowing sphere of the world. Then all of them walked towards a wall of the tent. It was enchanted, and there were sentries to keep any of the visitors or curious Gnolls from entering.

They were fine at their jobs. Doubtless, they could stop any high-level [Rogue] of this time. But of the past? One of the company paused at the edge of the tent, produced a pair of scissors, and cut a square of cloth out in a flash. Nerrhavia stepped out, redirected a [Sentry]’s attention, and the ghost replaced the fabric. It instantly melded back into the wall, magic and all.

The three dozen Gnolls strode away from the tent, heading away from the camp. Once they were out of eyeshot, they could divest themselves of the forms and head to their base. They were silent; a few of them whispered quietly as possible, but no one chatted with the Gnoll striding at the head of the group.

Even wearing a Gnoll’s body, she had the most excellent of postures and walked as if she were at the center of the world. The wind blew across Nerrhavia’s face, and her fur rippled; she narrowed her eyes fractionally, and the cold air of early spring seemed to die down. She kept striding forwards, and no one dared speak for a while. Only the tall Gnoll wrapped in a cloak seemed at all at ease.

He had a walking staff and seemed exceedingly comfortable, probably because this was his body, not a disguise. He looked like a middle-aged Gnoll with tawny fur and green markings on his upper chest, shoulders, arms, and even the tips of his ears. At length, he growled softly as he glanced at the Earth Tent behind them.

“Your Majesty. Will the Gnolls still have access to the Skill after that—test?”

“I imagine so. The Skill is hardly so fragile. If it is like any other simulation Skill, it will not break from that alone. If I had intended to shatter it, Corregrione, I would have.”

“As you will it, Your Majesty.”

Corregrione ducked his head deferentially, but she flicked her fingers, her ring finger coming together with her thumb to make a faint circle, which flickered into another pose for a second, as if her hand were a bird, head rising as its wings spread.

Hand-signing. Reflex. There was no one with the wherewithal to understand her words, so she spoke in low-language, direct.

“My will is not against these tribes. Nor your people. If anything, their hospitality has been welcomed. I shall remember it. Rest your mind easily, Corregrione.”

“I shall, Your Majesty. I thank you on their behalf.”

The Gnoll’s voice was slightly more relieved, and Nerrhavia flicked her fingers in dismissal. She knew his desires, at least, in this. Her servant, the tall figure behind her, shot Corregrione a glare for his effrontery, but fell silent at a warning twitch of her fingers.

Astival was used to the courts in which he had lived all his lives. He acted as if there were that vast empire still, not a single ruler and a handful of ghosts and naught but memories. He was an unyielding measure of what had been in that regard.

Useful, but tedious. Nerrhavia had already understood how he would shatter if forced to bend too far from what he remembered. Yet a rod was unbreakable when used as it should be, and he was competent enough.

At least, for her purposes. 

Corregrione. Astival. And Falamizural, the glowering woman whose glare had not wavered since leaving the simulation, even if she currently appeared to be a Plains Gnoll.

They were the three most competent ghosts of the lot that had escaped the destruction of the deadlands and followed her into the lands of the living and into the short-lived alliance with Az’kerash. Up till now, they had been confined to the Jar of Souls, unable to act without bodies.

Partly, that had been due to the Necromancer’s many tasks and the need to perfect Nerrhavia’s form before any other. Another reason had been because their presence, even loyal Astival’s, would have been a complication she didn’t care for.

Now the alliance with the Necromancer was defunct, Nerrhavia had need of capable servants.

These would do. She was not best pleased with any. The cost of reviving had taken ten levels from each, including herself, and the paltry handful of ghosts were not all loyal to her. Yes, they had followed her when she told them to flee Kasigna’s final consumption of all, but a willingness to listen was not loyalty.

One would cling to any leaf when drowning at sea, and some had come simply because they had feared her enough to believe her words even at the end of death itself. They had been rewarded for that intelligence, of course; each one inhabited a body more or less to their satisfaction.

Including Nerrhavia herself. She didn’t truly care for it; the Necromancer had done his utmost, and it had elements she prized, like the valuable materials that went into the sinew and bone, but her old body had been far finer, and she had told Az’kerash as much. Partly to needle him, but partly to simply remind him that all of his vainglorious attitude towards his heroics in life, his title as Archmage of Wistram—

All of that made him a mere court mage in her time, one amongst many. True, he would have outlevelled most even in her era. But not Nerrhavia herself, and he had merely been the most powerful of his era.

Her era had outstripped his by far.

 

——

 

The base they had set up after departing Az’kerash’s castle was simple. Magical buildings, cloaked and placed not far from the Meeting of Tribes in the Great Plains. Space was at a premium here, and the buildings were functional, if far from any standard Nerrhavia held.

Magical buildings, like [Munizor’s Magnificent Mansion] and other alliterative-sounding names that were really simple dimensional tricks with pre-made furnishings. No proper defenses; they didn’t expect to be attacked, but Astival still tasked the ghosts with guard duty, as he should.

However, it was not a fortress. It was not, say…

 

A vast wall of Chemath Marble rising a thousand feet skywards. Blacker than the sun that shone above, a permanent eclipse, walls stained with blood, and the ground filled with bones and shattered armor of fallen challengers. Heartbeats drowned out by the tolling of bells that suffocated thought and reason. Then the gates rose, and the Immortal Tyrant’s keep revealed the first of her guardians—

 

Home would have been a fine base of operations. Not least because it would have had any number of her possessions left over to work with. Frankly, she would have had to watch the ghosts to ensure they didn’t loot her lesser treasures.

Her keep would have simplified any number of matters. Like armies. Or people who remembered her name and justifiably wanted her dead twice.

Her keep would have been able to give battle to every single tribe in the Great Plains and more. It would have made a splendid base.

…If she still had access to it. That was one of the things the other ghosts did not know. They simply believed she was withholding access to it because they were unworthy, which was true enough.

But the truth was that she couldn’t have entered her keep herself, even if she wished to.

Actually, a point of clarity there: she could find ways to return to her home of homes. It was simply that survival was not guaranteed, even for herself. Some might call that vexing. Nerrhavia considered it an annoyance to be rectified.

For now, she made do with simple magical buildings. After all, she had only a few ghosts, her Skills and levels—minus ten from life—and the knowledge she had accumulated in the deadlands.

Nerrhavia reasoned that it was a suitable handicap to place herself against any power of this world. If they were lucky, they would notice her presence and perhaps have a chance in the great game. But few even knew she was alive again.

 

——

 

Secrets and nocturnes. Nerrhavia dismissed her ‘court’ and retired to the largest building, where she sipped at some wine and the fingers of her left hand played a composition in the air. She listened, adjusted the rhythm until it was slightly slower, and pressed harder.

Ah, that was how it might have sounded when the composer played his piece.

“Delightful music. A world’s to savor. If I had known of it, I would have taken greater lengths to survive that I might have met it. Don’t you agree, Falamizural?”

There was no sound in the room. A mage’s light illuminated the Immortal Tyrant as she sat in a padded chair, afternoon light streaming through a window as snows melted slightly outside.

She had not turned around as she sat. And her fingers kept moving—pressing, and she had even closed her eyes. But the sound was only in her head.

She had been practicing the piano. Teaching herself how to play it. It had taken her a month to get to this point of satisfaction; she had regarded it as a challenge. Whether she could make enough of a master of herself by the time of the Gnolls’ expo.

There was no response, but Nerrhavia didn’t need to turn her head to know that the woman creeping up behind her with a sword raised had frozen.

Two clawed hands on the blade she had been about to swing down at Nerrhavia’s neck.

The Immortal Tyrant did turn, then, purely to admire Falamizural’s plumage, which was radiant. Unlike most Garuda, hers was white and black and dark blue. It made her appear as though she were cloaked in a night sky with pale white wings and the faintest gold at their tips.

The same for her eyes. The Garuda had requested a body like the one she’d had in life; almost every ghost had had the same request.

Those golden eyes were familiar. They had both known each other in life, but Falamizural flinched the moment Nerrhavia met her eyes. She backed up a step, sword still raised—then lowered it.

She had been shaking before she stole into the room. Hesitated as she lifted the blade. Even now, she, someone with a warrior class, quailed before the Immortal Tyrant.

“Another world for you to conquer, Em—Nerrhavia?”

She tried to spit, but her voice was tight, and Nerrhavia just placed the wine cup down and kept playing.

“You cannot hear it.”

She was disappointed by that. Falamizural stared at her fingers and shook her head wordlessly.

Nerrhavia could. If she pressed a finger down, she could know how it sounded. It was, she had realized when she was young, a trait few people had. If she imagined eating a bowl of soup, she could tell you how it tasted.

Other people simply had a pale image of what that might taste or feel like. Nerrhavia had always been able to pluck the string of an instrument and hear it sound in her head. Those in her courts had picked up similar tricks; it was something you could be taught.

She had hoped one of the ghosts had some kind of culture. Alas—none did.

“Astival never managed the knack. But he was merely a [General] in my courts. [Puppetmaster Sadivictus].”

A title for ‘general’, hence its substitution in the class name. Falamizural shifted; she hadn’t known that, of course. He had been born long, long after she’d died, in the last centuries of Nerrhavia’s reign, if her memory served.

He had been with her when her empire fell. She remembered seeing Merindue raising his head before it was tossed on a pyre and hearing death whispering her name and smiled.

“Oh, Merindue. I would trade a thousand thousand Astivals for you, though you would doubtless try to murder me the moment you had a chance. With far more confidence than you, Falamizural.”

The Garuda realized Nerrhavia was only speaking partly to her. She snapped, pointing her blade at the Immortal Tyrant’s heart.

“One of me is more than enough, Nerrhavia.

The Immortal Tyrant took a sip from her wine cup and ignored the threat and blade entirely.

“Merindue was not in the throne room where I died. Few in that room survived, I gather. Those that came after had the sense to declare her [Queen]. She was an adequate ruler, a worthy foe. A brilliant subordinate before she took arms against me. Insult her memory by comparing yourself to her ever again and I will punish you.”

Falamizural flinched. Which essentially explained why Nerrhavia had no fear of the blade. If mere, unaugmented words could make a trained warrior flinch…Nerrhavia sighed and stopped playing.

“Astival and yourself are the best of my magicians. Which is a true pity. However, the great magic-users of my empire and every other made war against Seamwalkers.”

Bravely, valiantly, without a hope of salvation, they had battled the dead gods and horde of Seamwalkers. It stood to reason that the ghosts who had fled were either exceptionally good at surviving or cowards.

Falamizural had been one of the former, who’d fought her way to that lucky stroke, but Nerrhavia closed one eye and imagined a thousand women she’d rather have in the Garuda’s place.

She was good enough for some purposes. But Falamizural was a warrior-commander-spellcaster, even if she was the best at magic. For this era’s standards, she might well be an Archmage. Since Nerrhavia understood this era’s standards, that meant nothing to her.

“I will take you and Astival and Corregrione to the morrow’s events. I expect you to behave appropriately.”

The Garuda’s tongue flicked out of her beak nervously, equivalent to a Human or Stitch-person licking their lips.

“You have no more sway over me now that I have a body. You have no contract—you cannot control me.”

The Immortal Tyrant kept studying Falamizural with one bored eye.

“Keep our identities secret. You may announce yours, if you wish. I fully expect you to do as you please. I shall inform you if I wish anything done that you missed.”

The Garuda really didn’t like that. She opened her mouth, then remembered she had come here to kill Nerrhavia. She checked her sword, stared at the woman sitting there.

Yes, it would be so easy. She could lunge and run Nerrhavia through. Kill the greatest threat to the world as she saw it in the single swing of a blade. Falamizural’s arms began to shake. She flinched, staring at Nerrhavia, trying to meet those eyes.

Nerrhavia checked the position of the sun idly.

“Would you like me to turn around? I can humor you for a few more minutes.”

She raised an eyebrow, and the Garuda flushed, but she backed up a step—then another—and what she was fighting was obvious to Nerrhavia’s eyes.

Terror. So deep and ingrained that she could not imagine a world where she swung that sword and actually killed Nerrhavia.

The Immortal Tyrant thought it was understandable, if a bit of a let down. Falamizural had been one of her enemies in life. By the time she had perished, she had been beaten so utterly that it echoed across the countless aeons of her time as a ghost and up till now.

Merindue would be so much more entertaining. I could talk to her.

At last, Astival ended the Garuda’s frozen figure as he strode into the room, sword drawn. He stopped as Nerrhavia held up a hand, and Falamizural fled.

“Empress—”

He fell silent as Nerrhavia twitched her fingers. Her eyes were closed; she’d gotten bored of staring at Falamizural. She just sat there, hand held in the air, thinking. When she opened her eyes, he was kneeling, head bowed, waiting for her words.

The last member of her Immortal Empire, her final officer and commander, wasn’t her first pick either. But she had enough respect for his loyalty not to say it to his face.

He doubtless knew it, anyways.

“Allow Falamizural her foibles. If she actually attempts to kill me, I will be most gratified. The same for Corregrione. He was once a guest of my empire. Now, he must serve as a more useful tool until more may be fashioned.”

“By your will.”

He ducked his head, and she nodded.

“I shall tour the Meeting of Tribes tonight and attend their expo tomorrow. Ensure three elements are maintained.”

She flicked her fingers up. Without her usual servants, she had to be precise. Astival was capable, but he didn’t think as laterally as some. He was no…Erin Solstice. He could execute and innovate, but she truly needed some interesting servants.

She had a few candidates in mind.

“One. Keep an eye upon Kerash. Two. Ensure the seating remains appropriate. Three. Monitor the agents’ positions. They are unlikely to act tonight, but one may surprise me.”

Incompetence was the spice of any plan. Astival rose.

“It will be done.”

She motioned him out, then went back to sitting there. Thinking. Nerrhavia began to play again, a sound only she could hear. But she had a thought.

She always had thoughts.

Even when dead, she had thought and planned, though she had understood the possibility of coming back to life was remote.

One seldom got second chances. And she had never actually expected it. She had been the Immortal Tyrant. She had died.

That was all. She had been quite satisfied with her work. If one thing had tickled her, rather than nettled, it had been finding herself one among equals. Not many, but there had been Dragonlords and Giants, great rulers and legends she had known of.

Khelta, among others. Those she had respected in life and those she had scorned in this great meeting at the end of things. It had been pleasant. She had not necessarily been happy, but she had been…

Amongst peers.

Until the rot had set in, and Khelt had raised sands to guard Chandrar, and they had known a war was coming. Then Nerrhavia had been annoyed. For it turned out death was merely a holding pen for rotten, pathetic things to hunt amidst.

She had been annoyed, for she had foreseen something else in the back of her mind. A conclusion that had been confirmed by one moment.

The moment the dead God of Magic, Emerrhain, had reactivated Skills and magic and causality in the lands of the dead.

“We are all merely pieces of a game. The ranting of Goblin Kings now makes sense. The nature of Gods eludes me.”

The Immortal Tyrant had been learning in her month since Az’kerash and she had parted ways. Of what?

Well. Religion.

The one thing that had been unavailable to her, cordoned off from her understanding of the world by its absence—even, she suspected, mentally blocked.

That angered her, the idea that an entire part of her conception of the world had been excised artificially. It told her much of why this world operated as it did. The nature of Earth led her to several conclusions—but she wanted proof before solidifying any theory in her mind.

She had one conclusion, though:

“What was lost in the lands of the dead is irrecoverable. The value of a soul is greater than even I understood, or Khelta herself. Belavierr was, as always, correct.”

She would gloat about it, doubtless, if they ever met again. Nerrhavia rolled her eyes. If she understood how souls intersected with belief and divinity…well, there was something else she’d noted.

Hence the laughter. Nerrhavia stopped playing. She looked up and smiled.

In the moments between which she had destroyed that fake city and heard a world of people lament and the Skill had failed—

“It was entirely amusing. For one second, those figments of the Skill, those empty puppets, cried out in horror. Even the finest Golems and creations without Lifethread in my time could not weep like that. And yet—”

They had no souls. A fine distinction. Arbitrary, one might say. If it screamed and pleaded for life, was it not alive?

Nerrhavia could tell the difference. The most finely crafted marionette was nothing compared to the reality of even a rodent’s soul. One was fake. The other real.

Her soul was of some value to the dead gods. Ergo, there was an element to truth in this, even if this world was as artificial as she suspected. A commonality she shared with Earthers to some degree.

Here was where the Immortal Tyrant’s music grew mildly terrifying. She opened one eye, and their depths were plain brown. She had once been a humble Human woman in the failing Stitch-Empire of Ateverha.

She had kept her eyes even as she replaced flesh for cloth until she had become a Stitch-person in more than mere appearance. But the eyes…stared at something incorporeal, invisible, but that she had witnessed.

“For a second. A mere fragment of time—they reacted as people might. Yet the Skill failed. It froze over and ejected those inside rather than continue. For that was the moment, in order that the Skill might continue, that the figments of Earth-folk would require the spark of creation. Souls. Was it a failure to account for each variable? Or was it that the rules do not allow such things in this circumstance?”

She spoke, and at last, it became clear that the Immortal Tyrant was speaking to an empty room with no one lurking inside.

—But she hadn’t been speaking to herself, had she?

She stared at everything and nothing, and the Grand Design of Isthekenous experienced a flicker of something it couldn’t immediately qualify.

The Immortal Tyrant began to chuckle once more.

 

——

 

A lot had happened with Gnolls of late. And yes, that was Gnolls as a people, as generalizing as that was.

The war at the Meeting of Tribes had forced people to reckon with the species. It had certainly exposed a lot. But what was the upshot of all of it?

Well, a lot of sympathy for Gnolls, at least the ones who had been perceived as unfairly attacked. Resentment against the Walled Cities? No one liked a losing side, and the Walled Cities had been lumped with the Plain’s Eye tribe as ‘the bad guys’.

Unless you thought they had been onto something with the entire possibly-kill-all-Gnolls thing, in which case your opinion differed. And that, of course, ignored the take that Plain’s Eye had occupied, which had been thoroughly pro-Gnoll, just anti-Doombearer.

The point was, of course, that public opinion worldwide was sympathetic, but in aid of what? Nations had ‘grieved’ the loss of Gnolls.

Did that…translate into gold being sent to the survivors? Yes, actually! A few donations from individuals, some with healthy amounts attached. Avel, for instance, had made a donation to the Weatherfur tribe straight from the crown.

But it wasn’t as if people had seen the violence at the Great Plains and had the first reaction to send gold to the Gnolls.

Sympathy. Did that mean the Gnolls had a dozen treaties of mutual aid or conditional aid if they were attacked again?

No. They had people who were watching out for them. Which presumably meant they’d turn on the television and watch if someone began to kill more Gnolls. What the Gnollish tribes had after the Meeting of Tribes was a lot of their dead kindred.

The loss of multiple tribes, wholesale or in part like Steelfur. And increased hostilities with Drake cities. The regard and horror and sympathy of the world was worth spit.

That was how the Gnolls viewed things, and Inkar, who had spent the long winter with them, hadn’t gotten a soft earful of how they felt.

In fact, the Gnolls had gotten something huge. From Gnolls. And that was the New Lands of Izril. Guess who was coming to claim it? Everyone.

“It’s our land. I don’t care if no one’s explored it yet. An Archmage, our Archmage, raised it from the seas for us. If they want to tell us how sorry they are, they can shove off and stop trying to claim it.”

A Gnoll was loudly grousing over a shared dinner at the Longstalker Fang’s camp. It wasn’t the most germane of things to say; they had guests. However, the dignitaries from abroad had only rubbed salt into the collective wounds of the Gnolls here.

Here they were playing host to multiple nations for the trade expo while said nations were already in the New Lands, or preparing to be.

To their credit, at least some of the dignitaries seemed to understand this was a sore point. A pair of Nagas instantly made zipping motions to their Lizardfolk who wanted to talk about the issue.

The Minotaurs sitting across from Inkar were not so shy.

“That has been a matter of long debate in the House of Minos, if I may intrude in the conversation, Honored Deskie.”

Their leader was a Minotaur with silver-plated horns, female, with ceremonial-looking armor and a bodyguard of four. She had brought numerous gifts, which meant the Gnolls liked her; some of the delegates had brought nothing.

“Pardon the angry voices you hear, Tradespeaker Vitnay. It has been a hard winter.”

“It is not a groundless statement.”

The Minotauress shook her head. She puffed on a pipe she’d been smoking at the fire.

“If I may share—the House of Minos offered public debates on the morality of taking lands we believed were best claimed by Gnolls, or Izrilians if not them. In truth, also at the prospect of expanding from our small home. They raged for months; it was a topic which every Minotaur from young to old had opinions on. Even now, they may continue, but the conclusion we and our King reached was simple. Will you hear it?”

“With great interest.”

The Minotaur passed over a bowl of something leafy, and Inkar took some and put it in a pipe. She watched as Deskie added a coal to her pipe to smoke and copied her. It was quite fun, and the scent wasn’t annoying to other Gnolls in the open air. It felt like Inkar was inhaling a cloud without the need to cough.

“—The end result was that of practicality. A harm may be done to Gnolls. Certainly, we may take land meant for them. But try as they might, even the most passionate Minotaurs would not deny that other nations would do the same. Thus, with bitter realism, I saw many Minotaurs struggle with idealism and hard truth. The King of Minos is of the same mind. She would rather claim what may be claimed and motivate our people rather than hold back and obtain nothing at all.”

“Even if it is a moral theft?”

Deskie smiled gently, and the Minotauress rolled her shoulders before nodding. The Beriad bodyguards around her were more uncomfortable, and one took the bowl Inkar passed to him with a huge bow.

“We acknowledge it and continue to make our ships ready.”

“Well and good. It is what I would expect. At least some admit it.”

A few of the Beriad glanced up, and Deskie continued, voice even. She was not calm—she had woven so many symbols and shrouds for the dead over the last six months that Inkar had seen Deskie was just too tired for more tears. But she was reasonable.

“Surely, Archmage Kishkeria herself understood what she raised would be taken at once. It is hard for a nomadic people to claim any land. Drakes are far better. It does not make me happy, no. But the sheer fact of the New Lands will allow some Gnoll tribes to settle there. Allow some expansion and space for generations to breathe. And indeed, perhaps invite other powers to southern Izril besides Drakes. We must think of these things, and not purely of bitterness, or we will not survive the new age.”

Her voice floated across the fires of people sitting around cooking pots, and Inkar heard some of the angry voices go quiet. The Gnolls were not happy to hear the words, because they were laced with a brutal pragmatism and bitterness. But Tradespeaker Vitnay just nodded with a bow of her huge, horned head.

“It is this which I shall report to the King of Minos. Not the grace nor courage nor reason of Gnolls, though there is much to admire in all respects. But the clear view that is still maintained of the future.”

“Living beyond the Walled Cities does that to one, Tradespeaker. Let us converse of more pleasant things, though.”

The Minotauress had the same thought, for she’d broken out a huge skin of what turned out to be a Minotaur-type mead. It was strong, and Tkrn sniffed it cautiously as Inkar held out a cup. Which got her a smile from Vitnay.

“You have fine companionship for this meal, Honored Deskie. Few Humans visit the Isles of Minos, but those who are granted access are memorable to me. They seek new experiences. Do you hail from many lands, Honored Inkar?”

“Until I came to Izril, very few, Tradespeaker. But I grew hungry to experience far more after meeting the Gnolls and their generosity.”

That was the truth, and Inkar had grown adept at this kind of question. Vitnay nodded, and a Naga chimed in with a grin and hiss to their words.

“Yesss. Your gifts are a delight, Traveller Inkar! I hope ours are the same?”

[Traveller’s Gift from Home], one of Inkar’s hospitality-themed Skills. It worked amazingly with other peoples, and she had given the Naga a woven breastband made of Shockwoolie fur the Naga was happily wearing under a huge winter coat; it mitigated all static electricity.

In return, Inkar had a lovely sheath made of crocodile skin for her belt knife. Tradespeaker Vitnay had received a more interesting gift, though: an entire screenplay of The Crucible, by Arthur Miller.

As a non-American, Inkar had to assume the Skill had just picked something from Earth the Minotauress might like. She hoped that, uh, wouldn’t cause issues.

But she’d received the most splendid saddle she’d ever seen, so over-engineered that all the Beriad had asked to inspect it and declared it a copy of the finest works from the House of Minos’ leatherworkers.

That was apparently due to Vitnay’s own Skill: [Magnificent Dealings]. The synergy had created a far higher-level gift, and this was why Inkar loved this world of classes and levels.

“A fascinating read. I must say I have already told the King of Minos they will wish to borrow a copy later. Disturbing. Entirely relatable.”

Vitnay confided in Inkar, and she nodded and decided she and Tkrn should see what the play was actually like. But mindful of Vitnay’s status as an ambassador for the trade expo, she pretended as though she knew all about it. Deskie was sharper, though, and chuckled.

“You may have received a taste of what we wish to offer tomorrow, yes? Just for a guest of your caliber, Tradespeaker. I hope the House of Minos will find something pleasing to purchase.”

“Hm. I have triple-checked we have funding with the Merchant’s Guild to cover any large amounts. It is of great interest, especially when we realized it was not traditional Gnollish goods we would be buying.”

Vitnay closed one eye as Tkrn grinned, and Inkar poked him in the side. The Nagas glanced at each other, and one of the Lizardfolk chimed in.

“Yes…what are we buying, by the way?”

“You must wait and see till tomorrow. Rest assured, we have labored hard on it, and we would not have called for this bazaar—excuse me, expo—without worthy items to show.”

Deskie assured two of the Balerosian delegations, and one of the Lizardfolk wiped her brow.

“Phew. We were wondering if this was just a fundraiser after that terrible battle. Which wouldn’t be bad! But if it’s going to be fun—

One of the Nagas slapped his tail against her back, and she shut up. Everyone chuckled, and Inkar felt her heartbeat increase.

They had indeed worked hard on this. She exchanged a look with Honored Deskie, and the Gnoll [Spinner] sat with her back straight.

Yes. After all this loss and death, what did Gnolls have? Scant anything from other species. War or conflicts with lesser Drake cities. But they did have the knowledge of Earth, and Deskie had been overjoyed to realize her talents could help earn gold and tangible benefits from so many nations.

 

——

 

It was not an easy time to be a Gnollish tribe not in the Great Plains. Where the news channels often only skimmed over events, all Gnolls heard about bad news the moment it struck another tribe.

