5.46

The sky was open. A warm sun shone down on the green grass below. The air smelled of spring. In the field just outside of Celum, the flowers and wild grass had been cropped short. A [Shepherd] must have taken his flock through the meadow not too recently. That also meant there were piles of poo in places. At least they were dried out.

Not everything was perfect. But it was good. Beautiful, even. Compared to the rains in Liscor, this was bliss. Compared to the dungeon, this was…Ceria looked around as she sat on the grass. A wooden ring was on her finger and the sun felt good as it shone down on her skin. She felt blissful, content. Full.

“I really like this ring. I feel like a tree.”

Pisces, sitting beside Ceria and fiddling with a pile of yellowed bones, looked up. The half-Elf ignored the bones as they danced about in midair. The [Necromancer] peered at Ceria’s Ring of Barkskin.

“Do you in fact feel yourself absorbing sunlight? Or is it just a pleasant sensation?”

“Hm. It feels warm. And I feel happier in the sun.”

“…Do you have an urge to dig yourself a hole and stand in it? Or imbibe water through your toes?”

“Shut up, Pisces. Don’t ruin this for me.”

The [Necromancer] huffed and went back to his bones. Ceria smiled. There was no real rancor in her tone, and Pisces seemed perfectly at ease to play with his bones. He was making another Bone Horror. The quiet click of bones didn’t disturb Ceria. She looked up and remembered the dungeon. The memory was still bitter, the horror real. But as the sunlight warmed her face, it seemed more distant.

“This is what I needed. Erin was right.”

“You mean, this is what we needed.”

Pisces looked up. Ceria blinked at him, and then nodded. She looked around and saw the others.

Bird. Jelaqua. Moore. Seborn. Lyonette. Octavia. And Mrsha. They sat or walked around the meadow, looking around. Half were barefoot. Mrsha didn’t wear shoes to begin with, but some had taken off their shoes. Just to feel the grass. After so long in the rain, after so many days in the dungeon, this was bliss.

Wonderful. Ceria smiled and stretched out in the grass. Something crawled on her arm. She flicked it at Pisces. He raised a finger and blasted it with fire. The stink and smoke made Pisces cough. He glared mildly at Ceria.

“That was quite unnecessary.”

“Remember the time we pranked you by dumping a bunch of bugs in your room?”

“In my fondest recollections. Are you incapable of enjoying yourself except at my expense?”

“It does make life more fun.”

Pisces sighed. Ceria laughed. She looked around. The meadow really was beautiful. Ceria didn’t love nature all the time, but this made her remember the forests of her home in Terandria. With fondness. She stared at the flowers blooming in the sun, some with white petals, others pink, blue…a green flower with curious arrow-shaped petals seemed to wave at her as the wind blew.

A butterfly flew through the air and landed on a dandelion. It perched there delicately. Then a loud buzzing sound made it take wing. It got three feet before Apista smacked into it. The butterfly flapped away as the Ashfire Bee buzzed in a wide circle. Apista possessively landed on the flower and began to feed on the nectar and pollen.

Ceria sat up a bit and stared at Apista. She glanced at Pisces. The tranquility of the moment was interrupted somewhat as Apista, buzzing loudly, flew up and landed on another flower nearby. The sound of her wings beating was loud. The bee cast about, then charged another group of butterflies. Both [Mages] watched Apista flying sentinel for a moment. Ceria glanced at Pisces.

“That’s one angry bug.”

He shrugged.

“I think Ashfire Bees are rather competitive. Or perhaps it is simply this one that seems to want to monopolize the surrounding area.”

“Lyonette sure can choose them, huh? And is it just me or is Apista…bigger? Her stinger looks nastier than last time. Do you think they get bigger?”

“One would hope not.”

Both [Mages] ducked as Apista shot inches over their heads, chasing a much smaller bee. They watched Apista warily until she disappeared into a patch of flowers. Then they went back to sitting around. It was the most fun Ceria wanted to have at the moment. She heard an excited rustling sound and glanced up just in time to see a white shape flash past her.

“Mrsha, slow down! Watch out, Pisces!”

Pisces looked up and levitated his bones out of the way just in time. Mrsha leapt and nearly grabbed one with her teeth. He smirked as Mrsha narrowed her eyes at him. Then the Gnoll seemed to lose interest and dashed over to the green flower. She sniffed it, seemed to like the scent, and bounded over to another.

Mrsha was running about, smiling. She ran to each flower, smelling them, her tail wagging. Lyonette chased after her, laughing. It made Ceria glad to see. She looked around again.

Everyone was in good spirits. The Halfseekers were sitting together, basking in the sun. Bird was staring at the sky—he’d already shot six birds, and Octavia was plucking some flowers and muttering about cheap ingredients. Erin was in her inn, getting some food together. And Ksmvr and Yvlon—

“Hey, I think they’re coming back.”

Ceria pointed. Pisces looked up and nodded. Yvlon and Ksmvr were walking from Celum. It was easy to spot the two—aside from them being the only two people moving towards them, Yvlon’s vambraces and gauntlets shone in the light. The woman wore armor nowhere else, but she still caught the light. Ksmvr was a black and brown shape behind her. Both were carrying something.

“Got what you wanted?”

“We did. Anyone have any water?”

Ceria looked around. Pisces shook his head. Yvlon shrugged.

“I’ll get it from Erin’s inn. Let me just put this down, first.”

She was holding at least six odd sticks in her arms. Ceria stared at them. They looked like stirring paddles. Only, they were round and had a thinner handle. They were made completely out of wood, although the handles had been wrapped. She eyed the things as Yvlon tossed them down.

“What are those supposed to be?”

Yvlon shrugged. She massaged one shoulder with a gauntleted hand as Ksmvr laid down more curious objects next to the carved sticks.

“I have no idea. But Erin paid a lot to have them made quick. I think she called these…‘bats’.”

Ceria stared at the wooden bats. They looked nothing like their namesake.

“Okay. And the leather glove-things?”

They looked like gloves, but with an odd twist. There weren’t individual fingers on the glove—it was a large, ungainly thing that looked like a pocket. Ceria had no idea why you’d ever put something like that on your hand. Yvlon shrugged.

“She called them gloves.”

“Right. Of course she did. Did she say why she wanted them?”

“For that game she mentioned, I think. Is Erin in there?”

Yvlon nodded to the door standing about ten feet away. Ceria nodded. Yvlon walked over to the magic door and stared inside. The grass ran right up to the door’s edge, at which point wooden floorboards took over. Yvlon stepped from Celum’s meadow into the shade of The Wandering Inn. She blinked as the room grew darker and then stared around Erin’s grand common room.

“Erin? We’ve got your bats and gloves. Do you have any water?”

What?

Erin poked her head out of the kitchen. She blinked as she saw Yvlon.

“Oh, hey Yvlon! Did you get my bats?”

Ksmvr poked his head through the doorway.

“Yes, Miss Erin. We have acquired your desired objects. Another successful mission for the Horns of Hammerad. Yvlon requests water as our reward. As do I. Comrade Pisces would like a glass of wine.”

“Sure! Wait—tell Pisces he can’t drink just yet! I’ll be out in one moment! I just have to put this dough in the oven…”

It took a few minutes for Erin to emerge from the kitchen. When she walked outside into the meadow she had a tray with a filled pitcher of water and cups. She raised her voice.

“Hey everyone! Gather around here! I’ve got something to show you! Also: water!”

She placed the tray on the ground. Everyone looked around and got up to come over. Pisces sniffed as Ceria offered him a cup of water. The half-Elf took a sip of the lukewarm water, grimaced, and then raised a hand before Yvlon could pour herself a cup.

“Let me.”

She pointed at the pitcher and conjured a sphere of ice out of the air. She tossed it into the pitcher, making a splash. Yvlon eyed the giant ice cube floating in the water.

“That’s handy. Normally ice is a rare treat.”

“That’s what you get with an ice mage around. You want smaller ice cubes? I like to chew them.”

“Ooh. I’ll have some!”

Jelaqua Ivirith grinned as she walked over. She nodded appreciatively at Ceria as the half-Elf conjured ice cubes out of the air and flicked them into a cup. Seborn took a cup, filled it, drained it, and then sighed.

Refreshing. No ice, thanks, Ceria. What’s this you have to show us, Erin?

“Baseball! You got the bats and gloves? And I have baseballs! Hey Mrsha, are you having fun?”

Erin bent down as Mrsha raced over. The Gnoll smiled up at Erin as she grabbed a cup and then ran over to Ceria to get free ice. Lyonette jogged over, huffing, and stared at the baseball bats, gloves, and balls. She glanced at Erin.

“Is this the game you were talking about?”

“Yup! Baseball! The perfect game for today! I thought we could sit outside, play games, eat some food—I’ve got some buns rising in the oven for hot dogs, popcorn, and there’s sausages since hot dogs aren’t made in Liscor. That’s probably a good thing. Anyways, we can try baseball or just have fun!”

Erin beamed. The others looked at each other. Everything sounded good, especially just sitting in the sun. But…Ceria coughed.

“Erin, would you mind explaining what this baseball thing is?”

“Oh. Right. I forgot that uh…well, it’s a game!”

Pisces rolled his eyes.

“Do tell.”

Ceria smirked as Erin glared at both of them. She picked up a bat and one of the hide-wrapped balls she’d bought from Liscor.

“It’s a fun game! I told you, people where I come from play it all the time. Everyone loves it!”

She paused and bit her lip.

“Okay, some people like to play it. I mean, in my country it’s big, but in the world it’s not that huge a sport compared to…”

She scratched her head. Her audience stared at the young woman expectantly. Erin coughed.

“It has fans. And it’s easy to play. Okay, wait, let me explain from the start. Baseball…baseball…”

Erin was at a bit of a loss of how to describe baseball. It wasn’t that she didn’t know the rules and so forth, it was just that she’d never had to explain the game in its entirety. She scratched her head as everyone sipped from their cups.

“I’ve got it! Okay. Baseball is this game. Where you hit balls.”

Ksmvr raised his hand.

“At people?”

“No! Okay, sometimes. Not on purpose. No, you hit balls, and then run around this…this diamond. It’s not actually a diamond, it’s actually three, no, four bases. On the ground. You run from base to base while the other team—there are teams—tries to get the ball you hit and tag you out. And if you run all the way around and get back where you started, you score!”

Jelaqua glanced up at Moore. The half-Giant was scratching his head.

“And you win? Is that the point of the game?”

“Nope! You get a point! And if you’re tagged, you’re ‘out’. And if you get three outs, the other team gets to hit the ball. And we change sides like that like…nine times. Whoever has the highest score wins. Unless there’s a tie.”

“What happens then?”

“Then we play another round until one team has more points than the other. Both teams get a chance at bat—that means hitting the ball. And if one team gets more points by the end they win the game. If not, we play another inning. That’s both teams pitching—throwing the ball—and batting—hitting the ball.”

Ceria looked at Pisces. He raised both eyebrows and smiled sardonically. Ksmvr raised his other hand, not having lowered the first one.

“Miss Solstice, what happens if both teams fail to aquire more points?”

“Then we keep playing. Forever. Or until one team can’t play anymore.”

Erin stared at Ksmvr. He nodded.

“Defeat by attrition. Very appropriate.”

“Right. So that’s baseball. Any questions?”

The adventurers, Mrsha, Bird, and Lyonette looked each other. Then they all raised their hands. Ksmvr raised his third one. Erin sighed.

“Let me try again.”

 

—-

 

A few explanations later, Ceria understood baseball. At least, she understood how the game was played. There was a logic to it—hitting a ball sounded like fun and the gloves made sense to her now. Still, she had declined to practice at first. The Halfseekers and Mrsha had volunteered to take the equipment and hit a few balls. Everyone else was sitting and watching as Erin coached from the sidelines.

“Okay! Aim for Moore’s glove, Seborn! Not at Jelaqua! Mrsha, you stay in the outfield! Grab the ball when it goes flying and throw it at Lyonette!”

“Alright! Throw that ball, Seborn!”

Jelaqua grinned as she swung the baseball bat energetically. Moore, crouching behind her with his hand open—he was holding a tablecloth for a glove since Erin hadn’t wanted to pay for a glove for his hands—eyed Jelaqua’s bat with some apprehension.

“Don’t let go of that bat, Jelaqua. And please don’t hit me in the head.”

“Relax! I’ve got this! Throw, Seborn!”

The Drowned Man did. Erin had shown him how to pitch, and the [Rogue] threw the ball surprisingly fast. Jelaqua swung. Her bat whiffed the air as the baseball bounced off of Moore’s palm. The half-Giant picked up the ball between two fingers and threw it clumsily back at Seborn.

“Aw.”

Strike one!

Erin waved her arms. Jelaqua looked over.

“What? Am I out already?”

“No, you get two more chances!”

“Got it! Throw me another, Seborn!”

The Drowned Man did. Ceria watched the ball flash past Jelaqua. The Selphid blinked.

“Hey, not that fast!”

Too bad. I’m trying to win here.

Seborn smiled as Moore threw the ball back to him. Jelaqua growled and swung the bat around. Ceria watched as Seborn wound up and threw the third ball. This time Jelaqua had the timing down. She stepped forward and swung.

The crack of bat hitting ball made Mrsha look up. She’d been playing in the grass impatiently. Her eyes widened as she saw the baseball flying overhead. She raced after it as Jelaqua looked around.

“Did you see that?”

“Run for first base!”

“Oh, right!”

The Selphid charged towards the ‘base’ Erin had set up, which was a pillow lying in the grass. Erin waved her arms frantically.

“The bat! Put the bat back!”

“Argh!”

Jelaqua ran back. Mrsha was racing towards Lyonette with the ball in her mouth. The [Barmaid] waved her hands encouragingly, holding a glove up.

“Throw it, Mrsha!”

The Gnoll cub did. The ball went wide of Lyonette. The young woman raced after it with Mrsha as Jelaqua ran onto first base. She raised her arms in celebration.

“I did it!”

Keep going!

“Right! Second base!”

Jelaqua ran as Mrsha and Lyonette grabbed the ball and chased after her. She got all the way to third before they caught up. Then Erin had to explain how the rest of the game worked again. Jelaqua groaned.

“Wait, so I just stand here?”

“I mean, you can steal, but it’s dangerous. You don’t have to stand here. This is just to show everyone how the game is played. Let’s have someone else bat. Moore?”

“I’m afraid I couldn’t use one of those bats, Miss Erin.”

The half-Giant smiled apologetically. Erin grinned up at him.

“That’s okay! I got you a special bat! Here—”

She pointed at the oversized baseball bat which was more of a log. Moore blinked. He picked it up and Jelaqua whistled.

“That’s a stick! You could crack a few heads with that thing, Moore!”

“I’d prefer not to. But playing—hm. Yes. Thank you, Erin.”

Moore smiled gratefully at Erin. He took up position at bat as Jelaqua grabbed a glove and sat far behind him. Erin returned to her seat next to Ceria. The half-Elf was still sunbathing. Erin smiled at Ceria.

“What do you think?”

The half-Elf looked up. She had another pillow underneath her head and she’d been reluctantly looking up to see the action. Now she sat up and gave Erin a rueful smile.

“Honestly, Erin? It looks incredibly dull.”

“You think so?”

Erin didn’t seem too offended. She took a seat by Ceria as Moore swung his bat. Slowly. He missed Seborn’s first pitch. Ceria shrugged.

“It’s…well, I don’t want to be rude, but it’s about as fun as chess for me. Pisces likes chess, but I don’t know if he’ll enjoy this game. At least the Halfseekers are having fun.”

Strike two!

Jelaqua shouted happily at Moore. The half-Giant frowned at her. Their voices were audible to Ceria and Erin as they sat together.

“Stop yelling at me.”

“It’s part of the game, Moore! Hit the ball already!”

“I can’t see it. It’s hard to swing this bat fast enough, alright?”

“You get one more swing, Moore!”

“That doesn’t seem fair. You got to practice with Seborn.”

“Tough luck! There’s no mercy in baseball!”

Stop arguing, both of you. We’ll give Moore more swings.

“Aw, Seborn!”

Erin smiled as she watched the Halfseekers play. Mrsha was lying in the grass, waiting for another ball as Lyonette yawned at first base. Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr had also been recruited to stand at second and third base and in the outfield. They looked around, clearly waiting for something to happen. Bird and Octavia watched from the sidelines.

“It is sort of boring, isn’t it?”

“You think so too?”

“Eh. I never liked baseball too much when I was back home. My dad used to take me to a few games, but he wasn’t the hugest fan either. He would watch the big games and that’s about it.”

“I see. So why are we playing it?”

Erin smiled as she stretched out her legs in the grass. She propped herself up with her arms and watched as Moore swung again.