“Hrr. The Grovelind tribe has been officially ordered to leave by the Drake city of Pearlsia. They have a week to comply—or decide to fight. Another one after Woven Bladegrass sacked that town.”

They were debriefing after the dinner, and Honored Deskie was spinning some wool into simple thread, when Tkrn rushed in with the bad news. Deskie just exhaled through her nose.

“Then it means Chieftain Feshi was correct. Bitter as it will be. Has she denounced Woven Bladegrass?”

“Chieftain Akrisa did. It was a one-minute segment in an interview with Sir Relz. He had six people in the panel including her and him. Only two of them Gnolls.”

Tkrn’s face said all he felt about that. Deskie’s lips twisted as Inkar made a face of outrage. Deskie just shrugged.

“There, as I said to Vitnay, is the bitter reality of things. We must disavow them, and I only hope Chieftain Werri understands. She is a Chieftain and may speak with us.”

The Gnolls of the Meeting of Tribes were publicly cutting ties with Woven Bladegrass, who had continued to attack Drake cities in vengeance for the Walled Cities’ attacks at the Meeting of Tribes.

A number of Gnollish tribes had gone on the offensive against Drake cities for the betrayal. But Feshi and the majority of the tribes in the Great Plains were of a simple opinion.

“We cannot make war with the Drakes. Last year’s disaster is their victory. Unquestioned.”

“Not all the Walled Cities orchestrated Plain’s Eye doing what they did, though, Honored Deskie.”

Inkar pointed that out, and the [Spinner] patted her on the shoulder, a bleak look in her eyes. She was not Chieftain Eska, but Eska listened to her, and Deskie shook her head.

“Does it matter, Inkar? We have lost Chieftains, many high-level Gnolls, entire tribes. I would not be surprised if I heard this was all a great plan from the Cyclops of Pallass or the other old masterminds. We are now in a position where, if war comes, however many Drake cities knew nothing of the schemes—they are far more likely to win. I would rather have peace. But it means we must disavow tribes like Woven Bladegrass, who have every right to be furious.”

And the consequences would follow innocent Gnoll tribes, regardless. Inkar’s heart sank.

“Just another reason why we have to earn a lot of gold and remind everyone why the tribes matter! Gold buys mercenaries and weapons and everything else.”

Tkrn put in, brightening the mood a bit. The [Companion] looked around the small gathering, and Deskie smiled at him.

“Yes, and good friends like the House of Minos or even Liscor. More and more Silverfangs head there each day; it may become a second base for the Silverfang tribe. Akrisa herself says she would like to visit the city. If only because it seems she’ll eat every pancake in creation.”

For some reason, the Silverfang’s Chieftain really liked pancakes. With lots of syrup. Inkar smiled and ducked her head, and Deskie went on as Chieftain Eska pushed her way into the tent.

“I, myself, may be heading there soon. Hrm. If I agree to what is being offered.”

What?

Inkar, Tkrn, and Eska all barked. The Chieftain of Longstalker’s Fang strode over.

“Deskie! Are you really taking Rose’s mad offer seriously? We talked about this!”

The [Magical Spinner] raised a grey eyebrow.

“I recall you shouting at poor Rose. Then talking to me. I have thought about it, and if Miss Lyonette makes me a suitable offer…I do not wish to live in her inn, no.”

“Mostly because monsters attack it.”

Tkrn added under his breath, and Deskie sniffed.

“No, because of Mrsha. I adore small cubs, but she is growing, and a handful of children running underfoot will tire me out. A lovely house, I think, and plenty of room.”

“You can’t! You’re the greatest [Spinner] in all the tribes! You can’t become a City Gnoll.

Eska pointed at Tkrn as if he were what Deskie would transform into, and he looked hurt as Inkar laughed and hugged him. But she listened as Deskie growled softly back.

“Eska. I am eighty-one years old now. How much longer would you have me keep riding with Longstalker’s Fang? The tribe cannot settle here; we are a herding tribe.”

“You can stay with our representatives. We’ll have a presence.”

“Miss Lyonette offered me enough gold to buy a dozen looms and food and comfort, Eska. I love this life, but a soft bed may not be the most unpleasant thing in the world to lie in. Much less the opportunity to take a number of [Spinners] and [Weavers] and work in a city as big as Liscor.”

Eska wouldn’t hear about it. She paced back and forth.

“But why?”

Deskie rolled her eyes.

“Why not, Eska? Think beyond me ‘becoming a City Gnoll’. You have said there is no difference. Your actions speak louder than those words, now. What is wrong with taking gold to be respected, to be influential and useful? We need this. We cannot keep ourselves in our proud, isolated tribes, only deigning to trade with Drakes and outsiders when necessary. It would not be a bad thing to be in Liscor either.”

“Why not?”

Inkar was curious, and again, Deskie wore that bleak but determined expression.

“Why, because an Antinium Hive is there. If next Drakes should attack the Great Plains of Izril, who will stand against them if four armies march? Six? The remaining tribes not broken apart by Xherw’s treachery? I would rather have allies, and if an Antinium Hive would make Manus hesitate, I will knit the Antinium any number of scarves.”

Chieftain Eska’s face had turned grave at Deskie’s words, and Inkar was again struck by how strategic the old Gnoll was. Deskie went on gently to the younger Eska, poking her in the thigh.

“I am not the only older Gnoll who has had these thoughts and discussions where you young ones can’t hear, Eska. Some are set in their ways, but if I make a decision, I hope you will listen. I would hate to part ways unhappily. Besides—”

Her eyes twinkled merrily.

“Retirement in a large city will not be so bad. Sewers and all the people I may find discouraging. But sitting and watching handsome young fellows of any species play these sports will be quite amusing to me.”

“Deskie…”

Eska groaned and tried to think of a counterargument. Tkrn was imagining Honored Deskie flirting with the staff at Wishdrinks, and rather than snap him out of his daydreams, Inkar laughed softly and spoke.

“You worked very hard for the upcoming expo, Deskie. I think the clothing you made will amaze—but most of all, the instruments.”

That distracted Eska, and Deskie gave Inkar a wink of gratitude. Eska instantly went in the other direction.

“Is it working? Adetr said it was down to the wire—”

“Not my wires.”

Deskie sniffed and rubbed at her shoulder. Eska amended her statement.

“Tuning the rods or whatever hit the strings. Wires. Whatever!”

“It’s just tuning, I think.”

Inkar spoke cautiously; she wasn’t a piano player, but the blueprint they’d laboriously hand-copied looked accurate to every part. The hardest part had been when they realized piano ‘strings’ were not actually strings, but metal wire.

Well, everything about a piano was hard, from the frame to the way each lever had to correspond to a push of a key. But Tkrn lit up with excitement.

“It should be fine. We had a heck of a time figuring out how to do blueprints like we do with everything from Earth. But now I think we figured it out so that we can have someone carve a piece to exacting dimensions and then have the [Smiths] do their bit and fit it all together. Adetr’s been fixated on measurements.”

“We know.”

Inkar, Eska, and Deskie chorused as one. The Steelfur’s Chieftain was one of the ones leading the charge into Earth’s technology, and he’d found how important it was to have perfect measurements when constructing something piece-by-piece.

It was a mix of easy and hard to copy something from Earth. Cooking recipes? Not the worst! The trick was either finding the exact ingredient like cacao, which was more a question of supply and demand and growing your own stuff, or finding a substitute.

Everything else, from blending to cooking at the right heat, could be approximated with Skills. And of course, there were all kinds of video tutorials online.

The Gnolls with cooking classes had a field day and actually occupied a very low percentage of Gnolls in [The World of You and Me]. One would go in, come out after a few hours, and then head into their kitchens to make whatever they’d decided to copy.

Same with music, plays, or written things. A Gnoll had to go in and copy everything down. Usually, it was a Gnoll with splendid handwriting, and they’d begun getting classes like [Transcriber] or [Copycat] and Skills to boot.

Art now…that was tough. A few [Artists] had gone into the Earth-Skill and had produced no copies of Earth’s art—when Adetr had gone to find them, they’d been studying new art techniques and ideas and refused to just copy Earth-art over.

But it was machines, gadgets, engineering where things got tricky. Which, of course, was Adetr’s purview.

“The problem is—”

“Metallurgy. Tkrn, please stop.”

Inkar put her head down as Deskie yawned. Tkrn looked hurt, and Eska growled.

“Even Chieftain Mrell says he can’t keep quality to Earth-standards yet. At least, not without dedicated Skills. Anything with smaller bits of metal works though, yes?”

“Yes…but we want really big stuff. So we’re going to have to invent industry—”

Inkar tried to shoo him off.

“Yes, yes. Come back when you’ve done that, please.”

In truth, it wasn’t the wrong idea. Anything made of metal, especially things that needed to survive high tolerances—like an engine—needed to be strong. Even with enchantments, Adetr had found out that not everything could survive compressing a combustible material. To his cost.

There had been incidents as over-zealous Gnolls had pushed what was possible. For the expo, Feshi had told the Earth-researchers to make what was practical, not dangerous to life and limb, and marketable.

Hence the piano.

 

——

 

It was an amazing proof-of-concept. You see, the piano was simultaneously not on the level of, say, a computer or even a steam engine, which required so many moving parts figuratively and literally that it was beyond Gnollish ambitions.

Pianos had been invented in the 1700s of Earth and had similarities to other inventions of both Earth and this world. What made them so unique to Earth as opposed to this one were a few factors:

 

1. Mechanical complexity. The simple way a key moved internal levers so that an inner hammer struck the right wire to create a sound was beyond most species. Only a Drake or Minotaur [Engineer] would have the mindset and Skills to make it.

2. Material. Despite Inkar’s and Rose’s beliefs at the time, pianos had a number of components that ran beyond good quality wood. Piano wire, for instance, was a wire stretched across the piano, not string as Inkar had actually assumed. That also pushed most [Smiths] out of the running for making it.

3. Mass assembly. It was one thing to make a single work of art. Another for Gnolls to envision a system to create multiple pianos without variance or a lot of time per one.

 

Adetr had taken the challenge on in full. He had begun by implementing strict standards about how Gnolls were to lay out their blueprints and parts. No eyeballing things, no variance in output like the artisans were used to—identical pieces, especially with any Earth technology.

The goal was to measure everything three times and cut or forge once. Paper and parchment had become commodities in the Meeting of Tribes; if you didn’t have it laid out in a schematic, none of the artisans would make it.

He’d chosen pianos to attempt as one of the most ambitious offerings because of their size and probable value. Also, because they were a musical instrument so ubiquitous to Earth that almost any song could be played on one.

So the Gnolls had gotten to work. They had advantages: they could literally get a video and watch a piano being constructed or go up to one and take it apart to see how it worked.

That sometimes backfired when a really angry mall pianist in the simulation came by to see a bunch of assholes taking apart his piano—but it meant that Gnollish [Carvers] and [Carpenters] had a lot of confidence in the parts.

Assembly was a whole other matter. Many Gnolls took a look at the parts making up a piano and got a headache. Inkar had been the best and hadn’t understood why until Rose broke it down for Adetr.

“You’re all expecting to get a Skill to make it easy. No one here thinks outside the box. There is no box.

Adetr had pointed to the piano frame.

“That’s a box.”

The point was that without anyone to learn from or the expectation of a class, Gnolls had to wrap their heads around the idea of, well, constructing things they had never thought of. It was like how they regarded Drake siege weapons as a type of magic. Inkar and Rose knew it was physics, even if both would have had trouble explaining them perfectly.

Inkar could see the counterweight of a trebuchet moving. She understood gravity and motion enough to infer how it worked. Gnolls looked at a trebuchet and didn’t get the relationships the Earthers did.

Adetr was actually one of the more adaptive Gnolls here. He sat and puzzled and frowned his way into understanding, but what happened when you had grumpy [Artisans] who tossed a bunch of screws and pieces of wood down and said it was impossible to make work right?

Well.

You sent them to class.

Literal class. There were about ten to twenty Gnoll children who went to school each day and sat in class and learned Earth lessons. Their parents had been dubious about it, but after being inducted into the Earth secrets, they’d agreed that if their children were willing, it was an investment in the future.

…It had a side-effect, of course.

 

——

 

“Sanrat! What are you doing?”

“Nothing!”

Rose had had to chase down one of the Gnoll boys who’d begun going to school. He turned guiltily on his way to have fun with some children from the simulation—by playing games on the computer at their house. The boy ran for it as Rose chased after him. She almost grabbed him, despite his agility, before he leapt onto an electric scooter and zoomed into traffic, laughing until he ran into Adetr.

 

——

 

Some of the children were more interested in smartphones or all the wonders of Earth and would forget that the food they ate in the fake reality didn’t actually give them nutrition. However! There were also Gnolls in their late teens or twenties, and they had a different sort of course.

 

——

 

“You’re so very, very helpful. Thank you for volunteering your time.”

A Human woman was looking on in a kind of dismay as Adetr straightened his vest and nodded to a group of six determined Gnolls ranging from twelve to twenty-four.

“Not at all Miss—er, Ma’am. We’ll have this built in no time flat. Ready?”

One of the Gnolls in ‘training’ was holding up a diagram with some apprehension, but the rest were balancing and assembling pieces of wood. The woman nodded, slightly taken aback.

Helpful Constructors was a non-profit charity organization that operated primarily in the United States of America…and Sweden. It was a local youth group that Rose had helped set up, and you could generally convince someone you belonged to the group if you fast-printed a logo onto a t-shirt or just worked with a church or something.

The entire idea of the non-profit was a ‘youth-based holistic approach to community engagement’, which had given Inkar a headache when Rose told Adetr to memorize it. And what they did was go around to older people and build furniture for them.

From IKEA. Or other brands. Even washers, dryer installations—Adetr was scheming how to do more complex work, but the act of putting together a chair from component parts generally taught the younger Gnolls how to get their heads around the act of construction.

More than one grateful fake Earth-person had watched a team of six growl at each other before managing to put together a bed frame or chair. And if it turned out someone had forgotten a key piece and the entire thing snapped…well, it was good it was a simulation, huh?

 

——

 

The end result was that, within a month, Adetr had more than enough Gnolls who had begun to fully embrace or think in Earth concepts. He found the best people to recruit were [Blacksmiths], artisans—obviously—younger people, by and large—

But also Gnolls who enjoyed blacksmith puzzles or were experts in rarer fields, like [Birdwatchers]—which was a class. They were only too happy to go and watch videos on Earth’s species and understand more about basic biology.

But for the purposes of the piano, the mechanics had been knocked down as well as the blueprints after many, many attempts to get the pieces machined to be as precise and accurate as possible. And the final part, the difficulty of construction?

Well. Thank Honored Deskie for that one.

 

——

 

“Metal wire. Metal wire. It’s too damn hard to make!”

Adetr had smashed a fist down as he and Chieftain Mrell had labored over the issue. A strand of the metal fiber that a piano called for, even a crude strand, was hard.

The Gnoll [Smiths] were working outdoor furnaces; portable ones, by and large. They could make armaments for their warriors and other necessities, but only a Drake forge in a big city had the capability to make long wire spools.

“We can build a forge, Adetr. We’re already working on laying the groundwork. I just can’t do it now.”

The best Mrell, the most expert smith, had gotten to was three strands of wire, and they weren’t identical. He tossed down his tools.

“You said this was like making chainmail, Adetr, and I took you at your word—until I remembered how many damn ways it’s made. You want identical steel wires? I know the technique; you forge a long wire of steel and then cut the pieces up after bending them. That’s how Master Demastel would have done that.”

The Dwarf he’d learned from had been an expert of metal. Adetr nodded, frowning.

“That’s what I assumed. Is chainmail not made like that?”

It might be strange for someone from the Steelfur tribe not to know armor that well considering how much Adetr fought, but if you thought about it…he had little need for armor to begin with.

“That’s how it’s made by the best [Smiths].”

Mrell corrected Adetr. He sighed as he regarded the wires.

“Demastel described it to me. You need a specialized ‘die’—not a dye for colors, something that narrows the metal as it runs through it. He said some Drake cities like Pallass might have the tools. Every other smith? They hand-hammer metal into wires. Or they make a sheet and punch the links out. Adetr, I don’t have the setup I need to make this wire.”

He turned to the younger Gnoll, and Adetr scratched his head, woebegone.

“We can build it for you. They have fancy machines you feed it through. I’ll search up older techniques of making it after this. I thought it’d be as easy as chainmail, though…”

Mrell just shook his head tiredly. Inkar watched nervously; Rose had left by this point, and the piano was nearing completion in every aspect but the most important ones.

The wires that produced the sound of the piano were devilishly hard for Gnolls to make. They had to not only be thin, perfectly identical, and pure—they had to withstand incredible force.

18,000 kilograms of force on the piano’s board! Already, they’d had to enchant the piano’s board, but the wire?

“I never had to make wire before. I’ll ask some smiths I know if they’ve done it.”

Mrell was shaking his head as the Earth research teams worried over the problem. That was when Honored Deskie came by.

“Oh dear. I heard shouting. Is this the piano? I just was in [The World of You and Me] and attended a concert. It was wonderful music.”

She was quite invested in the Earth projects and gave Inkar a bright smile as Inkar came over to hug her. Adetr nodded.

“Any insights with your time, Honored Deskie?”

“Only that I think it will impress our guests. I mostly spent time listening to the concert. Then I went on the internet web thing and…”

Deskie hesitated. Then leaned over to Inkar.

“Inkar. Your species has far too much lewd material online. Of far too many creatures.”

She gave Inkar a pointed look, and the Earther began to protest it wasn’t her fault. But Deskie was already heading over to the piano, shaking her head.

“The things I saw…what is the problem?”

Mrell explained the wire issue. Deskie listened as she eyed the places waiting for the wire, then snorted softly.

“Wire that thin? Humans and their technology. Adetr Steelfur, you silly cub.”

Then she pinched his ear as he gave her a bewildered look.

“What? What?

“Not everything Earth does is the fastest way. Remember, for everything they do which is more ‘optimal’ than our world, we have something they cannot equal. How thin is it?”

He produced precise measurements, and Deskie hmmed.

“…I have no idea how thin that is. Here. Give me this, and I’ll give it a try. Hrm. Oh, my shoulders, it’s been ages since I had to do this.”

And with that, she took a bar of copper, handed it to Tkrn to carry since it was heavy, walked back to her spinning wheel, and sat down. Then—Inkar had felt that tingling on the back of her neck and seen the old [Magical Spinner] smile at her.

“[Spindle, Snag My Thread].”

She had done something Inkar couldn’t see. Attached one end of the copper bar to the spindle, then begun to work the wheel slowly. It had been difficult; the normally easy spinning wheel had tried to resist, but Deskie had begun to spin out a line of brilliant wire, at first only a small amount, then faster and faster as Tkrn gasped and Adetr slapped his forehead so hard he nearly knocked himself out.

There was a legend on Earth of a princess spinning straw into gold. Deskie might not have been that high-level, but the copper ‘thread’ she made was actually so fine it was too thin for the piano.

Piano wire obtained. ♪ Do doo doo! ♬

Rose had made the sound over the speaking stone when Inkar told her about it. She refused to elaborate what it meant.

 

——

 

Back to the present. Everyone could assure Eska that the piano was done. Absolutely done. It only needed tuning, and if someone broke it beyond needing another string, they would be murdered. With a copper wire garotte.

In short, all was in readiness for the expo tomorrow. Inkar had high hopes. If not for the problem with the Earth simulation, she would have been bouncing with excitement. Eska was giving Inkar, Tkrn, and Deskie a rundown of what tomorrow would look like.

“We’re just setting up seats and refreshments in the tent we’re hosting the event in. Theikha has been bossing everyone around. Including me. She keeps asking about the seating.

Gnolls took a communal approach to tasks like these, so a Chieftain like Eska would be responsible for setting up the entire area with her tribe. It worked well, but she was clearly annoyed.

“Seating?”

“Yes, I place them down, and she puts them—it is a small thing. Shaman Theikha knows how important this is. Forget about it.”

She dismissed her grievances, too embarrassed to grouse about a minor issue like that before other Gnolls. Eska went on.

“Wistram has agreed to host the event for us on scrying orbs; we just need enough to show all the nations.”

“Did they charge us?”

Tkrn asked sardonically, and Eska sighed.

“No. The price was we had to say it was ‘courtesy of the Terras faction’ and let the Archmage of Memories participate. Given that it was Wistram…we agreed.”

The Gnollish grudge against Wistram had been mitigated by the revelation they could learn magic, but simultaneously been enhanced by Wistram’s culpability in that lie by sheer incompetence or because they’d been in on it.

However, brutal practicality. The only other thing Eska warned Inkar about was the guests nearer to home.

“You are to stay hidden, Inkar, yes? No popping up to help. If someone fails, they fail. Adetr knows everything, anyways. The guests are to mingle and do…fancy things. We will feed them like Goldflake Pigs and give them time to socialize. There will be powers like Nerrhavia’s Fallen and many more. Chandrarian nations, Balerosian ones; smaller ones I have never heard of. Archmage Eldavin pulled connections, as did Shaman Theikha and the Chieftains. We will impress them. But there will be no Drakes present save one.”

“No Drakes?”

That worried Inkar. The problem with a giant expo was that the nearest groups who had money to buy things were, well, Drakes.

Drakes, who were not exactly well loved in the Great Plains at this moment. Eska bared her teeth.

“They may watch and bid on the items, and we shall see how well it goes, yes? Only three Drake cities were allowed access. Guess which ones.”

“Was one Liscor?”

Inkar’s guess was wrong, and ironically, the Liscorian, Tkrn, was right. He shook his head instantly.

“We can’t buy goods like that, and we’re not that famous. It’s Pallass, Salazsar, and Oteslia.”

The Cities of Inventions, Gems, and Growth. Of course. The Walled Cities who’d fought against the others, even if it had only been a band of a hundred soldiers in Pallass’ case. Eska sniffed and nodded approvingly at Tkrn.

“We do not forget. Tomorrow, then. We will impress all these nations and, tribes willing, make enough gold to help every tribe. As well as connections.”

“Lyonette said she’d help as much as she could too.”

Eska rolled her eyes as Inkar added that.

“Yes, yes. If she wants to send us a hundred gold pieces, we will accept it too. Let’s trust in the expo, hm?”

And with that, Inkar went to sleep. She wondered why, when she rose in the morning, despite the excitement and nerves and everything else she felt, there was a current underneath it all. Of…unease?

She couldn’t have said why. She didn’t even process the feeling at first. But as the dignitaries began arriving, like Tradespeaker Vitnay, a few more interesting guests appeared.

Including a stranger from distant lands and times. Inkar didn’t notice her at first, but meeting her would prove to be one of the most important encounters of Inkar’s life.

 

——

 

Over a hundred countries had sent a delegate in person, if you included the mercenary companies of Baleros. Nearly twice that number were watching via scrying orb.

Every single orb in the Meeting of Tribes had been borrowed from their owners and pressed into service, and the morning saw Chieftain Eska fretting as she had her tribe setting up each nation at their tables and solving technical issues.

“—No, you’re looking the wrong way—Your Majesty of Jecrass? Your Majesties?”

When Inkar poked her head into the tent, she saw Shaman Pulsg trying to direct the omnidirectional scrying orb towards the stage. He was writing on a plaque, crossing out ‘King Raelt of Jecrass’ and writing ‘King Raelt of Jecrass and Queen Jecaina of Jecrass’ on the back.

The King of Duel’s voice had that strained patience of people having technical difficulties as he replied.

“Hold on. Our [Mages] are refocusing the orb. Is this the right…no, I’m staring at your midriff.”

Technical issues. Inkar hid a grin as Pulsg turned to the Wistram [Mage] trying to do the same to five dozen orbs at once.

Like any Gnoll [Shaman], he ended up solving the problem by getting five pieces of wood and making a box which she placed the scrying orb inside.

“There. If you’re staring at a piece of wood, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”

“Oh, that’s so much easier. Thank you. Why doesn’t Wistram just do that with their fancy calibration spells?”

Pulsg gave the Wistram [Mage] a superior look as the harried Human man asked to borrow the box. Then the [Shaman] bent over.

“If you would like to adjust your view during the expo, or get a closer look at anything, please signal us via [Message] spell, Your Majesties.”

“Thank you, Shaman Pulsg.”

“Thank you, Your Majesties. Longstalker’s Fang does not forget our friends.”

Hence why they were being set up at one of the head tables closest to the expo. Inkar would have loved to go over and talk to the rulers of Jecrass if she could. They had been here at the battle, but she hadn’t been able to talk.

Eska’s tribe was doing well. The Chieftain was standing with a carefully annotated map of the huge room with the stage in the center so that everyone might see what was on display. She was placing nations at each table; it was important to do correctly.

“Put the Chandrarian Stitch-folk nations at that table. It says Reneiz, the Lantern Lands—not the same as the Lantocracy of Bitorm, remember—Scaied all at that table.”

She was directing lesser nations further out from the center. Everyone would have a good enough view, but there was a pecking order, and Inkar had only heard of one of those nations Eska had mentioned. A Gnoll frowned at several Stitch-folk delegates waiting to be seated.

“Nerrhavia’s Fallen there too?”

Eska fumbled with the map.

“What? Absolutely…not. Put them at the larger table there. With Rhir’s delegate.”

The delegates would be sitting with a mix of scrying orbs and real people, but Inkar didn’t think that mattered too much. Rulers were peeking out of scrying orbs, or their entire courts were present, and she saw some of the people, like the small court of Silk Stitch-folk from Nerrhavia’s Fallen, had brought no less than three scrying orbs for their table.

“Nerrhavia’s Fallen greets the Blighted Kingdom, our sworn allies by pact and deed and stitch. May you walk on the bones of tyrants.”

The lead [Ambassador] gave a long bow to Rhir’s [Diplomat] and an even longer introduction of his court and the Court of Silks watching from Nerrhavia’s Fallen itself. Even the Queen of that nation might be watching. The man completely ignored the lesser Stitch-folk, some of whom weren’t even Silk, to their visible annoyance.

“Looks like it’s going well…”

Eska had just spotted Inkar sneaking into the tent when someone strode up. If Chieftain Eska was busy getting the seating done, Shaman Theikha was personally welcoming the most important delegates into the tent with Chieftains Feshi, Akrisa, and Orelighn.

“Eska. The seating is messed up again.”

“What? No it’s not. I have them—”

Eska peered at the floor plan and tried to show Theikha, but the [Shaman] was glancing back.

“Khelt’s delegate has arrived. I must welcome them—fix it.”

“Fix what?

Theikha was already gone, and Eska frowned at the map. Inkar stood on her tip-toes to see over Eska’s shoulder.

“It looks right to me.”

“She must want someone sat elsewhere. I’ll correct it, but we can’t just move the monarchs around. Well, we can, but then they get annoyed.”

Eska sighed; it wasn’t going to matter that much once they were all settled. Then she noticed Inkar and growled.

You’re supposed to be staying out of view. Out! Go find Tkrn!”

“He’s helping set up—”

“Then go outside and pretend to be a guest! Shoo!”

Eska beckoned, and a Gnoll chased Inkar out. Sighing, the [Worldly Traveller] had to stand in the melting snow and watch from afar as Theikha welcomed Khelt.

All this talk about nations giving their support to the Gnolls really was lip service. When the Walled Cities and traitors turned against the Gnolls, where was the world? Glued to their television screens.

The value of the concord of nations was represented in only one kingdom in the world: Khelt. They alone had marched armies into the Great Plains and changed fate in no small way.

Small wonder they were being personally led to the tent by Shaman Theikha, a small group of Kheltians walking past a bunch of quietly offended Terandrians. However, even larger kingdoms didn’t quite dare sneer at Khelt.

Everyone remembered the King of Khelt riding across Chandrar, threatening war with any nation that dared cross him—and then doing exactly what he had promised.

He had thrown a gigantic gemstone halberd through one of Zeres’ towers. Brought an army of a million undead soldiers onto Izril’s shores. Survived a combined bombardment of the six Walled Cities. Returned A’ctelios Salash to slumber—Inkar had even heard he’d found time to leap a giant canyon on a horse.

Just for fun? The Kheltian delegation was holding a scrying orb that definitely allowed Fetohep to see through it. They made only one stop before entering the tent and claiming their seat of honor.

A younger Gnoll was standing by the doorway, greeting each representative and noting something in a book she held. Satar Silverfang, the [Historian of the World], was receiving more attention from some monarchs than Shaman Theikha.

The reason for that was sadly obvious. Satar had been on television. She was the Gnoll who’d made her appeal for stories. Theikha was just a ‘Great Shaman of the Plains’ from the Gaarh Marsh tribe, whatever that meant.

Inkar edged closer and heard a bright voice echoing from a scrying orb being held by a rather effluently dressed man. And yes, that was the right word for it; he had clothing that looked like it was more liquid than cloth.

Desonis. Queen Geilouna was speaking brightly to Satar.

“G-e-i-l-o-u-n-a. I see it misspelled constantly. Is this to be some event noted down in the annals of Gnollish history, Shaman Satar?”

“I may only hope so, Your Majesty. I will certainly note down your kind words and presence.”

Satar ducked her head, aglow with delight at being able to meet so many rulers—and note down their names and words! However trivial, Inkar just bet it would help Satar level.

“Yes, well. I do expect I shall see something fascinating. And it is a welcome distraction since…since…”

Since the Earl of Rain’s passing. The voice fell silent, and Satar tried to keep smiling as the delegate hurriedly bowed.

“Your Majesty, I shall convey us into the expo.”

“Oh? Yes, go ahead, Diplomat Nebersa. I’ll just take a nap…do my introductions for me, would you? Especially if we’re seated next to Itreimedes of Avel. Please, tell me we’re not—he’ll talk the entire…”

More delegates. Now came the House of Minos and Tradespeaker Vitnay. But the Minotaurs were preceded by a yowl that drew everyone’s attention.

A snarling chorus of voices; a Drake group from Salazsar flinched and backed up fast as an entire pack of gigantic wild cats bounded forwards!

Lions! Inkar leapt back fast. She had never seen one except in zoos in Kazakhstan. But there were near a dozen loose! She heard them yowling, a frightening sound—and then saw a grinning group of nobles rush forwards in a whoop.

“Hail, wild folk of the plains! Kaaz Dorem Laegriser, the Kingdom of the Infinite Dungeon, has arrived! Greetings, from one wild-hearted people to another!

Ah, yes. Kaaz. They literally ran past the other delegates, and Inkar covered her eyes slightly—out of embarrassment. The Gnolls looked at each other as Kaaz, dressed in adventurous clothing despite the chill in the air, prowled amongst the giant cats they loved so much.

Clearly, they felt like they had an affinity with the Gnolls in some way. ‘Wild-hearted peoples’, was it? The Gnolls looked at the overgrown cats with as much chagrin as the other delegates.

If Inkar was any judge, she would have bet the House of Minos would be thought of far better than the Kaazians, despite one of the latter bounding forwards to shake a hand and announce herself as Hundredlady something-or-other. Respect was, among other things, waiting your turn in line.

I wish I could have joined the welcoming committee. Or be backstage! But either option would have made her too noticeable. There were enough Humans here, both from delegates and merchants and Wistram’s [Mages], to give Inkar some cover. But being the one Human with the Gnolls when all the Earth-tech was unveiled would be a dead giveaway.

Thus, Inkar just got to watch as more and more delegates appeared. She was just watching a scrying orb from Calanfer being introduced to Satar when she felt her head turning.

A new group was walking into the Meeting of Tribes. Of course, there were so many delegations that that was hardly surprising. But Inkar’s eyes focused on this quartet.

She could not have said why. They were far less numerous than the entire courts surrounding some ambassadors like that of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and the lone Rhirian [Diplomat] flanked by bodyguards was far more notable.

Yet the moment Inkar saw the Stitch-woman walking forwards, followed by a middle-aged Gnoll, a tall, thin Stitch-man, and a magnificent Garuda with white wings—she couldn’t look away.

Four of them. Each one odd and unique.

A Gnoll, two Stitch-folk, and a Garuda? What nation was this? Perhaps they were all individual delegates or represented [Merchants] of some kind. Inkar stared first at the Garuda, because they were exceptionally few in number, even here.

She had black feathers, or perhaps exceptionally dark blue, from her face to her legs, but her wings turned pale-white, even edged with gold at the tips. Her eyes were the same color; she held her head high, and Inkar felt like she had both the air of Adetr—a warrior—and of Theikha.

She was looking around the Meeting of Tribes, nodding to Gnolls she made eye-contact with. Smiling, eyes filled with sympathy and…some kind of intense loneliness or longing. Or maybe even fear?

Whenever she glanced at the person she followed, she slowed a step, as if to leave the group, but then she’d hurry to keep up. Yet she kept her head high and looked the most regal of the lot, a ruler of Garuda in her own right. Except when she stared ahead.

The Gnoll walked with a long staff in hand, a traveller’s cloak thrown behind him. He looked like an owl with its feathers ruffled as his head cocked from sight to sight, but his gaze was that of pure nostalgia. One look at him and Inkar would have bet he was an Honored Gnoll of some tribe. He had the same presence as the others.

That of people who were high-level. However, if the Gnoll was more like a long-lost traveller returning home, smiling around, waving at little Gnoll cubs who ignored their elders for the more interesting people—

The tall Stitch-man gave Inkar the creeps. He strode around with a curious gait, his legs articulating each movement fluidly, but with a staccato quality to each component part of the action. Like he was an animatronic, a robot going through each stage of motion so quickly it became fluid—but was noticeably different.

His skin was pale, odd for a Stitch-man—and his entire body was elongated. He had a pointed chin, dark clothing like he was some kind of conductor, but a regal one, and he carried a simple sword at his waist. Yet clearly, he deferred to the woman walking in the center of the small group. Flanked by Gnoll and Stitch-man, the Garuda trailing behind.

She was just a woman. Dusky brown skin, plain winter clothes about her. She had dressed like a simple traveller, far from the flashy clothing of Kaaz’s nobles or the water-dress of Desonis. Her eyes were a plain brown as well. And yet it seemed to Inkar as though they beckoned her.

When she turned her head, the woman took in the world in a moment. Everything she saw was sorted into two camps. What was interesting and what was not. She never looked twice at the things that bored her.

Her hair was black like a raven’s feather. Inkar felt like there should have been stitchmarks on the woman’s arms, but her skin was just smooth and whole. A Human woman?

“Who is that?”

No one else seemed to notice her. The quartet fell into line with the other delegates, and few paid more than a second glance to this woman. Inkar began to walk closer. It was a compulsion.

 

——

 

“Welcome, honored guests. Your names, if you please?”

One of Longstalker Fang’s [Shamans] was checking people in line just to make sure they were supposed to be here. They addressed the Garuda first.

The Garuda blinked at the Gnoll, and her eyes slid leftwards to the woman in the center as Inkar hurried over. She opened her beak, then closed it with a soft click.

She said nothing. The [Shaman] hesitated.

“Er—your name, Miss? Your nation?”

The Garuda was silent. The [Shaman] hesitated.

“Excuse me? Sir, are you with them? One of the tribes, perhaps?”

The Gnoll said nothing either. He gave the [Shaman] a patient look, jerked his eyes sideways—the [Shaman] blinked, then spoke to the woman.

“Miss?”

“Hello. I am a guest of your people.”

The woman in the center spoke, her voice soft and confident. The [Shaman] dipped his head.

“May I know your nation, Your…Miss? Your name?”

“No. I am on your list.”

Inkar was wavering between getting closer, mindful of Eska’s words. She wondered what the poor [Shaman] would say to that, then the Gnoll ticked something on the list.

“So you are. Welcome, Your…Miss. May I know who your companions are?”

Inkar’s mouth opened. But the [Shaman] turned smoothly to the others as if that settled that. Maybe it did? Some guests might have anonymity clauses?

The others in the group were more forthcoming, however. The Stitch-man spoke first before the other two.

“Astival. Commander. That will do as a title.”

He did not elaborate further. The Gnoll went next and grinned.

“Corregrione. Lands sing your name, [Shaman]. I am indeed a Gnoll of the Heartlands. I walk the wayward path from the land of passing sands. I have brought no gift save my fur; forgive me. But may that be enough, tribes willing.”

The [Shaman]’s mouth opened, and Inkar’s ears lit up at the curious address. The [Shaman] stuttered.

“L-lands sing your name, Corregrione. Gracious, I haven’t heard that address except in the old stories.”

“Truly?”

Corregrione blinked, and the Gnoll straightened as he planted his staff in the ground. His cloak swept around him as he glanced around the Meeting of Tribes, and Inkar was greatly disappointed to realize it was just plain cloth like the rest of the apparel the group wore.

She felt it should have been more…something. But Deskie had taught her how to see magic in weaves, and he had none. Still—the Gnoll murmured.

“Greetings still, Keeper. Is it magic or stories you hold?”

“Magic? Stories? I’m, uh—a [Shaman] of magic, one supposes. Longstalker’s Fang.”

“Oh? Does your tribe wander, then?”

The newcomer glanced at the others in the group, but the woman seemed to be vaguely amused by the exchange, and the Stitch-man was blank-faced. The Garuda was just listening with acute attention, so the [Shaman] gave the foreign Gnoll a faint smile.

“Ye-es. We’re nomads. Famous for it, actually. You must be from abroad. The land of dust and…”

“Hrr. Chandrar. Forgive me. I spoke fancifully. It has been a long, long time since I last set foot on Izril’s plains. It is nostalgic for me, [Shaman]. If I could have, I would have brought the smallest of gifts. But my tribe is long gone. I recognize so few names.”

This, at least, drew the [Shaman]’s sympathy, and he ducked his head.

“…A more and more common tale. May I know which tribe you hailed from? There may be Gnolls who remember it.”

Corregrione hesitated. He looked at the woman who had refused to give her name, and she nodded, as if allowing it. He paused, as if thinking, then smiled.

“Once, they were called the Gnolls who held the regard of mountains. The Tribe of Thunder’s Voice.”

“I…don’t know it. But I will make a note of it. Welcome, brother. Do you have any title or class I should note?”

The [Shaman]’s look of brief doubt echoed Inkar’s own. She had never heard a Gnollish tribe with a name so fanciful. But the Gnoll took the welcome with a nod of his head.

“I have returned home. I am Corregrione, [Traveller]. Though I recognize only Gaarh Marsh and Weatherfur—let it be a fine day for homecoming.

So saying, he struck the ground with the tip of his staff, and Inkar stared at him—then felt something on the back of her neck.

She looked up, shading her eyes, and gasped. The sky—!

It had been a grey morning, not the oppressive clouds of winter with snowflakes drifting down, but a sullen spring morning that might offer inclement weather in the form of sprinkles or a short downpour.

—At least, right up until a circle had opened in the clouds above, letting sunlight pour down. Blue skies shone on the Meeting of Tribes as Gnolls stopped dead in their tracks, pointing up.

Every Weatherfur Gnoll in the area instantly spun and dropped what they were doing. A clamor arose, and the [Shaman] noted Corregrione’s slight smile, and studied the Gnoll more intently.

Inkar thought her heart had stopped.

A [Traveller]? Her class?

“Did you just—?”

For answer, the Gnoll just lifted a furry finger to his lips. He smiled, and then Inkar knew he was an Honored Gnoll of some kind.

“The blessing of a traveller be upon you. I have walked the land of dust and passing rains for a thousand thousand miles. My home is a bittersweet memory. If it welcomes me a time, I shall rejoice.”

“It—it does indeed.”

The [Shaman] was looking around for Theikha, Eska, or someone to talk to, but then realized they had forgotten the final member of the group.

“I am terribly sorry, Miss. May I know your name and title and class?”

The Garuda bowed stiffly, glancing at the other three with distaste that was evident in her voice. It was soft, yet resonant.

“I am not with them. I am Falamizural. My home is no more. I am…”

Her beak closed, and she swallowed. For a second, she stood there, lost, and her eyes fell bleakly on the woman’s back. The unnamed woman never glanced back, and Falamizural whispered.

“I am no one you would remember.”

“I, uh, I see. Do you have anything I should note down, Lady Falamizural…?”

The [Shaman] was having a really hard time with the guests. Yet it seemed the title was appropriate. Falamizural whispered.

“‘Lady’. Yes, I suppose that fits. I am the one who is called on, even now.”

She turned her golden gaze to the [Shaman]. Then shot another challenging glance at the unnamed woman’s back. Her voice rose with a note of confidence.

“If any here are in danger, speak my name. I am the guardian of innocence. I was once counted among the glorious blades drawn for a cause, wherever it was needed. If a beast rises without a mind of reason, I shall slay it. I am warrior and spellcaster in service of life, not the halls of death nor any other aegis. I have not forgotten that.

Pride. Grief. Uncertainty becoming resolve. She said all that without a hint of embarrassment, and the Gnoll [Shaman] stood there with a mouth open and tried to figure out how to write that down.

“Write [Paladin]. It is close enough.”

The unnamed woman advised the Gnoll after a moment, and the [Shaman] blinked at her. The Garuda gave the woman such a look of outrage that Inkar suspected the class was wholly inadequate as a descriptor.

“Be welcome to the Meeting of Tribes. The expo is about to start in twenty minutes.”

The [Shaman] almost fled this strange group to the next people in line. Unfortunately, the people behind the quartet had heard the entire thing.

“Your Majesty! May I greet the King of Avel and ask whom else I should introduce?”

A rather strained voice echoed from a scrying mirror behind the group of four.

“Er—yes. I am King Itreimedes of Avel, and with me is my court—you don’t need their names. Princess Kadane of Noelictus—wait. Hold on. I am the bow that shoots in the darkness. I am the arrow that strikes my foes—damn. Give me a second. I am the fletching of my kingdom—Kadane, where are you going? Kadane?”

The Garuda had flushed when she realized Itreimedes was either making fun of her or copying her to dreadful effect. She stepped back and spoke abruptly to the woman.

“I am leaving.”

“Mm.”

The woman still didn’t even turn her head. Falamizural hesitated.

“Am I…allowed to do that?”

A hefty sigh from the woman, who was flicking her fingers in a way both the Gnoll and Stitch-man, Corregrione and Astival, were paying attention to. They seemed to dance into curious signs.

Sign language? If so, Inkar couldn’t tell what it was saying, but it looked more elegant than even that.

“I told you to act as you wilt, Falamizural. Now approach, child. Or cease staring.”

That comment was directed at Inkar. Falamizural backed up a step, then spread her wings. She leapt into the air, giving Inkar a look that seemed warning. But then she banked into the skies and vanished.

Inkar would have stared after Falamizural, but she realized she’d been spotted. She had been staring.

“Ah. Hello, honored guests. I apologize. I am Inkar, a visitor to the Meeting of Tribes. May I greet you? As a [Traveller] to honored guests.”

Corregrione’s eyes lit up, and he smiled.

“A fellow [Traveller]? By your leave, Your Majesty, may I speak with her?”

Another sigh.

“These are not my courts, Corregrione. Do as you see fit.”

He strode forward and clasped Inkar’s hand warmly. Corregrione grinned and sniffed her, politely, and she sniffed back.

“I do not know how the greeting goes, so may I only say that tribes shelter you, Inkar who comes from lands I have not dreamed of yet?”

How did he know that? Inkar blinked; she’d been about to lie she was Terandrian or Izrilian, but one look at his face and she realized that would be an exercise in rudeness.

“Is that how I should say it, Mister Corregrione? He who comes from lands I have not dreamed of yet?”

He laughed gently and corrected her.

“For you, you might say Corregrione of lands we have both smelled or something similar. Or, since you wear the clothing of my people, you might call yourself Inkar of the Heartlands. Or Inkar of the wandering path. The name for travellers by my people. You smell of them. Have you been guest long?”

“For some time.”

She admitted, and he grinned.

“This is good. There are too few travellers here when once they roamed with us in great profusion. Not a single Selphid walks with the tribes, I am told. At least, not as one of us. And the Heartlands are only here. Half of Izril.”

“Is that not the Great Plains?”

She was confused, and a look of great sorrow and dismay crossed Corregrione’s face. He shook his head slowly.

“No. No, Inkar of Tribe’s Regard. The Heartlands are any land where Gnolls walk. There were once at least eight. From Chandrar to Baleros—only one place in Terandria. Ah, it is a difficult thing to see this. I wish I had not, and yet it still moves my heart. In both sorrow and determination. Your Majesty, it is a bitter thing.”

He turned to the woman again, and Inkar realized she was definitely royalty of some kind.

Astival looked offended.

“You speak too casually, Traveller. Mind yourself. The insolence of Falamizural is—”

The woman clicked her tongue.

“Astival. You have been twice warned. The courts are gone. Never shall they return. Let them do as they please. If I wish for Corregrione to be silent, or any other, I shall make it so.”

Instantly, he dropped to one knee, nevermind the grass and wet soil.

“I beg your forgiveness.”

His face was pale, and he ducked his head low. The woman twitched a finger.

“Rise.”

Corregrione had watched the entire exchange with a great deal of wariness. It was clear the four were connected, and he murmured to Inkar.

“Pardons again. I am in august company, and though I would love to speak to a fellow [Traveller]—I would not wish to offend. You and I are wayfarers; your class shall take you on great journeys, Inkar of the Heartlands. I am pleased to have met you.”

“You too. Oh—if you are here after the expo, will you have a moment to speak?”

Corregrione hesitated, glanced at the woman, and shrugged.

“I cannot say.”

Inkar danced from foot to foot. If only she could talk to this fascinating Gnoll! He almost smelled like different lands; hints of stories he could tell and contrast with anything he saw. Like he had brought a piece of that world beyond with him back here. All the sights she wanted to see.

People were still staring upwards at the hole in the sky; the delegations thought the Gnolls had done it and looked suitably impressed.

“—If nothing else, will you exchange a gift with me? A [Traveller’s Gift From Home]?”

She blurted out, and Corregrione’s eyes lit up. Even Astival glanced over, and the woman standing there…well, she kept staring ahead, but a slight smile had returned to her lips.

“Ah! A Skill with the gift of creation! You truly are a [Traveller]!”

Corregrione was delighted. He spread his arms, then glanced skywards.

“What a strange thought, but Falamizural might be a chance of a lifetime for one such as you. A shame she left. I would be delighted to exchange gifts with you—”

Then he hesitated.

“—Ah. But I, of course, have no right. I defer to Your Majesty.”

He gave Inkar a flick of the eyes, and the girl from Earth pivoted, flushing. It must have been a breach of custom.

“May I offer you the [Traveller’s Gift From Home], Your Majesty? It is a small thing. We both receive something the other might have from their homelands.”

If the woman refused, Inkar suspected Corregrione would be allowed to accept. If anything, the opportunity to ask the strange woman to trade gifts was even more tantalizing.

Inkar was greedy, she admitted it. Nothing was more fascinating than meeting someone from a distant land and exchanging gifts and seeing their eyes light up when they saw what Inkar gave them.

For free! It was almost always something both liked or valued, and it was not cheap! The crocodile skin knife sheath, the saddle—

What might she get? However, she was just as wary of offending the woman. The stranger didn’t hesitate, however. She just smiled and chuckled.

“You may, if you wish. I shall find it amusing.”

What did that mean? Inkar activated her Skill as she ducked her head in gratitude.

[Traveller’s Gift From Home]!

Her Level 30 capstone Skill. She felt the air move with expectation, as it always did. But instead of a simple ‘pop’ of displaced air, she felt something else happen.

The air froze over. The sky went dark for a second, as if the sun had snuffed out, and she felt as if time halted and ran backwards. Inkar’s breath caught in her throat—her eyes widened—

And then, with a sound like layers of dust shifting, oceans upon oceans of it sifting away—

Something fell out of the air and hung glittering from her fingers as she caught it. Inkar caught the black chain of metal and object dangling on one end.

Astival and the woman peered at it, and Corregrione let out a soft sigh of wonder and nostalgia—and, Inkar thought—disappointment.

The woman just chuckled.

“Appropriate. Treasure it, child.”

Astival nodded slowly.

“A Note of Implorement. There would be no other copy that remains.”

“Perhaps in a vault.”

The two clearly recognized what it was; Inkar’s breath caught as she stared at a curious little…whistle? It looked vaguely like a horn or something made out of black metal, but it was stylized, almost like a word. It would be a very beautiful amulet; only the hint about the name let her see where there was a small spot to blow in.

“Don’t use it unless you’re in danger.”

Corregrione advised Inkar. But she couldn’t take the time to inspect her gift—not yet. She had gotten half the Skill. Inkar held out her hands for the object that the woman would receive. She waited.

And waited.

And the Skill…wavered. She felt it active, felt it compelling her hands to hand the woman her due share of the gift. But the expectation was like a word at the tip of her tongue she couldn’t say. Inkar waited and waited in a kind of agony of suspense.

“What’s…going on? Nothing’s appearing. Something should appear.”

Soft laughter. The woman knew what was going on clearly. She addressed Inkar, amusement in her tone.

“There is nothing you can offer me that will not offend, let alone value.”

What? What? Inkar’s hands were beginning to tremble. Sweat began to bead on the [Traveller]’s face, and she strained, trying to stop this agonizing deadlock.

Something. Something. She had to give the woman something—

Then the world slowly shifted, and Inkar gasped in relief. A shock of pain ran through her heart as something fell, and she caught it desperately. What—what was—

It seemed jewelry was in vogue with this woman. For Inkar caught a simple red gemstone lined with gold. The instant her fingers closed around it, though, she knew something was terribly, terribly wrong.

It pulsed in her hand. She flinched as she touched it, and her heart ached.

“What’s…what’s…”

Her hands shook as she held it out, and the woman plucked the gem up and eyed it.

“Ah, now that is amusing. In lieu of anything else, she gave me this. Do you recognize it, Astival, Corregrione?”

She held it out, and the Gnoll shook his head after only a second. Astival, on the other hand, peered at it, then gave Inkar an impressed look. And a sympathetic one.

“Unsuitable to hand to you directly, Your Majesty. But of some small value.”

“Yes. A Heartstone. Not from her homeland. Well, this is amusing. I accept your gift, Inkar.”

No, nonononono. Inkar felt the Heartstone pulsing as the woman held it up, then tucked it into her pocket. Each time it faintly glowed with light, she felt it. Because it was pulsing at the same time as…

She put a hand to her chest. Then stopped. The woman spoke to her, tone brusque.

“Hm. Because that was entertaining, I shall allow you to accompany us. I am in need of some entertainment. I am Nerrhavia, child.”

What? Inkar tried to look around, but no one else seemed to hear or react to the name. Nerrhavia’s lips curved upwards.

“Now, stand next to me. You are delighted to speak with us.”

Instantly, Inkar walked over and stood there as Corregrione made way for her. He gave her a sympathetic nod as her eyes stared desperately at his face. Astival just looked amused and chuckled to himself.

“Pardon my amusement, Your Majesty.”

“I found it equally so. The courts would have been raucous had they seen it. No one offered me an exchange Skill for the last two centuries of my life. Now, to work.”

They walked forwards, and Inkar moved with them, filing down the line. She couldn’t run away. Or shout. Nerrhavia glanced up at the sky and smiled as a shape flickered above.

“Now, let us see who is worthy.”

 

——

 

Nerrhavia finally reached the front of the line with Inkar, Astival, and Corregrione in tow. Falamizural was circling overhead; she would doubtless return, but Nerrhavia had found an entertaining companion in lieu of the woman.

The child from Earth was exceptionally afraid, but of course, she didn’t show it, and Satar Silverfang just blinked at Inkar before bowing.

“May I know your names for the records of the tribes, honored guests?”

Corregrione and Astival gave theirs, and even Inkar, since she would accompany them inside. Astival was a [Commander]; Corregrione was more honest and said [Traveller].

“Corregrione…I think I remember that name, sir. It must be an auspicious one.”

The Gnoll blinked as Satar scratched at her ear. Then he gave her a look that wasn’t shamefaced so much as regretful.

“Yes. Perhaps. I bear it proudly.”

He would, at that.

He had never done anything wrong in Nerrhavia’s eyes. The Immortal Tyrant saw Falamizural come down reluctantly, seeing their place in line, and Satar gasped as she saw the Garuda.

“May I know your title, Lady Garuda? Your nation? I wouldn’t take your time, but if you have a story of Gnolls or your own nation’s, I would record it down in my book.”

She showed it to them, and the Garuda’s wings drooped.

“I have no story to give. None that I can share now, at any rate. I am Falamizural.”

She did like to dwell in her failures. Nerrhavia’s eyes rolled, and she saw Satar’s eyes narrow. It was not even true; Falamizural had a history, and if Nerrhavia had cared, she could have repeated it here and now.

The [Tyrant] did not care. When Satar turned to her, Nerrhavia smiled.

“Leave my name blank, girl.”

“Huh? But I have to write down who entered.”

Satar protested. Nerrhavia knew it was more of a show than anything else. Would this expo truly matter in the grand scheme of things?