“It’s boring. And exciting when someone hits the ball. Mostly, you sit and watch. In baseball games the audience sits for hours. You can talk to one another, eat…it’s not filled with action. I thought it was perfect for today. For everyone. And for Mrsha.”

She pointed at Mrsha. The Gnoll was rolling about on her back as Moore missed again. Jelaqua was heckling him. Ceria glanced at Mrsha.

“You were right about us needing some sunlight. I’d forgotten we could just…go to Celum. It’s amazing.”

“All thanks to your door. Without it I couldn’t have done so many things. It really was the best thing you brought out of Albez. Thank you for giving it to me, Ceria.”

The half-Elf waved that away.

“You helped us. You gave us coin, brought us together—and you saved me. Twice. With the door we gave you.”

Erin smiled and looked away.

“Yeah. But I didn’t do too much.”

“You came up with the plan. I heard from Pisces and Yvlon what was happening while I was below. Everyone was fighting the dungeon, but you were the one who got the Goblins to find the Raskghar. And you made the plan. You even got people like Zevara and Ilvriss on board. You saved me, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“It was everyone. I just gave them a chance. I…I’m not proud of what I did.”

Ceria frowned and sat up a bit more.

“Not proud? Why wouldn’t you be? Erin, you beat the Raskghar! There were thousands of them and they were killing—”

“I know. I know. It’s just…I guess I’m really good at killing people after all.”

Erin’s voice was quiet. She was still looking away from Ceria. The half-Elf paused. Then Erin looked back at her friend. The young woman sat on the grass, smiling. But there were tears in her eyes. They ran down Erin’s cheeks as she watched Mrsha run after a foul ball.

“I knew I could, Ceria. I knew that I could figure out a way to kill the Raskghar. With fire. With water. With monsters or traps. And I did. I’d do it again. But I don’t like it.”

“It had to be done. The Raskghar were evil. They were sacrificing Gnolls. If you hadn’t, Mrsha and I would be dead.”

There was no pity in Ceria’s heart or her voice. Erin nodded. She wiped at her eyes.

“That’s true. It’s all true. But I still did it. I went into their home and killed them. I made the plan. I knew what would happen.”

Ceria stared at Erin. She couldn’t feel whatever it was Erin felt. Ceria had been there. She had looked into Nokha’s eyes as the Raskghar devoured the Gnoll’s hearts. If the Raskghar had been in front of her again, Ceria would have killed them without a second thought.

“They were monsters.”

“They were. But they were people. I walked into their camp before we destroyed the entrance. They were monsters. But they had a home. They were evil, but I still helped kill them.”

“Not all of them. Some got away.”

Ceria didn’t know if she was trying to cheer Erin up. If she was, it wasn’t working. Erin shrugged. She was smiling and crying a bit as Moore swung again and missed.

“It doesn’t matter, Ceria. I know it had to be done. And if I had to, I’d do it again. A thousand times. I just feel bad about it. It’s…something I feel. I just feel bad. For the people who died. The Antinium Soldiers, the Watch…Ilvriss’ people. They died because I asked them to. And the Raskghar. We killed an entire group of people. They were bad people, but still people.”

“I guess so.”

Ceria sat back, troubled. She stared at her skeletal hand. A bug had decided to crawl between her fingers and she’d smashed it accidentally. There was no feeling in her bone hand, after all. Absentmindedly, Ceria scrubbed her hand on the grass.

“I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t feel bad at all. Not after what happened. With Calruz.”

“Yeah. I don’t. I just wish I could have talked him into releasing the Gnolls. I wish I could have stopped him. But I didn’t. That was my fault.”

The half-Elf shook her head. Erin reached out and grabbed her flesh hand.

“It wasn’t. You did all you could.”

“I didn’t save him. He’s going to be executed. Drake law. I should have killed him when I had the chance. But I couldn’t. He’s…insane, Erin. He wasn’t in his right mind. There were bits and pieces of him, but it was all wrong. That’s the hard part. He cared about Gerial and the others. If he hadn’t, if he’d just been mad, it would have been easy to—but he cared and then—I couldn’t stop it.”

Ceria’s voice cracked. She stared at Moore as the half-Giant began arguing with Jelaqua. Seborn walked over to confer. Erin’s hand squeezed Ceria’s.

“I heard a bit of what happened. I…”

She didn’t finish her sentence. Ceria stared ahead. The sun felt less bright as she whispered.

“It was bad down there, Erin. I told the others about it. But not all of it. I don’t think I can. I wish—I can still hear them screaming. I know there were too many Raskghar. I know. But I was the only adventurer down there. They died and I couldn’t stop them.”

Erin stared at Ceria’s face. The half-Elf shook her head, her hands trembling.

“Do you want to talk about it? I can listen.”

“No. I—maybe later. But not right now. I just want to sit.”

“Okay.”

Ceria stared past Erin. After a while Erin took her hand away. The half-Elf wished she hadn’t. She felt tense. Guilty. Alone, despite Erin sitting next to her. Her failures pierced her over and over until—

Crack.

The half-Elf looked up. Jelaqua had hit the ball. She pointed.

“There! Like that, see?”

Moore stared as Ksmvr and Yvlon looked up. The Antinium and woman watched the ball land and then remembered they had to run and pick it up. He turned and glared at Jelaqua.

“Like what? You’re just hitting the ball, Jelaqua. Let me keep trying.”

“Aw, come on!”

The half-Giant took a position at home base again. Ceria watched Seborn throw a ball and Moore miss. Suddenly, she was back in the present. She looked around. Erin was watching her. Ceria half-rose. Then she inhaled and smelled the earth. The grass. She looked up and saw the sun.

Her heart began to beat slowly again. Ceria looked at her hands, and then at Erin. The young woman smiled. Her eyes were mostly dry, but there was still moisture in them.

“It’s a beautiful day.”

Ceria looked up. The sky was blue. High, high above, a few clouds slowly moved across the vast sky. The half-Elf closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of growing life. The sun shone down as Moore finally hit a ball and Mrsha and Pisces both raced after it. Ceria remembered the dungeon, the scent of blood. Calruz’s eyes full of madness. The Raskghar devouring the heart over the lifeless Gnoll. She blinked and found her eyes were watering as well.

“It really is, isn’t it?”

The two sat together for a while. Just sat. The horrors of the past melted away from Ceria as she watched Seborn take a place at bat. He swung and connected with the first ball, ran around the bases until Ksmvr tagged him out, and then waited at first base as Lyonette took a turn swinging the bat. The game was boring. Some might have even called it dull. But in this moment, it was the game Ceria needed. So she stood up.

“Alright. I’ll give it a shot.”

Erin looked up.

“You sure?”

Ceria smiled.

“Why not? I could use a bit of exercise. And I can always lie down afterwards. Are you going to play too?”

“Sure!”

Erin stood up. She smiled at Ceria and then cupped her hands.

“Hey guys! Want to play a real game? With teams?”

The others looked up. They looked at each other and shrugged. Jelaqua shouted back.

“Sure! Let’s play a bit. Then we can eat!”

The others nodded. They trooped over to home base as Erin walked forwards with Ceria. The game wasn’t amazing. It wasn’t fantastic or exciting. It was sort of fun. But that was what they needed. A game of baseball in the sun.

 

—-

 

The first game was simple. It was between the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers, with Bird, Lyonette, and Mrsha acting as extras for the outfield team. Octavia watched from the sidelines with a bowl of popcorn as Erin umpired the game.

“Alright! Game one! We’ll play till one side scores five points, okay? Jelaqua, you’re up for bat first! Pisces, throw the ball!”

“Don’t let her hit the ball, Pisces! That’s an order!”

Ceria shouted at Pisces from first base. The [Necromancer] sniffed and awkwardly raised the ball.

“Very well. Allow me to throw a truly unhittable pitch. Like so—”

He threw the ball as fast and hard as he could without warning. It was a good pitch. But Jelaqua was quicker. The Selphid grinned and swung her bat.

Hah!

The bat cracked as it connected full-force with the ball. Pisces’ eyes widened and he ducked as the ball flashed by his head. Mrsha and Ksmvr raced after the ball as Jelaqua raised her bat and cheered. Erin shouted urgently.

“Don’t cheer yet, Jelaqua! Drop the bat! Okay, now run for first base! Ksmvr, grab the ball and throw it to Ceria!”

“Captain Ceria!”

Ksmvr threw the ball. Ceria raised her glove, swore as she saw Jelaqua charging towards the pillow, and tried to grab the ball. She caught it, but only after Jelaqua had stepped on the pillow. Erin shouted.

Safe! She’s safe, Ceria! You can’t tag her out!”

The half-Elf looked up. Jelaqua had both claws raised to fend Ceria off. Both looked slightly disappointed. Jelaqua coughed. Ceria scratched her head.

“That was it? She touched the pillow and that’s it?”

“Yup. She’s safe. Until the next ball is hit, she can stay there. Or steal a base.”

Aha! I knew this game was fun!”

Jelaqua charged towards second base. Ceria swore and ran after her. Erin shouted at both of them to come back.

“Wait, wait! No stealing in the first game! And you can’t just run all the way home! I think.”

“Why not?”

“Well—you’d be caught. If we had a full team. Which we don’t, so—no stealing.”

“Drat. So what do I do?”

Erin pointed back towards home base, where Seborn had the bat and was waiting patiently. Moore was catcher and sitting cross-legged rather than crouching since he was large enough to cover the entire base anyways.

“You just stand there. Seborn will swing and if he hits, you run for second or third, or even home, Jelaqua.”

The Selphid sighed. She scratched a loose scale on her cheek.

“So this is a waiting game?”

“Um. Yeah! But it’s not too long. Hold on. Seborn, let me get out of the way! Pisces, throw another ball when I say so! Try to not let Seborn hit it this time!”

Jelaqua and Ceria awkwardly stood together at first base while Erin had Seborn step up and take a few swings. The Selphid scratched the spines on the back of her head. Ceria coughed. Jelaqua scratched the spines on the back of her Drake body. After a moment she spoke out of the corner of her mouth.

“So. Do you think they’ll let me try out a Raskghar body?”

The half-Elf blinked. Jelaqua grinned sheepishly.

“I mean, I think we brought a few back. Trophies and to show other adventurers what they look like, you know? I don’t need a new one, but I’d like to be the first Selphid to try one out, you know? Bragging rights. And have you seen their muscles?”

“I uh, didn’t get too good a look at them. But that’s actually a good idea. Raskghar are really strong.”

“I know, right? And if I could get Erin to store a few bodies in her basement, you know, as insurance—is this getting creepy?”

“Just a little bit. But I get it. You don’t think the bodies will rot in her inn, right? What about bugs?”

“Well, Selphids have this paste I can get Octavia to make that—”

Crack. Both Ceria and Jelaqua looked up. A ball flew past them and Erin shouted.

“Run!”

Suddenly Seborn was charging towards them! Pisces and Ksmvr ran for the ball. Ceria and Jelaqua looked at each other. The Selphid looked around.

“Oh kidney stones, what am I supposed to do again?”

Run to second base! Ceria, get ready to stop Seborn! Catch the ball!”

“Over here!”

Ceria waved her arms in frustration as Jelaqua took off. Pisces blurred over to the ball with [Flash Step] and snatched it up. He looked around. But Seborn was already on first base. The Drowned Man eyed Ceria. And Jelaqua was rounding second base, headed towards third. Ceria pointed.

“I’ll stop Jelaqua! Pisces, get her!”

The Selphid was laughing as she ran. Pisces charged towards her. Jelaqua kept her eye on Pisces, but she didn’t see Ceria coming up from the side. The half-Elf tackled the Selphid, knocking her to the ground.

Get her, Pisces!

The [Necromancer] was twenty paces away. He threw the ball at Jelaqua as the Selphid turned and threw Ceria off. The Selphid dodged back as she saw the ball land at her feet, but then she grinned. She picked the ball up and threw it at Seborn.

“Get rid of it!”

On it.

Seborn turned, hurled the ball in the opposite direction, then charged to second base as Pisces and Ksmvr ran after the ball again. Ceria tried to slow Jelaqua as the Selphid tried to follow Seborn. Erin watched, jaw slightly open as Seborn rounded the bases. Jelaqua was nearly at third base with Ceria holding onto her waist when Pisces threw a ball and struck her shoulder.

“Aw, damnit!”

Ceria let go and Jelaqua threw up her hands. Seborn tried to run back to second, but Ksmvr was there. He caught the ball and chased Seborn as the Drowned Man ran back to first base. There Seborn stopped. He looked at Erin and she found her voice.

“Okay! Um. Return back to home base!”

All five players returned to the plate. Seborn looked at Erin as Ceria gave Pisces and Ksmvr a thumbs-up.

How’d we do?

“Well…that was awful. You’re not supposed to tackle players, Ceria! And Pisces, you can’t hit people with the ball! And if you touch the ball you’re out! And Ksmvr—you did a good job. Only Ksmvr played according to the rules!”

Ksmvr straightened up and smiled. The other adventurers scratched their heads. Ceria shook her head exasperatedly.

“This game has a lot of rules. And it’s hard catching people while they’re running.”

“That’s why you stand on the bases. The runners can’t score if you block them, and then you just have to tag them out. You throw the ball between each other. Look, we’re doing good. I think we just need a few more players.”

“You think so? We’re a pretty good team by ourselves, right Seborn, Moore? Right?”

Jelaqua elbowed Seborn. The Drowned Man looked at her.

Stop elbowing me.

Erin smiled. She looked to the outfield. Yvlon, Lyonette, and Mrsha were bored in right field and were playing catch with another ball.

“Look, one more game. But let me just call a few people over first, okay?”

The adventurers shrugged. Ceria nodded.

“Sure. Who did you have in mind?”

“Well…”

 

—-

 

The Redfang Hobs sat around in their cave. Around them sat Cave Goblins. The Hobs were busy at work and not busy at the same time. They were showing the Cave Goblins how to bandage wounds. Headscratcher winced as Badarrow sewed up a gash on his arm. The Hob flinched as the tip of the needle went through his flesh. Badarrow slapped his shoulder and glared at him.

It was a necessity. The Cave Goblins were wounded. Some were badly hurt. Those had been healed with the potions the Goblins had, but far more had injures that could heal with time. And the Goblins wouldn’t waste a potion on something like that.

With that said, the medical knowledge the Redfangs had was limited to stitching up bad cuts and making sure nothing got too dirty. That was still miles ahead of Cave Goblin medical advances, which hadn’t gotten much past ‘don’t poke an open wound’. So the Goblins watched as Badarrow demonstrated how to clean and stitch up a cut. He didn’t have to do it twice. The Goblins remembered and would teach their friends.

The mood in the cave was optimistic, despite the injured Goblins. Despite the dead. Because they had won their freedom. It was a battle no one cared about. It had not resulted in the freedom of Gnolls or a half-Elf. It was not a glorious battle, but many skirmishes. It had freed only Goblins. And who cared about them?

The Hobs. Each of them was wounded. The worst of their injuries had been healed, but they still had gashes. It was nothing compared to some of the pain they’d born, but it did hurt. Still, they would have been celebrating normally. Except, it was just that…

The door hadn’t opened. The magical door that connected Erin’s inn to the Goblin cave hadn’t activated since she’d set up the attack on the Raskghar camp. Of course, the Hobs knew she was alive. The Cave Goblins had reported everything. And naturally she was busy. Rabbiteater made that point so many times that the other Hobs threw things at him, forcing him to hide behind his water cloak.

Erin was probably very busy. It was just that she hadn’t talked to them today. It wasn’t as if they needed to see her. But there was a feeling in the back of the Goblin’s minds. It was a ridiculous thought. It ran something like this.

What if Erin had just used them to beat the Raskghar? And she didn’t need them anymore? Or maybe—maybe now that all the Goblins were here, she couldn’t help them anymore? Maybe they were a liability, with so many…monsters around. Or maybe she’d grown tired of them.

Ridiculous thoughts. Totally at odds with everything they knew of Erin. But the Hobs couldn’t shake the feeling. So they sat around moodily, bandaging their injuries. The Cave Goblins didn’t understand why the Hobs were upset. They were cheerfully sewing each other up when the door opened.

“Guys? Are you—”

The Hobs looked up as one as they heard a voice. Erin Solstice stood in the doorway and paused when she saw the Goblins. A detail yet to be mentioned was that there were a lot of Cave Goblins in the enclosed space. More than last time, even. And they were just the ones Erin could see. She looked around wide-eyed, and then focused on the Hobs who sprang to their feet.

“What happened? There are so many Goblins! And—oh my god! What happened?”

Erin had spotted a huge cut on Numbtongue’s chest. The Hob blinked as Erin threw up her hands in horror. She dashed back into her inn and the Hobs saw a little figure appear in the doorway.