Well, yes, obviously, but the Gnolls hadn’t known that. Satar writing down names had been a plan to level her and impress the rulers and their egos. Nerrhavia began to walk forwards.

“Leave my name blank and fill it in when you know it, child. Consider that my gift.”

“Y-yes? Thank you—um—”

Satar was so bewildered that she just stood there staring as Nerrhavia, Astival, Corregrione, and Falamizural entered the tent with Inkar following. By now, Falamizural had realized what had happened.

“Let her go.”

She jerked her head at Inkar as Nerrhavia directed them towards their table at the far edge of the room. Eska glowered at Inkar, but threw up her paws, deciding that the girl had enough camouflage with this odd group. Nerrhavia didn’t deign to respond, but the Garuda kept hissing.

“We are enough. I am enough—she’s a child. Let her go. Please!”

“Sit next to me, Inkar. Falamizural, you shall sit across the table. Corregrione, wherever you please.”

Astival sat on the other side and Corregrione between Falamizural and Inkar. The Garuda wavered, then sat herself down, head bowed low.

“Don’t hurt them. Please.”

Inkar whispered as she sat down. Nerrhavia yawned as she glanced around the packed room. Things were almost ready to begin. Good. Her eyes fell on the seating, and she nodded at Astival. She picked out the delegates she was interested in, but stopped a moment. Socialization would doubtless come after the introductions.

“The Gnollish people have been hospitable to me, whether they knew it or not. I shall remember it. They will be safe, Inkar.”

The [Traveller] did not look entirely convinced by the promise. Which annoyed Nerrhavia more than anything else so far.

“That is my word, girl. And my word is worth that of nations. What must you think of me, if you even know me? Astival?”

She turned, genuinely curious for his take on the matter. He glanced at her.

“I don’t follow, Your Majesty.”

The Immortal Tyrant waved an indulgent hand to take in Inkar and all the Gnolls.

“Those who came after, Astival. Consider the nation that bears my name. Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Or those who are simple children of the eras long after ours.”

Astival’s lip curled as he regarded the Silk ambassadors.

“Paltry and pathetic, Your Majesty. Made of traitors and rebels—yet they kept the [Slaves] that the rebels swore would end with you. They send what would be mere commonfolk to the Ageless Courts.”

“Yes, yes.”

Nerrhavia cut him off impatiently.

“I mean the reputation of the empire. What do you think they believe of you and I?”

This conversation was interesting to Corregrione and Falamizural too. The Garuda had no doubt about how Nerrhavia should be seen posthumously, but…Astival’s brows cleared.

“Ah, our reputation in history’s eyes? I beg pardon, but I would not have an answer, Your Majesty. I never considered what future generations might think if the empire collapsed. I could not envision it.”

Spoken like a loyal dullard. Nerrhavia sighed.

“They paint such a banal picture. An ‘evil empire’, as if ours were the exact same as all those who were striven against, from Harpies to half-Elves. Remember this, Inkar.”

She turned, and her eyes flashed as the [Traveler] shivered.

“—Mine was a nation ruled by laws. Whatever else they say of me, I shall not quibble with. But know it had a fairness to it. I have witnessed countless nations with corruption and excess, regardless if they hide it behind their vaunted nobility and freedom, or ones who revel in their defiance of ‘goodness’.”

Disdain oozed from her voice. Nerrhavia had never cared for it.

“Mine had law. Of course, those at the bottom had less than those who were born higher. I, at least, acknowledged it was unfair. I, at least, let them rise.

A meritocracy. She glanced at Astival.

“Do you know the law of worth, Astival?”

He repeated it as he had been taught as a boy in the academies.

“The highest class must hold at least a tenth as many of the gloriously capable as the lowest, Your Majesty. Or they are unworthy of their rank.”

Nerrhavia nodded indulgently.

“From slave pits to my most trusted generals. Few made the climb, but knowing it could be done is how the empire continued. The cities were always so wonderfully prone to change. Elsewhere—stable.”

Utter stability. The cities had been where the complacent could be overturned from their seats of power, but if you had no stomach for that, there were provinces where you could grow fat and old without fear your entire life.

Much like Khelt; the Immortal Tyrant had studied Khelta’s rise to power and used it to inform her own nation. Khelt had indeed been around during her own empire; a nation she had wisely left alone. A high standard of living among the loyal subjects in Nerrhavia’s provinces had been one of her nods to Khelta’s style of ruling. Her regret had not been being contemporary to the famous necromancer-queen.

…Meeting her in the lands of the dead had both been a moment of triumph and slightly jarring. Still, emulating her methods had reaped rewards for many generations of loyal citizens of her Immortal Empire.

And they had wondered why they could never start insurrection in the rural areas. At least, never until the end.

Nerrhavia accepted a cup of sherry and sipped from it. Inkar was listening, of course.

“Speak. You are in no more danger than they.”

“You…I know your name. Why did your empire fall if it was so perfect?”

A fine question. Corregrione’s ears perked up, and even Astival kept his face blank. Falamizural leaned forwards eagerly; of course, all of them had predated her death, and even though Astival had been there in the final year of her life—

They came from different points in time.

Falamizural was oldest by far. Corregrione could have said to have lived at the height of her reign; Astival was at the end of it. There was a symmetry Nerrhavia liked to their affiliations with her over the thousand years she’d lived.

A thousand.

Just a thousand. She had met rulers in the lands of the dead who had sneered at the brevity of time, but should she compete with half-Elves? She had lived well during her rule, not fallen into complacency nor chased after immortality until she was a husk, flailing about in fear of death.

“Hm. How much do you know, Inkar, of who I was?”

Gnolls were dimming the magical lights in the tent. The chatter of voices was dying, but both Inkar nor Nerrhavia were more interested in the guests than the objects on display.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Meeting of Tribes and the expo of—”

Nerrhavia tuned out Chieftain Feshi’s voice as the young Gnoll strode onto stage. She watched, letting others applaud, as the Gnolls introduced their expo.

It would be a combination of big objects presented in the center stage and smaller demonstrations the dignitaries could get up and even interact with. Food aplenty and drinks—Nerrhavia saw more than one ruler was eating while watching on their scrying orbs just to fit in.

Her conversation with Inkar was far more engaging a way to pass the time. The [Traveller] was trying to recall all she knew of Nerrhavia.

“You had a large empire. Almost all of Chandrar. The Immortal Tyrant. Then…you died, and they made Nerrhavia’s Fallen out of it. Because you did terrible things.”

She had zero details, as one might who’d vaguely heard of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and asked for an explanation before. Nerrhavia nodded agreeably.

So goes legacy. In a hundred years, a thousand, her name would cease to become something that even scared children. Dragonlords lived and ruled and made mighty deeds and perished. Then all forgot their names.

It was the angst of Dragons; she cared little for it. She knew what she’d done. In fact, the Merchant’s Guild amused her. It was, unknowingly, her greatest legacy to the world. She had thought the great roads that criss-crossed Chandrar would have counted, but apparently, they had been ripped up. Alas.

“I am sure you will still be able to find records of my ‘atrocities’. Poor Falamizural can attest to the fate of my enemies.”

The Garuda flinched as Inkar glanced at her. Nerrhavia flicked her fingers.

“—I conquered countless nations. My enemies suffered. Yet when my empire was at its grandest, travellers came to it and pronounced it safe and rich beyond belief. Such as Corregrione.”

The Gnoll ducked his head.

“It was splendid, Your Majesty. As I said, with its share of darkness—but I had met no nation I could not claim the same of. It was…”

He sighed.

“Beautiful.”

Hence why even in death he had followed and listened to her. He had seen what she had built. The Garuda gave him a look of wrath, and he looked at her with sympathy. The same with Inkar. Nerrhavia nodded and wet her lips.

“So then. It lasted for near a thousand years, child. Great people arose and were duly honored. Corruption I took great pleasure in stamping out. I allied myself with great powers, and yes, some were considered terrible for my time.”

Such as the Witch of Webs. But Nerrhavia just shrugged.

“—Yet I considered it an ideal empire, one which every other continent in the world treated with carefully and which endured for six hundred years in that state, ever prosperous, ever growing.”

“What happened?”

Inkar stared at Nerrhavia, her eyes narrowed. She was brave enough, and Nerrhavia smiled. Everyone else around the table leaned in, and she took a moment before replying.

“…I suppose, one day, I wondered why I gave face, even when it was expedient. I was more loved than feared, you know, despite all I did. Because that was more practical than fear. My enemies made taunts; I let them, for what did it matter? Then, I wearied of it. My great work ceased to matter as much to me. I spoke, and my enemies vanished.”

Her pupils contained shards of color, like the broken glass of windows, each reflecting cold, imperial light.

“I pushed for the entire world, not one mere empire. It barely overpowered me.”

Her eyes drank in Inkar’s, and her voice was quiet.

“It was so entertaining, falling. My worst moment as a ruler. Had I known there was so much left I could have accomplished, I would have worked harder.”

Inkar’s gaze was shocked, appalled, and Astival just nodded, proud despite how it had ended. Corregrione sighed, and Falamizural turned away. Nerrhavia went back to watching the show.

Boredom had been such a terrible thing.

 

——

 

The Meeting of Tribe’s expo started with introductions; a preface, if you would. The conceit to the other countries that Feshi gave was that these were inventions of the Gnolls. A great conflagration of talent to raise funds for the tribes.

Hugely sympathetic, really. The Gnolls had come up with all these ideas; wouldn’t you buy something? There were goods traditional to the tribes, of course, but it was all a lie.

Any nation worth their salt would take one look at some of the objects on display and know the Gnolls knew of Earth. But here, winning the game wasn’t calling the Gnolls on their knowledge.

That was banal. Idiotic. A move so direly stupid that even the King of Avel would call someone out for attempting it. Any nation which knew of Earth or had an Earther didn’t attend this expo to figure out if the Gnolls had an Earther.

They came to see how much the Gnolls knew and who else knew. The same, in truth, with the Gnolls.

Hence the rounded room with sightlines to each table. One could watch the reactions of various rulers or dignitaries and, more crucially, see what they bid on.

It was an auction. Any item people were interested in would be bid on with the resulting product to go to the nation who won the auction. Orders for more or any copies available would be then negotiated on with the ideal being a list of clients who’d buy from the Gnollish tribes here.

All this was naturally predicated on the Gnolls having something worth buying. And did they? Well, the first item they brought out was where the copper coin dropped.

“Before we get to the, ah, inventions, we have some minor salvage to sell. Our tribes go everywhere, and be it so humble to present before so many august rulers—”

Chieftain Orelighn was very nervous, but the Greenpaw’s Chieftain was reading from his script.

“—we have some metal scavenged by the Greenpaw tribe. Very high-quality!”

He didn’t look quite convincing. Nor did the object being hauled out by two dozen Gnolls. They’d buffed it up a bit, but the moment the King of Avel saw the piece of metal, he leaned over.

“Definitely a broken piece of something. Doesn’t look magical. Damn thing’s bent.”

It was indeed. It was a long…well, it was a long, off-white…sheet of metal? Orelighn hurried over.

“It fell out of the skies one day. Who knows, it might be part of one of the ancient sky-islands of old! See how it has these weird flaps? The metal is not like any steel we know of—”

A few titters at the mention of ‘sky islands’, and several dignitaries rolled their eyes in amusement. Feshi noted that in the back. As well as how Kaaz’s diplomat had just choked on her drink and slapped a finger to a speaking stone embedded in one ear.

Kaaz. Wistram. Rhir’s [Diplomat] didn’t react one inch, but he didn’t have to. The half-Elf from the Blighted Kingdom was the model of polite interest.

But when the bidding started, his was one of the first bids to go up on the piece of metal.

The wing of a plane.

Not all of it. Feshi and the other Chieftains had had a long talk with Rose and Inkar about selling the pieces of the plane. To be honest…looting it for pieces was already uncomfortable. Selling the dead children’s objects or belongings was unthinkable.

But a wing of the plane ‘explained’ a lot for nations. It certainly wasn’t as useful as the nations engaging in a bidding war thought it was.

Oh, certainly it could tell you a lot about aerodynamics, and the internal machinery and even the composition of the metal had to be worth a fortune in information. 

Unless you could just google how a plane was made or go inspect one in a simulation Skill. Mind you, Adetr was still trying to figure out how to gain access to a plane in a day’s time without being mobbed by airport security.

Even so, the bidding on the plane’s wing went up so high that people who didn’t understand what it was worth looked aghast. It was something when a Drake from Salazsar popped her monocle at the prices on the wing.

In the end, Kaaz took it, though the price had even Kaaz’s rich nobles a bit sick. Feshi had already identified Wistram, the Forgotten Wing, Rhir, and Pallass as groups that definitely had Earthers.

Fissival too, though they didn’t have a representative on the ground, just via scrying orb. But a number of smaller nations definitely gave clues they were aware of Earth. Even a nation called…Feshi frowned at her notes.

“Someone look up where ‘Lorandia’ is? I’ve never heard of it.”

Anyways, the point was that if you spent too much now, you’d never make it through the expo. Because no sooner had the bidding stopped on the plane’s wing than Orelighn, looking much happier now he’d heard how much it was worth, energetically brought something else out.

“Well, next we have another piece of salvage! We call it the, uh, half-Giant’s salad mixer!”

The what? People stared as a huge tube was carried in with Adetr’s help because it was so heavy. One of the Wistram [Mage]’s jaws dropped as Orelighn gingerly moved the rotating, somewhat-broken blades inside.

“Observe how it, uh—spins! You could definitely chop up a lot of Yellats with this.”

“Only if they’re as large as your legs. What the heck is—

The King of Avel definitely had no idea what was going on. But everyone else took one look at the turbine of a jet engine and wanted it, even if it was almost completely busted.

Orelighn was the right Gnoll for the job. Mostly because he didn’t actually go in the Earth-tent much; his descriptions of the plane parts were, well, that of an outsider.

“Next we have these lovely seats! They’re, ah, very comfortable—”

He tried to make the airplane seats look good, and he really couldn’t pull it off. At this, the Rhirian ambassador held up a polite hand.

“Where did all these marvelously strange parts come from, Chieftain?”

Many people leaned forwards as Orelighn sighed.

“A tragic thing. They fell out of the skies! It must have hit a poor caravan of Humans because we found—well, we buried the poor people.”

“Did you…find any possessions or identification? Perhaps they were one of ours.”

A Reinhart spoke up, voice exceedingly polite. The Reinharts had sent their own [Lady] south; Feshi noted that was independent of the [Butler] representing Magnolia Reinhart.

“Alas, no. We searched, but it was all…burnt up. It was a terrible, terrible fire. We burned most of these seats, but these two were empty, and—”

You burned them?

A note of horror from one of the Pallassian Drakes. Feshi rolled her eyes as Orelighn huffed at the Drake. Even if they were desperate, no one wanted to sell off the belongings of children. Much less their bodies.

Wing, turbine, two seats, and a host of burnt electronics beyond the saving of even a [Repair] spell. Including Orelighn’s own ‘sparkmaker’, which was a burnt tablet that he demonstrated you could partially [Repair], then use to set off sparks.

Even nations unaware of Earth could study the curious junk and realize it was important. It was actually pretty depressing; for each group that stared at Orelighn’s cheerful face as he auctioned and described the goods and realized he was in the know, you had three who thought he was a savage, stupid Gnoll who had no idea what he’d found.

“Chieftain, [Message] for you.”

Feshi got a scroll midway through the meeting and glanced at it.

 

Well done. Can I make a personal bid on a few of the electronics?

—Niers

 

She rolled her eyes. But she had actually earmarked a few items for a private auction.

 

——

 

The stage was set for the expo after the salvage. The other nations were dutifully impressed that this was more than a charity event or a place to gawk, and it was time to consult the royal [Treasurer] and spend. To make it seem like this was an actual trade show, Feshi had organized the next items to be Gnollish creations.

Shockwoolie bolts of cloth. Alchemical reagents from Gaarh Marsh. Valuable furs and even bows by their artisans.

It was notable which nations were paying attention here as well. The alchemical ‘weeds’ from Gaarh Marsh triggered a bidding war with every nation who’d been paying attention to their [Alchemists].

Including at least one you wouldn’t expect.

“15,000 gold pieces.”

“30,000.”

“35,000!”

“45,000.”

The nations trying to move up by increments of less than ten thousand were not enjoying the richer ones who were tossing down ludicrous sums on the shipments. It was frankly obscene how much they could spend.

One of the lesser Drake cities’ representatives just threw up their claws in despair and swooned in their scrying orb. Then a click echoed, and a buyer who had been hitherto silent spoke.

“Fifty thousand gold pieces.”

There was no way for the speaker to hold up one of the tiny placard signs to indicate her desire to bid, so she simply held up the giant milkshake she’d been sipping. The gesture still caught the attention of all and sundry—and when they realized who had bit, there was an outcry.

The Free Queen of the Antinium ignored the gasps of horror and a second swooning as she sipped at her drink. Orelighn registered the bid.

“Fifty thousand. FiftythousandgoingoncedoIhear—

“I protest!”

One of the other representatives shot to their feet, pointing at the Free Queen. Rhir’s [Diplomat] hadn’t spoken, but their stare was cold as ice.

Terandria’s were purely horrified and disgusted. Interestingly—Izril’s Drakes and Five Families kept silent. They knew who their neighbors were, but the non-Izrilian Humans objected vociferously to the Antinium’s presence.

“The Antinium are invited to this trade exhibition?”

A chorus of similar complaints rose from other delegates, but Orelighn replied with an unusually steely tone.

“They defended the Meeting of Tribes. The Free Queen was extended an invitation.”

None of the other Antinium Hives had been. A few Terandrians objected further, but Orelighn ignored them.

“Please keep from disparaging other guests, thank you. Fifty thousand. Going once—”

“Sixty! Thousand.”

 

——

 

The desire to keep Antinium from getting anything was petty, but it did drive up prices. The glares the Free Queen got she could hardly miss, but she sat there, seeming smug despite losing her bid.

Because she was there. And no other Antinium Queen was. In fact, she was allowing them to petition her to buy objects on display. The Grand Queen had refused to even join the other Queens watching via the Free Queen’s eyes.

Political fortunes had changed. Not just for the Antinium; their presence at this expo was a clear message. And it made the Drakes highly uncomfortable to see the Free Queen there.

The idea of a Gnollish alliance, or even a non-aggression pact, with Antinium would be disastrous. But who could blame them if they had been pushed to it? More than one Drake city began to sweat that possibility, and unlike any time before, they had no answers forthcoming from Pallass via Grand Strategist Chaldion.

How far did they want to push the Gnolls? In lieu of an answer from the Walled Cities—well, an answer that satisfied—several Drake cities near the Great Plains made the choice to ingratiate themselves with their hosts. The most significant moment, though, was when a Reinhart drifted over to the shock of the other Five Families and asked what the Free Queen was drinking.

The answer seemed to amuse Cecille Reinhart. And while that was all and she received glares and hisses from her fellow Humans—

The Free Queen saw it as clearly as the Immortal Tyrant. And both of them smiled at that.

 

——

 

In the end, Nerrhavia’s Fallen took the entire sale, outbidding each and every other nation.

“We might see a lot of that. They took all five lots!”

It just went to show which nations were rich. Interestingly, Germina was bidding high, as was Calanfer, which belied the finances that Feshi understood both nations to have. Maybe they really wanted the Earth tech, and they were prepared to spend huge amounts on it.

The House of Minos was rich, and Ailendamus might not have known about Earth, but they had realized something was up and had been trying to get one of the electronics to no avail.

Wistram, Rhir, the Restful Three—all with way too much gold.

Oddly, Khelt wasn’t buying much of anything. The dignitary was there, applauding and dutifully consulting with Fetohep, but he seemed disinclined to do more than show off during the initial rounds of bidding. Whenever an item was actually about to be successfully bought, he desisted.

Almost as if he wanted to show off Khelt’s wealth rather than buy something.

He must have an Earther and not be interested. That was Feshi’s conclusion.

There was a second level at play in the room, and that was the way nations interacted with each other. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, for instance, was sitting with Rhir, Wistram, and a bunch of the bigger nations at a central table. Whereas most lesser kingdoms were relegated to the edges along with [Merchants].

Of the Chandrarian nations, only Khelt, the Empire of Sands, Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and King of Destruction’s envoys had prime seating—and they were spaced well away from each other. Most nations hadn’t even realized Reim had a seat until the Stitch-man raised a little sign and Orelighn shouted ‘1,400 gold pieces, Reim’.

Then there was a hubbub of discontent. But what were the Gnolls going to do? Not invite a rich [King] who was going to spend money on their stuff?

Plus, he’d been fighting for them. And they remembered.

Still, Nerrhavia’s Fallen had more gold than anyone but the Empire of Sands, and after they took all the alchemical goods, Feshi heard a rumble of annoyance from behind them.

Lesser they might be, but the Stitch-folk kingdoms had realized how useful the alchemical ingredients were and tried to bid for one lot. They’d been knocked out of the bid by Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s wealth. Feshi saw a group of delegates glaring daggers at the Silk [Ambassador], who idly glanced over his shoulder and smirked at them.

“Which nations are those? Looks like Reneiz, definitely Scaied—”

Feshi found them on a map of Chandrar. Southwestern nations and a few to the southeast. Mostly bordering Nerrhavia’s Fallen. She’d heard they had fractious relationships with the superpower; Nerrhavia’s Fallen tended to get its way in everything it wanted.

“Fascinating. Reneiz doesn’t recognize a caste hierarchy between Stitch-folk.”

So that’s why one of their ambassadors was made of Hemp! And why Nerrhavia’s Fallen lot were ignoring them. Even when a small recess was called so the Gnolls could unveil smaller pieces and the delegates could get up and circulate and eat and talk—the [Ambassador] swanned straight past the Stitch-folk.

Even the [Diplomat] from Reim had cordial greetings with the wary Chandrarian nations. Well, Feshi just put this down as a fascinating lesson in politics in Chandrar. The Professor would have loved to teach a class in—

“Feshi. What did Chieftain Eska do to the seating plans? It’s a mess.

Theikha caught Feshi and hissed at her. The [Shaman] had been busy until this moment, but she looked truly upset.

“What? The seating? Eska said she double-checked it.”

Feshi found a copy of the floor plan, and Theikha snatched it, then exclaimed.

This is her plan? It looks nothing like—I drew it up! No wonder she kept insisting it was right! Who made this?”

She was aghast. Feshi peered worriedly at the seating.

“It doesn’t look…bad to me?”

The plan was pretty logical. Eska would have called out any inconsistencies. What you had were solid groupings by power and relevance. For instance, all the Chandrarian nations in one section of the room. Terandria in another, though they could certainly talk where the two sides met.

Walled Cities sat at one table and more important guests closer to the center. Theikha glanced at Feshi, then saw she didn’t understand.

“This is a terrible plan. If I find the [Shaman] or Chieftain who thought…look at how Nerrhavia’s Fallen is snubbing the other Stitch-folk nations. They should be either at the same table or far apart and scattered.”

Feshi analyzed the reasoning Theikha had given to arrive at that conclusion like this was a test from the Titan of Baleros. She snapped her fingers and groaned.

“Oh! Because putting them close by but not together means it looks like Nerrhavia’s Fallen is way more important. So the other nations get mad, and they can all tell they’re being snubbed.”

Which means they share collective animosity towards Nerrhavia’s Fallen, whereas if they were scattered, they’d just be talking with a Terandrian nation and a Balerosian one and feel individual.

The floor plan was reinforcing old grudges and stratifications of power. In fact, placing the Izrilians in one section was a pure mistake—the Five Families and Walled Cities’ delegations were exchanging icy comments as Human nobles and Drake city representatives shot barbed remarks at each other via scrying orbs.

“Too late to fix now. Let’s just hope the ability to get up and mingle where they please sorts it out.”

Theikha nodded and glanced around distractedly. She sniffed the air.

“Hrm. Yes. I’ll be back, Feshi. I need to check on something. Where’s Gamur and Garsine?”

Two of the most high-level Gnolls were both about—mostly to impress the rulers. Feshi said as much and suspected both were hiding rather than having to socialize.

“Have them wait backstage. I am going to…”

Theikha began walking around the room, glancing around, but she didn’t seem to know what she was looking for.

 

——

 

Nerrhavia was running her own commentary at the table, largely, it seemed, for Inkar’s benefit or because she was bored.

“I have always liked Gnolls. They have to work together to achieve their goals. Great tribes rise and fall, but eternally they are forced to do the most difficult of things: talk and discuss matters rather than give orders or even vote. It leads to splendid thinking at times.”

“Their people are fractious, however, Your Majesty.”

Astival was disapproving. Nerrhavia just sighed.

“Yes. They will not find the peace they covet in this age. Not with new technology arising. Much the opposite. How close to our vehicles are those magical carriages of Wistram?”

Astival had gone outside to check on the ones that had brought the dignitaries.

“Adequate for common folk. Mere bent magic. A jumped-up illusion spell.”

The Immortal Tyrant’s hands flickered again. No one seemed to know what they meant, even Astival, and it clearly bothered him. Nerrhavia ignored him once more as she turned a smile to Inkar.

“Good enough. You see, Inkar, this has happened before. In your world and mine. Nations that can react and see each other in real time are more aware of each other’s presence. For good and ill. I lived in the times you approach. We begin to see unpredictability in established relationships. Revolutions are happening in travel, communication…and food.”

She ticked down the three items off her fingers, the last hovering delicately.

“That is the basis for a worldly war.”

“Worldly war?”

The Immortal Tyrant sighed.

“My term for it. Yours were so…small. Only one continent engulfed in flames. I digress. Gnolls will not know peace now, nor for a long time to come, I predict.”

“They’re at peace now.”

Inkar didn’t like the blasé way Nerrhavia predicted these things. The Immortal Tyrant’s response was to raise her brows.

“Are they? Do you know how difficult peace is? I have sat in your fake world, Inkar.”

The Earth Tent! So that’s why it had been glitching! Inkar was trying to figure a way out of this problem. She could have used her clothing to teleport or screamed for Theikha, but the problem was…she couldn’t.

Nerrhavia had her heart in her pocket. All she could do was listen and talk, so she did, trying to gain some kind of advantage.

“What did you learn?”

Nerrhavia smiled at her.

“How you define words. For instance, you write of ‘peace’ as a period between the next war. Which is so terribly cynical even Vizir Hecrelunn would offer you a [Cheering] spell. I have a different definition.”

Inkar’s eyes began to cross in desperation. It was like meeting Erin Solstice but worse. That time, a hill had smiled at Inkar. This time, it was like the High Passes spoke, full of danger and able to squash her and everything around her without a thought.

And the mountain was interested in dictionary terms.

“I define peace as the period in which two peoples share a dream, a vision of mutual co-existence. Individuals may go against that grain, but peace does not exist so long as the peoples do not hope for it. Otherwise, it truly is a simple armistice before the next conflict.”

Nerrhavia drawled as she spoke.

“There has seldom been true peace between Gnolls and Drakes. I have appraised the situation between them.”

Her eyes darted to the Walled Cities and Gnolls, who were stiffly polite at best, glaring at each other in some cases. The Tyrant nodded.

“—It would have been preferable for them if Chaldion of Pallass remained. He masterminded much of the events leading up to this moment. However. In his absence, he has failed to clean the board. No one has stepped into his place. The Walled Cities are not united.”

“They never were united, Your Majesty. Even when there were far more of them.”

Corregrione spoke, his voice filled with contempt, and Nerrhavia exhaled.

“They were more united last year, Traveller.”

He instantly bowed.

“As you say, Your Majesty. Forgive me. This time home is bittersweet to see how the Heartlands diminished to one. Your admiration for my people gladdens my heart. But I wonder—if they had been part of your empire, would they now be a world power rather than struggling to survive?”

His eyes stole towards Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and the Immortal Tyrant tapped her lips. Inkar stared at Corregrione. He was clearly no servant like Astival. If these were some of the ghosts who’d survived…he was affiliated with Nerrhavia, but not directly. Falamizural seemed completely hostile. But why did both follow her?

Because they were terrified of what she might do. The Garuda got up abruptly, giving Inkar another pained look.

“I am going to circulate.”

“Please stop informing me when you do things.”

Nerrhavia waved her off. As Falamizural stalked away, Astival leaned over.

“Forgive me, Immortal Majesty. But is Falamizural an asset to be used? I confess, I do not know her value. Your toleration of her I do not understand.”

The first flicker of surprise ran over Nerrhavia’s face. Even, Inkar thought, regret.

“Truly? She was centuries before your time. You don’t know the tale of Falamizural, Astival? It was quite a good one. The last free wings of Qualvekkaras? The feather which falls in time of need?”

He shook his head, and Nerrhavia sipped from her cup.

“Well then. I must illuminate you. Corregrione’s tale is also worthy—I wonder if the Gnolls recall it?”

He ducked his head with that pained smile as Inkar leaned forwards to listen intently. Nerrhavia murmured to herself.

“If they do, I wonder how they tell it.”

 

——

 

Satar Silverfang was half watching the expo. At the moment, smaller tables had been set up, and people were crowding around, well…Earther tech.

Not full Earth technology. Think of it more like stopgaps. Stepping stones.

Things that Gnolls could make that Earthers would recognize and covet. Pieces of the puzzle they themselves were trying to assemble.

Like…electricity. Any [Lightning Mage] could fire a bolt, but how did you get up to the technology that powered computers? Or machines that could mass-produce items?

The answer was you didn’t jump to it in one go. You did the hard work first, by building the foundation to creating all the big things. Changing everything you did, from mentality to material to process. Even with Earth’s knowledge, Adetr had said outright it would take time to even lay the groundwork for such things. So what could Gnolls sell?

Well…

“Feast your eyes on this spark-generator! A handy way to make fire without magic!”

Chieftain Orelighn was really getting into his showmanship role. He gestured at a stack of odd pieces of metal aligned in a container of fluid. A Gnoll carefully connected a wire to both ends—then touched them together.

The spark was small, but made a [Mage] of Wistram jump. The Drake gave her compatriots a wide-eyed stare.

“That wasn’t magic! And it wasn’t a match!”

“No, it’s a lightning…thing. It has a bit of electricity, you know, the stuff lightning bolts have in them? Don’t ask me how it’s made, but it’s quite nifty—ow. Don’t, uh, don’t touch the wires.”

It was the predecessor to a modern ‘battery’, which Satar understood was what powered Rose’s smartphone and everything else. Adetr called it a ‘voltaic cell battery’, whatever that meant.

This item had mostly interested curious people and nations who knew about Earth-tech. It seemed that even Wistram didn’t have pure expertise on its side. Whereas other nations were crowding around tech clearly more useful. Eska was demonstrating the next product with all the genuine enthusiasm of someone who knew what she had. Pride, too.

“This is a spinning wheel developed by the Longstalker’s Fang tribe. Note how you can use a foot pedal to crank it? A single [Spinner] can do the job of three or more with Skills!”

They were showing off the technology that Inkar had invented to appreciation from the crowd. Then Chieftain Eska walked proudly over to a far more elaborate contraption.

“And this is a Spinning Deskie.”

“I thought we weren’t using that name.”

A Gnoll hissed at her, and Eska ignored them. She pointed, and one of the Stitch-folk gasped.

“Wait. How many spindles does it have?”

Multiple spindles—that was, the part of the spinning frame that took the thread. It took the task of a [Spinner], which was to make thread from wool and so forth, and multiplied how fast they could work. The Stitch-woman from Scaied looked at several nations’ representatives, all Stitch-folk, and burst out.

“We’ll buy it now. Even the plans!”

“Alas, we can only sell two of these Spinning Deskies, and the plans are very complex.”

Eska smiled smugly as the Stitch-folk began to demand to buy it now before the bigger nations could see it, and the Queen of Desonis leaned over.

Excuse me. Can someone tell me how valuable that…

Things were going well. Another item on display was purely, uh…well, it was useful, and a bunch of Drowned Folk, Wellfar nobles, Lizardfolk, and several members of nations like Pheislant were listening to a Gnoll.

He was an odd one; he had a gleam in his eyes and a cap on indoors with several fish hooks, of all things, attached to the brim. Because apparently that was an Earth style.

“Now, this is a reel. Observe how I crank this little lever and the string retracts?”

Dead gods, it’s complex looking.

“Just like that? It’s not magic?”

One of the uninformed guests peered at the reel suspiciously. But a Pheislant [Diplomat] just sniffed.

“It’s very compact, but our [Fishers] have reels like that.”

A primitive reel wasn’t hard to make after all. It was just a cylinder you wound up when you got to it; you could make one with a stick. The [Angler]’s eyes lit up.

“Ah, but does your reel have a drag system, Lord Hoswet? I invite you to use this one and see for yourself. Now, I also invite you to stand back and cast it as if you were throwing a reel line. Not with your hand—you can flick the entire fishing rod, and it’ll release the string.”

In fact, he had to perform a demo first, and the sound the spinning wheel made as he flicked it drew the eye of every person in the room who knew fishing. There was a lot of talk about the mechanism and the ‘drag’ system and the efficiency of the crank.

It was all, uh, a bit beyond Satar. But that was fine. There were other things for every facet of life.

Such as—

“Tourniquet bands.”

It was a piece of metal in the shape of a ring with a leather band on the inside. A Gnoll carefully tightened it around Tradespeaker Vitnay’s arm, and the Minotauress grunted.

“Bloodflow’s stopped. I see the uses at once. I thought you could tie one, though?”

“But how many [Soldiers] can do that in a stressful situation, Tradespeaker? Do they have access to cloth? Or do you have them use one of these? Along with giving your healer a syringe?”

A Gnoll was also showing off their blood transfusion kit, and the Minotauress exchanged a grim look with her Beriad.

“We’d like all of it. The Last Light has opinions on such things…”

“We consulted with her and sent her a number for her approval, actually. Now, let me show you how the blood transfusion works. It’s very complex about blood types, so allow me to preface it with a quick explanation…”

No one wanted to contemplate transfusing blood or using a tourniquet when a healing potion had worked so well before, but times were changing, and potions were now a rare thing. The Gnolls had all kinds of stuff like that, from magnetic compasses, wheels using ball bearings, a lightning-catcher made out of Demas Metal—

Mrell was very proud of that. Electricity crawled up and down the length of the ‘magical battery’ he’d created, adhering to the Demas Metal. Rhir had already tried to buy it outright to fuel their own research.

Why not when you could catch lightning with magic to experiment with?

Satar was just stepping back when someone sidled up to her.

“Excuse me. I’m looking for the, uh, one of the things I was told I might find. The sex tent?”

The [Shaman] stared at the Human man with an open mouth for a couple of seconds.

“…The sextant is over there, sir.”

“Oh. Ah. I see. Thank you.”

A very disappointed Human drifted away. Satar’s fur rippled as she shuddered, then she went to find Shaman Theikha.

 

——

 

“We’re almost ready for the big reveals. I keep feeling…no. It’s just a hunch. Yes, Satar?”

Theikha was stressed despite the expo going really well, and Satar halted.

“I can ask later if you need me to, Shaman—”

“No. We have time. Is it about our guests?”

The Great Shaman was a font of knowledge, and ever since her new heart, she had the vigor to tell stories all day long. Satar consulted her book.

“It’s…well, it’s not one of the guests, but it’s a name I thought was familiar. Corregrione. Apparently, one of the [Shamans] met someone claiming to be from Thunder’s Voice tribe with that name. Do you know it?”

Theikha’s brows drew together. Then she began to chuckle.

“Someone’s playing a joke. Corregrione…that’s familiar. You there—can you find a [Shaman] from the Wild Wastes tribes? They’d know that story, I believe. As for Thunder’s Voice, that tribe is so long past that—well.”

She sat down with Satar backstage as Adetr swore and kept tuning the piano and the other device—there were two big ones for the finale. Satar glanced at him as Theikha sighed.

“Thunder’s Voice. Let me think.”

“They had ‘the regard of mountains’?”

Satar prompted her, using her notes from the guest list. Theikha blinked and nodded.

“I remember! The eye of a Storm Giant! That was literal back then. A Storm Giant was so impressed by their heroism—it’s an old story. I must ask the [Shamans] of the Wild Wastes to tell it to me again. They were given the eye, like a Relic, to keep them safe. They certainly existed, and they had many deeds. In fact, Weatherfur descends from one of their people. But Corregrione…”

She frowned and looked at Satar as they waited for a Wild Wastes [Shaman]. Satar glanced at the main tent area.

“Maybe I should look for that Gnoll? It’s funny if they want to claim that name.”

“Funny. But perhaps ignorant. Or something else. If they knew Thunder’s Voice and that name—I will ask for a full accounting, but that isn’t the name I’d choose to impersonate. Corregrione. If I am not wrong, that is one of our ancestors famed for his ill deeds. Corregrione the Traveller. Corregrione…”

Theikha’s eyes closed in thought, then one eye snapped open with faint alarm and suspicion.

“The Immortal Tyrant’s Liar.”

 

——

 

“He never did anything wrong, you know.”

Corregrione had gotten up and was speaking to the Gnolls in the tent, smiling and talking to his people. They were somewhat taken aback by his odd speech, but recognized him as an outsider from another nation; rare, but they were quite warm to him.

“What did he do?”

Inkar gave the fellow [Traveller] a dark look of suspicion since he was in Nerrhavia’s company, but the Immortal Tyrant’s gaze was soft on the Gnoll.

“Nothing ill.”

She glanced at Inkar’s face.

“I swear it by…well, there is no oath large enough for me. I swear it by my word. He was a famous [Traveller]. The most famous in his time. He travelled to every continent. Chandrar’s great sands. Jungle and Dragonhome. Hell and Heavensward.”

“Heavensward, Your Majesty?”

Astival reacted to that; he knew Corregrione already, it seemed. Nerrhavia shook her head.

“An old name. The point is that Corregrione the traveller was so well-respected that when he came to the Immortal Empire, I welcomed him as a guest. We spoke. Not long, but I offered him a simple deal.”

Here it came. Inkar braced, but Nerrhavia just smiled as Corregrione walked outside for a moment.

“I asked him to write a book about my lands.”

Inkar stared at Nerrhavia, and the Immortal Tyrant elaborated.

“He has the great talent of making any place beautiful. Any land wondrous in his accounting of it. He can unearth moments; a [Traveller] to his core. So I asked him to venture across my empire and honestly take down the places he visited. You see—it sparked my people’s imaginations. From the Pits of Chemath to the spires of Hasitvor—he wrote of what he saw. Good and ill. Do you see why it was a problem?”

“Because he made your kingdom look pleasant.”

Nerrhavia flicked Inkar’s forehead, and Inkar’s head rang.

“Because he told truth. Good and ill. He was honest! And for that deed, I rewarded him as well any should. I treated him with naught but respect for his class and deeds, and he entered my empire and left, impressed with it. When he returned home, they judged him. Then executed Corregrione the Traveller for daring to aid the Immortal Tyrant.”

Hairs stood up on the back of Inkar’s neck. She glanced at the entrance to the tent where Corregrione had gone, and Nerrhavia stood to follow.

“Where did they…?”

“Here. At a Meeting of Tribes.”

Nerrhavia strode out after Corregrione to watch as the [Traveller] surveyed the lands in which he had died.

 

——

 

“They hung me here. I watched them build the scaffolds, for there was no tree the [Shamans] would desecrate with my corpse.”

Corregrione stood, one foot planted on a stone, staring out across the Great Plains of Izril. His fur was blowing, and he glanced down at the earthenworks of the Weatherfur tribe.

“The land has risen. Or else the old kingdom sunk. So few Heartlands. So few tribes. The children are the same.”

He stared at Cers running around with a friend and sparring in the grass, playing at [Shaman] and [Warrior]. Nerrhavia came to a halt with Astival, and Corregrione glanced at Inkar. Then at the Immortal Tyrant.

“I still love them. My death was bitter for aeons, which is why I crossed the sea and returned to Chandrar, Your Majesty. But these are still my people. If your return is to help them in any way, you have my loyalty.”

“Yes. I know.”

The Immortal Tyrant stood in the circle of sunlight opened by Corregrione’s Skill. Now, the air rustled as he lifted his staff. Inkar’s eyes were wide with apprehension, but the [Traveller] just sighed.

“A hundred nations in the Meeting of Tribes, and I saw how they looked at my people. Once, we were welcomed in any royal court. When a Doomherald spoke, armies listened. I grew so tired of hearing tales of the ‘wandering Gnoll’ as something to be expected. I never thought I would long to hear of our reputation again.”

He tapped the ground hard with his staff, thrusting the butt of it into the soil. Inkar felt like the earth shook slightly. The [Traveller] continued, voice rising.

“Let them at least see something worth their long trip. Gifts. That is all we ghosts can give. Gifts.

Tap. Tap. Thum. 

Gnolls looked up, perking their ears. Below them, Cers and his friend turned, stumbling slightly. Corregrione winked at Inkar.

“Behold, now, the gift of [Travellers], Inkar.”

He raised his staff high—then brought it down. And his voice was quiet and rolled over the Great Plains of Izril.

“[Momentous Journey: Show Me the Sight of a Lifetime].”

Clouds rolled over the melting snow and grasslands beyond the Meeting of Tribes. Great and billowing. Blowing away in moments as Inkar’s eyes widened. Despite her fear, despite the uncertainty—her heart leapt in her chest.

She gasped, and Nerrhavia didn’t blink at all. But her face was slightly melancholy, as if she wished this amazed her. However, even Astival’s eyes opened as voices arose from around them.

Corregrione stood there, smiling, as he gazed down the hill and past it. Over the grasslands, rising from what had been just snow and mud and grass waiting for more sunlight, were—

Flowers.

Gigantic flowers. Inkar saw a violet bulb so large she guessed it was as big as a yurt, closed, in the distance. She saw an explosion of color crisscrossing the ground.

Fields of flowers, so many colors she couldn’t believe it! And—and some were tall and thin with weedy stalks that bent as a breeze blew, then sprang back upright.

“What’s going on?”

The entire area is covered in plants! Is that Gaarhweed?”

A Gnoll recoiled from a huge stalk rising from the ground, almost like a vertical bush. A [Shaman] took one look and gave it its proper name.

“Spiather! The flowers—what happened? The Great Plains are blooming! They only do that—”

“Once a century. Maybe they’d stopped since I was born. Either way. Before I died, I could summon an event that took place only once a thousand years. I have lost some of my levels, Your Majesty.”

The great [Traveller] turned back towards the tent as people began flooding out of it to stare. Nerrhavia gave him an approving nod as Inkar stared at Corregrione’s face.

“A pleasant enough sight, Corregrione. Well done. So you know, Inkar. Falamizural was as high-level as Corregrione, but in the arts of magic. And war. She is terrified of me, for I was her death.”

“What did you do?”

A thousand floral scents were blowing Nerrhavia’s way and absolutely demolishing anyone with hayfever. But Nerrhavia just caught a blossom blown from the effects of Corregrione’s Skill on the wind. She inhaled, then flicked it back onto the breeze.

“Why, it was when my empire was expanding. She led her people against mine. Time and again. She was courageous, wise, a leader, and beyond my own champions in her magic. But she could not defeat my empire. So I brought down calamity on her people’s heads. Again and again until they begged for peace and cursed her for bringing about their suffering and flocked to my empire.”

Inkar’s skin chilled as Astival grinned, and Corregrione sighed and nodded. Nerrhavia spoke, as if trying to summarize Falamizural’s life into as short a tale as possible to get it over with.

“Then she flew and took wing for all who cried injustice in my empire. Fighting until there was no one left. Not a single voice which rose in support of hers, and she stood alone, driven to despair. So she took her own blade and tried to behead herself.”

She caught another flower and plucked petals off it. Inkar’s eyes were round.

“What—”

“I didn’t let her die. It was too amusing. I had her head preserved in the ways of Stitch-magic. Then I placed it on the wall of a palace where her home had been. I let her witness my empire grow and prosper for six hundred years.”

Nerrhavia heaved a huge sigh.

“Alas—then a brawl between Free Djinni guests destroyed her. Which is why Astival did not recall her story.”

“A fine one, Your Majesty. I wish I had heard it recounted by the [Bards].”

The man bowed to her, and Nerrhavia nodded, regretful.

“If we should ever have the time, I shall have it set to paper and sung again. Simply remember she is useful, Astival. As is Corregrione. Now, you had a question, child?”

She turned, and it was to Inkar that she spoke. The [Traveller] was staring at Nerrhavia, greatly disturbed and unable to run. Yes, Inkar had a question, but she had to struggle to even articulate it.

“Why…Your Majesty. Why don’t I fear you more?”

Even now, she was disturbed, unnerved by the display of power, afraid, yes, for the Gnolls—but she didn’t hate Nerrhavia or feel the same fear that was clearly in Falamizural’s heart.

If anything, Nerrhavia was more fascinating than anything. She was a thousand-year-old [Tyrant] who had probably killed more people than Inkar had ever met. And yet…

Nerrhavia’s smile was simply, amusedly bored. When she replied, it was like the [Magician] who carelessly revealed her tricks.

“Because, Inkar, I prefer you to find me charming. I cannot be so bad, can I? Keep thinking that way.”

She patted Inkar on the cheek like a fond grandmother. Then—

Inkar bit back a scream. She didn’t know why. She clutched at one eye, and Nerrhavia flicked her fingers—but they were clean. She pinked Inkar’s cheek as the [Traveller] felt nothing at all.

“—[Reverse Decision]. You see?”

What had—had—Nerrhavia turned and focused on someone coming their way.

“Splendid. Entertainment.”

A Stitch-man made his way past the people staring in awe at the Great Plains blooming. He looked like a warrior, but he bowed rather gracefully.

“I am [Diplomat] Sarkoi of Reim, friends from afar. I greet you in the King of Destruction’s name. If I may be so bold—might I trouble you for a few words, Your Ladyship? Forgive me if I err; I was merely drawn to you.”

The Stitch-man was from the King of Destruction? No wonder he stood alone! He had no visible [Bodyguards]; a bold choice given the glare he was getting from Pheislant’s [Ambassador].

However, he was one of the few people to approach Nerrhavia, and the Immortal Tyrant murmured.

“Interesting. You are granted a single question. But first tell me why you approached me, Sarkoi of Reim.”

The [Diplomat] bowed again.

“—You seemed to me to be one I could not miss, Your…Majesty. I have stood before King Flos of Reim and his Seven and in the courts of Reim when [Kings] and [Queens] stood with the highest-levelled people in the world, at the height of his empire. You I would approach first of all, even then.”

Inkar glanced at Nerrhavia, and the Immortal Tyrant smiled with genuine feeling.

“Well done. Ask your favor.”

“—Would you care to play a game of chess, Your Majesty?”

Sarkoi glanced at her, his eyes calculating, and Nerrhavia’s smile widened.

“No.”

“Then I shall take my leave.”

The [Diplomat] bowed again and retreated only after Nerrhavia nodded. It seemed like a failure, in Inkar’s eyes, but Nerrhavia’s gaze was approving.

“That one is doing better work than most [Diplomats] here. Note how he works, Astival.”

“Adequately.”

Indeed, the Stitch-man stood alone for barely a second after retreating from Nerrhavia’s presence. Like the others, he seemed to forget her soon after approaching, though a frown told Inkar he might remember a bit more. Still—within a moment, he was accosted.

“You there. Reim’s servant. You have nerve standing before Kaaz’s own after the bloodshed between our nations.”

Ah, the Kaazian delegation. Diplomats was, ah, too generous a word. The [Hundredlady] of Kaaz let her lions prowl around Sarkoi’s feet, growling ominously, but the Stitch-man simply bowed to her.

“Greetings to Kaaz Dorem Laegriser, Hundredlady Ullana.”

She glowered as she opened a fan in front of her face.

“Step backwards, man of the warlord Flos Reimarch. Knowing Kaaz’s full name does not a [Diplomat] make.”

“Yet I do know Kaaz’s full name, Your Ladyship. If that numbers me above others present, I would welcome it. I would welcome the chance to speak with you if you had the moment.”

The Hundredlady snorted as her group scoffed.

“Why would we exchange words with a servant of a hated foe?”

“Over a game of chess, even enemies may speak. Or is Kaaz not a worthy foe of Reim? It would behoove either of us to score a victory against the other for pride’s sake alone, or so I believe. His Majesty of Reim is not above celebrating a victory on the chessboard above his foes.”

Sarkoi countered. Hundredlady Ullana scoffed.

“A pedestrian pastime. I may accept, though these blooms fascinate me more. And why would I exchange words with you except to castigate your [King]? If you seek an alliance here, I can think of no nation foolish enough to accept, even Balerosian ones.”

That comment attracted a glare from a passing Gorgon, but Sarkoi’s smile was pleasant. A lion opened his mouth to take a bite from his leg—saw the Stitch-man glance down—and thought better of it.

“Kaaz itself does not stand among the best of friends in Terandria at this moment, Your Ladyship. Would it worsen ties to speak of amusing anecdotes from both our nations?”

Inkar had noticed Kaaz hadn’t interacted with the other Terandrian nations as much. Was this due to the rift between nations with the Ser Solstice incident? The Hundredlady appraised Sarkoi, then fanned herself.

“Speak. What could be so interesting?”

“Chemath Marble, Your Ladyship? Or perhaps the Horns of Hammerad? They are a popular team, and His Majesty of Reim had chance to meet them.”

“Chemath Marble? Ah, yes…and the Horns of Hammerad. You wouldn’t happen to have an autograph from Yvlon Byres, would you? Or the, ah, Antinium? Or [Necromancer]?”

“Perhaps, Your Ladyship…”

And off they went. Nerrhavia glanced at Astival.

“Passable. Chess intrigues me. You play it, of course.”

“No, Your Majesty.”

Astival looked confused, and Nerrhavia rolled her eyes and looked at Inkar as if to say ‘see what I have to work with’. Her fingers twisted to form a circle, and Astival flushed.

“You do play it, Astival. Clearly, you kept different company than I, of the ghosts. Chess. I have heard it said a Fraerling took credit for inventing it during this age. The Immortal Court practiced it, though it was not widespread.”

“Ah—Dragonlord’s Court, Your Majesty? Forgive me. I have some passing acquaintance with the game after all.”

Astival’s eyes lit up, and Nerrhavia nodded.

“Just so. I find it amusing how much significance it holds. Then again—”

She paused.

“…Dragons did know it. I speculated as to why. Now I see.”

Her eyes narrowed as she stared at Inkar, and the Earther’s heart beat faster, but Nerrhavia just gestured towards the tent.

“You have my leave to amuse yourself with the game, Astival. I may rank the [Diplomats] inside. Come, Inkar.”

She sighed as they made their way back inside the expo tent.

“—This tedious wait is almost over.”

She led them back to a table, and Inkar’s legs wobbled as she sat down. Then she saw something closing in the room.

The Immortal Tyrant’s plans coming together.

 

——

 

Falamizural could not understand what the Immortal Tyrant was up to. She noticed as much as she could; this place and time was far from her own, but she understood politics.

One of the things that did not surprise her was the animosity between Drake and Gnoll. For instance, despite the delegates from the Walled Cities being allowed to visit the expo, they were not treated like the other guests.

Pallass, Salazsar, and Oteslia—dead gods, were there only six Walled Cities left?—were treated civilly. But the Drakes from Fissival only realized how much they were being snubbed when it came time to bid on some items.

“Four thousand on the battery.”

A Drake held up a little sign on a stick, finally beating out one of the other nations on the voltaic battery. Even the cheapest items were going for ridiculous prices.

Chieftain Orelighn waited, and when there was no answering bid, he called out.

“Sold! The voltaic cell battery to Avel at three thousand pieces, nine hundred!”

“What? Yes! It is not a waste of money, you lot. Shut up, shut up.

The King of Avel was celebrating as the Fissival Drake protested.

“Excuse me, I think there’s been an error. Hello? Hello?

It took two more bids where they won only to have a Gnoll ‘miss’ the final bid and assign it to the second-place winner to catch on. Then they fumed. Manus, Zeres, and Fissival were all forced to watch as the bidding went on and left them empty-handed.

That…threatened trouble, or so Falamizural assumed. But Drakes and Gnolls had always hated each other. Like Stitch-folk and Truestone. Agelum and Lucifen. Dogs and cats.

She was going around the room, being social, trying to get a read on which nations were at least of good intention.

She had no idea what this Blighted Kingdom was. When she mentioned the Infernal Courts, someone had given her such an odd look she’d shut up.

It was hard to pretend you were from another nation when a majority of nations were represented here, especially since Garuda were apparently in only a few nations. Falamizural ended up claiming she was from ‘a tribe’ and got away depressingly easily.

“I am a [Mage] from Chandrar.”

That was honest enough. But then she got in trouble with a Wistram representative, a Magus Telim.