Pebblesnatch had been happily sleeping until Erin woke her up. The little Goblin had been treated to a no-holds-barred breakfast and she’d been eating it all morning. She paused and all the Cave Goblins stared at her. She was holding a giant cookie. Pebblesnatch wavered as the Goblins’ eyes fixed on the treat which gave off a smell they’d never inhaled before. She looked from face to face, looked at her cookie, and closed the door.

A few seconds later it opened. Erin appeared with a potion box in her hands.

“What are you doing? Here—”

She moved past Pebblesnatch as the Cave Goblin backed away, clutching her cookie to her chest so hard that it began to crumble. Erin grabbed healing potions and thrust them at the Hobs.

“Where did you get those injuries? Oh no—did the Raskghar attack you? Here, use them! Any Goblin that needs it—”

Shorthilt blinked bemusedly at the healing potion that was thrust into his hands. He opened his mouth, but Erin was already handing healing potions out. The Goblins looked at each other. They hesitated. But then Headscratcher nodded. He uncorked a bottle and carefully splashed some on his arm. The stitches popped out of his healing flesh. The Cave Goblins did the same. Erin breathed a sigh of relief as she looked around.

It was a curious thing. The Cave Goblins stared. Some, a portion of them had seen Erin, tasted her cooking. The others only had rumors to go on. They had heard of a strange Human that didn’t hurt Goblins. They barely knew what a Human was, but they had heard she ordered the Hobs around. And she made good food. And now they saw her, they were shocked. Because she was so normal. Because she was giving healing potions to Goblins.

Because she cared. The Cave Goblins stared at Erin. They stared at Pebblesnatch, who was reluctantly giving out fingernail-sized portions of her cookie to other Goblins, and at Erin. She was talking with the Hobs and they were clustered around her. Smiling. As if they liked her. As if—

As if she was a friend. The Goblins listened as Erin spoke.

“—Had no idea. I’m so sorry I didn’t come by earlier, but I was so busy that I just crashed when everyone was safe. I have food—where did all the Goblins come from? From below? Ha ha. Very funny. I meant…well, okay, that makes sense. Do you have enough food? I can…well, I’ll need to see about buying more. We can deal with that later if you’re good for now. I was really coming to see if you wanted to uh, play a game. Of baseball.”

The Goblins looked up. The Redfangs looked at each other. Erin hastened to explain.

“It’s in Celum! In a field right next to the city. It…well, it might be a bit dangerous if someone panics, but Jelaqua said that you’re probably safe. And we owe you so much. So…if you want to bring some Goblins over, we could play a game. There’ll be food. I can’t let all of the Goblins through, but maybe a few and all of you? I’m sorry, but I can’t bring everyone through—”

The Goblins stared at the Hobs. They looked at each other as the Redfangs conferred, glancing around. Then they nodded. The Goblins saw Headscratcher smiling as Erin tried to explain the game to him. Not about the game. Just at her. And then the young woman smiled and the smile was everything. The Hobs turned. Numbtongue gestured.

Thirty.

They would take thirty with them. Pebblesnatch instantly sidled back into the inn. The Cave Goblins stared at her. At the cookie, mostly eaten. At Erin, the empty box of potions—and her smile. Then they charged towards the door, fighting tooth-and-nail to be the first ones through.

 

—-

 

“I feel so bad.”

Erin confessed to Numbtongue as she closed the door on the disappointed Goblins. There were hundreds crammed into the cave. And they’d all tried to get into her inn. A large number had gone through—until the Hobs had restored order.

It hadn’t been pretty. More than one Goblin probably needed another potion for their blinding headache as the Hobs had banged heads together and thrown the rest back through the door. Now, a lucky thirty Cave Goblins including Pebblesnatch were celebrating in Erin’s inn. The rest were in the cave. Sulking.

“You’re sure they’ll be alright without you?”

Numbtongue nodded.

“They’ll be fine. We don’t need to leave one of us behind.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

The Hob didn’t quite meet her eyes. He was holding a big mug of ale and he was eating a cookie. So were the other Goblins. The luxury of Erin’s inn and the sweet food was making some of them swoon. Erin eyed the Hob, but gave in. The Cave Goblins would probably be fine. And she owed the Hobs. She placed Celum’s mana stone on the door.

“Ready?”

The Goblins nodded. Erin threw open the door. Sunlight made the Goblins gasp. They looked out into a beautiful grassy field. And beyond it were adventurers. The Cave Goblins shrank back in terror, but the Redfangs stood between them and the door and made beckoning noises. They led the Goblins through.

There were adventurers standing on the grass. They froze when they saw the Goblins, but relaxed quickly. The others didn’t. A group of Humans, some dressed in armor, others in bright clothing whirled when the door opened. When the Goblins came through, they panicked.

Dead gods! Goblins! Hobs! Sound the alarm!”

“Run for it!”

The members of Celum’s Watch reached for their swords, then began to flee in a stampede at the sight of five Hobs. The brightly-dressed Humans paled, but didn’t run. One of them threw up a hand. He raised his voice and shouted in a surprisingly loud, commanding tone.

“Hold! I say hold, all of you! Turn, guardsmen, turn! These Goblins aren’t enemies!”

Wesle strode towards Erin. He nodded at the Hobgoblins as the Players of Celum stared at the Cave Goblins. They weren’t afraid! The Cave Goblins peered around Rabbiteater’s cloak as the guardsmen of Celum halted in their panicked flight. He bowed to Erin with a flourish.

“Erin, it’s a delight!”

“Wesle! What brings you out here?”

Erin beamed as she hugged the man. He wasn’t too much taller than her, and he wasn’t that imposing or huge a man. His lips were clean-shaven and he wore fairly fancy red tunic and breeches, but that was all. And yet, the Goblins thought he looked taller than the Humans around him. It was in the way he carried himself. And the way he moved and spoke. He seemed to draw the eye. Wesle stroked his upper lip as if he still had his fuzzy mustache.

“We got word you’d passed through the city. Caused a bit of a commotion. We thought—we hoped that it was safe to return to your inn.  It’s been terribly quiet without you or your inn to perform in.”

Erin smacked her forehead.

“Of course! I forgot—we won! There was a huge battle, Wesle! The Raskghar were defeated! We saved the Gnolls! It was incredible! Liscor’s saved, the Goblins helped, and the Antinium no matter what Ilvriss says—”

“Huge battle? Raskghar? Sounds like a play!”

A short woman strode over. Emme gave the Goblins a glance and then focused on Erin.

“Is this something we could turn into a play, Miss Erin?”

“Um? Yes?”

“Well then! What are we waiting for? Hey, you lot! Gather over here! Forget the Goblins—they won’t bite. And if they do, bite back! We’ve got material for a new play!”

The Players of Celum approached cautiously. Erin turned and beamed at a Drake and a Human child.

“Jasi! Grev! It’s great to see you all! And you’re all here at the perfect time! We were having a break after all that’s happened.”

“Hullo, Miss Erin. You’ve got a lot of monster folk behind you. Are all them new security for your inn?”

Grev stared at the Cave Goblins, who stared back, never having seen a Human child before. Erin turned.

“What, the Goblins? No, I brought them for the game. Hey Jelaqua! Look, we’ve got two teams of players!”

The Selphid waved back. She was laughing so hard she could barely stand. It was the reactions of the Humans that amused her. One of Celum’s [Guardsmen] followed the Players of Celum, practically hiding behind Jasi.

“Game? What’s all this? Mister Wesle, these Goblins—

“Security for Miss Erin’s inn. Don’t mind them, Fabial. The rest of you, take heed! These are Miss Erin’s employees. There’s to be no fighting here! Besides, there’s a team of Gold-rank adventurers.”

“Exactly!”

Jelaqua walked over, still chuckling. She grinned at Fabial, who looked alarmed as Moore approached.

“We’ve got this. These Goblins are under control. Hey, Headscratcher.”

She nodded at Badarrow, who ignored her. The Hobs stared around as Erin tried to explain why the Goblins were here to the Humans. Emme began to pester Jelaqua for details. Grev stared about and made eye contact with Mrsha. In the end Erin had to wave her hands and shout.

“Attention! Everyone! Shut up!

They all quieted. The Players of Celum, adventurers, and Goblins all stared at Erin. She looked around and smiled.

“Let’s leave the plays and killing each other for later, huh? Today’s not a work day. We’re just going to relax here. Goblins, Humans, Selphids—”

“Selphid. Unless anyone wants to change my mind?”

“We can do everything later. But for now—does anyone want to play a game of baseball?”

The crowd paused. They looked at Erin and at each other. Then Numbtongue raised a hand.

“What’s baseball?”

The Celum [Guardsmen] stared at the Hob in horror.

It can talk?

Erin rolled her eyes.

 

—-

 

“Baseball is a sport. A game where two teams compete. One team is on the attack, the other one defends. That’s the basics. Now, we never hurt anyone else. That’s against the rules. We’re competing to get more points. The way you do that is to hit a ball…”

Erin lectured the crowd of people in front of her. Cave Goblins, Hobs, and Humans stared at her. The Players of Celum and Goblins had joined the others in the meadow. The Watch from Celum had to go back to the city and try to explain…something. Erin had Seborn and Jelaqua demonstrate as she spoke.

“—And then, if Jelaqua hits it far enough, it’s a home run. Everyone runs around the bases and scores! It’s great! What do you think?”

The Players and Goblins stared at each other. They shrugged. Emme smiled.

“It looks as stupid as a play did to me the first time I saw one. So we grab these bats and start playing? Why not?”

“Awesome! Let’s play a game! We can make teams. Why don’t the Goblins play a game against the Players of Celum first? The rest of us can correct things, then we can divide and play with everyone!”

Obediently, the groups divided up. Erin grinned at Jelaqua as the Selphid began showing the Humans how to use the bat.

“I still think this is boring as watching tar dry.”

Octavia remarked from her seat in the grass. She’d finished three bowls of popcorn and was eating a fourth. Erin eyed her severely.

“You can go back to Celum. Or pay for that popcorn if you’re bored.”

“Bored? Hey, who’s bored? I love baseball! Go team! Hit those balls!”

Erin rolled her eyes. The Players of Celum seemed excited by the game. As they lined up, Jasi sidled over to Erin.

“It was a good thing Grev heard you were here. We’ve been cooped up this last week, what with your inn being too dangerous.”

“Haven’t you been performing?”

“Ah, well…we didn’t think it’d be right. Not with all the other inns smearing your name. You heard about that, right? We’ve been performing in the squares, but it’s not the same. Everyone’s been antsy, waiting for you to finish. This game is just what we need.”

“What everyone needs. Hey, it looks like the Goblins like the game too. See?”

Jasi stared as Erin pointed. Badarrow was throwing a ball at Numbtongue, who swung and connected solidly with it. The Cave Goblins ducked as the ball flew over their heads and then ran after it as Numbtongue shouted. They seemed nervous, rather than excited to play. But Erin hoped they’d warm up to the game. Jasi just shook her head.

“More Goblins. And you beat those horrible beasts in the dungeon with their help? You have to tell us the entire story, Erin.”

“Alright, but later. I just want to have fun today. Hey, Wesle looks great!”

The [Actor] was at bat. And the first ball that Jelaqua threw he hit. Not just hit—the impact sent the ball flying into the air. Mrsha raced after it. Erin whistled.

“That’s good form! Did he copy Jelaqua or something?”

Wesle was swinging the bat as if he’d played the game before. Jasi shook her head. She leaned forwards and whispered.

“He got a Skill! From his class! It’s called [Method Acting]. It means he actually becomes the person he’s playing! A little bit.”

“What? That’s incredible!”

The Drake smiled.

“It is. But it’s not that powerful. I think we checked it and he’s only as good as someone with, say, ten levels. So he can copy a [Butcher] and do a decent job even without training, but it still takes a lot of work to get any better. If he really copies someone for a while he can get even better.”

“Wow. Hey, that’s a real advantage! Do you have a Skill like that?”

“Not that Skill. But I do have a few new ones. I’ll tell you about it later. I’m going to play this game. You’d better watch out for Emme, though. She’s stronger than anyone else in the troupe!”

Sure enough, when it was Emme’s turn to practice she hit the ball farther than Wesle did, although it took her four tries to connect. Erin watched the Players bat and catch and field and whistled.

“They’re good! I mean, I guess it’s their acting thing. But—hey, these guys could play a game against my dad’s team! Back home he had a team in his neighborhood. They were about this good.”

“And the Goblins?”

Erin stared at the Goblins. They’d finished their practice, but it was a bit…lopsided. Badarrow had taken up pitching and he could throw a fast ball. And all the Hobs had hit the ball far. When they hit it. They seemed to strike out surprisingly often given how coordinated Erin knew them to be. Still, when they hit it the ball went far. That was the Hobs, though.

The Cave Goblins were barely larger than children and so when they hit the ball it barely went anywhere. But they seemed quite coordinated, and as they lined up in the outfield they seemed cheerful. The Goblins kept staring at the grass and flowers as if they’d never seen them before. Which they hadn’t.

“I think they’ll be okay. We can always change up the teams. Besides, if the Players win a game or two maybe some of them won’t be so nervous. Hey guys! Are you ready to play ball or what?

“Ready!”

The Humans cheered as they got up to bat. The Goblins looked to Erin and she waved her arms as she came over.

“I’ll umpire! You all start playing! Remember, hit the ball and run for the bases! You can steal—oh, just go for it! Who’s up first?”

“Me.”

Wesle strode up to bat. He choked up on the grip of the wooden baseball bat and took a stance that was surprisingly like the one Erin had copied from watching professional baseball players on television. The Players cheered and clapped as the Goblins looked at Badarrow.

The Hob looked at Erin. She smiled at him. Badarrow fingered the baseball and looked at Wesle. Shorthilt was catching. The Hob looked up as the wind blew, and then slowly wound up. His arm came up and he threw. The ball flew towards Shorthilt’s mitt. Wesle grinned, swung—

And the ball dropped. Wesle’s bat passed straight over it. The ball struck the ‘plate’ that was a pillow and Shorthilt snatched it up. He tossed the ball back at Badarrow. Wesle gaped. So did Erin. Everyone stared at her until she remembered and raised her arms.

“Uh, strike!”

“What was that throw?”

Jelaqua stared at Badarrow. The Hob was smirking as Wesle stared at him in astonishment. Erin’s mind raced.

“That was—that was a splitter! Or a forkball? It’s a legal throw, but—how’d you figure that out, Badarrow?”

The Hob just grinned at Erin. He threw the ball up again and pointed at Wesle. The [Actor] was clearly disoriented, but he gritted his teeth.

“I get two more tries, right Erin?”

“That’s right. Uh—keep playing!”

The Hob wound up and threw another pitch. Wesle waited. This time he swung as the ball dropped and clipped it. The ball flew up behind him.

Foul ball! That’s a strike!”

There was a groan from the Players of Celum. They watched as Badarrow caught another ball and threw it. This time Wesle swung low and clipped the ball again, but it was a foul ball.

Foul ball!

Wesle hurled the bat to the ground in frustration. Badarrow grinned. Erin had to call Wesle back.

“You get another swing if it’s a foul ball! Don’t give up!”

“What is with that Hob? How’s he throwing like that?”

Wesle pointed at Badarrow. The Hob was smirking and throwing more splitters at Shorthilt.

“Well, he is an [Archer]. I guess it comes naturally? Or…”

Erin’s eyes narrowed. She remembered the Hobs striking out against Badarrow.

“I think he was practicing that pitch! I told you there are multiple ways to throw the ball. Fastballs, curves, uh, sliders…you just need practice. And unfortunately, Badarrow’s pretty good. Hey Badarrow! Don’t throw splitters for game one! It’s not fair!”

Badarrow looked up. He grimaced at Erin, but nodded reluctantly. The next ball he threw was a curve. This time Wesle connected with it though. The man was so surprised that he barely got to first base before the Cave Goblins got the ball. The players cheered, and Jasi went up to bat.

Fastballs! It’s just game one!”

The Hob pitcher was clearly put upon, but he obliged Erin by tossing a fastball…nice and slow. Jasi was so surprised she missed the first ball. Erin slapped her forehead, but Badarrow’s antics had amused the crowd. And more importantly, the Players of Celum were now competing to get a hit.

Jasi managed to bunt to first, but she got tagged out. Wesle ran to second, and then all the way to third as Emme smashed a ball straight past Badarrow. The next actor struck out, and it was Kilkran, the former [Blacksmith] who took up the bat next.

Badarrow threw a deceptively easy pitch. Kilkran smashed the ball out to left field. Wesle charged home and scored. The Players cheered as Emme ran for second. The Cave Goblins had a ball, but they fumbled it getting it to Numbtongue. Emme ran to third. And then Numbtongue threw.