“Terras faction, Wistram. I flew here—somewhat literally, I’m afraid—to represent the Archmage of Memory. My, you have splendid mana, if that’s not rude of me.”

Since it was, she covered her body with her wings defensively, and Telim hesitated.

“I—er—you wouldn’t have ever visited Wistram by chance? We’re having a real gathering of [Mages] there, and new magic is always welcome. What specialty are you?”

“Summoning.”

“Oh! A [Summoner], eh? Do you go for old warriors or are we talking monsters here? Or are you someone who cares for the old [Plague of Rats] spell?”

Telim grinned with great interest, and Falamizural realized she’d said it wrong. She smiled politely.

“No, I’m not a [Summoner]. I…”

Then the explosion of flowers happened, and everyone was so busy heading outside that she lost the chance to clarify.

The next guest she introduced herself had the Bow of Avel, which at least was familiar. King Itreimedes leaned forwards.

“What kind of magic?”

“Calling magic.”

“Oh, splendid. There’s always need for that. All these scrying and communication spells.”

“No—I mean—not calling as in communication. Calling as in summoning. Beckoning magic.”

She was getting a bit frustrated. Falamizural demonstrated, beckoning a hand, and a wine cup flew off a startled Gnoll’s tray into her hand.

“F-fascinating.”

The King of Avel’s face said it was anything but. Falamizural was about to elaborate when she saw Nerrhavia walking across the floor and jumped out of the way so fast the King of Avel was left staring at the open air.

“Hello? Hello, Miss Falamizural? She’s gone. Drat! This is why we should have gone in person! Don’t give me that look. How was I supposed to know it would be this entertaining? It’s your job to tell me this kind of stuff!”

 

——

 

Nerrhavia sat down at a table and spoke.

“Good evening.”

Her guests looked up, and the introduction of a stranger to literal royalty was rude beyond belief—but no one thought to complain or have her shown away. Instead, someone scrambled to sit upright rather than peer into the scrying orb.

“Ah, good evening, Miss.”

By chance, Jecaina, the Arbiter Queen, had been put at one of the tables to view the tourniquet demo along with several other dignitaries, including a scrying orb from Calanfer. Queen Ielane didn’t acknowledge Nerrhavia, too busy whispering to her husband, who was practically frothing at the mouth with all the things he wanted to buy.

Nerrhavia’s fingers danced a complicated web of court-signs as she smiled, and Jecaina gave her a puzzled look.

“I am Queen Jecaina of Jecrass. Not married to my father, Raelt of Jecrass.”

“The Arbiter Queen. I wished to speak with you, however briefly. You are a [Queen] who pursues the same ideal I do.”

“I—thank you for your words. I do not feel very capable as a judge at this moment.”

Jecaina flushed with shame for reasons she couldn’t articulate. She had poise and training, but she wasn’t a match for the older rulers. Even so, she was notable for her fame, and a number of people listened as Nerrhavia spoke.

“It is a difficult choice, yet I admire it, Jecaina of Jecrass. Not least because you place yourself above every ruler present.”

Every head turned at that, and Queen Ielane’s snapped up. Jecaina jumped and grew nervous.

“I don’t! That is—what gives you that impression?”

Nerrhavia countered smoothly.

“What is an arbiter of crowns if not above even thrones? As I said, I admire your vision. But you must cease your fear of other nations. If the reach of your law and voice halts for fear of offending another ruler, then your class is meaningless. When you judge, you must do it without fear of the future. A difficult road indeed.”

Her fingers made another sign, and Queen Ielane paused as Nerrhavia then addressed the Rhirian [Diplomat], who straightened even further in their chair and adopted a look of intense concentration.

 

——

 

Who is that?

Queen Ielane had no idea. The woman sitting at the table had incredible poise, though, save for her fingers. Ielane might have taken it as a sign of nerves or a muscular issue causing the twitching, but—

“It’s far too artistic. Someone get me a quill and parchment. Hurry.”

One was put into her hands, and she began noting down the movement of the fingers, trying to work out how to record their movement. There was a subtlety to them—wait, her fingernails had markings on them; they were not all uniformly black.

A cipher?

Ielane wished her head weren’t still foggy even weeks after fighting off that half-Elf. She kept writing, trying to pay attention to the conversation as well as the words.

“—And you are Ielane du Marquin.”

“Well met, by the Eternal Throne.”

Ielane stopped writing as those eyes found her. She made a gesture of her own, a Drathian gesture for ‘respect’ as she gave the nod of rulers to the woman and wondered why she did that.

This has to be a foreign [Queen]. But which nation? Why have I never heard of her before?

The gaze that met Ielane’s eyes was faintly bored. Faintly…disappointed. The Queen of Calanfer had the intense urge to blush and mastered it.

The strange woman exchanged a few more pleasantries with the guests at the table, then stood and left. The entire time, a few of them, from Jecaina to Ielane to Queen Geilouna of Desonis, were filled with attention. But when the woman stood—

Ielane stared down at the scrawl of signs she’d been jotting down, fast as she could. She handed it to Dame Vensha.

“See if you can do—anything with that. I doubt I noted it down properly.”

She sat there, and the table went politely silent until Geilouna exploded in a hiss.

Who was that?

No one had an answer. Even Ielane du Marquin, trained in code phrases and court gestures and manners, felt like she’d just been riding around with a lance in hand like some [Knight] on horseback only to see a Dragonrider land and offer to joust.

Whatever that woman had been actually saying to her—even the language was beyond Ielane’s ability to understand. The woman had seemed idly bored.

And disappointed. She only looked around when she caught sight of a semi-transparent Drake flirting with a Garuda. Because, well—you had to stare at that.

 

——

 

“Nerul Gemscale, Diplomat of Salazsar but representing purely Wall Lord Ilvriss, Feathertalker Quova.”

The Drake was introducing himself to people left and right at the expo. He had just accosted a Garuda from the Shield Kingdom of Winds, Qualvekkaras, and the Garuda was tired of having to explain what a Shield Kingdom was and tell people unsubtly she was not from a Garuda tribe.

However, the Drake opened well, clearly knowing her title, and she bowed with one wing arm extended for a handshake before she realized he was intangible.

“A pleasure to meet—er—is this a scrying spell?”

Quova was greatly surprised as Nerul beamed at her.

A type of projection Skill, Feathertalker. Apologies about the intangibility thing. But I have a cup of wine and no one’s kicked me out.”

The Garuda smiled pleasantly while she used [Information Dump: Ilvriss] to refresh herself on who this Nerul was.

Wall Lord Ilvriss…was the Wall Lord who’d appeared at the Great Plains of Izril on the Gnolls’ side. Clearly, the Gnolls would like him, but that wasn’t high on her list of important people given the nations in the room.

Then the thing Nerul said struck home, and Quova blinked.

“Kicked out?”

“Well, I’m self-invited.”

Nerul winked and shot her a grin as he took a generous sip from his cup of wine. The Garuda stared at him, then saw a white Gnoll girl edging over to wave at the Kaazian [Hundredlady], who was fuming after a defeat at the chess board.

“Whose child is—oh. White fur?”

The Kaazian stared at the girl, and despite her business and irritability, Quova smiled. Nerul cursed rather loudly and ran over to pick the Gnoll girl up under one arm. She squirmed and kicked as he apologized.

“Mrsha! This is diplomatic business. I’m the one sneaking in here. Excuse me, Hundredlady Ullana. This nosy child is from The Wandering Inn—she’s a Doombearer and helped at the Meeting of Tribes, so she thinks she’s invited anywhere she pleases.”

The Hundredlady accepted Nerul’s bow, and he backed up, offering profuse apologies at a louder volume than necessary. All quite fine—but Ullana’s eyes lit up as she put Mrsha together with the knowledge of Gnolls even an amateur like her would have.

“Wait, is that the child who was on the television?”

Nerul had already turned back to Quova and sheepishly introduced Mrsha. The girl wiggled her nose at the Garuda and then scribbled on a piece of parchment.

“Mrsha, Diplomat Quova. A little rascal who appears whenever I’m trying to work. Much like cats in scrying orbs, you know. I am terribly sorry—I could remove her.”

“I don’t find her that disturbing.”

If anything, she was a charming relief from the arrogant lot of ambassadors. Quova bent over.

“Hello, I am Feathertalker Quova of Qualvekkaras.”

To her surprise, Mrsha held up a rather elegantly written card.

Hi! I’m Mrsha! You’re very pretty!

Feathertalker Quova had a sunburst of feathers that drew other Garudas’ eyes; she’d been put out to realize the Garuda with splendid white wings outshone her, but she preened and was glad someone noticed.

“Mrsha, you don’t tell a Garuda they have splendid coloration. That’s quite rude; they know.

Nerul shot Quova an admiring glance, and she smiled as coolly as she could at him.

“It helps with other species to know they’ve seen it, Diplomat. Ah—Wall Lord Ilvriss of House Gemscale, isn’t it? Qualvekkaras knows of his deeds, of course. Quite commendable. What is the good Wall Lord getting up to these days?”

Nerul chuckled as the Hundredlady followed with a cat, who backed up as Mrsha raised her arms to assert dominance over it.

“Just a bit of digging in the north, Diplomat.”

“In the north? With the Humans?”

“Well, yes. But—oh, Hundredlady! I apologize again!”

And then the Kaazian woman was there. She gave the [Diplomat] from Qualvekkaras a nod and interrupted the chat.

“I wished to assure you that no harm was done by the child, Diplomat…Nerul, wasn’t it? Kaaz greets thee, and—”

She hesitated, and Nerul stepped in like a piece of butter on a [Slippery Floor] spell.

“Qualvekkaras, Hundredlady. It trips up my tongue too. Splendid to meet one of the Shield Kingdom’s own. I am not taking up either of your time, am I? Mrsha, stop being a pest. No one cares about your title, Mrsha du Marquin, Slayer of Crelers. It was only a nest of two dozen.”

He sighed as Mrsha danced from foot to foot, and Hundredlady Ullana blinked.

“Crelers?”

Mrsha scribbled hurriedly as Nerul tried to shoo her off. He gave Diplomat Quova a harried look, and she smiled despite herself as he wiped at his brow with a handkerchief.

As I was saying, my nephew is just digging in the north. Purely for buried treasure; yes, the Walled Families aren’t happy, but are they ever?”

He’s digging for super treasure! A buried Walled C—

Mrsha held up the card high so everyone could see it a second before Nerul grabbed the card, tore it up, tossed it in his wine cup, and swallowed it.

“Mrsha? Outside.”

He pointed, and she scampered off—only to circle around a handful of people and creep up on Nerul, who was definitely flustered by now. However, Ullana and Quova were hooked. The Garuda coughed into one claw.

“Tell me, ah, more about House Gemscale, Diplomat Nerul?”

“Oh, certainly! Where to begin? Well, Ilvriss isn’t the head of it at the moment. His father, Zail, had that little war with Fissival, and he’s now part of the Last Defenders of the Wall. I shan’t go into local Salazsarian politics. You get a bunch of elderly Drakes over Level 50 deciding to unretire and what a mess. My nephew’s rather stuffy. But he’s a good sort. Earnest. He just, ah, went north on a hunch after staying at The Wandering Inn for a bit. It’s been good for his health, even if the inn isn’t really that, uh, holistic a topic here.”

Nerul made a show of craning his neck around worriedly, and Diplomat Quova definitely thought the inn was a location non grata. However, if the Wall Lord had…wait a second, didn’t a Dullahan [General] have a [Garden of Sanctuary] at the inn?

Could it be that the Wall Lord had some secrets that even Qualvekkaras wanted to know?

And as if the thought and Nerul’s rather loud explanation had attracted them, one of the Dullahans from the Iron Vanguard came over. As did a fascinated Drowned Man who’d been following Mrsha.

“Pardon me, Hundredlady, Diplomats. I could not help but overhear. May I introduce myself?”

The Hundredlady nodded, and the Dullahan began to speak. And more and more people decided now was the time to come over.

Maybe it was the notecard. Or Nerul’s too-loud voice, or the fact that he and Mrsha were clear projections. Or the air of secrecy around them that was fascinating. In fact, more than one ruler had requested to enter the group around Nerul.

And the [Diplomat] was busy trying to shoo Mrsha away with one foot as she leaked information about what Ilvriss was doing. He was harried, distracted, genial, and amusing—

If you could have seen the rest of the [World’s Eye Theatre], you would have seen Dalimont and Ushar silently applauding as they watched Nerul work.

 

——

 

Nerrhavia herself almost gave the [Diplomat] applause as well. He was indeed very acceptable.

The old Lost Child gambit. She’d seen it done before, but the child, Mrsha, played her role as well as any with her notecards. She would have spoken with the [Diplomat] herself, but she sensed the expo was about to close. So, regretfully, Nerrhavia just remembered the [Diplomat]’s name.

She did have a role to play, after all.

The finale of the expo saw two things happen. The first was that Nerrhavia stretched and sighed.

“Ah, flesh after so long. Even the aches were pleasant until recently. Here. Take this.”

She pulled something out of her pocket and handed it to Inkar.

The Heartstone.

Inkar gasped as it began to melt and clasped it to her chest. She felt the unsettling distance between her heart and the gemstone vanish.

“But why—”

“You use your Skills without finesse. [Warriors] understand a [Power Strike] has nuance to it. A Skill may be forced or used lightly. You have the power to offer those you wish a gift that is generous or slight. Next time—think before you use it unwisely.”

Shards of light in her irises glowed, and Inkar backed away, shaking. She looked at the Garuda, who breathed a sigh of relief, and the Gnoll nodded as Inkar hesitated.

“What are you—”

Ladies and Gentlemen, for our final demonstration, we would like to show you the things Gnolls value most! Music, art—stories.

Chieftain Orelighn leapt onto stage, a showman, and Astival nodded at the Gnoll’s increased confidence. Everyone had returned to their seats as the final items went on display.

“What matters more than new forms of art? New ways for songs to be written? The Singer of Terandria has taken the world by storm. But she is limited—limited by the number of instruments. There are countless that can be played, but have you ever heard this kind of horn?”

The lights dimmed in the tent, and a Gnoll walked onto stage with an instrument Inkar recognized as she backed away from the table. Even the [Traveller] stopped. Because she had known that Mrell had helped forge a saxophone.

—She hadn’t been aware the Chieftain of the Demas Metal tribe was the one who was going to play it.

Shaman Theikha adjusted the light spells until he was standing in a cone of light. The Gnoll was blowing into the saxophone by himself at first—then several Gnolls joined in with accompanying instruments.

He was pretty good! He might not have had a ton of time to practice on the instrument, but the point was just to entertain and impress upon the rulers that there was a new instrument.

It played pretty well, despite a few squeaks when he missed a note, for the first forty seconds. Everyone was entertained—except maybe a little white Gnoll girl who was semi-transparent. She glowered as she folded her arms.

So The Wandering Inn was present! Rose wouldn’t have missed this. Inkar was looking for Theikha.

Mrell was just about to get into the groove of the way of the sax when there was a sound.

“A—CHOOO.”

Mrell faltered, and the Gnolls playing instruments all went off-timing, and the music wobbled to a stop. Everyone winced or flinched and turned.

At a table, one of the Pallassian Drakes had actually leaned out of the way of what she had assumed was the world’s most infectious sneeze. However, when everyone turned to see who it was, they just saw a glowing scrying orb.

Oops. Pardon me.”

The Fissival Drake adjusted his volume down with a smug smile as he pretended to pat at his nose. He ignored the glowers from the three Walled Cities with representatives actually present.

“—Uh—”

Mrell had completely lost his groove. He looked around and began to try and repeat his song, but regaining the momentum and surprise factor was impossible.

Worse—Inkar heard a loud screech from the sax, and Mrell stopped and apologized. Then she heard titters in the crowd, and someone grabbed her shoulder.

“Those eggkissing bastards! Inkar! Inkar, they’re sabotaging us with Skills!”

Tkrn pointed accusingly at the Walled Cities who’d been snubbed. Inkar grabbed him in relief.

“Tkrn! Tkrn, where is Theikha?”

“Probably trying to stop them. I think they’re throwing Skills—it’s not just them. Some of the nations who know about you-know-what are also trying to mess us up!”

It was true. Inkar saw Mrell completely flub his third attempt to perform, and she doubted even nerves would cause him to drop the saxophone with a clatter.

No one had foreseen that foreign nations, alarmed at all the Earth-tech, might take it out on the Gnolls in hopes of lowering the prices. In fact, it could have even been groups like the Stitch-folk nations, tired of losing bids. Orelighn’s voice was strained.

“I’m sorry about that. The, ah, we’ll have the auctions at the end of our demonstrations so as not to slow things up. Next? Brass drums and a bass clarinet!”

Unfortunately, it only got worse from there. Inkar and Tkrn were searching for Theikha when, mid-demo for the metal drums, someone stepped on the tail of one of Kaaz’s lions. The crowd was not blind to what was going on.

As far as Inkar could see, the Gnolls had won a lot of points on the international stage with their display, so despite the mangled drum demonstration, Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Ambassador] rose to their feet along with several others, prompting a standing ovation for the embarrassed performers.

Splendidly fascinating instruments. The Court of Silks desires them. If our counterparts will act with suitable decorum, I am sure we will all be impressed.”

The Stitch-man spoke in a carrying, pointed voice, inviting a snap from the [Diplomat] from Scaied.

“If our exalted neighbors in Nerrhavia’s Fallen would deign to allow us a chance to buy anything, I am sure we will all be happier. Truly, the coffers must be deep for Nerrhavia’s Fallen to buy so much with a war against Reim.”

That got angry murmurs, but the [Ambassador] just turned and sneered at her.

“The armies of Nerrhavia’s Fallen are splendidly equipped already, [Diplomat]. They are not so ill-funded that a single warrior from Khelt can send an entire army to their heels.”

He was, of course, referring to the Vizir Hecrelunn smashing the army of Scaied’s that had sieged the Monks of Sottheim. It was a mischaracterization, of course; Scaied had done a great job of bottling up the King of Destruction’s most dangerous vassals until a Revenant from older ages decided to take umbrage with them.

However, the [Cutting Remark] and whatever other Skill the [Ambassador] had used got outright laughter from around the room, and the [Diplomat] from Scaied stumbled and actually fell over.

Oh, straight to her face! She’ll be feeling that one all week, Mrsha. Dead gods, that was brutal. I think it nearly drew blood. She’s definitely got a bruise.

Nerul commented from the side with a huge bowl of popcorn on his lap. Inkar just groaned and wondered if The Wandering Inn could help. Against Nerrhavia?

Actually…could Theikha do a thing? Inkar hoped so. She spotted Theikha slipping outside and ran after her.

“Feshi! I need Theikha!”

“Well, you’ll have to wait. We have intruders poking around the Earther tents. Saboteurs, spies…maybe worse. She caught two already. They’re high-level.”

Cursing, Inkar ran after Theikha as a sweating Orelighn took the stage.

“Apologies for the disruptions, gentlemen and ladies. And Selphids. If we could have no more of that…we have a most splendid instrument I believe no one is familiar with. A revolution in music, I daresay. It is called a grand piano.

Heads rose, and the Kaazian ambassador stopped soothing the lioness, who was still quietly yowling. Archmage Eldavin’s face filled a scrying orb as Telim levitated up for a better look.

Piano.

Piano.

Piano.

The hallmark of Earth in some ways. Something that this world hadn’t invented, though the pieces were all there. It was none other than Satar Silverfang who had volunteered to learn and play a simple piece on the piano.

Not chopsticks…but hardly something too complex. The problem with the piano that none of the Gnolls were going to mention was, uh—that it was made for Humans.

As in, Gnollish paws had trouble reaching some of the keys because they weren’t as similarly long. Satar had longer digits, so she’d been one of the best candidates. Drakes would probably do just fine, though their claws might make for odd interactions with the keys.

The sight of the piano and its interior made the audience gasp appreciatively. It was beautiful, whatever you wanted to say, and the Gnolls had painted it a lovely, traditional black color and polished every edge of it until it shone in the spotlight.

It gleamed, and it was perfectly tuned. A beaming Satar walked towards it as Orelighn explained how it worked. She took two steps onto the stage—

—And faceplanted as she tripped over nothing at all.

Ooh. I say! [Inopportune Trip]! [Inopportune Trip]! Uncalled for!

Nerul sprang to his feet as cries of dismay and winces of pity filled the room. Who had done it was hard to say. The Drakes were raising their hands on the scrying orbs; they’d been muted.

Satar sat up, and to her dismay, she had a nosebleed. Orelighn helped her up, and the visibly distressed Gnoll tried to get to the piano and begin to perform. She sat down as he fussed with a handkerchief and pressed down on a key, feeling at her teeth to see if they were chip—

CRACK.

The sound was that of a new wire on the piano snapping. It was an explosion of discordant sound, and Satar’s look of horror matched that of Orelighn.

Adetr Steelfur strode onto stage in a fury as Satar almost burst into tears.

“That could have taken someone’s eye out! Who did that?”

He roared at the guests, and a chorus of voices rose as people disavowed the sabotage, began pointing fingers—

A disaster. The expo was going pear-shaped right at the end, and at this point, the organizers were debating if they even wanted to demo any more products if this was how they were going to go.

It was upsetting after all their hard work. Adetr was at least repairing the piano string and tuning it back up, fearless of it snapping in his face.

This petty sabotage wouldn’t really matter, except that it would. It was a sign of contempt for the Gnolls. It was discourteous.

Most of all? It was just pathetic. So a woman stood up at the back of the room and amended her plans. Just slightly.

 

——

 

Nerrhavia walked past the tables of arguing diplomats and scrying orbs with rulers muttering amongst themselves and towards the center of the room.

At first, no one noticed her. It was only when she was about to walk onto the dais that Adetr, trying to talk Satar into another try, looked up.

“Hey. No one on stage. Er—Miss.”

His glower didn’t stop her. She walked forwards into the spotlight and took a seat at the piano, resting her fingers on the keys.

“Marvelous work, Chieftain Adetr Steelfur.”

“Thank you. Please get off—”

He began to stride towards her to escort her away, but he didn’t quite manage to do so. When Adetr thought about taking the woman by the shoulder and pulling her up—she was hardly much bigger than Rose—he couldn’t.

He stood there, brows furrowing.

Something is wrong. Who is this? Satar looked up as she pressed at a bloody nostril and gasped.

“You.”

“Me.”

Nerrhavia agreed. She began to play on the piano. The sound attracted the distracted room’s attention, and people began to focus on her.

Some of them, like Ielane, instantly sat up. Others just blinked and leaned forwards. And at least one—

CRACK.

This time, Nerrhavia hit another key, and another piano wire broke. Adetr snapped as well. He’d just—

[Return to Former Condition] was one of his new Skills. He’d used it up to fix the piano wire and re-tune it once! The second explosion of sound had him whirling to roar at the offender, politeness be damned.

Nerrhavia didn’t flinch when the piano wire snapped. She simply sighed and pressed the key down.

Plong. Adetr heard the note again. He blinked—turned back—and saw the piano wire.

It was frozen, mid-snap, a piece of the wire and piano torn free in the air. The delegates stared as the piano wire slowly drifted back down the way it had come.

Repairing itself.

Nerrhavia played the note again, and it sounded sweetly, perfectly re-tuned. She lifted a finger—then flicked it.

Adetr Steelfur heard nothing. He saw nothing happen. But he felt certain that whoever had activated that sabotage Skill—they had just had it come back straight at them.

“In lieu of our Gnollish hosts, I will perform a small piece this afternoon.”

Nerrhavia spoke to the surprised silence. She did not announce herself. Nor did she greet the monarchs. If this was offensive, well—none of them thought to protest.

Something strange was going on with Kaaz’s ambassadors. The lions, disgruntled from having to sit in a confined room so long, had been a quiet but persistent source of sound throughout the evening. When someone had stepped on one’s tail, they’d been more riled up.

But as Adetr backed up from the stage, he distinctly saw the entire pride of lions had gone still. They were facing Nerrhavia. And—he saw all nine of them were on all fours, front paws lowered while their hind claws raised. As if they were prostrating themselves.

“What the hell—?”

He backed up as Satar wavered.

“Adetr, what’s going on? Is that woman going to play? How does anyone know how to play the—”

“Satar. Do you see that? Are those lions…bowing?”

Adetr pointed, and Satar’s head whipped around. She stared. Then rubbed at her eyes. That’s what it looked like. The lions had lowered their heads. And they were…shaking?

Who was this stranger? The audience must have assumed she was someone being brought in to help the performance. The really stupid ones might have thought she was from Earth.

But before anyone could take in Nerrhavia, a Stitch-man stood up at the back of the room.

Astival. [Puppetmaster Sadivictus]. He rose to his feet in a single motion, and hundreds of people, Gnolls, dignitaries, guards—all stood with him if they hadn’t already.

It was unconscious. Instantaneous. Then, as one, they raised their hands and burst into thunderous applause.

The faces of the [Diplomats] were confused, and the applause was at first eerily uniform before becoming natural. Astival bowed as Nerrhavia flicked a finger without looking at him, and the applause stopped, and people began to sit.

“Excellent. Now—silence.

She sat with back straight, hands spreading out on the keys, and there was silence. The Immortal Tyrant looked up with a smile and spoke, her voice resonant despite the lack of a speaking stone.

“I shall play a brief song to illustrate the value of this piano. It is often accompanied by other instruments. Though I am no [Singer], my voice shall suffice in this case. It is my favorite piece by a man who would have been welcomed in my courts. For wit, if nothing else.”

She paused for dramatic effect, and the [Light] spell over her head narrowed until it illuminated just her sitting at the piano.

“—This is a rousing, uplifting song guaranteed to cheer you up.”

And then she began to play.

At first, the music was slow and somber piano notes before they drifted off and Nerrhavia began to sing.


When you attend a funeral, 

It is sad to think that sooner or 

Later those you love will do the same for you.

And you may have thought it tragic,

Not to mention other adjectives—

To think of all the weeping they will do.

Her voice was deep and filled the room, almost like a lullaby. Then her left eyebrow quirked.

 

But don’t you worry—

 

Nerrhavia flashed a grin across the crowd of spellbound listeners, her eyes dancing from face to face, her teeth flashing ivory-pale with sudden amusement.

—No more ashes, no more sackcloth,

And an armband made of white cloth

Will some day never more adorn a sleeve.

For if the spell that falls on you…

Gets your friends and neighbors too:

There’ll be nobody left behind to grieve!

A susurration rose from the audience as some of them belatedly realized this wasn’t the song they were expecting. Accordingly, the music picked up, and the piano began to emit a cheery, lively melody completely at odds with the words.

 

“And we will all go together when we go.

What a comforting fact that is to know!

Universal bereavement,

An inspiring achievement—

Yes, we will all go together when we go!

 

We will all go together when we go.

All suffused with an incandescent glow.

No one will have the endurance

To collect on her insurance,

The Merchant’s Guild will be loaded when they go.

 

We will all fry together when we fry.

We’ll be french fried Yellats by and by.

There will be no more misery

When the world is our rotisserie,

Yes, we all will fry together when we fry.

 

And we will all bake together when we bake.

There’ll be nobody present at the wake.

With complete participation

In that grand incineration,

Nearly ten billion hunks of well-done steak.

 

We will all char together when we char.

And there will be no moaning of the bar.

Just sing out a goodbye

When you see that [Archmage] fly

And the party will be ‘come as you are’.

 

We will all burn together when we burn.

There’ll be no need to stand and wait your turn.

When it’s time for the fallout

And Queen Khelta calls us all out,

We’ll just drop our agendas and adjourn.

 

We will all go together when we go.

Ev’ry Drake and ev’ry Gnoll.

When the air becomes arcaneous,

We will all go simultaneous.

Yes…we all will go together

When we all go together,

Yes. we all will go together when we go.”

 

Can you hear it? Could you see it? The air caught every note as if afraid of what she might do to it if it dropped them. And the light faded until it seemed like she was playing in complete darkness. Her eyes glowed in the murk, but when she smiled—

The world glowed like the burning fires of the earth. Her light voice sounded amused, as if she had seen it all. Gaze roaming to meet the eyes of the rulers chuckling uncomfortably at the image of utter annihilation.

When they looked into the depths of the Immortal Tyrant’s gaze, the laughter didn’t stop. It merely turned hysterical. She sang the words longingly, like a promise, like the final joke they’d ever hear.

When her voice dropped to the final word and the piano’s echo had died away, the applause was spontaneous, and Nerrhavia stood, stretching lightly. She took a single bow. Then she walked offstage.

“It was worth practicing. Chess we knew. But pianos never.”

She murmured to Satar Silverfang as she passed by. The Gnoll turned and fell over as the applause continued. Nerrhavia lifted a hand as if dazzled by the lights or acknowledging the compliments, but she was ignoring both.

“Another world of sights. I have never been bored of people, from the most common to fellow rulers. So long as they are worthy, I will never cease to be entertained.”

 

——

 

After that performance, the final item on display was almost a let-down. The Gnolls just went from table to table as the lights came on, handing something out to each person, including bodyguards and servants.

It was…a catalog of the items on sale.

Wonderful. Okay, it was fine. The script was very legible, if not as fancy as some of the [Scribe]’s best works, and it even included a number of songs, including Great Plains Sing, that famous Gnollish song. Out of deference, or in a stroke of genius, the Gnolls hadn’t included only their own songs.

There was also Land’s Farewell, the Drowned Folk’s song, and Khelt’s national anthem. If anything, it was rather impressive how much time Gnolls had wasted on making so many books.

…Because each one had to be hand-written.

Obviously. A high-level [Scribe] could do a small booklet like this in an hour if they were really good. Maybe a Level 40 one could do…three or four per hour?

They had to have at least four hundred. Queen Ielane’s head snapped up as she saw the Gnolls bringing a huge device into the center of the room.

“Reclis. Reclis. Stop writing down those song lyrics. Be glad you failed to win any large bids. Buy this.

The King of Calanfer looked up and blinked. Satar, nosebleed gone, spoke to the audience.

“This is the most valuable item we have created, guests of the Great Plains. If you do not understand, please look at the books in front of you. There were four hundred and fifty made for this event. A great expense, one might think. Yet it took us barely three days to make all of them, and most of that was time spent bookbinding.”

A murmur of incredulity rose, and someone called out—Itreimedes.

“How many poor [Scribes] did you murder for that?”

Laughter. Satar called back.

“None, Your Majesty of Bows! And no [Scribe] did work on this, except to make a template for us to use! In fact, copying a page was as simple as this—”

She turned, and Adetr carefully manipulated the printing press until a block of wood moved down, pressed on a page—and Satar lifted the sheet and held it up.

A copy of the first page glistened in the light, ink still wet. Instantly, a Reinhart stood up.

“Ten thousand gold pieces.”

“We aren’t bidding—yet, Lady Cecille. This is a printing press.”

“Forty thousand for a blueprint.”

The [Diplomat] from the Forgotten Wing company called out. Satar tried to speak for the people slower on the uptake like Itreimedes, and Itreimedes, and possibly Itreimedes.

“Scribes may be faster, but training them takes time. This device can make it so that with paper and ink and a bit of knowhow, entire libraries can be—”

“Fifty thousand gold pieces and a Kelpie breeding pair!”

Queen Jecaina called out. Heads turned at that, and Satar tried to keep going.

“—Happy to create as many as—”

Eighty thousand gold pieces and a trade deal with Desonis.

Queen Geilouna called out, and Satar gave up and stood, beaming. Voices began clamoring, but the truth was that if you were bidding, you were a fool.

Magnolia Reinhart’s servant just got up and walked out to have a word with Adetr Steelfur about purchasing a design straight from the start. So did several other of the canny diplomats.

Inside? Well—it got ugly fast.

 

——

 

Three hundred thousand gold coins.

That stopped almost all real bids. Few things were worth the amount of money of relic-class items. This was an object that the Gnolls could make more of, even if they only had one working demo.

Three hundred thousand? What a waste of gold! It was an outrageous sum, but the Reinharts had bid up the price more out of spite than anything else. Guess who wanted it?

Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

Partly because it was new. They had also gotten the piano. But the exorbitant price of the printing press was partly due to how the technology would revolutionize language and learning and more—

Partly because Queen Yisame really wanted one. Everyone sighed as the bid went once, twice…

Printing presses. Revolutionary. World-changing.

…Sort of less impressive than the piano still, if people were being honest. There were groups like the Terlands who were not happy about the existence of the printing press. Why?

Because their Golems had been cornering the market on copying books for ages. Several of the Terlands were urgently talking with Ulva Terland about, well, the future of a cornerstone of their economy.

But it really was a bad look. The Stitch-folk from the equal-cloth kingdom of Reneiz and the delegates right behind Nerrhavia’s Fallen were grumbling audibly.

“This is manifestly unfair. How long will we be forced to wait? At least let us buy the designs.”

The [Ambassador] from Nerrhavia’s Fallen heard that and called out.

“Ah—our purchase must be contingent on no plans of this amazing device being leaked in the next eight months.”

That complicated matters. Orelighn had to hurry over to Feshi to confer, and another voice rose in protest.

What? We didn’t get a single item!”

Fissival’s Drake was throwing a huge fit, and Oteslia’s [Diplomat] was visibly distancing herself from him. Strangely, the Zeresian [Diplomat] was all calmness.

“Come now, Fausst. Fausst. It’s not like we won’t get designs of all this.”

“In how many years?”

The Zeresian [Diplomat] was cool-headed, give him that, but he occupied a level of diplomacy kith and kin to the Serpentine Matriarch—which was to say, telling. He smirked, and his voice was a bit too loud due to the acoustics of the room. Or something else. His whisper rolled into a moment of silence as he leaned over to the scrying orb.

“Well, I’m sure we’ll find a printing press or two in some burned wreckage of a trading carav—”

He stopped talking as he realized his was the only voice in the room. The Drake slowly sat upright and kept his face blank as the Pallassian negotiating core just stood up and walked away.

Dead gods. He’d actually said the quiet part out loud. Several people turned with faces of complete disgust—which told you who the fools were, really. Itreimedes, again.

Still. It was the wrong thing to say here. Because Feshi Weatherfur just treated the Zeresian [Diplomat] to a cool look, and Orelighn strode back onto stage.

“I believe all future trade arrangements with items from the Great Plains will require buyers to supply their own escort and transportation. Thank you.

The Zeresian [Diplomat] studiously ignored everyone staring at him until someone kicked the door open to his study, whereupon the scrying orb went blank. However, the bad blood generated by that comment persisted.

It was…almost palpable, actually. Rhir had bought up a lot of items too, and Pheislant’s own [Ambassador] couldn’t resist a spicy comment.

“I don’t suppose that the rather generous amounts of money the Blighted Kingdom has spent might come out of our annual contributions to the war effort?”

The [Diplomat] from Rhir was far more adept than Zeres’ and instantly nodded to the ambassador.

“With respect, sir, the money spent is purely that of the Blighted King. All contributions to the war against the Demons is accorded to the front. Every last copper coin. Please, do not begrudge the Blighted Kingdom’s desire to give its citizens a shred of comfort.”

Pheislant’s [Ambassador] realized he’d put his foot in it and backpedaled.

“Not at all. I just meant—”

A figure drifted by the table. That woman, the pianist.

Nerrhavia.

Everyone was half-aware of her presence. Their name they hadn’t even begun to guess at. Nerul kept passing over her, then turning his head and squinting, like a man trying to remember a dream. She stood with the Gnoll, Corregrione, and Astival flanking her.

The song she had played seemed to be still echoing in the room. It had agitated Rhir’s [Diplomat] more than most, but he hid it well. It was like an echo in the back of the heads of the mighty.

A vision of what might have been. Now? Nerrhavia leaned over, interjecting herself into the conversation.

“Oh, please, Diplomat Antertree. Don’t be so modest. [Tell Me What You Truly Believe].”

The [Diplomat]’s back straightened. There was a flicker of alarm from the scrying orb as a [King] sat up on his throne and said ‘did you hear that?’

But it was too slow. The [Diplomat] didn’t react to Nerrhavia. His face turned bitter, and the half-Elf’s hand rose to a scar on his cheek, hidden partially by a beard.

“Ambassador, why quibble over the price of the Blighted Kingdom’s funds? It’s the least we deserve. You could—you should send ten times what you do. With the Deaths of Demons returned? We are the only things standing between you and cowering behind your palaces from armies of Demons.”

His voice was harsh, and the Pheislant [Ambassador] stopped smiling genially. His brows crossed together.

“I remind you, Diplomat Antertree, that Pheislant has given without interruption to the Blighted Kingdom ever since the accords were signed. Through war and strife! Our soldiers died on the 5th Wall when the Death of Magic arose.”

The [Diplomat] knew something was wrong. His lips were twitching, and his eyes were darting around. Nerrhavia smiled at him out of the corner of his eyes. The half-Elf’s lips kept moving.

“Yes. They did. Much good a few hundred low-level [Soldiers] did. The Death of Magic might have blinked when blasting them from above for a second.”

A gasp of outrage from Pheislant’s scrying orb and the Terandrians. Pale-faced, the [Ambassador] rose to his feet.

“Lord Totland’s son died on those walls. You will recant those words, sir.”

The half-Elf didn’t immediately reply. He was just clenching his jaw. Hard. So hard that his back molars were threatening to…

Crack. And the little pellet of fast-acting poison would kill him fast if it did. He knew he was under hostile influence. But before he could use the Rhir-tooth, Nerrhavia patted him on the arm.

“No way out, Diplomat Antertree.”

His jaw unclenched. The desperate light in his eyes went out. Then he stood like a puppet. And Nerrhavia saw his mouth open and let bile spill out into the world. She passed by him with a smile as Rhir’s scrying orb began to flood with panic.

She wasn’t done. No, not nearly. Her Skill was like…the room was thrumming with tension as voices rose.

It was not just the seating. Or the bad blood from historical nations. It was also the pent up emotions of the auctions. The inequity of richer nations.

Voices rose, and fingers began to point as smaller Drake cities accosted Pallass’ group, demanding blueprints of what had been bought. Where the [Negotiators] would have held their tongues or said polite, empty promises, their true feelings came out in sharp retorts.

They couldn’t help it. And the arguments were growing in a whirl of emotions. Or…a web.

It pulsed around a woman walking around the room. A vortex of resentment and words bursting forth at the wrong moment.

—Furthermore, your demands for our aid against Reim are completely unilateral. We did not support the King of Destruction, but we have no desire to fight your battles for you.”

Reneiz’s [Diplomat] and the [Ambassador] from Nerrhavia’s Fallen were at the center of a completely Stitch-folk argument. The superpower of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, representative for Stitch-folk for so long—no longer had that shine of authority and respect.

“Reneiz has benefited from our generosity for ages, fool. Or didn’t Reneiz beg for potions to treat the Yellow Rivers disease? And our steel fuels your cities.”

Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Ambassador] sneered down at the Stitch-man. He was made of Silk, as opposed to the Cotton of the other [Diplomat].

“Until recently, you might claim that. The last three shipments were excised by flames. They were infected with the metal insects that plague your entire kingdom!

The [Ambassador] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s face froze.

“There is no scourge of insects. Your lies are as pathetic as your cloth, [Diplomat]. If you will excuse me.”

He didn’t quite shove the [Diplomat] aside; rather, one of his bodyguards did that for him as the man gestured. Nerrhavia just sighed.

“Silk and cotton. The fabric changes, but the problems do not. As before my reign, so after. Merindue would weep or send you all to the stocks if she could hear this.”

She shook her head as the [Diplomat] fell down to cries of outrage. The [Diplomat] from Scaied was a Stitch-woman [Mercenary]; she snapped as the [Ambassador] passed.

“You insult Reneiz brazenly in front of nations you have begged for aid against the King of Destruction, Ambas—”

He backhanded her, and she almost dodged the blow. The Stitch-man snarled—caught himself, and stared at his arm, and Nerrhavia stepped back as Scaied’s bodyguards drew their swords just in time.

The crowd fell silent as Scaied’s [Diplomat] reached for a sword, then halted, holding her cheek. Nerrhavia saw Astival, [Puppetmaster Sadivictus], standing on the other side of the crowd. Nerrhavia watched as the [Diplomat] of Reneiz got up and drew his sword.

Words were said. She didn’t pay attention to them. They were always the same. She didn’t pay attention to their names either.

The Drake with the child—Erin had called her Mrsha—were more interesting to her. Nerrhavia had a keen memory for names and faces, but only when it suited her.

“Merindue. She was a skilled [Magistrate] in my empire. Not one of my finest; far from it. A worthier foe. Events unearthed her true talent for rebellion.”

She spoke only to herself. No one else was listening. A circle had cleared despite the Gnolls trying to get in there and stop a duel between the ambassador of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and the diplomat of Reneiz.

The courts of both nations were watching; insult had been given, and if it hadn’t been Reneiz, Scaied might have made the challenge. The [Ambassador] was overconfident; Reneiz’s [Diplomat] wasn’t as good as his bodyguards, but the Cotton Stitch-man was more skilled with a sword.

It should have ended with a disarming blow and minimal blood shed. That was what the [Diplomat] was trying for, despite his fury. The Silk nobleman fended off the calculated thrusts and cuts with increasingly flustered posture.

Even Nerrhavia saw that. She also saw Astival, standing behind the crowd, waiting and waiting for his moment.

Her Sadivictus waited until the [Ambassador] stumbled back and the [Diplomat] was setting himself up for a careful slash to the hand; dismembering a hand was merely an insult among Stitch-folk, who could sew limbs back on. Then—

The [Puppetmaster] calmly lifted an empty hand and flicked it.

 

—The [Ambassador] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen suddenly parried the [Diplomat]’s sword in a moment of desperate talent. He snarled, panicking—

 

Astival lifted his empty hand and swung downwards, then calmly stabbed forwards once in the empty air. A great cry arose as he twisted his hand.

“Halt! H—”

Astival drew his hand back, and then flicked it through the air at neck-height. Then Astival lowered his hand and turned away. There was a thump—a scream followed from a dozen voices.

 

——

 

The headless corpse of the [Diplomat] lay there as the [Ambassador] backed up, white-faced. He didn’t seem to quite realize what he’d done. He stared at his arm as if confused—then began to denounce his opponent.

“He came at me for blood.”

You executed him. All saw it!”

Another [Diplomat] leapt into the conversation, face pale with fury.

Reneiz will have a blood debt for this! We say it in Deimos’ name!

More than one dignitary was shouting in outrage; smaller nations, but nations still, near Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

By now, the Court of Silks were strongly suggesting the [Ambassador] shut up and leave the tent as fast as possible, and his [Bodyguards] were trying, but the press of bodies was in the way.

This shall be addressed in Tyrant’s Rest. King of Deimos, Rulers of Reneiz, you have our word.

Queen Yisame herself spoke to attempt to slow the political disaster. Nerrhavia rolled her eyes as she walked over to the scrying orb.

“Tyrant’s Rest. Couldn’t you have thought of a better name for the city? Truly. What would these nations do, oh Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, if it were not for the legacy you rest on? Merindue forged the pacts that keep you safe.”

It was true. Furious Reneiz might be, but if they had even contemplated war, there was more than fear of Nerrhavia Fallen’s armies to consider. There was a wall—of paper and ink, but a wall nonetheless.

Contracts. Peace treaties, sometimes signed on the point of a sword, but magically binding nonetheless. The pale-faced [Ambassador] was bowing to the scrying orb, and Queen Yisame’s eyes were ablaze with fury at having this event ruined by her people.

She frowned as a face appeared in the orb in front of her. A strange woman stood there, smiling at her.

“Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

“That is Queen Yisame to you—”

The furious [Queen] paused. And the other woman just glanced at her.

“This is not the first insult Nerrhavia’s Fallen has given to Reneiz and the Kingdoms of the Western Provinces, is it?”

Something about the way she said that made Yisame hesitate. That wasn’t the name of Reneiz and the other kingdoms west of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, of course. They would object to that, and they weren’t united.

But it was how they were listed in older contracts that still had the individual signatories on their parchment. 

Of course, that was only a passing association. The Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen snapped back.

“It shall not be the last, but amends shall be made. This was a tragic accident! The [Ambassador] shall lose his position!”

The complete honesty took Yisame off-guard. She would have never said that—but she meant every word, of course. Perhaps the [Ambassador] head would be sent if that was enough! But why had she even admitted…?

The other woman smiled.

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Then she stepped out of the scrying orb’s view. Yisame blinked—then felt a shock run through her core.

“Who—who was that?

“Who, Your Majesty? We must replace that fool at once. The Empire of Scaied is already barking at us—”

The Court of Silks was abuzz with the drama. No one had seen—Yisame’s face went pale. She looked around at the projection of the tent. Where was she? The woman was nowhere to be seen. Almost, Yisame wondered if it had been a hallucination.

But her instincts said—

“Etrikah? Etrikah! Summon the Great Sage now!”

Her courtiers stared at her, surprised to hear anything but dignified tones from—

Now!

Yisame screamed, and they went running. The [Queen]’s eyes darted through the crowd.

Stop her, she wanted to shout at her bodyguards. Stop her from—

Doing what?

 

——

 

Nerrhavia stood over the body of the dead [Diplomat]. Everyone else was keeping back; there was no hope of healing him, severed head or not.

Well, they might have tried to save his head, but no Stitch-person would have suggested it if they knew the technique. 

She didn’t bend down or touch the blood seeping into the carpet. Instead, the Immortal Tyrant reached down.

Down.

Through the vaults of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, to the core of the laws and concepts that made up the kingdom. And that was all they were, really. Ideas. But ideas you put paper and force behind, which created nations. It didn’t matter where she needed to go.

Nerrhavia was the Immortal Tyrant; all modern contracts were descended from her work. So she calmly plucked something out of the idea of a nation, and lifted it into reality where she stood. She unfurled it and read.

“Hm. Hmm. They took the wording almost exactly from me. The Merchant’s Guild likewise. Well, that suits me well.”

The scroll was ancient and lengthy; rolled up, it would be thicker than Adetr Steelfur’s arm. It was capped on each side by gold, and the writing was magical.

As was the entire contract. Nerrhavia glanced at the image of Reneiz’s rulers. She saw two thrones, two different rulers staring through the scrying orb. One was holding their family to them; they had made the mistake of bringing children to see the event. The other was single.

A dual rulership? She’d look into that later. At this moment, Nerrhavia just counted the names at the bottom of the scroll.

Scaied and Reneiz were on there, but over half the nations had vanished. Still, this was one of the oldest contracts Nerrhavia’s Fallen had. Far stronger than any pact they had with Deimos, a newer kingdom.

Contracts. They guaranteed so much. But most of all—they prevented either nation from declaring war without jumping through several hoops. Nerrhavia saw, to her amusement, that the kingdom of Nerrhavia’s Fallen could declare war far more easily than the Kingdoms of the Western Provinces.

“Manifestly unfair. They built a kingdom on the ashes of mine out of injustice. This is dated…mm. Merindue would have been dead. A.N.? Is that ‘After Nerrhavia?’”

She shuddered at the dating choices made at the time. Then bent down.

The bloody sword that the [Diplomat] had held was heavy in her hands. The scroll hovered in the air as Nerrhavia calmly lifted the blade.

“[I Am the Origin of Contracts: By Right of Mendacity, I Annul Any Oath, I Shatter Every Pact].”

The scroll flickered and tried to vanish, as if it had a will of its own. Some did. But this was a simple one.

She brought the blade down and chopped through the huge scroll of parchment, and she heard a cry from multiple scrying orbs.

Rulers of Chandrarian nations screamed as ancient vows exploded in their minds. To Nerrhavia, it was far simpler.

She saw a link that connected nations break. A promise writ with authority and magic—sever.

It had been riddled with disease already. Broken in spirit, if not letter. That was why it was so simple to break.

“An arbiter of crowns fears nothing, Queen Jecaina. If the law is faulty, cut through it and every pact. I forged shackles out of words. I also unmade them as I saw fit.

Calmly, Nerrhavia tossed the blade down on the body and took a handkerchief from Astival. She cleaned her hands of the blood. That was, in fact, the simple part. Contracts were her forte. She outlevelled the people who enforced and who had written the contracts.

People were harder. But not by much. Nerrhavia speculated that news of the [Diplomat]’s death might have reached several of the higher-ranking members of Reneiz already and certainly would spread through the courts.

But there was the possibility the rulers would be able to suppress the news until it could die, much like Roshal had done. And emotions did fade. The rage of this moment would dull until the [Diplomat]’s death was a scar, not an open wound.

“To motivate a population from peace to war is more difficult. But not by much.”

She wished she had kept Inkar for a longer moment—she missed having someone to talk to. But then, Erin Solstice would have refused to do what came next.

Unless it truly mattered. Nerrhavia bent down and touched the [Diplomat]’s chest.

“That is why I exist. Khelta and you stand on one end of your perceived morality. So allow me. [Kingdom: Witness Their Demise].”

The body began to rise into the air. Nerrhavia stepped back as the blood unpooled from the carpet. The air flickered as a Reinhart looked over and gasped—

Then the body vanished. Nerrhavia turned and let a smiling Astival clear the way from the tent.

 

——

 

Across the world, the people of Reneiz gazed up as the sky began to bleed. They raised their hands, at first wondering why it was raining. Was it a fluke?

Then the droplets of blood registered. Screams filled the streets—and then the skies changed from spring to a Stitch-man’s face. Then his body swinging a sword as he locked blades with—

Who, it was hard to tell at first. But then the symbol of Nerrhavia’s Fallen on a Silk Stitch-man’s sneering face became visible. The citizens looked up as a moment replayed itself. Burning across the skies.

A headless body dropped into a palace before a family gathered around a throne, splattering blood. Because it was two rulers, Nerrhavia sent the head straight into the lap of the second monarch, who stared down, frozen.

 

——

 

That should do it.

The Immortal Tyrant walked out into the fading sun. Some of the Gnolls within the expo hadn’t even realized what had happened to the Great Plains of Izril, so focused were they on the presentations.

But some had definitely noticed odd things happening. One of them calmly lifted a staff and held it to Nerrhavia’s throat—before Astival knocked it down with his sword. Shaman Theikha ignored the blade placed at her throat as she stared at Nerrhavia.

Corregrione stirred a second before a huge, furry hand fell on his shoulder. Gamur the Axe leaned on Corregrione’s shoulders, sniffing him.

“You don’t look terrifying. So you must be horrific. Don’t move until the [Shaman] says.”

Corregrione didn’t move, and as Gamur spoke, a growl from behind Astival made the Stitch-man tense, but he just kept his sword placed at Theikha’s neck, even with Garsine Wallbreaker behind him.

Nerrhavia eyed the staff, shaking her head in disappointment.

“Shaman Theikha, must you?”

Theikha almost backed away—then she caught herself and swung the staff up again, staring at Nerrhavia.

“Offer any more danger to the Meeting of Tribes or my guests and you will suffer the wrath of the Great Plains, stranger.”

Her heartbeat thrummed in the air, and Nerrhavia exhaled.

“I have offered no danger to the tribes of Izril. I shall remember your people’s value.”

“That sounds really ominous. Do I hit her first?”

Gamur had a hand on his axe, and Corregrione whisper-growled at him.

“Young brother, don’t. I’d hate to see you hurt.”

The Named-rank Gnoll looked at Theikha to ascertain exactly how much trouble they were in. He couldn’t smell danger, but like Garsine—

“Who are you?”

Rather than answer the question, Nerrhavia shaded her eyes to stare skywards.

“Inkar hasn’t found you then. A pity. Shall I give you some advice, Shaman Theikha? You orchestrated this event quite well. A shame the other players of the game don’t respect the board and are less long-thinking than you. Less intelligent? Perhaps.”

The [Shaman]’s eyes flickered. She snapped at Gamur.

“Ghosts.”

“Oh, great. So they’re higher level than me.”

Garsine rumbled.

Kill the Human first.

Garsine was looming ever-taller, and Astival kept his blade pressed to Theikha’s throat—then seemed to think it would do more if he aimed it at Garsine.

Which was correct. Nerrhavia raised an eyebrow at the [Shaman].

“Do you think you could stop me, Theikha? Now, if I were you, I would be seeking a way to aid tribes at the mercy of Drake cities—without endangering those here. A deniable force of Gnolls. The tribes always had them, but I imagine many died after the Doombringer disaster.”

Theikha stared at Nerrhavia, and the Immortal Tyrant went on.

“I would reach out to the one group truly apart from tribal affiliation. The only group that can truly be trusted. Most are in Salazsar. The Wanderer has a useful Skill, though he may soon find it is riskier than he wishes. The others will either become enemies of the tribes or allies. I would seek the latter, were I you, and make every accommodation. You may find there are more than you dreamed.”

The Great Shaman of the Gaarh Marsh tribe said nothing, digesting what Nerrhavia was saying.

“Why tell me?”

“A favor for the inconvenience, perhaps. Or to distract you for a minute.”