The ball snapped into Rabbiteater’s glove as Emme was two-thirds of the way to his base. She turned to run, but the Hob sprinted at her. He tagged her out instantly.

“Alright! That’s three outs! Switch sides!”

The Players groaned and the ones who hadn’t had a chance to bat groaned as they put them down. But they seemed pleased. Quite a few slapped Wesle’s back and they took to the field with good nature. But Erin wasn’t fooled. Her eyes were on the Goblins as they meekly took up position at bat. She saw them glancing at each other and making covert signs she could half-understand.

“Hey Jelaqua. What do you think of the game?”

The Selphid was sitting with the adventurers, taking turns combing Mrsha’s fur. She looked up from the pampered Gnoll. Her mouth was full of popcorn. Dipped in fish sauce. Apparently it was better that way, according to her and Seborn at least. She shrugged.

“Looks fun. The Players can hit the ball. Unlike Moore.”

“Are you trying to hurt my feelings, Jelaqua?”

“I’m just saying…we should get that Wesle guy on our team. When can we play?”

“After five points. But the Goblins—well, just watch them, would you?”

“For what?”

“Just watch.”

The adventurers sat up a bit as Erin went back to the game. She looked hard at Headscratcher. The Hob smiled at her. Innocently. Erin looked at Rabbiteater, Shorthilt, Badarrow, and Numbtongue. She narrowed her eyes. They looked a bit too eager. And she had a funny thought.

“You guys take it easy, okay?”

The Hobs nodded obediently. Headscratcher squared up to bat as Wesle took the pitcher’s mound, which was in fact, more grass. The [Actor] was clearly keen to get his own back and he threw a ball into the mitt that Emme held twice. Both times it dropped. He met Headscratcher’s eyes as Erin shouted.

Play ball!

The first pitch came in hard and fast and dropped. Headscratcher swung and missed. Wide. The Players laughed as the Hob stared at the ball in Emme’s mitt. Wesle grinned and threw a second pitch. This one was a fastball and went right over Headscratcher’s bat. The Humans cheered. Erin just watched Emme throw the ball back. She saw Headscratcher glance at his fellow Hobs. They gave him a tiny nod. The Hob turned back as Wesle wound up for a throw.

The third pitch was a curve. Headscratcher watched it come. He drew back his bat, took a breath and roared as he swung. The sound shattered the air. Headscratcher’s red eyes blazed—and he connected.

It sounded like a car backfiring. Erin flinched as she saw the ball disappear. Wesle ducked and the Players of Celum flinched. The ball flew up, and up and—Erin’s jaw dropped. She saw the ball fly past Kilkran in the outfield, and land. The big man stared at the ball, a good eighty paces behind him as Headscratcher took off. The Hob charged around the bases as Kilkran belatedly ran after the ball. The Goblins cheered wildly and Headscratcher slowed as he realized there was no way the Humans would get the ball back to him. He sauntered back to home base to thunderous cheers.

“Okay. That was a home run.”

Erin stared at the Goblins. So did everyone else. The Redfang Warriors were grinning as they slapped Headscratcher on the back. And then Numbtongue took up the bat.

“Move back a bit!”

Wesle’s voice trembled a bit as he ordered the Players back. They obediently backed up. When he threw the ball, Numbtongue connected on the first hit. He didn’t hit it nearly as far as Headscratcher, but the Hob charged down first base so fast he actually managed to get to second before the bewildered actors managed to get the ball. And then Badarrow was up. He took one look at the first ball that came his way and let it pass.

Ball!

The second one the Hob hit solidly. He got to first and Numbtongue got onto third. The Players blinked as a Cave Goblin came up next instead of Shorthilt or Rabbiteater. The little Goblin had trouble lifting the bat. But when Wesle threw the ball—

“Bunt!”

The Goblin didn’t even try to hit the ball. It just blocked and then ran towards first base, screaming wildly. Emme and Wesle ran to get the ball, but that meant Emme was out of place. And then Numbtongue scored. And the Cave Goblin ran so fast it got to second and Badarrow to third. And then Shorthilt came up to bat—

“Wow.”

Erin stared as the ball went flying. She stared at the bases. Headscratcher was on third, a Cave Goblin on first. It wasn’t that it was a different inning. It was that the Goblins had played through all nine players on their team. There were two outs, but they’d scored seven times. The Players of Celum stared as Numbtongue swung. They ran for the ball and threw it desperately towards Emme. They got Headscratcher out. Barely.

“I uh—that’s game one!”

Erin called it there. The Goblins cheered and ran around the Hobs. The Players of Celum trooped back to home, panting. They stared at the Goblins.

“How’d they do that?”

Wesle gasped as he accepted some chilled ice water. He gulped from it, staring at the Hobs. They were grinning and eying the Humans. Erin sighed, but there was a smile on her face.

“I think…they planned that. Sorry. But I guess the Players aren’t as good as Goblins are naturally.”

“I see. That’s humbling. I think…we might be done for a little bit.”

The actor groaned as he massaged his shoulders. Erin nodded sympathetically.

“Sorry about that. It uh, looked hard but I didn’t want to call it. You take a break. We’ve got food.”

She pointed to the picnic in the audience. Wesle nodded gratefully. The Cave Goblins and Hobs occupied the field as the beaten Players left it. They were playing a game by themselves when Jelaqua stood up.

“Hold it!”

The Goblins looked at her. The Selphid grinned as she walked towards the pitch.

“Looks like you guys are pretty good. Hey guys, why don’t we take them on? Adventurers versus Goblins?”

“Uh, I don’t think that’s such a—”

Erin began nervously, but the other adventurers were already on their feet. The Horns and Halfseekers strode to the pitch, as did Mrsha and Lyonette. The Goblins looked at each other and grinned. They took up positions at bat. Jelaqua grinned at Erin as she walked past. Seborn was already practicing throwing a curve ball with Moore.

“Hey Erin, you were right. This game is fun. Especially when there’s good competition. Those Hobs can hit pretty hard. We might have to use our full strength.”

“Wait, this is just a fun game. Jelaqua—”

“Hey Pisces! You’re in the middle of the outfield! Use [Flash Step]! Ceria, first base! Can you freeze the ground? Is that against the rules? Ksmvr, outfield on the right? Lyonette and Mrsha can take third base and the left!”

The Selphid grinned as she pounded a fist into her glove. She strode over to second base. Erin eyed the Hobs. They were pointing at Lyonette and Mrsha, clearly telling Headscratcher to hit the ball their way. They huddled together like…well, like any team, really. Erin looked at the Players of Celum who were gulping down food.

Go Horns and Halfseekers! Teach those Goblins a lesson!

“Five silver on the Goblins!”

“Pass me those popcorn things! Stop hogging them, Emme!”

And suddenly? Suddenly it was a game.

 

—-

 

It was wet as Bevussa walked out of Liscor’s gates. Or rather, climbed down the ladder on Liscor’s walls and began walking across the water bridge to The Wandering Inn. The water was still high and it was raining in droves. Of course the Garuda could have flown to the inn, but the water made her wings heavy and she didn’t know if she’d crash in the water. That would be embarrassing, so she elected to walk. She’d tried to get to the inn through the magic door, but it hadn’t opened no matter how long she’d waited.

She met someone else crossing the bridge towards the inn. Keldrass, leader of the Flamewardens slowed and waved a claw at Bevussa. He wasn’t wearing his armor. Like her, he was dressed casually now the crisis in the dungeon was over. Bevussa jogged up to him.

“Hey Keldrass, you’re going to the inn too?”

“That’s right. What are you going for?”

The Garuda hesitated. But she’d known Keldrass professionally, if not personally. She glanced around at the rainy landscape and coughed.

“I was actually hoping I could meet the Halfseekers and possibly Griffon Hunt there and negotiate about the artifacts. You know, who gets what?”

Keldrass nodded.

“That’s why I’m going.”

“Oh—uh, what’s do you—”

“We want the armor.”

Bevussa breathed a sigh of relief. She began walking to the inn, watching her footing as the water splashed over her talons.

“Oh, good. We’re after the invisible bow or the shortsword. Or that staff that blasts people with wind. Or…we’re open for a lot of the items, actually. But I want to make sure we have a good chance of claiming what we aim for, so I need to talk with them. They’ve probably got two of the best claims of the Gold-rank teams.”

Keldrass grunted.

“We all shed blood. Some of us more than others.”

“True. But you have to admit, they went in hard. Did you see Moore smashing Raskghar? Or Halrac? That one’s not far from Named Adventurer.”

“He’s still a ways away. You’ve met the one in Pallass, right?”

“Oh—him? Well, he’s certainly better than Halrac, but he struck me as uh, not atypical of Named Adventurers.”

“They’re all insane like him. The [Scout]’s not at that level yet.”

“Yet.”

Bevussa let the word hang in the air. Keldrass nodded. The two walked towards the inn. After a few seconds, the Garuda chuckled. Keldrass looked at her.

“What?”

“Nothing. But it’s almost like a reflex, coming here. We’ve done it so many times, and Erin’s inn is so useful. Plus, she’s got so much unique food. Some of its awful—but it’s always new. I can’t stand the inn we’re staying at.”

“The Tailless Thief? The innkeeper’s food is good.”

Keldrass looked mildly offended on behalf of Peslas. Bevussa shrugged.

“That’s true. They’re as good as Erin’s in terms of quality. But they’re all Drake dishes, and I can eat that in Pallass, and far better. Our inns are superior.”

“No arguments there. But the [Innkeeper]—what’s his name—had a new dish. Hamburgers. I thought that was original. Quick food, I think he called it.”

“Yeah, but, apparently the recipe came from Erin.”

“Really?”

Keldrass blinked in surprise. He glanced at the inn coming up ahead of them. Bevussa smiled.

“Do you doubt it?”

“No. But where did she get it from?”

“Search me. There’s something odd about her. Not that I’m complaining. I just—hello?”

Bevussa opened the door and called about inside. The inn was empty. But the first thing that struck the two adventurers was light. They stopped as bright sunlight shone into the inn. The magic door was open and a blue sky and grassy field could be seen through it. It was such an odd sight after the rain that they had to stop in surprise.

“What the—is the door open to Pallass?”

“It can’t be. That takes up too much mana. I thought. Hello?”

Bevussa walked over to the door. She heard cheering as she drew nearer. She blinked as she stared out into the field. Keldrass stood by her and stared around.

“Where is this?

“Oh, hey!”

The two Gold-rank adventurers had been spotted by a group of Humans lounging on the grass. The Players of Celum waved at them. One of them, a young boy, jumped to his feet.

“You’re more guests for Miss Erin, ain’t ya?”

The adventurers nodded. Grev grinned.

“Hold on, I’ll get her! She’s umpiring the game. Miss Erin!”

The adventurers stared as he raced out of view. They looked at each other. Then they stepped through the door. They stared around. Then they heard a crack. Both ducked reflexively. Then they saw a ball flying through the air and heard a voice.

Fly ball! Go, Jelaqua, go!

They saw a familiar Selphid sprinting across the grass. She was moving fast, as if she was in danger. But the cheering that came from the crowd of Humans and Goblins, yes, Goblins was at odds with that idea. So was the grin on Jelaqua’s face. She rounded a pillow on the grass and dove as the Hobgoblin on another pillow reached out and caught a ball flying towards him. There was a cheer and the two saw Erin run forwards, waving her arms.

Safe! That was safe!

She turned as Grev grabbed her shirt. Erin turned and looked surprised to see Keldrass and Bevussa.

“Bevussa! Uh, Keldram? Oh man, did you walk here? Sorry, we’re closed! I can get you to Pallass if you need it, but I’m not selling any meals right now! We’re having a vacation!”

“Uh, no. That’s not why we’re here. We were hoping to find the Halfseekers. And Griffon Hunt if they’re here.”

“I haven’t seen Griffon Hunt. But the Halfseekers are playing a game!”

Erin indicated Jelaqua as the Selphid waved at Pisces and shouted at him as he took a position with a long wooden bat.

“We saw. What’s the game called?”

“Baseball! Hold on—Grev, you umpire. I’ll explain.”

It took Erin several minutes to explain the game to the bewildered adventurers. In that time Pisces bunted the ball Badarrow threw. He didn’t just run, he blinked across the field using [Flash Step]. The Goblins scrambled to keep up, but Pisces got to second without being caught.

“Pisces! That’s cheating!”

Erin turned to yell at the [Necromancer]. He yelled back in an aggrieved tone.

“Why? They can use Skills! Why can’t I use magic?”

“Uh—never mind!”

She turned back and beamed at the adventurers.

“You wanna play?”

“Um—not at the moment.”

Keldrass coughed a bit of smoke. He looked at the Halfseekers.

“They’re busy. I’ll come back later.”

“I uh, I’ll do the same.”

“Suit yourself. Hey, can you let the others know the inn’s closed if they come calling? Thanks!”

Erin went back to the game. The two Gold-rank adventurers walked back to the door. They paused as they stepped back into Erin’s inn. On the other side of the door, the rain was falling through the open door that Bevussa had forgotten to close. The inn was dark and the skies were grey. Keldrass glanced back through the door.

“Sunlight. It’s been a long time since I saw that, or so it feels.”

Bevussa looked longingly back as well.

“It’s a nice day out there. Perfect weather for flying.”

“Indeed.”

They looked at each other. Keldrass coughed again. He shifted.

“I told my team I’d be back soon.”

“So did I. We were actually going to get both teams to join us for negotiations. We felt like Erin’s inn would favor them a bit.”

“Sensible. Well. We should get back.”

“Yeah.”

The two stared back into the field. The sun was warm on Bevussa’s feathers. And she remembered the drinks and food the Humans were eating. She wondered what it would be like to swing that bat. It would be nice to hit something that wasn’t a monster’s skull.

“We did promise to go back.”

Keldrass reminded her. Bevussa looked at him. The Garuda’s hesitated, then smiled.

“True. But we could always come back. It’s a beautiful day out there, isn’t it?”

The Drake paused. He looked back out the door. There were more people coming towards the inn. Adventurers looking to do some negotiating. Relc and Klbkch, the Antinium clutching the ropes, Ishkr and another Gnoll coming for their shift…the Drake looked back at the grass. Bevussa nudged him.

“Wanna decide who goes back to get the others?”

“Sure.”

 

—-

 

At first, the City Watch of Celum was bored. It was, after all, an uneventful day in Celum. There were no monster attacks, no important dignitaries or caravans or even criminal activity that needed dealing with. That was good because excitement was often dangerous in their line of work, but dull was dull. It was a relief to have a bit of excitement.

And to begin with, that was exactly what had happened. A bunch of Gold-rank adventurers transporting the magic door through the city? It was all too fun to speculate why and laugh at the unlucky Fabial’s misfortune. They’d even had a chance to spread the word to the Players of Celum and get a few autographs. And from their vantage point on the walls, the bored [Guardsmen] could see the entire troupe head out.

But then the Goblins had appeared. At first the men (there were very few women in Celum’s City Watch) hadn’t believed it. Then they’d seen their comrades racing towards them and had been ready to lock the gates. And then—well, they didn’t know what to think. They’d watched the distant game of baseball begin with much bemusement. Still, their nervousness had quickly become fascination with the game, which was fun to watch for men whose only job was to stand and watch things. But now—

“Hey, look. There are more people coming through that door.”

“I see ‘em. Stop nudging me. Looks like that bird’s back. And a bunch of others. Looks like Drakes…another damn Antinium. Gnolls?”

“Huh. Liscor must be filled with non-Humans. Crazy city if you ask me. I don’t see why anyone’d want to live there.”

“Right. Right. Say, there’s a lot of folk coming through. Another pack of Gnolls. More Drakes…Humans…wait a second.”

“Is that—is that Halrac the Grim?

“It can’t be!”

“Look at him!”

“I can’t see. You’ve got [Keen Eyes]. Is it—”

“That’s him! And those Drakes—they must be other adventurers! Wait, I recognize some of the others! That’s Gemhammer! And all those other Drakes and Gnolls—”

The [Guardsmen] looked at each other.

“They can’t all be adventurers, right?”

“I heard Liscor had a ton of Gold-ranks.”

“Yeah, but—they wouldn’t be here, right? They have things to do.”

“Like Halrac the Grim.”

“Yeah.”

They stared at the distant people flooding through the doorway. A group of Antinium walked through. They wore paint on their carapaces. Celum’s Watch stared.

“There’s so many. Why’re they here? For the game?”

“Can’t be. But—there’s Antinium and Goblins. Do you think—should we raise the alarm?”

“Why? There’s got to be at least eight adventuring teams down there. Do you think they’d be sitting about if there was any danger?”