Theikha’s eyes blazed, and she tensed, but Nerrhavia didn’t do anything as ostentatious as checking a time spell or raising a hand to signal some forgotten agent to take a shot. She just kept staring at the skies.

“You didn’t think your guests would leave a child of Earth roaming, did you? Although—I really didn’t expect that to be their plan.”

She was actually dismayed about it. Either way, Theikha’s eyes widened. She lowered the staff, snapped at Gamur.

“Inkarr is in danger! Find her!

Of course, it was too late for that. Nerrhavia heard a whistle shrilling, and Gamur whirled and ran, outpaced by Garsine Wallbreaker. Tkrn’s [Guardsman]’s whistle. And then another that shrieked into the air, so nostalgic that she closed her eyes a moment and smiled.

When she opened them, she saw a speck diving out of the sky.

 

——

 

They put two crossbow bolts through Inkar’s face and chest before she knew what had happened. She was running around to where Theikha had last been spotted when someone shot her.

Of course—since she was still alive, the crossbow bolts hadn’t worked. The [Traveller] got up and the feeling of two bolts lodged in her face was the most unpleasant in the world and—

No pain?

She got up, confused, and something buzzed and hovered in the air as Tkrn howled and looked around.

The whistle.

It was vibrating and emitting a latticed network of black tendrils. Slowly, Inkar pulled, and the first crossbow bolt came out of her face.

“Aaa—”

“Inkar!”

Tkrn pulled at the second one, thinking too late that it might be barbed, but it came out either way.

“What is—what is—”

Then a horned Demon with a blank face appeared out of the shadow of one of the tents and ran at them with a sword.

That was when Tkrn pulled out his whistle and drew the Eye Shield, deflecting a thrust at his body. The Demon [Assassin] was surprisingly slow and clumsy after dropping their crossbow. Tkrn backed up, continuing to sound the alarm via the whistle, and Inkar slowly took the Note of Implorement and blew.

—She thought the entire Great Plains heard it. Every [Warrior] was pounding towards her in a heartbeat. But Tkrn was fighting the Demon, whose blank face suddenly turned alert.

“…Kick].”

Wh—

Tkrn vanished. Inkar’s head spun, and she saw a shape falling over a group of sleeping yurts in the distance. The suddenly sharp-eyed Demon checked the bare sword he held.

“[Coating of Acid].”

Their voice was flat, but the dripping liquid running down their sword made Inkar back up fast. The Note of Implorement was not buzzing anymore, and she felt like that meant the next blow would kill her.

She would have teleported now, but the [Assassin] vanished—reappeared behind her, with a sword raised—

And Falamizural landed between them and Inkar and parried their sword with a ringing flash of light. Inkar flinched as acid sprayed past her, but a barrier had shielded her from the acid.

“Not while I draw breath.”

The Garuda spread her wing-arms, shielding Inkar, a look of relief in her eyes. As if she were uncertain of all else—but this she knew.

Falamizural was no [Paladin], but she lifted her sword high. As she had done countless times in the name of people she might never meet. For a line on the sand.

Summoner. Caller.

She was from a nation that only Nerrhavia remembered, and her class belonged to them. A different culture.

[She Who Summons Victory]. She waited as the assassin hesitated.

The Demon paused, eyes flicking to her, tensed—then lunged, blade aiming for Inkar. The Garuda did—something. She cast a spell or used a Skill. Falamizural spun, blade swinging down as she turned, and the [Assassin] landed in the grass a half dozen paces wide of Inkar.

He missed?

Then the Garuda cut off the Demon’s head and stabbed four times, running the blade through the body and leaving bloody holes. It was all one motion, so Inkar just saw the body crumple.

Falamizural spun and calmly pointed a glowing talon at another shadow—who stood up and raised his hands.

“Wait, waitwaitwaitwait—I’m just a counter-[Assassin]. I’m not a murderer! I work for Lady Reinhart!”

Theofore the Severely Underleveled held up his hands as his eyes went round. Not only had he failed to prevent Inkar’s untimely demise, he hadn’t even had a chance against the Demon.

“Move and die.”

“Can I tremble?”

Falamizural didn’t pay attention to him anyways. She scanned the area, then spoke as Gnolls poured into the area, shouting at her to drop her sword.

“That was the only one, I think. They were too fast. The whistle protected you.”

She looked crestfallen, and Inkar gasped.

“She saved my—someone help Tkrn!”

Gnolls went running after him, and Falamizural dropped her blade. But she looked both pleased and dismayed.

“What horned being is this? Not a Lucifen.”

She didn’t recognize a Demon? That was the only species Inkar could think it was. Falamizural gestured at the Note of Implorement.

“Its magic is out. It may take a month or more to recharge.”

“Wh—what is it?”

The Garuda made a face as Gamur raced over, looking for someone to fight and choosing Theofore, who ran screaming. Falamizural murmured.

“I saw it when I was hanging…a whistle to summon enforcers of the law. And to protect from accidents or violence. Children and those in less safe areas of the Immortal Empire wore them.”

…Was this a child’s emergency whistle? Inkar was lost for words. Then she stared after the [Assassin], and the Garuda paused.

“Does that Human have a Drake’s tail?”

“I think so.”

Even Gamur stared at it before Theofore hijacked one of the magical carriages and sped off. Then the Garuda blinked as Inkar hugged her, thanking her for saving her life. Embarrassed, she flew up and announced Tkrn was fine.

“A [Shaman] must have stopped him from falling.”

 

——

 

Tkrn was very unhappy.

“I think he broke my ribs! It was a Demon! A Demon!”

As if this day couldn’t get more dramatic. A nobleman from Terandria held a handkerchief over his face, horrified.

“An attack in the Great Plains of Izril? Demon killers do lurk everywhere! How did it get here?”

“Likely they heard of the Meeting of Tribes and wished to do as much harm as possible. We are only lucky this Human and Gnoll were spared the killing.”

A calm voice answered the Terandrian, and all eyes turned to a scrying orb and a very pale [Diplomat].

The Blighted Kingdom took charge of the situation. A [Bodyguard] stabbed the corpse several times, making sure it was absolutely dead, nevermind that Falamizural had done that. The half-Elf bowed to Inkar.

“I regret to inform you the presence of the Blighted Kingdom may have endangered the Meeting of Tribes. We shall, of course, make amends.”

He addressed that to Chieftain Feshi, who just shook her head.

“A Demon. Here. Frankly implaus—inconceivable.”

Her eyes flicked to Shaman Theikha, who said nothing, just stared at Inkar—along with a number of delegates, including Magus Telim. The High Mage chimed in.

“Wistram will also help with protective spells if nothing else! No one is killing young men and women. Miss Inkar, is it?”

He was giving her a look that said he knew exactly where she hailed from. Inkar decided not to mention the Note of Implorement, which as far as she was concerned trumped anything he could make for her.

It was open-and-shut as far as the delegates were concerned. Demon attack on the Gnolls! Of course, the smart ones who knew about Earth were putting more together.

This was an attack on the Gnolls’ Earther. Even nations without Earthers could see that, and the King of Bow’s voice was troubled and thoughtful.

“If she’s in danger, send her to Avel or—well, I’m sure the Gnolls can handle that. Killing young people. They really are monstrous. But why would a Demon go out of their way to try and kill a young woman and her lover—no offense, Miss, but you two aren’t that important—rather than someone like Shaman Theikha or Chieftain Feshi? It doesn’t make sense.”

Hey, that was right. And if the King of Avel got it…Archmage Eldavin was primed for a response, but a soothing voice interjected.

“The answer, Your Majesty of Avel, should be apparent to some. I regret that it is not a secret for open parlance.”

King Othius the Fourth sat there, and every eye turned to him. Eldavin’s head snapped around with genuine surprise.

“What? Secret? Your Majesty of Rhir, you know what this is in aid of?”

“Say rather, King Itreimedes, what the Demons hope to stop. I confess I jealously kept the information to myself, even in this moment. But some secrets must be shared. I invite you to speak with those who understand a modicum of the situation in due time.”

Heads turned, and a Pallassian Drake let out a huge sigh and nodded. Itreimedes’ eyes just narrowed, and he said nothing, uncharacteristically, but gave Othius a polite nod.

And there it was. Dead gods. The secret needed to be out, or so the Blighted Kingdom had decided. Which meant the great game was now going to be played worldwide. Would it hurt to ally with them? And Inkar…the young woman hid behind Chieftain Eska, who had protectively moved in front of her.

 

——

 

Nerrhavia wished it were cleverer. But she supposed it worked. So that was how Rhir operated.

What she saw was the Demon assassin was definitely a ‘Demon’. She had no doubt. But she very much doubted it came from the Demon’s kingdom. She wondered how many people had made it to that level of insight—which was still basic—and how many had stopped at the knowledge of Earth.

The Blighted Kingdom. She had wanted most of all to assess how they operated and what they were doing. Now that she had?

“Loyalty. Logistics. Manpower. Levels. Diplomacy. They are a highly ruthless, pragmatic, efficient, and adaptable nation.”

The Immortal Tyrant listed off their virtues, then smiled to herself.

“—And they cannot even take Rhir. I haven’t met a nation this entertaining since I was young. Excuse me?

She raised her voice innocently, and every head turned to her as Othius fell silent, visibly annoyed at being cut off.

Gamur nearly punched her, but a glance at Theikha and he gave her the most insincere smile he could.

“What is it, Miss?”

“I was wondering—is this truly a Demon? It’s the first I’ve ever met. What a coincidence that one should leave Rhir, cross the seas, sneak across the Great Plains, and end up here. My, he even has horns. That would be how you know he is a Demon, wouldn’t you?”

“Fair point. There may be more. Spread out.”

The Pheislant [Ambassador] nodded to his bodyguard at once. However, the representative from the Iron Vanguard just tilted her head in her hands and began murmuring in a speaking stone.

“I imagine the Death of Magic may have had a hand in their mobility. She has the ability to strike anywhere at once.”

Othius spoke confidently, and the half-Elf [Diplomat] moved towards her. Nerrhavia stepped forwards as two of the bodyguards flanked her and leaned over. They spoke, hidden by privacy spells as a search for ‘more Demons’ began.

“Othius of Rhir.”

“You have me at a disadvantage, stranger.”

His tone was guarded, but he sat ensconced with a huge woman she recognized as a lesser [Queen], a [Mage] whose eyes spoke of time, and a court of nobles around him. Competent ones. That was the entire nature of Rhir she had gotten from them. Highly competent. Or given how long they’d fought this war…

“I am simply curious what you intend to offer me to make me…cease talking.”

The Blighted King stared down his nose at her. He was withered with age. She had seen countless people extend their lives artificially, and he did not wear his well. He was also hugely confident. Why? Ah yes.

[A King’s Truth]. So that was his trick. She suppressed yet another sigh.

“It would appear you are the one who owes the Blighted Kingdom a debt. One that shall be collected upon. Do you have anything you would present before the Blighted Throne?”

His eyes peered at her, and she felt his push on her skin. In response, Nerrhavia reached out and pulled and spoke sweetly.

“Only a question. Your Majesty, has the Blighted Kingdom ever lied to the many nations it signed its concords with? The nations who provide pledges of defense, aid, and supply to Rhir?”

 

——

 

Othius stared into eyes older than his that danced with amusement as if he were a doll in her hand. He was falling, falling—

Y—

He almost said it. Almost—then his jaw snapped shut with all the will in his body, so hard he nearly severed his tongue. Blood filled his mouth, and he jerked back.

“Your Majesty?”

She looked innocently at him as he spasmed against the throne, trying to look away from her, break eye contact. Those brown eyes danced with laughter and amusement in the second it took for the Blighted Queen to turn the scrying orb off with a sudden motion.

“Othius? What was—”

Nereshal. Privacy.

Othius spat blood from his mouth to the alarm of Hayvon and the others. Nereshal didn’t hesitate, though. He stopped time.

“Your Majesty, what—”

By the sin of Arruif Yal. Kill her!

The Blighted King’s voice shook, and he invoked the code word without a second thought. Nereshal’s eyes widened—then his pupils dilated hugely as the words activated memories and orders—

The [Chronomancer] felt as though someone had pulled back the curtains in the bedroom of his mind and flooded the room with light. Revealing deeds and actions he had hidden from himself. So that no enemy could pry his actions from his mind, even himself, if he was somehow subverted.

Yet it was not sunlight that flooded into his room, but crimson, as stained as his deeds. Knowledge he had hidden lest he begin to question it. The insight burned him—yet he knew what must be done. As ever. So he reached for a spell scroll to commit the sacrosanct.

By the sin of Arruif Yal. It would be done.

Othius felt the time bubble pop just in time to see the Immortal Tyrant yawn. She smiled at him insolently, confidently, and charmingly. Both in beauty and action. He didn’t feel the same pressure from her as the King of Destruction or the Death of Wings.

Othius could believe, in another moment, that he’d overreacted. That she was hardly worthy of the ultimate order he’d given Nereshal.

He feared her more for that. 

The mask she wore never slipped.

 

——

 

A glowing contract appeared in front of Nerrhavia as she stood in a room that looked like some grand courtroom. Othius sat above her in a hall of echoing stone, surrounded by an audience, which stared down at Nerrhavia.

Faces of carven stone. Figures seated in benches. An audience of something that wasn’t a statue or Golem. Puppets?

Scowling faces. A room with only one door. A lectern stained at the base with the blood of those who had tried to violate the rules of this place.

A glowing scroll offering terms. And high above the Gnoll plains, a spell poised to fire if she refused.

Tier 7 magic.

He would erase the Meeting of Tribes and damn the consequences. That was how much he feared this woman, and he didn’t even know her name.

By contrast, Nerrhavia just glanced about the ancient room.

“The Arbitrage of Imperium. Is that your best?”

He flinched, the Blighted King sitting upon the throne.

Sign.

His voice rasped, and the contract flared warningly as it listed the terms. Sign or suffer annihilation.

He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to take the deal to shut up, be silent, and stop interfering in his plans. Or if he wanted to kill her.

Would it kill her? It had to. A direct strike could kill even an unwarded Death. But the woman—who was she? Which ghost?—just flicked the contract away.

“Send me something better.”

“Hah. You clearly don’t know what you’ve done.”

His lips twisted as the puppet-figures around the room began clattering their jaws in disapproval. This was no privileged room where two groups sat and negotiated in good faith. This was a room to compel weaker authorities.

In this very room, Silvenia Ettertree had been bound; even the Demons couldn’t speak so easily of any inconvenient truths.

The first penalty for refusal was pain. And any offered contract doubled in power.

The Tier 7 spell was widening in radius and intensity. It might turn the entire camp into a block of gold. How would he explain that to the rest of the world? 

The simplest way would be to decide who she had been after she was dead. If it was a great ghost of old—he could claim she was on the Demons’ side.

Kill her. His instincts were telling him she had to die. She had outmatched him in the authority of rulers. No one, not even the King of Destruction, could do that.

She had to die.

Chains laced with blood-red spikes had risen from the floor and lashed themselves around Nerrhavia’s arms. She stared at them, impassive, as the barbs dug into her flesh.

It was torturous for the Chains of Contempt to wrap around you. Othius had screamed, as a boy, when his mother taught him how to use this Skill passed from Blighted Ruler to Blighted Ruler. His skin crawled, and he waited for a sound. An expression.

Nothing. Her face was calm as she brushed at the chains.

“I expected to find a canny leader. Or a contemptuous immortal sitting on the Blighted Kingdom’s throne. I found neither. Just a half-man of both.”

Who are you? Answer me and I may stave off your obliteration. There is a killing spell aimed at you—don’t think for a second I won’t unleash it on my enemies.”

Othius barked at Nerrhavia. She simply glanced up at him.

“King Othius the Fourth of the Blighted Kingdom. You have forgotten how this room works. You threaten me with the authority of the Arbitrage behind you. Then—I do the same.”

His heart skipped a beat. But to do that she had to have something to offer him, and he had never told her the r—

A contract made out of something black and leathery appeared in front of the Blighted King, written in red lines of light. He jerked back as Nerrhavia vanished. When Othius looked up—a woman sat across from him, on her own seat, with an army of jeering puppets arrayed behind her.

“How—?”

She couldn’t have prepared for this! Surely not! The contract proved that—it was worded simply. Othius stared at Nerrhavia’s demands, and his head jerked up.

A hundred thousand [Slaves]? Transport to—”

“Free citizenry. I am sure Roshal supplies enough. Keep reading.”

Nerrhavia lounged in her chair, chains twined around her arms. Still ignoring the pain. Othius knew it had to be agonizing, but no matter how hard he stared, she refused to give him a glimpse of her pain. Her eyes were contemptuous.

“Time, Blighted King.”

Tic. Tic. Tic.

Othius felt the time running down, and then he began to sweat. He hadn’t thought she could turn this on him. He sped down the scroll. Refusal.

This Skill was older than the Creler Wars, older than Wistram Academy, or so he believed. Contracts in this place had three components; they were cruder than modern ones.

Demand, offer, and threat.

Payment, price, and punishment. This woman was offering her immediate departure for a ludicrous sum. She agreed to keep out of the Blighted Kingdom’s affairs for one day.

Ridiculous. He would have laughed at the effrontery if it hadn’t been for her attempt to get him to perjure his contracts with every nation in the world. Had she really been about to sever them? Othius kept reading, scanning for the enforcement clause.

She had to have a way to compel him or he could rip the contract to shreds and keep pressing her. He could unleash the spell on her. She didn’t h—

 

Clause of Refusal: Unleashing of spells [Disintegration Orb, Beam Dispersal]. [Hurricane of Flames], [A Hundred Thousand Seeking Arrows of Deathlight] on Paranfer, Blighted Kingdom capital. Target, Earthers.

 

An image appeared in Othius’ mind. The academy set up to teach the Earthers before they were made into capable [Heroes]. How many of them would be there this evening? Most, eating or…

A little bird made of pieces of parchment flew high, high overhead. So well-made that even the Blighted Kingdom’s spells hadn’t seen it.

“Anyone can merely threaten another with a spell from afar, Blighted King. I have seen the way other nations ‘negotiate’ and ‘threaten’ in this era. If you like, we can continue.”

Nerrhavia yawned lightly. Othius’ heart had begun to pound.

What—what tier were those spells? How had she…?

Kill her now. Activate the spell. He almost gave the order, then caught himself.

Wait. What if she wasn’t at the Meeting of Tribes? He’d destroy all that and risk her retribution. Or, if she had a way to escape before that spell fell—

“I—refuse.”

The Blighted King flinched and made a sound as red chains rose from the floor and wrapped around his arms and legs. He began to sweat, and the contract glowed as it flew back behind Nerrhavia.

One for one. The second time a contract was refused, the stakes grew far higher. The second time—the puppets on either side moved. Othius had never heard of a third refusal where the other party survived.

“Go ahead, then. Make me a better offer and I may desist, King Othius.”

He didn’t have one. Now, the Blighted King felt bolts of agony lancing into his arm. But he had suffered the pain before. He gritted his teeth.

“You…why are you interfering with the Gnolls?”

Seek information. He began composing a counter-offer as the woman sat there. She studied him, then she smiled.

“Because I’m seeking redemption.”

“What?”

Nerrhavia, the Immortal Tyrant, folded her hands together.

“In my own way. I have beheld the end of the lands of death. The august company that even I was satisfied with—gone. The one ruler who I found myself indebted to, albeit against my will—gone.

Her eyes flickered. She brushed at her arms blankly, as if she had forgotten what pain felt like, but she had found another kind of agony.

“Foes to humble even my empire. A cause worth living for—and I truly believed one should get only one chance or else spoil the—the game.”

Empire. Remember that. Othius was breathing shallowly as the woman went on.

“I clung to life where braver ghosts vanished. To a purpose. I knew the world, and that child, would need me. Someone who could do what she must. I shall be that great ally. Any atrocity I commit—better to take my hand than that of the six. Or is it five?”

He had no idea what she was talking about. The stranger sat across from him, and her eyes lifted to his face.

“You could even say I’ve grown fond of my own champions. Someone must balance this dreadful board. So you see, King Othius, I shine with altruism. Even I may have a second chance. Isn’t that so?”

Why did she laugh at that? The Blighted King didn’t buy any of her words for even a second. You could lie here. But the woman was just—stating her piece. As if she were trying to sway the audience of silent puppets watching the two rulers spar.

Or someone else.

Nerrhavia’s eyes flicked up to the air in this room that was claustrophobic, for all of its size. Her eyes sparkled like they were reflecting a burning city or armageddon’s fires.

“I cannot, surely, be that bad. Look at all the things I do. Witness my good intentions. And take me lightly, I pray thee. Call me the devil you need. The enemy of your enemy, at least. Trust me.”

The woman’s lips quivered. Then she began to chuckle, as if she couldn’t hold it in anymore. Nerrhavia looked past Othius.

“Can I charm you? Do you even have a name? The girl did not tender me with it, if so. I have nothing but the best of intentions. I swear.”

She placed one hand on her heart and raised the other, ignoring the Blighted King entirely. As if she were giving an oath. Blood dripped from her arms onto the ground, but Nerrhavia simply sat there, at her leisure. The Immortal Tyrant smiled at nothing at all.

“How can you not see the good I am doing? Admire me, for you have walked with me since I was a mortal girl. Love me for I fight your foes too, I believe. Or perhaps your masters. Then I shall teach you how to…”

She paused.

“Worship me. Gnolls. My wonderful allies.”

Her head turned, and Othius’ heart began to thud in his chest.

“Even my enemies. Better to be loved than feared. Yes. That’s how it is done, isn’t it? Now, come, Blighted King.”

She beckoned, and he realized he sat in a trap. One she’d laid from the start. The Immortal Tyrant gestured at him.

Keep threatening me. So I may defend the brave Gnolls. So I may be the best and most twistedly altruistic of people.”

The audience of puppets around her began to clatter as Othius realized his time was running out. Sweat ran down his face as Nerrhavia beamed at him.

“I promise you. I shall be the heroine of my own tale till the moment I am not. Worship me until you reach the end of the [Hangman]’s noose.”

Then she waited for the Blighted King to make his next move. And he sat there. Sweating.

 

——

 

Falamizural, Astival, Corregrione, and Nerrhavia walked out of the Meeting of Tribes, and Nerrhavia clicked her tongue.

“We are done here.”

“What did we accomplish?”

Falamizural kept staring back towards Inkar and the Gnolls. She longed to join them, but Nerrhavia frightened her more than anything else in this world. Someone had to oppose or stop her.

Somehow. If she flew off, Falamizural would be more terrified of what the Immortal Tyrant was doing out of eyeshot.

For answer, Nerrhavia raised her brows.

“Aside from instigating strife? Tangibly, I helped sell a grand piano. In addition, I received this contract and quite a lot of material for our purposes from the Blighted Kingdom.”

Corregrione smiled as he leaned on his staff.

“That [King] seemed ready to murder you, Your Majesty. How did that become a bribe?”

“He realized he could buy my silence far more easily than murder me. Although his first offer was amusing. [The Golden Rays of Rhir] would strike my position if I did not sign an agreement to leave for a million gold pieces.”

Falamizural didn’t know the spell, but she frowned at the sky.

“Yet it did not.”

“I negotiated. Gold matters little. But the Blighted Kingdom had far more to offer me.”

—And they were backed onto a wall on which Nerrhavia could have exposed their charade with the Demons, or at least, set them to great trouble. Far better to buy her off at any cost. And if they had played at negotiations too long—the Queen of Contracts would have had her due.

Even Lucifen had learned that.

Astival’s bow was deep, and his face was filled with confidence, though he had no more idea of Nerrhavia’s plans than anyone else. Falamizural gritted her beak together, and Corregrione watched Nerrhavia cautiously. As someone might stare at a tree that was the only shelter against an impending storm, however twisted it was.

As for the Immortal Tyrant? She just kept listening to the song she had played. Smiling as her fingers danced on imaginary keys.

“You see, my followers. I keep my word. I repay my debts. My enemies suffer and die, as Falamizural can attest, and I shall be even crueler if the need comes upon me. But those I regard as useful and those I am indebted to I repay.”

She motioned.

“Now, come with me, and we shall continue on our long journey.”

“We won’t bother the minion of the Necromancer, Your Majesty?”

Astival glanced at one of the tribes, and Nerrhavia scoffed.

“That one? He is being a ‘good boy’, and I see no reason to change his attitude anymore than the entertaining skeleton’s. Perril Chandler is an exceedingly poor parent, only outmatched by Belavierr. No, the rest of the world awaits beyond the Meeting of Tribes.”

She began to walk away, and Corregrione murmured.

“And are we to save this world, Your Immortal Majesty?”

Nerrhavia turned and glanced back at the Meeting of Tribes once. Her lips curved upwards.

“If they are worthy.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

This chapter was at least in the making since…I want to say April? I had the concept even before that, but I believe I reached out to Andrea around then. Maybe a bit before that?

The song is an Andrea Parsneau original. I played it on stream to get reactions, and they were everything I wanted. I already liked the original song, and Andrea not only adapted it perfectly, but did it in character.

Speaking of songs, let me rant about Tom Lehrer for a moment. I had no idea who this person was, but I found one of their songs, and I was hooked. I wanted to put this scene in, but getting copyright is a pain in the ass and expensive. Even so, I was willing to do it until I went to his site and saw every song of his was copyright free because he made it so.

That was one of the reasons this came out now rather than in, say, six more months. It took a lot of hard work—from Andrea, not me—to create this, and I hope you found the experience amazing. If your phone started playing music in the middle of the subway or something, that’s funny too.

We keep trying new things, and my new schedule has once again allowed me the time to do crazy stuff. Give Andrea lots of love without spoiling anything for her or other readers, and I hope you enjoyed Nerrhavia’s performance.

She does a lot of that. I have little else to say other than that I like music. I wish I could write it myself, or play any instrument well. I envy the artists for their talents, the musicians for their abilities…

Coding looks like a pain in the ass even if you can do it amazingly, so I’d pass on getting that as a talent. Thanks for reading!

 

Antinium Plushie by Lime!

Bluesky: https://bsky.app/profile/arcticlime.bsky.social

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/recapturedlime

 

Reclis by Chalyon!

 

‘Gnats’ is the Correct Answer by IM BUBBLY, commissioned by NotMe!

 

Sing by Sol Adventurer!

 

Ielane by Anito!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/anito

 

Fetohep by Relia!

Tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/reliaofdreams

 

Mrsha Squish by Bread!

 

Geneva Done by Yura!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yurariria

 


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