“Right. So what do we do? Do you think we should tell someone?”

“Tell them what?”

The men glanced at each other. They stared at the crowd filling the field. Then they turned and hollered at their comrades on gate duty.

Hey, you lot! Come up and see this!

The [Guardsmen] on duty looked up. They walked up the stairs. And as is the nature of Humans, some of the people on the streets crowded up onto the walls to see. Soon they were watching the crowd in the distance. Then the people of Celum were coming out the gates while the [Guardsman] had to stay on duty. Not because they knew what was going on, but because they thought something interesting was happening and they wanted in. That was people for you.

 

—-

 

“Baseball.”

Erin stood in front of a crowd. She had a bat in her hands and she was nervous. Not because she didn’t know what to say—she’d done this explanation multiple times already. No, it was uh, the size of the crowd that intimidated her.

Gnolls from Celum. Ishkr had brought a bunch of his friends and Krshia and Erill had come with their own group. They were all keen for sun as well as a chance to be outdoors after hiding in the city for so long.

Drakes. Not only adventurers but interested civilians, Relc, Olesm, Selys, and Drassi. No Embria, Zevara, or Ilvriss—they were busy doing official things in the city. That was sort of a relief, actually, and there were plenty of Drakes besides.

Bevussa, Dawil, Falene. The adventurers who’d fought in the dungeon. Griffon Hunt, Gemhammer, the Pride of Kelia, the Silver Swords…

And Pawn and his Soldiers. And Klbkch. Apparently they hadn’t received orders to stop guarding Erin’s inn and Klbkch had come with Relc.

And the Humans from Celum. Erin looked at the crowd. She didn’t get nervous in front of crowds. But this? This was a lot of people. She cleared her throat and went on.

“Baseball. Right. Well, this is a game. Some call it the greatest game. I don’t. I like chess. But baseball is a sport. It’s a game that takes nine people. We’ve got a small demonstration ready, so I’ll run you all through it. You see, it starts with this. This is called a bat. You don’t hit people with it…”

Not everyone was here to play baseball. In fact, Erin bet that most of the people from Liscor were just here to experience the sun. She could understand. After so long in rainy Liscor, seeing the sun and being able to walk around in the grass was almost addictive. A good deal of her crowd elected not to play after hearing her explanation. But a surprising number did want to try.

“Hey, this looks like fun! I can hit things and not get in trouble for it! Sign me up!”

Relc was first to grab a bat and stomp onto home plate. Erin pointed randomly and assigned three Gnolls and five Drakes to the field.

“Just hit the ball, Relc.”

“I’m gonna do more than that. This Goblin guy? He’s not going to get a single ball past me.”

The Drake locked eyes with Badarrow who was still occupying the pitcher’s mound. The Hob sneered. Relc was so busy giving him the stink-eye that he didn’t even see the first splitter. It dropped underneath his bat. Relc roared in outrage.

“Hey! What was that! That was cheating! Foul ball or whatever!”

“Nope! Sorry, it was within the zone! Try again!”

Relc growled as he swung his bat back and forth. This time Badarrow threw a curve.

Strike two!

“Damn it!”

“Hit the ball, Relc!”

One of the Drakes heckled Relc from the grass where Erin had put out blankets and food. Relc lifted a finger and Erin saw Lyonette cover Mrsha’s eyes. Grev just grinned and raised the same finger. The Drake swung the bat wildly, and then hunkered down. He watched the ball fly at him, dip, and then hit it with a roar.

Take that!

It was Erin who ducked when the bat hit the ball. She’d forgotten how scary it was to watch baseball up close! Badarrow turned and cursed as the ball went flying deep behind him. Erin stood up sheepishly as Relc crowed.

“Hah! See that?”

“Homerun! That’s definitely a—”

Erin shouted to the Gnolls and Drakes running after the ball. There was no way they’d get it. The ball flew as far as when Headscratcher had hit it. It was high, but far. She saw Ishkr running ahead. The Gnoll was moving fast! But he still wouldn’t make it. The ball had to be going at least four hundred feet—

Move Ishkr! Run!

Krshia stood up and shouted at Ishkr. Erin’s jaw dropped. The Gnoll had abandoned his two legs! He bounded along on all fours as the ball fell to earth. The Gnoll dove. Erin saw him roll. She looked for the ball, and then saw Ishkr on his feet, holding it aloft.

He caught it! He actually caught it!

Erin jumped up and down excitedly. She’d never seen anything like it! Ishkr ran wildly back to home base as Relc stepped on the pillow, crowing.

“Hah! Best hit ever! Take that you stupid Goblins!”

“Relc, you’re out!”

What? No I’m not! Did you see how far it went?”

“But Ishkr got the ball!”

“He did? I always hated that guy! Damn, damn, damn—

Relc stomped off. Erin saw Ishkr return, panting. She looked around. Now everyone was interested. Baseball was a slow sport, but seeing Relc hit a homer on his first try and then Ishkr run hundreds of feet to catch it—that was impressive.

“Hey, can we play a second game over here?”

One of the adventurers called out to Erin. She looked around. They were trying to set up a second game on the side. They did have enough space for it. Plenty of space in fact. And they had balls, enough bats…maybe not enough gloves, but there were always normal gloves. And hands.

“Sure! Why don’t we—okay! Let’s make some teams! We’re going to need another umpire!”

“I volunt—”

Olesm ‘tripped’ as Drassi rushed forwards. The Drake waved her hands about as she ran up to Erin.

“Oh, me, me! Please let me do it, Erin!”

“Do you know how the game works?”

“Totally! And I love to talk!”

“In that case, why don’t you be a commentator? And Olesm can be an umpire. Now, we need teams—”

Olesm got up and gave Drassi a dirty look. He pointed and Erin turned her head. A team of Gnolls was facing down the Goblins in one section. The Silver Swords had teamed up with Gemhammer against Griffon Hunt and The Wings of Pallass on another pitch. And on a third, the Antinium were lined up silently as the Players of Celum reconsidered their life choices. Erin hesitated. Then she grinned.

 

—-

 

“It’s a wonderful day to be alive, isn’t it Olesm?”

“It would be if someone didn’t keep tripping me, Drassi.”

“I said sorry! But just look at this weather! You can’t get this in Liscor! And the grass! Isn’t it great?”

“I thought we were supposed to be talking about the game, Drassi.”

“This is commentary, commentary, Olesm! Alright, for our first game we have the Gnolls versus the Goblins. And—wow, those Hobs are hitting the ball hard!”

“But the Gnolls are catching the ball. Almost every time.”

“That’s true! Would you look at Krshia go! I didn’t know she was that fast, especially for an old—I mean, a Gnoll in her prime! Uh oh. I think she heard me.”

“Gnoll ears are quite sharp. But if I might add a point Drassi—”

“Go ahead, Olesm.”

“—Thank you. The Goblins are quite good. But I would call their team fairly unbalanced compared to the Gnoll team. The Hobs are extraordinarily strong, as befits their Silver-rank designation as threats at the very least—”

“Do you have a point here, Olesm? Just say the Hobs are good at hitting things.”

“—but the Cave Goblins are physically much weaker, leading to a weaker offense. And the Gnolls are experts at fielding the ball as I believe the term goes, due to their long practice of similar mechanics.”

“…So you’re saying the Gnolls play catch a lot so they can catch the ball and the Cave Goblins don’t hit hard.”

“Well, that’s a basic summary—”

“What I’m impressed with is the Goblin’s teamwork. I mean, the Gnolls play together really well. You can tell they’re giving each other signals by the way their ears twitch. But the Goblins? They don’t even talk to each other! They just signal somehow and bam! Cave Goblin steals a base! It’s like magic!”

“It’s not, in fact. The Goblin system of communication has long been both verbal and nonverbal. I spoke with Pisces at length about why they might have evolved this unique form of—”

“Fly ball to right field. Ishkr is going for first base. It looks like Shorthilt’s fumbled the catch, but he’ll stop Ishkr from going to second. Will he no, he’s staying put. Krshia Silverfang at bat.”

“—as I was saying, Pisces was referring to—”

“Maybe save it for later? I want to talk about Krshia. Now, look at her swing. She’s got good form—not as good as that handsome [Actor]. What’s his name? Wesle. But I think Krshia’s got more muscle than him and she can probably hit the ball. Gnolls love to play catch. Looks like Badarrow’s getting ready for a pitch. Too bad curveballs and sliders don’t work on Gnolls. Hey, don’t step on my foot Olesm! I’m trying to commentate here!”

“But I had a point!”

“It was longwinded! Go on, shoo! Go commentate somewhere else! Can I get another announcer with me? Selys, get up here? No? Okay then, I’ll do it myself! Get lost, Olesm!”

Erin heard the sound of fighting from behind her as Olesm and Drassi fought for the magically-enhanced speaking crystal. The Goblins and Gnolls were natural baseball players it turned out. One team because they could run faster than any Human and loved to catch, and the other because they were naturals at teamwork. On the other hand, in the pitch she was umpiring…

“Homerun! Again!”

Ylawes’ bat connected with the ball that Halrac had thrown. The [Scout] wore a displeased expression as the [Knight] rounded the bases. Both his team and Gemhammer had hit every ball that Halrac had thrown and the outfield wasn’t good enough to keep up. After he had rounded the bases, Erin called the teams in.

It was Gemhammer and the Silver Swords at bat, and Griffon Hunt and the Wings of Pallass on defense. Halrac had been the pitcher. Erin looked around at the unhappy faces on one side and the smiling ones on the other.

“Okay, I think we have a problem here.”

“Yeah, the problem’s that Halrac can’t pitch!”

“Shut it, Revi.”

The Stitch-Girl glared at Halrac. He looked sourly at Erin.

“Well?”

“Um…she’s sort of right. Halrac, what’s wrong? You’re pitching fast, but the balls keep getting hit. Can’t you make them curve or something like Badarrow?”

The [Veteran Scout] looked unhappy at being compared to Badarrow.

“I don’t make my arrows curve. I hit the target.”

“Which is why they keep hitting the ball! All your balls go straight!”

“You want to pitch? Be my guest! I don’t want to play this game.”

Halrac snapped at Revi. She threw up her hands. Bevussa, who’d been watching all this with mild amusement, raised her talons.

“Hey Erin, we have a problem too.”

“What’s that, Bevussa?”

“We have to run for the ball. But why can’t we fly? We’re the Wings of Pallass, not the feet.”

Erin tilted her head.

“Yeah, but wouldn’t that be unfair? I mean, if you can fly…”

“We still need to get the ball. That’s not always easy. And we hate running. Come on, are there rules against it where you come from?”

“Well…we don’t have many flying people where we come from. It’s uh, mainly Humans.”

The Oldblood Drakes in Bevussa’s team rolled their eyes.

“Figures. Humans.”

“Hey! It’s not in the rules because it doesn’t happen where I come from! Fine! Bevussa, your team can fly. Halrac, Revi—”

“I’ll pitch.”

The other adventurers looked around as Typhenous raised his hand. The old [Mage] grinned and stroked his white beard as Erin stared at him.

“You? But uh—”

“I’m quite hale. And I think I can resolve this. Why not let me try?”

“Suits me.”

Halrac tossed the glove at Typhenous. Erin eyed the old man apprehensively. He looked as if he’d break an arm throwing the ball too hard. The other team certainly thought so. Earlia chuckled as she took up the bat, swinging it hard enough to cut the air. After all, her team was a bunch of former [Miners] and she swung a warhammer in battle. She shouted at Typhenous who was inspecting the hide-wrapped ball.

“Get ready to duck, old man!”

He looked up and smiled at her. Erin prayed Typhenous wouldn’t get hit. She waved as Bevussa and her team took to the air.

“Okay, play ball!”

Typhenous lifted the baseball. He didn’t hold it like a pitcher and Erin saw that he had no idea how to grip it properly. She was just about to shout at him when the ball levitated up in his palm. Erin paused. She saw Earlia’s eyes widen. Typhenous made the ball spin in the air and levitate around his palm. Then he looked at Earlia  and grinned.

“Oh shit.”

The ball drifted up and Typhenous pointed a finger. He spoke.

[Wind Blast].

The air around him exploded. Erin felt the wind slam into her as the ball shot from Typhenous’ finger and struck Revi’s glove. The Stitch-Girl hurtled backwards with a shout. Earlia stared blankly at the space in front of her.

Foul! That’s cheating!

Erin waved her arms as Revi got up, cursing. Typhenous looked puzzled as Erin ran up to him. He leaned on his staff.

“Why would it be cheating, Miss Solstice? If a team can fly or use natural abilities and other players can use Skills, why can I not use a spell, at least to move the ball around?”

“Well—because—I mean, Skills aren’t—no one can hit that!”

“Hey! I can hit that! Give me a few swings and I’ll nail that thing!”

Earlia shouted as she swung the bat. Erin looked at her, and then at Revi. The Stitch-Girl was massaging her chest and cursing Typhenous loudly. Umpire Erin threw up her hands and gave up.

“Fine! But if your catcher can’t catch the ball, then the player can still run! That’s the new rule,  got it?”

“Very well.”

Typhenous nodded politely to Erin. She turned.

“I don’t think Revi can handle that ball. Maybe Halrac or Bevussa—”

“I’ve got this. Give me five minutes with some thread and cotton. Hey, [Alchemist]! Give me a hand here!”

Revi turned. Erin watched as she and Octavia went together to confer, and then disappeared into Erin’s inn. In that time Typhenous practiced shooting balls through the air. They didn’t curve or drop, but they moved so fast that Erin was sure he’d broken some kind of world record for pitching. She thought that the other adventurers would complain, but they seemed to enjoy the challenge.

When Revi came back, Erin took one look at her and didn’t see anything different. Until she saw Revi’s arms. The [Summoner]’s thin, brown arms had suddenly gone on a weight-training course with protein supplements in the course of five minutes. Revi’s arms were muscular. And bigger. The Stitch-Girl smirked as she took up the catcher’s mitt. She caught Earlia’s eye.

“What, you’ve never seen this trick? Stich-People are what we make ourselves. Hey Typhenous, throw me a ball!”

This time Revi caught the ball without being knocked over. Earlia swung and missed three times, as did her other teammate. Dawil got a hit—the impact sent the ball soaring high, right into Bevussa’s mitt. The Dwarf grumbled as he stopped running to first.

“Short legs, flying balls, running to each of the bases—this game wasn’t made for Dwarves! Hey half-Elf. I’ll catch, you throw. Got it?”

“Can you handle the ball, Dwarf?”

Falene brushed hair out of her face as she took the mound. Dawil grinned.

“Depends on whether you can make that ball fly faster. Come on, hit the glove! Unless you’ve not got more magic than Typhenous in you?”

The half-Elf smiled coolly at Dawil. She levitated the ball up, flicked her finger, and sent a burning fastball into Dawil’s mitt. A literally burning fastball. The heat from the impact and Dawil’s cursing as his glove and beard caught on fire made Erin flee.

Foul! That’s illegal, Falene!”

You damn pointy-eared pyromaniac! I’ll crap in your bag of holding!

The Dwarf hurled the ball back at Falene. She sniffed, levitated the ball up, and looked pointedly past Dawil.

“Is this game commencing or not?”

She struck out Bevussa without a problem. And then Typhenous, who had problems telekinetically wielding the bat. And then Halrac came up to bat. He watched the first two balls whiz past him and then calmly struck the third.

The impact made the [Scout] wince, but the ball flew high overhead. It was a pop fly, but neither Ylawes nor Gemhammer were prepared for it. Halrac ran to first as Falene looked up—

Then the ball swerved in midair and flew over to tap Halrac in the back. Again Erin had to yell.

“Foul! Again! You can’t grab the ball with magic, Falene! No arguing! That’s one step too far!”

The half-Elf sighed as Halrac took first. Next was Revi. She got a hit—mainly from luck, and the ball went soaring. The Stitch-Girl still groused as she ran, though.

“Argh! I forgot how heavy these arms are! This is why I don’t wear muscle that often!”

Erin smiled. The game finally looked like it was going well! And the audience was loving it. Normal baseball could be fun, but watching Falene make the ball stop in midair and float back to her, and then argue with Erin whether that was legal or not? That was fun.

And it wasn’t just one team, either! Gnolls and Goblins and the two adventuring teams aside, there were other standouts as well. The Antinium Soldiers were slower than most and they had to use the special bat Erin had commissioned because of their odd hands, but they were as coordinated as the Goblins. And when they ran, the Players of Celum got out of the way. And they seemed to hit a surprising number of balls quite perfectly. And some of their catches were perfect. Almost…miraculous.

“Yes, I am praying for good fortune.”

Pawn admitted freely to Erin as he sat with a bowl of popcorn by his side. Yellow Splatters was signing to Purple Smile at bat. Erin stared at Pawn. The Worker paused.

“Is that illegal?”

“Um. Well, no. I think a lot of fans pray when their team’s playing. I just never thought it would work. I uh, I think it’s okay since you’re playing. And the Antinium are sort of at a disadvantage so yeah. But don’t you think it’s a bit…I dunno, not worth praying for?”

Pawn tilted his head.

“Why would I not pray? Is there some fault for doing so? It is not like prayer is a limited resource. Is it?”

“No…you know what? I think I’m in the wrong here. Keep on praying! Good luck!”

The first rounds of games ended with some predictable outcomes. The Gnolls beat the Goblins, due to superior fielding and the Hobs being the only ones who could hit far, although it was close. Griffon Hunt and the Wings of Pallass beat the Silver Swords and Gemhammer in the end. Both teams had [Mages] for pitchers, but the Wings could catch the balls that were hit. And the Players lost to the Antinium to no one’s surprise.

“Alright! Change it up! We’ll have new teams out there! Flamewardens get to play! Oh, and the Horns want a shot at things! Looks like people from Celum want to play—hey, is this going to be a grudge match between Liscor and Celum? And the third pitch can be…how about a kid’s game? Mrsha, Grev, get some teams together!”

The second round of games heated up fast. Literally. Erin wasn’t umpiring the kid’s game—that was Olesm’s job since Drassi had taken over announcing.

“—Mrsha up at bat. She’s so cute. You know, she was the one who helped save the Gnolls in the dungeon? Fact. And, by the way, she likes being scratched behind the ears. Only, don’t do it unless she asks because that’s very private for a Gnoll. You know, that reminds me of an encounter I had with this Gnoll guy back when I was a [Receptionist] working at the Adventurer’s Guild. Until I got fired that was—oh, look, Mrsha hit the ball and she’s running! Go Mrsha! She’s going to second base—”

Erin was umpiring the game between the adventuring teams. The Flamewardens were on one side with some Drakes and the Horns and Vuliel Drae were competing together, to their mutual displeasure. Meanwhile, the citizens from Liscor and Celum were trying to outdo each other in a heated match overseen by Halrac, who was a natural umpire. His keen eyes and sunny disposition meant that no one argued with him and he could call every pitch perfectly.

However, it was the shenanigans of both adventuring teams that had Erin ducking for cover, sometimes literally. She started with Keldrass’ team.

“You can’t set the balls on fire!”

“Why not? It’s just a bit of flame.”

“Yeah, but it could hit someone!”

“That’s what healing potions are for. Besides, that’s a walk, remember? This is just for…optical advantage.”

“Fine!”

The flaming fastballs that Keldrass served up were one thing. But then Ceria got the bright idea of trying her own take on it. Her first frozen fastball shattered into a thousand pieces.

“No shrapnel! No ice balls!”

Ceria looked embarrassed.

“Sorry, Erin.”

She threw a regular ball and one of the Drakes hit it into the air. Ksmvr ran after it as Pisces used his [Flash Step] to blink after the ball. But he didn’t get to it first. Ksmvr leapt into the air, so high he looked like he was flying! He caught the ball and threw it down to Pisces who threw it to first base. Erin gaped until she remembered Ksmvr had the Ring of Jumping. Naturally the Flamewardens protested, but Erin overruled them.

“That’s legal! You get to set balls on fire, he can use his ring! And Pisces can [Flash Step]! No buts!”

It was when the Flamewardens had a pair of runners on first and second that Erin began coughing. She saw smoke drifting from two of the Oldblood Drakes and saw Ceria coughing. She waved her arms.

Stop blowing smoke!

“It’s part of our ancestry! Don’t be racist, Human!”

“Shut it!”

Besides that, the game really was fun. Neither team was a powerhouse, but they had their own tricks. It actually took Halrac stomping over to help Erin with one problem. He pointed at Pisces who was patiently waiting on second base.

“Foul. Illusion spell!”

The image of Pisces vanished and he appeared, sneaking over to third base. Erin actually ruled that as legal, and the Drakes began poking Pisces to make sure he was really there whenever he was on base.

Of course, it wasn’t all just fun. Yvlon accidentally retired one of the Drakes on the opposite team when she smacked a ball straight into the side of his head. He had to lie down and Bird of all people was roped into playing. He did well in that he stood patiently in his position in the outfield, until a fly ball flew towards him. Then he raised his bow and shot it. Bird caught both ball and arrow. Erin waved her arms.

No using weapons!

But she was enjoying herself. The second round of games ended with a victory for the Horns mainly due to Pisces’ ability to run faster than anyone else, a victory for Celum mainly thanks to the Gnolls, and Mrsha’s team’s victory. That was because of Grev, whose ability to get his team to steal bases won most of the points.

“You know, there’s a rule that if you hit the ball beyond a fence it’s a home run no matter what. And I think you can’t keep stealing bases forever, but I could be wrong on that.”

Erin addressed her teams of players. They stared at her blankly. Relc grinned.

“So? It’s more fun this way. Hey, let’s play another game! Liscor’s Watch vs Celum’s Watch!”

That was received well by the Gnolls and Drakes and poorly by Celum’s Watch. Klbkch, who’d opted not to play, cocked his head and spoke calmly.

“I believe that game would be indefinitely long, Relc?”

“What? Don’t you have faith in us, Klb old buddy?”

“I do. I lack confidence in the opposing team’s ability to ever strike us out.”

“Hah!”

“No, no more sides! We’re all tired and I’m running out of sausage-dogs!”

Erin raised her voice to prevent a fight from breaking out. She took a deep breath.

“I think what we need…is a championship.”

That got everyone’s attention. Erin pointed at her first pitch, which was filled with trampled and dirty pillows.

“Here’s what I’m thinking. First, we expand the pitch. We make all the bases twice as far apart. Maybe even a bit more? Because the ball goes flying and you lot can run fast. Then, we make two teams. Not of one side or one adventuring team. Of the best. We take the best eighteen players and make two teams. Dream teams. And whichever side wins…gets a prize.”

“What’s the prize?”

Erin had no idea. She cast about, and then had it.

“Cake! And ice cream! I’ll make some right after we get back!”

Half of the players hadn’t ever had cake or ice cream or even knew what it was. But the other half did and that settled it. The next part was arguing over who would be in each team. Everyone wanted to join in. Jelaqua was quickly selected, as was Moore, although the poor half-Giant hadn’t hit a ball in a game yet. Jelaqua betrayed her earlier mockery of Moore by insisting he be on her team.

“You can be catcher, Moore! We need someone to catch Falene’s balls. She’s on my team, by the way.”

Yellow Splatters found a place on the opposite team, as did Relc. Pisces was nominated, as was Ksmvr for his jumping ability, and Bevussa was the only one of her team who got a spot. Halrac joined much to everyone’s surprise, as did Dawil despite his grumbling. Ylawes wasn’t picked, much to his unhappiness. Seborn and Ishkr found themselves on opposite sides and with a few more picks that Erin didn’t know by name, the teams were formed. However, there was one spot left and Erin filled it herself.

“Headscratcher gets a place!”

Some of the people from Celum loudly objected, but Erin overruled them.

“He can hit the ball as far as anyone else! He’s on the team! I say so!”

The Hob gave Erin a stunned look. She only smiled and waved at the Goblins who were sitting far from everyone else. The audience from Celum grumbled, but they fell silent as the teams took their places. It wasn’t Liscor vs Celum and it wasn’t adventurers vs Goblins. It was two teams, filled with all kinds of people working towards a common goal: cake. With extra frosting.

That wasn’t to say there weren’t sides. Erin could hear betting in the background and Olesm was conferring with Jelaqua on strategy, perhaps in exchange for some of the rewards if her team won. Erin also had to interrupt Octavia, who’d been making a killing selling ‘enhancements’ to each team.

“No potions! I want a clean game! Don’t make me shut you down! Is everyone ready?”

Both teams looked up. They nodded at Erin and she turned. The playing field was occupied by some of the audience who wanted to throw around a ball. Erin raised her voice.

“Alright, the final game is going to begin! Clear the field or you’ll get hit! All Mrshas must leave the field at once!”

Mrsha, who had been playing in the grass, looked up. She gazed around, realized she was the only Mrsha and gloomily left the field. She perked up when Lyonette offered her a cool drink. Erin was making a small fortune on food for her audience, although her regulars hadn’t paid. Yet.

“Okay! I will be your umpire! Drassi will commentate! Now, please welcome our two teams! At bat…uh…Team A!”

The audience cheered as nine players took the field. They were Halrac, Relc, Yellow Splatters, Bevussa, Falene, Dawil, Ishkr, a Gnoll and Wesle. The other team, Team B, took to the outfield.

Jelaqua, Seborn, Pisces, Ksmvr, Headscratcher, Moore, Keldrass, and two Drakes threw balls to each other and shouted good-natured insults at Team A. They grew still and the audience sat forwards as Erin looked around. The wind blew and the sky turned orange as Erin raised her hand.

Play ball!

 

—-

 

It wasn’t a game you’d see on Earth. And perhaps that didn’t make it baseball. There were a lot of rule violations, arguing over the legality of hexing your opponents or creating snares out of bone—or just plain cheating. But Erin thought that was what made the game so great. It wasn’t baseball. It was magic baseball. And that meant there were only a few dull moments.

Each time Falene shot a fastball into Dawil’s waiting glove, the audience groaned. She made just hitting the ball a challenge! And she could make the ball wiggle around in the air like a snake, even vanish! The only person who could hit her reliably was Pisces. All he had to do was tap the ball and take off and he was practically impossible to catch. His [Flash Steps] were as useful on the offense as defense and only Relc could keep up with him.

But that was the thing. When the Gecko of Liscor hit the ball it flew far. And he could sprint around the bases so quick that the only way to get him out was to catch a fly ball. However, he was only one powerhouse on his team. Team B had Jelaqua and Headscratcher. Even Dawil and Yellow Splatters could not hit the ball nearly as far as those two.

Erin hadn’t predicted it, but the games quickly became a battle between excellent defense and offense. Team A had Bevussa’s wings, Ishkr’s catching ability and Halrac’s eyes. Not to mention Falene’s magic pitches. On the other side, Team B had Jelaqua, Pisces, Headscratcher, and Seborn.

At first he was the underrated player of Team B. But after the second time he stole a base, every eye was on him whenever he got onto a plate. It wasn’t easy. Even when you watched him, Seborn could slip away into the shadows. And catching him?

“It’s a hit from Jelaqua! Seborn is running, but—oh no, Dawil’s got the ball and is at home plate! Seborn’s running back, but now Ishkr’s covering third base!”

Drassi’s tone was excited as Seborn found himself cornered between the Dwarf and Gnoll. He ran back as Dawil threw the ball to Ishkr, turned back, found himself menaced by Dawil who had the ball, and wavered. The two closed in as Seborn stood on the baselines. The Drowned Man dodged back as Dawil ran at him with the ball, took two steps back, and then flipped over Dawil’s head. He sprinted down to home base as the crowd roared. Erin was on her feet.

Safe! Safe! He never left the lines! That was amazing!

The baseball game went back and forth. 0-3. 1-3. 7-8. 10-16.  The final inning was 18-18 and everyone on their feet. Halrac’s team was first at bat. The [Scout] glared at Jelaqua as she tried to walk him. He eyed the ball as Jelaqua threw it to Moore a good six feet to his right. On the third pitch, Halrac threw the bat. It smacked the ball out of the air.

Every eye turned to Erin. She gaped for a second and then waved her arms.

“It’s good! Go, go!

Halrac ran. He slid to first, and a sacrifice fly from Relc put his team on second base. Their next hitter, Ishkr, struck out. But the game entered the last round with their team in the lead. And fortune didn’t favor Team B at first.

Halrac caught Pisces sneaking bases. And Keldrass just couldn’t run fast enough to get to first base. Jelaqua swore as she hit her way onto second base. She waited there as the next batter took his position. Moore looked close to tears as Falene smiled and levitated the baseball up. He had yet to hit the ball and his team had two outs. He looked sadly at Jelaqua and she shook her head.

“Just hit the ball, Moore! Get on to first base and Headscratcher will do the rest!”

Jelaqua shouted at Moore. The half-Giant swung his bat as Falene smiled and waved. The crowd was cheering.

Moore! Moore! Moore!

Skystrall! Falene! Skystrall!

“Throw the ball, half-Elf!”

Dawil roared at Falene from behind the safety mask he was wearing, which was, in fact, a helmet. Falene nodded.

The first ball hit Dawil’s mitt so fast that Erin barely saw it. Any suggestion of Falene’s taking it easy on Moore vanished as Dawil threw the ball back. The second ball curved under Moore’s bat. The audience groaned. Moore shook his head. He looked around, visibly bracing himself for boos. Then he caught sight of the little white Gnoll sitting in Lyonette’s arms. She waved at him.

Maybe it was the power of Mrsha’s silent cheering that did it. Maybe it was Pawn whispering a prayer. Or maybe it was just Moore. But as the third ball came screaming down the plate, he swung—and connected.

“It hit!”

Erin leapt to her feet. Falene’s eyes went wide. She turned as Dawil threw down his mitt. Moore stared and then began running. He moved slowly, but it didn’t matter. The ball flew through the air as if gravity had forgotten about it. Erin’s jaw dropped as it flew through the air. A hundred feet, two hundred, four hundred…six hundred? She couldn’t guess. But the ball was just a speck in the air. No one could catch it.

No one but Bevussa. The Garuda was in the air as the ball flew. She had the mitt in hand, but she abandoned it as the ball flew. She shot after the ball like blue lightning. The ball was falling. Bevussa dove towards the ground, talons outstretched.

She’s gonna crash!

Drassi screamed. The ball fell—and Bevussa snatched it out of the air. She raised the ball as everyone in the field shot to their feet. Erin cheered, and then saw Moore staring with a melancholy smile at Bevussa. He waved a hand and turned as the Garuda flew back. And then he saw Jelaqua charging at him.

“That was amazing!”

The Selphid tackled Moore in a hug. The audience flooded the field. The game was over, three outs, 19-18. And it had been Moore that hit the losing shot. But what a hit! The half-Giant found himself at the center of a crowd that was wise enough not to try and lift him on their backs. He smiled helplessly as they surged around him, laughing, talking, cheering Bevussa, the players, and the game.

“What a game.”

Erin stood in the field afterwards. The ground was muddy and broken feathers from one of her pillows were spread about. Wherever she looked she saw muddy, dirty people. But smiles. Erin looked around and grinned. She saw Mrsha riding on Moore’s shoulders, Bevussa drinking from a cup that never ran dry, and Headscratcher standing among the Goblins as they surrounded him, cheering their hero. Erin smiled and turned to Ceria. The half-Elf smiled at her.

“A nice day?”

“A nice day. And a good game.”

The two smiled at each other. Erin held out a hand and Ceria placed something in it. A baseball. Worn, dirty, the hide cover torn off in one spot. Erin stared at it.

“Baseball’s sort of fun, isn’t it?”

“Just a bit.”

Erin nodded. She tossed the ball up and down and then shrugged.

“I still like chess better. Hey, you wanna eat dinner?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.45

Night deepened and turned to day. The dungeon that had rung with the sounds of battle grew silent. The adventurers, Antinium, and people of Liscor returned to their city through the magic doors, breaking the exits behind them. They returned with the captive Gnolls, with a Minotaur in shackles, and a half-Elf. In triumph. In victory.

And so the Raskghar fled. Broken, they retreated towards their other camps, unable to do anything but run. They had been beaten, destroyed. And so badly that they could not even dream of vengeance. They ran, seeking out their brethren, a shred of hope. But what they found in the darkness was more despair.

The camps were filled with flickering torchlight and screams. Howls of Raskghar as they fought and died. And screams. Cave Goblins swarmed their masters, armed with crude weapons. But they outnumbered the Raskghar. And they had lost their fear of their masters. And they had leaders.

Five Hobgoblins fought, leading the Cave Goblins. They charged the Raskghar. A monster who raged stronger than even the largest Raskghar. A keen-eyed archer whose arrows struck the Raskghar from hundreds of feet away. A Hobgoblin whose sword seemed to shine as he cut down his enemies. The Goblin who sang. And a Hobgoblin who wore a crimson cloak, a hero.

And the Raskghar fled once more. They howled then, in grief and desperation. But no one answered. So they ran and ran, broken, not understanding how all this had come to pass.

All of that passed below as the weary folk returned to Liscor. They knew nothing of what followed. Why should they? The Raskghar were beaten. The uprising of the Goblins was a thing of monsters. Unimportant for now. For now they would rest. The [Innkeeper] slept in her kitchen. A [Princess] hugged a Gnoll tightly and the Gnoll cub hugged her back as fiercely as she could as they fell asleep in a warm bed. An Ashfire Bee crawled onto their heads and lay there, content that all was well in the world.

A weary Watch Captain fell asleep on top of a report on her desk, the ink splotching her face. A Wall Lord drank a cup of milk rather than alcohol and toasted the fallen with his people. A half-Giant laid down in the three beds pushed together and got a night of rest for the first time in days. The [Strategist] of Liscor sat and feverishly wrote, trying to recall all that he had witnessed. A Minotaur looked up in his prison cell, his flesh burnt, his body bleeding. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.

Countless members of Liscor’s Watch stumbled back into their homes, some grieving, all exhausted, but relieved. The adventurers slept, dreaming of treasure and levels. The city rested. Below, the Antinium returned to their Hive and got on with business as usual.

But in the twilight before dawn, one person moved through Liscor’s rainy streets. She snuck from house to house, never staying in one place long. But she moved with the utmost certainty. For her, the pre-dawn morning was the perfect time. The only time, before Liscor roused and heard the news. She crept up to one house in the street, silent as a whisper. A family of Gnolls slept there. They awoke suddenly as they heard a sound at the door.

“What is—”

A female Gnoll mother jerked upright, awakened by an unfamiliar scent at her door. She had slept lightly, for fear of the Raskghar despite the Watch’s assurances. She looked for her partner—but he was on night duty on the walls! She checked for her children. They were still asleep in her room, in the small home the family shared. She hesitated, then heard the knocking on the door. It was polite. Loud. Insistent.

Dread seized the mother. She rose, ignoring her state of undress and crept into the kitchen. She emerged with a wickedly sharp knife. She crept towards the door. Whoever it was stood right outside. There was another knock. The Gnoll held her breath. Then she threw open the door—

“Hello Miss Rykhai! Sorry about the early hour! Mind if I come in?”

Drassi beamed at Rykhai. The Gnoll froze, knife in hand. The Drake went cross-eyed as she stared at it.

“Uh—is this a bad time?”

“Drassi?”

Rykhai stared at Drassi in disbelief. She lowered the knife, her paws shaking.

“I nearly gutted you! I thought you were a Raskghar! Fool, don’t you know that the curfew is in effect? Come in, don’t stand in the streets!”

She ushered Drassi in and then slammed the door and locked it. Drassi looked around. It was very early, but the Drake was decidedly unapologetic. She rubbed her claws together, beaming, as Rykhai turned to glare at her.

“I know. I’m so sorry, Miss Rykhai. I know your children must be asleep. And your husband, Tessil, he’s probably on duty, right? It must be so hard to have someone working the night shift, what with the dungeon and all. Well, I have good news for you!”

“News that excuses me being woken up and frightened out of my fur, yes?”

The Gnoll folded her arms severely. She liked Drassi, and she was one of Drassi’s chat-friends as the Drake liked to call her circle of acquaintances. But this was crossing a line. Drassi grinned.

“Yes, actually! I have good news! Your husband won’t have to work overtime on the night shifts anymore. Because—are you ready for this? You might need a seat! The Raskghar were defeated! The Watch and the adventurers and the Antinium attacked them in their lair and rescued the Gnolls! All of them!”

For a second Rykhai thought she was still dreaming. She backed up from Drassi and sat on the family’s worn couch.

What?

The Drake beamed. Rykhai’s three Gnoll children woke up muzzily. Like their mother, their first instinct was unease. But as soon as they smelled Drassi they were bouncing around the living room. And when they heard Drassi’s news they immediately howled in relief.

The noise woke up their neighbors. There was a pounding on one of the walls and from above as Gnolls woke up unhappily, but Rykhai rushed to her windows and poked her head outside.

Get down here! The Raskghar are dead!”

She heard several yelps and banging sounds from the other houses nearby as more people began waking up. The Gnoll turned back to Drassi.

“They are dead? Yes?”

“Most of them. The rest ran. It was a huge battle! Thousands of Raskghar dead! I heard it all first-hand! I wasn’t there in person, but I was around to help when they came back through. I saw them bringing magical artifacts back, and the prisoners! Say, do you have any tea?”

Rykhai blinked. But then she nodded.

“I can put a pot on.”

Drassi smiled gratefully, her tail wagging.

“Thank you so much. I’ve been to three places before this. I don’t want to be a bother, but my throat is dry. Let me give you a few details before everyone gets here.”

She followed Rykhai into the kitchen as the young Gnoll cubs swarmed around her, asking questions which Drassi was only too happy to answer. The Drake hadn’t slept for over thirty hours, but that didn’t matter. Her smile only kept widening as more Gnolls swarmed around Rykhai’s locked door and then flooded into her home, demanding answers. Were the Raskghar all dead? How had it happened? Were the prisoners well?

To a [Gossip], there was nothing juicier, nothing more delicious than knowing something this big before everyone else. Drassi grinned as more Gnolls living on the street threw their shutters open. Soon Rykhai’s living room was packed and Drassi had a huge audience. Everyone waited for Drassi to give them the details. After all, they’d never known Drassi to lie and she was one of the few people who knew what had happened.

Yes, the Council would probably make an announcement with [Criers] and [Street Runners] later today. But their report would be lacking in details, whereas Drassi had all the juicy ones. She basked as she began to retell the entire series of events she’d gotten out of the adventurers and Erin to her audience.

And when she was done here, she’d visit the next street, and the next…there were a lot of hours before morning, and even then, she’d still be able to talk about what had happened to everyone she knew. Which was everyone.

In this moment Drassi was a [Queen] surrounded by her adoring subjects. She beamed at the Gnolls who stared at her, dying to know what she knew. Drassi felt excellent. After all, she was performing a public service.

And she was doing Erin a favor. After all, a [Gossip] could sway the mood of the public if she was good, and Drassi was an expert. She owed Erin that much. So the Drake [Barmaid] winked and accepted a cup of hot tea sweetened with Ashfire Bee honey and settled back in her chair. She cleared her throat theatrically, and then began.

“I’ll tell you everything as it happened. I heard it all from people who were there. It was adventurers who saved Liscor. But not just them. It was the Watch, the Antinium, Wall Lord Ilvriss, and even the army. But they couldn’t have done it without help from the Goblins. Yes. I’m serious! It was Goblins who helped save the day. And Erin’s magic door. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. It started like this. And remember, this is all true. I heard it from Ceria and Erill and the others. They saw everything. When they first woke up in the Raskghar camp…”

 

—-

 

Mrsha had a bad dream. She dreamed that she was lying on the altar. Sticky blood was on her back and someone was holding her down. And Nokha was there. She was alive. She had a rock in her hands. It was stained with blood. And she was coming closer.

The white Gnoll tried to move. But she couldn’t. Nokha grinned at her. She drew closer. And then she reached into her chest. Her flesh moved and she pulled out a head. Vakk’s. He stared blankly at Mrsha. Nokha bent over the bloodstained altar. Her breath was rancid. She stared into Mrsha’s eyes and whispered.

We are whole, Mrsha.

And then Mrsha woke. She thrashed about wildly and felt something strange. A softness under her. Warmth all around her. And—

Light. And Mrsha looked around and realized she wasn’t in the dungeon. She was above, in her room in Erin’s inn. And Lyonette was hugging her. Mrsha’s heart still beat rapidly, though. She looked around, remembering Nokha’s words.

She shuddered, and then flinched as something moved in the inn. She crouched until she realized the thing was Apista. The Ashfire Bee flew up from the windowsill where it had been basking and buzzed gently around Mrsha’s head. The Gnoll cub looked at it and then realized Lyonette was holding her. She wiggled free and hopped to the ground.

The movement woke Lyonette of course. The young woman turned over, stirred, and then sat up. She blinked at her empty arms and then nearly shot out of bed.

Mrsha? Where—

She spotted Mrsha staring up at her. The Gnoll backed up a step at the look on Lyonette’s face. The [Princess] had an anguished look that turned to relief. She bent and swept Mrsha up into a tight embrace. Mrsha squeaked.

Lyonette didn’t care. She hugged Mrsha so tightly that the nightmare vanished. The Gnoll felt warm. And she hugged back, fiercely.

For a while they just stood like that. After a while, Apista landed on Lyonette’s head. The [Princess] started, and then laughed. She sat down on her bed with Mrsha in her arms.

“I’m so glad you’re here. I dreamed—”

She broke off, as adults did when they didn’t want to tell the truth. Mrsha silently squeezed Lyonette. She was here. She was above. She inhaled Lyonette’s scent and looked out the window. It was light!

A faint light. A grey light. Rain pattered on the window, a gloomy sky bringing down more water. But it was still light. The dungeon had been small. But the sky—

“I’m never going to let you out of my sight again. I promise.”

Lyonette shifted her grip on Mrsha. The Gnoll shifted, a tad uncomfortable until Lyonette supported her with one arm. She didn’t know if she liked that promise, but in that moment she didn’t care. She looked around and saw Apista hovering, her antennae waving. There was something different about her. Mrsha squinted, and then patted Lyonette’s arm and pointed. The [Princess] looked up and her eyes widened.

“That’s right! I leveled up! And I got a Skill—or rather—Apista?”

She held out her other hand and the Ashfire Bee landed on her hand. It looked much like normal—that was, until it turned and Mrsha saw its stinger. Normally, the Ashfire Bee’s stinger was a little barb sticking out of its backside, barely noticeable. But now Apista’s stinger was bigger. It looked brighter too, a more crimson tint to it. And it felt…hot. Heat was radiating from the tip of the stinger. Mrsha’s eyes went round as Apista fanned her wings, oblivious to the two pairs of eyes on her.

“[Crimson Stinger]. I got the Skill—I didn’t know pets changed with [Beast Tamers]! I heard that some [Falconers] could have huge hawks, but—”

Lyonette raised Apista up so the bee could walk up her arm and onto her shoulder. Mrsha stared too. Both she and Lyonette stared at Apista’s enhanced stinger. Lyonette reached out to touch it and thought better.

“We all leveled up, probably. That’s one good thing that came of all this. I…I was so worried. I would have gone after you if I could, but all I could do was wait. It was Erin who rescued you, really.”

Mrsha nodded. Lyonette had said all this yesterday. She remembered Lyonette facing Nokha. She looked up and licked Lyonette’s face. The young woman squeezed Mrsha again, and then heard a sound. It was a rumbling from Mrsha’s stomach.

“Oh. You must be hungry!”

She was. But Mrsha hesitated until she remembered that she was in Erin’s inn. Then she nodded rapidly. Lyonette smiled.

“Come on.”

She let Mrsha jump to the ground. Mrsha ran to the door, and then paused. She raced past Lyonette who was looking for her clothes.

Mrsha had leveled up too. And gained a Skill of her own. But that was a special secret. Mrsha reached under her pillow and pulled something out. Pisces’ wand. Her wand. She held it very tightly as Lyonette got dressed. She wouldn’t go anywhere without it. Ever.

“What’s that? Oh—well, I’m sure Pisces won’t mind. Come on.”

Lyonette picked up Mrsha. Rather than let her race downstairs, the [Princess] carried her down in her arms. Apista flew with her. At first, Mrsha felt like a stranger in a strange place. But then she smelled something wonderful coming from below. And when she and Lyonette reached the bottom of the stairs, she saw a familiar face.

Erin Solstice was sitting at a table. She looked up with a smile.

“Mrsha!”

She stood up. Behind her, she’d set a table with a huge number of hot dishes. She must have heard the two getting up, because there were steaming eggs, hot bacon, pancakes, warm buns, butter, milk with honey, sausages—and that was only the food from Erin’s home. There were spicy Yelets, a fish congee, fruit juice, a salad with dressing sprinkled over it, a melon sliced into pieces…

Mrsha’s eyes went round at the sight of it all. Lyonette put her on the table. She and Erin looked at each other for a moment. And then Erin smiled at Mrsha.

“It’s so great to have you back. We were all worried—I made you a special breakfast.”

Mrsha climbed hesitantly into her seat. After being in the cell for so long she could barely believe what lay before her eyes. Her nose hurt a bit from all the smells. She had eaten food yesterday—but she’d been so hungry and so much had happened she couldn’t remember what it was. This was her first real meal. And it was overwhelming.

“Go on.”

Mrsha looked up at Lyonette. The [Princess] smiled and nodded.

“You have the first bite, Mrsha. The [Healer] said you can’t eat too much or your stomach will do bad things. But you can have a bit of anything you want, okay Mrsha? And you can have little snacks throughout the day. Take whatever you want.”

Slowly, almost thinking it was a dream, Mrsha reached out. There was a plate of poached eggs, wobbly, the edges crisped, and the yolks still gooey on the inside. Mrsha reached for one, picked it up, and then remembered she should have used a fork. She looked up guiltily, but neither young woman chastised her.

The food was hot. And it smelled so good. Mrsha just held the poached egg a second. She could see and smell the pepper and salt that had been sprinkled over it, smell the grease from fried bacon that had helped cook the egg. She could even smell the fact that it was a goose egg, not a chicken’s egg. Her stomach rumbled. But Mrsha was afraid. She held the egg until Lyonette and Erin were giving each other worried looks. Then, slowly, Mrsha bit.

The egg was…an egg. But glorious. The taste hit Mrsha’s tongue. It was nostalgic and new. It tasted nothing like the dead monster parts in the dungeon. And then it hit Mrsha. She was here. She was safe. She took another bite into the poached egg and began crying.

“Oh Mrsha—”

Erin bent down and hugged the Gnoll. Mrsha kept crying, but she started chewing. And now she was ravenous. She filled her plate, snatching food. Lyonette had to divide everything she grabbed into portions that wouldn’t tax Mrsha’s stomach. But she promised, promised the anxious Gnoll.

“Everything will be right here for later. Just eat this much, okay, honey?”

Mrsha did. Lyonette and Erin sat at the table and ate. They didn’t speak. They just looked at each other.

It was the first meal Erin had had with Lyonette in days. The first meal that Lyonette had really had, too. The [Princess] realized she was starving and after a moment, so did Erin. They ate ravenously, until the spread of food was quite reduced. And then they looked at Mrsha. She sat at the table, running her paws over the grain of the wood, looking around. She looked…different.

The dungeon had changed her. Erin closed her eyes. Of course it had. She had seen the cages and the Raskghar’s camp before the adventurers had burned it and retreated back through her inn. She had seen Mrsha’s cage. Normally the Gnoll would be running about. But today she just sat at the table, looking around as if she’d never seen Erin’s inn before.

Heartbreaking. And yet she was here. Erin felt a bit teary-eyed herself, but she didn’t give into it. Not just yet. She looked at Lyonette and saw the younger girl wiping her eyes.

“I guess I cook really well, huh?”

Lyonette laughed. Mrsha looked up, and then her lips moved upwards awkwardly. She kicked her legs at the table. But she didn’t move.

“Do you want to play, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll looked at Lyonette. Then she seemed to remember that yes, she did do that. She stood up hesitantly, and looked around. She glanced about Erin’s common room and sniffed the air. Then she held her paws up. She made a shape. A ball.

“Oh. Your ball. It’s…”

Erin stood up. So did Lyonette. They looked about, but Mrsha’s ball had vanished. With all that had gone on, Erin hadn’t thought to keep track of the ball. And wherever it was, it was gone. Mrsha’s ears drooped as she saw the consternation on the two’s faces.

“We’ll find it. I’m sure it just rolled somewhere. Why don’t we—why don’t we all clean up? I can hear someone moving about upstairs. The adventurers will be coming down.”

It was a lame suggestion, but it worked. The Gnoll and [Barmaid] automatically began cleaning up. Mrsha kept pausing, but Lyonette moved automatically. And sure enough, the Horns came down minutes later, as one group. Erin turned and blinked.

Ceria stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking just as dumbfounded as Mrsha. She gazed around and then she saw Mrsha. The Gnoll child had frozen. She and Ceria’s gazes met. The half-Elf straightened.

“Um. Hello.”

“Hi.”

Erin stared at her friend. Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr stopped on the stairs behind Ceria. For a moment Erin felt that strangeness, and saw it reflected on Ceria’s face. Then she heard a cough.

“Could you, ah, move, Springwalker? Before we all perish of starvation?”

Ceria blinked. She looked back and automatically scowled. Then caught herself. Yvlon glanced at Pisces. But not in annoyance. The [Necromancer] sniffed, but his eyes—the tension in the room vanished.

“Shut up, Pisces. I’m going.”

The half-Elf walked down the stairs. Ksmvr nodded.

“I believe I am able to function for at least four more days before expiring. In case anyone was concerned about my food consumption.”

“No, Ksmvr. Eat up.”

Yvlon smiled. She nodded to Erin and looked at Mrsha. She bent and held out a hand. The Gnoll looked at Yvlon and took it. Yvlon gently shook Mrsha’s paw.

“I’m glad to see you.”

Mrsha nodded. Then she looked up and saw Pisces. Ksmvr. Ceria again. They smiled at her. Mrsha stared up at them and her mouth moved. It might have been a happy expression.

“Alright! Breakfast!”

Erin found a smile of her own. She swept into the kitchen and came out with plates of food. Like her breakfast, she served the Horns everything she had. Ceria’s eyes widened. She grabbed a roll, smelled it as her teammates watched, and then bit.

“Dead gods. Dead gods. I forgot—”

The half-Elf chewed so fast she nearly choked as she tried to swallow. She grabbed a sausage and stuffed it into her face. Yvlon’s face was amused, appalled, and happy at the same time.

“Can you at least pretend to use silverware, Ceria?”

“Sorry. This is—this is so good. Tree roots, is this what it tasted like before?”

“Need a drink?”

“Alcohol?”

Ceria sat up. She stared at the bar. Erin filled her a mug. The half-Elf washed down her food and sat at the table. Mrsha watched her. The Gnoll didn’t bounce or beg for snacks. And as the Horns ate in the same silence, Erin saw Mrsha’s eyes fix on Ceria’s face. The half-Elf pretended not to notice.

So much had changed. And Erin didn’t know exactly what. In the confused aftermath of the battle, so much had happened that she’d only gotten the barest of accounts from Ceria. And she didn’t want to press the half-Elf or Mrsha. Far from it. But she knew just by looking that more had gone on than words could say. And Mrsha just sat there.

Lyonette and Erin exchanged a look over Mrsha’s head. Erin looked around. Her glass windows reflected a rainy day in Liscor, as usual. The rain poured down. Erin cleared her throat and Mrsha looked around quickly. The [Innkeeper] smiled at her and pointed.

“It’s not too nice out. But why don’t you take Mrsha into Liscor, Lyonette? I think what she needs is…a special present.”

“Now?”

Lyonette looked uncertain. But Erin nodded. She stared around the inn and then nodded to her magic door.

“We should go out. And Mrsha definitely deserves something. Maybe a new ball? We’ll all go together, how about that?”

The little Gnoll looked up. Her tail began to wag a bit. Lyonette hesitated, then nodded.

“I’ll get cloaks for all of us. One second!”

“I’ll put out more food. Save some for the Halfseekers, okay?”

Erin hurried into the kitchen. When she came out, the Horns were talking at last. Ceria sat, looking from face to face.

“So…what did I miss?”

Pisces smirked. Yvlon laughed and ran her hands through her hair. Ksmvr opened his mandibles.

“To the best of my knowledge, Captain Ceria—”

“We’re all heroes. After all, we participated in the largest dungeon raid in Liscor’s history. We obtained a bounty on the captured prisoners. And there are the magical artifacts yet to be divided up. Our team made substantial gains while you were captive. I suspect we may be able to claim a fair margin of the spoils.”

Pisces sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers together. Ceria’s lips quirked.

“Ah, right. We’re fighting over all the treasures the Raskghar had? Figures. How’s that going to work? Hell, how’d you get everyone into the dungeon? That was…a lot.”

“Miss Erin, of course.”

Ceria glanced over.

“I should have known.”

Erin shook her head as she came over. She put another plate on the table.

“I just came up with the plan. Everyone helped. Antinium, adventurers, the Watch…and Goblins. I think the Council of Liscor’s putting out the word right now.”

Ceria looked surprised.

“They didn’t know—oh wait, it was night. Wow. That’s a cause for celebration if ever I heard one.”

Yvlon nodded. She buttered a piece of toast. She glanced sideways at Ceria.

“There’ll probably be another parade.”

“Probably.”

Erin carefully found another table and put the food down there. She glanced back at Ceria.

“Going to join in?”

The half-Elf wavered. She looked around her table and then seemed to remember she was part of her team. The Captain. She shook her head after a second.

“Nah. We’re…I’m not up for it. If you all want to do it, that’s fine. I just want to know what they’ll do about—”

Ceria hesitated. She glanced at Mrsha, and then sighed.

“—about Calruz.”

The inn quieted. Mrsha looked up as Lyonette tied the cloak to her neck. Yvlon put down her fork. Pisces doodled with the grease on his plate. Ksmvr kept eating bread as he looked around, and then paused uncertainly.

“Right. Him.”

Erin didn’t know what to think. She’d seen Calruz. But the beaten, burned Minotaur wasn’t at all the one she’d remembered teaching her how to fight. And she hadn’t seen the monster that had led the Raskghar. Only the aftermath. Ceria shook her head. She passed a hand across her eyes.

“He’s not well. I don’t know if it was something in the dungeon or the Raskghar or the water, but I think it wasn’t entirely his fault. Still. That doesn’t excuse any of it. I just—”

Ceria’s voice trailed off. She looked at her mismatched hands. At last, Pisces cleared his throat.

“I believe that means, no parade, Miss Solstice.”

That elicited a grin from Erin.

“Right. Thanks, Pisces. Well, we’re going into the city. If you need anything.”

“I think we’ll stay here. And…talk.”

Yvlon looked at Ceria. The half-Elf glanced up and nodded.

“Yeah. There’s a lot I need to tell you.”

They left it at that. Erin went over to Mrsha and Lyonette. The Gnoll was visibly apprehensive as she looked at the magic door. But that was the point. Erin went over and set the door to Liscor as if nothing was wrong.

“Ready? We’ll all go together. Come on.”

The door opened into a rainy street. Erin stepped forwards first and turned. Mrsha hesitated at the door’s edge. She looked up. Lyonette smiled reassuringly down at her. Mrsha wavered, and then put a paw on the rainy street. She flinched as she felt the wetness, then walked forwards. She looked up as the rain spattered her face.

“You’re so brave.”

Erin bent and gave Mrsha a wet cuddle. Then she stood. She nodded at Lyonette and they began to walk through Liscor.

Everything was the same. Everything was not. Erin and Lyonette kept looking at Mrsha every few seconds. And the Gnoll stared at everything. She didn’t run about. She was…looking. The three passed by Drakes and Gnolls on the street. And they were different too.

Liscor had been hushed after the Raskghar attacks. People had barely gone about, except to work and perform necessary business. They had been quiet, nervous and angry. But now the word had gone out. The Gnolls and Drakes stood about in the streets, talking. Some glanced about nervously, until they caught themselves and realized there was nothing to fear. They stared at Erin and Lyonette as they passed. And at Mrsha. The Gnolls paused in what they were doing and looked at the little Gnoll. She stared back. The Gnolls exchanged glances. Lyonette and Erin watched them warily. They heard whispers as Mrsha padded past.

“White one.”

“Mrsha child.”

And then, from one Gnoll, a word.

“Doombringer.”

Erin and Lyonette whirled. The Gnoll looked at them and then at Mrsha. Lyonette’s face went white. She opened her mouth furiously, but the Gnoll’s expression wasn’t hostile or afraid. He inclined his head at Mrsha. The Gnoll cub stared at him. Then he bowed his head. The Gnoll turned and walked past. A Drake blinked at the two and scratched his head. So did Erin. Lyonette stared with a mixture of anger and confusion at the Gnoll’s back.

“What was that about?”

Erin looked thoughtfully at Mrsha’s face. The Gnoll stared after the other Gnoll. Her expression was neither happy nor sad. But it was slightly content. Erin stared at the Gnoll’s back and nodded.

“I think…we should get moving before we’re all totally drenched. Where’s the toy store? Left?”

“Straight and then left.”

In time they reached the special store that Erin and Lyonette had found a while back. It was a Gnoll-run store and it was aimed at children, but mainly Gnoll children. That was because it was a ball shop. It sold balls.

Small catching balls. Large ones made of leather. Discs for catching. If there was anything Gnolls shared with dogs, it was their love of games that allowed them to run about. Mrsha’s ball had come from here. Now the three pushed inside. A Gnoll at the counter looked up and blinked when he saw Mrsha. Then he bowed at his counter.

“Greetings. What can I do for you?”

“Hi. We’re looking for a ball for Mrsha. We just wanted to look around. Is it okay if she touches things? We can pay for anything.”

The Gnoll inclined his head as Mrsha stared up at him.

“Of course. Take your time. We owe a debt to the Mrsha child. Doom of the Raskghar. Find whatever you might wish, child.”

Lyonette blinked and bit her lip. But Mrsha’s tail began to wag as she looked around the shop. Lined up on the shelves were a child’s fantasy. At least, any child who loved to play catch. There were balls of every size and shape and consistency. Little ones that could be hidden, large ones you could kick about, even metal ones with shiny surfaces. Mrsha looked at the adults again, and then wandered down the aisles. She soon lost herself between the shelves.

“I had no idea there was an entire shop for this stuff.”

Erin whispered to Lyonette. The young woman nodded.

“Krshia told me about it. Apparently Gnolls don’t have many toys when they move about in their tribes. Games of catch are very important. And balls are…well, they’re fun.”

“Yeah. I just never heard of personal, custom throwing balls. I mean, we had dogs at home, but—”

The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] raised one eyebrow and Erin turned red.

“Sorry! I didn’t mean—”

He shook his head and smiled.

“Dogs are dogs, yes? They are simple. But a Gnoll finds more joy than a dog can. They fetch. We throw. But one as young as the Mrsha child would find enjoyment in both, I think. Do you have any preference? I find that children are usually unable to choose from my selection.”

Erin stared down the rows of colorful balls. She was at a loss too. This was no supermarket selection with a bunch of generic, identical toys. Each object in the shop was hand-made and high quality. She hesitated, trying to imagine what Mrsha would like. If they found her old ball—

“What about a big bouncy ball? Do you have anything made of rub—of plas—something that bounces?”

“Hmm. I have a few. Let me bring them out.”

The Gnoll slipped out from behind his counter. He came back with a selection of balls, mostly leather, some wrapped in hide, and placed them on the counter. Erin bounced a few, but they were hardly as bouncy as a basketball.

“Got anything with more bounce? Like, one I could throw on the ground and bounce off the ceiling?”

The Gnoll frowned.

“You have high standards. Yes, I’ve seen such balls before. Magic ones, enchanted by [Mages]. Very prized among Gnoll children.”

“Uh—well, are they that rare?”

The Gnoll nodded, with the air of someone who had specialized in the nuance of ball manufacture all his life.

“I regret that I do not have any such objects in stock. Magic is costly. I regret that I do not have any specialty goods—you would have to place an order, yes? But this is a good one for catching and throwing. And these are good for chewing.”

He held up a ball wrapped in animal hide, and a set of smaller balls that smelled a bit like animal to Erin. She prodded the leather-wrapped ball and then the chewable ones.

“Hey, these are squishy!”

“Yes. Not good for throwing. But very young children chew on these.”

Lyonette frowned.

“What if they eat them by mistake?”

The older Gnoll smiled. He was probably the oldest Gnoll Erin had met, older than Erill and Krshia. His fur was grey, with black splotches.

“It is no danger. They are edible, and not harmful. And it is a lesson for children if they are swallowed. Because the toy is then gone. Unless it passes out of them in the same piece, which is not always pleasant, yes?”

Erin laughed. The Gnoll took the chewing toys away.

“But I think young Mrsha is too old for such things. I have other balls. Such as this one, which is very frictionless. And tough. Note the covering.”

The ball he showed Erin had a delicate wyvern-hide skin, which Mrsha sniffed with great interest. She touched the smooth surface.

“Ooh. Fancy. And you can see the scales!”

“Laminated. It is very tough, though. Not malleable. While these are cheaper.”

The Gnoll flicked the throwing ball. Erin studied it. She could see tiny stitches holding the hide wrap in place. And when she felt it the ball had some give, but only a little. It was definitely familiar. She frowned at the Gnoll, struck by a thought.

“Hey. This looks a lot like a…what’s this made of?”

He hesitated.

“That is a trade secret. But I suppose for this one—I could tell you. It is cork, yes? Hard, but malleable. Not cheap around Liscor, but good for throwing.”

Erin’s brows shot together. She eyed the ball and looked around. Mrsha was still wavering, caught by a huge, hollow ball and a small one that glittered, enchanted by a minor spell of some kind. Erin looked at the ball and tossed it up and down.

“Hmm. Hmm. Hey Mrsha, get the ball you want. I’ll take five—no, give me eight of these. Not the expensive ones, but good, quality ones.”

“Of course!”

The Gnoll beamed, happy to make a sale. Lyonette eyed Erin.

“Are those all for Mrsha? And can we afford all of them?”

Erin dug around in her money pouch for a few gold coins. She shrugged.

“I earned a lot of money from the plays. And I get some of the bounty money for the Gnolls. And I can even put in a claim for some of the magical items!”

“Really? How does that even work? I know there was Ilvriss’ bounty, but who gets to say who gets what?”

Erin paused.

“I have no idea. Hey, can I get these in a bag? Lyonette, I just had a great idea. You stay here and get Mrsha whatever she wants. Or two of what she wants. Here.”

She dug three gold coins out and handed them to Lyonette. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper]’s tail wagged in delight as Lyonette stared at the gold coins.

“Erin—!”

“Come back to the inn when you’re ready! I’ll be in Celum if you need me!”

Erin raced out of the shop. By the time she got back to the Wandering Inn, the Halfseekers were awake. They were eating ravenously and in good spirits without reserve. Jelaqua was thumping Moore on the back as Erin came in.

“Eat up! Don’t be shy, you great big oaf. Erin doesn’t care if you eat all her eggs! And you need your strength after you nearly got gutted by those damn Raskghar. Anyone want the sausages? Then take the platter, Moore! I told you—oh, hey Erin.”

“Jelaqua! Moore! Seborn!”

Erin beamed. The Horns of Hammerad and Halfseekers both turned. They stared as she emptied the hide-wrapped balls onto the table. Jelaqua pointed.

“What’s that? Toys for Mrsha?”

“Nope! Toys for me! Oh, and eat everything you want, Moore. Hey, I’m going into Celum now. Can one of you change the door back to Liscor and check for me in like…thirty minutes?”

The Horns nodded. Ceria was sitting with the others. She looked relaxed, but tired. Erin strode over to the door and blinked as Yvlon stood up. The woman scratched at her arms. She was wearing her gauntlets and vambraces for some reason, despite not having bothered to put on her breastplate or any other part of her armor.

“I’ll go with you. I could use some sunlight.”

“Sure, thanks! I could use a pair of hands. Remember, let Mrsha and Lyonette through! I’ll be back soon! Oh, hey Octavia.”

The [Alchemist] looked up as Erin and Yvlon came through. She waved.

“Hey, everyone’s alive over there, right? I didn’t get to ask—”

“They’re all good!”

The Stitch-Girl sighed in relief. Erin spent a few seconds with Octavia, and then walked out of the shop. Yvlon nodded to the [Alchemist] and walked with Erin down the street.

It was different in Celum. Sunlight shone down from above, disconcerting after the pouring rain Erin had just been walking through. She felt her hair and clothes begin to dry. After a second, she turned and looked at Yvlon.

“So how’s Ceria doing?”

Yvlon looked up at the bright sky. People were passing by in the street. Humans, giving Yvlon an odd look now and then. People who had no idea of what had happened. Erin felt like a stranger with Humans all around her. After a moment, Yvlon shrugged.

“I don’t know. I think she’s okay. She told us what happened.”

“And?”

The woman let out a long breath.

“I…I’m surprised she can recall it. Calruz, the Raskghar—there was something truly awful down there, Erin. The ritual, Calruz—I don’t know how Ceria will handle it. I’m surprised she let him live after all that happened. And Mrsha…”

“That bad?”

“She was there for all of it. She looked okay to me, but I’d stick with her. Those Raskghar were monsters.”

Erin nodded seriously.

“Well, Lyonette is with her. And I’ll find tons of fun stuff for her to do. I just had an idea in that vein, which is why we’re out here. Hey, you know Celum, right? Can you help me find a shop?”

“Really? Well, why am I surprised? What are you looking for?”

“A [Carpenter]. Know any good ones?”

“Hm. Well, the Runner’s Guild would know the best ones in the city. Why not make a stop there?”

“Good idea.”

They turned left down a street. Yvlon and Erin walked along in silence. Erin glanced at Yvlon. She hadn’t spoken too often with the woman, but they knew each other.

“Yvlon?”

“Yes?”

“How bad was it? I can ask Ceria, but—”

The woman looked away. Her face was shadowed when she spoke.

“Bad enough that I had to leave. It was that or ask Ceria why she didn’t kill Calruz. She let him live. But the things he did, the horrors he let the Raskghar commit—that was not the Calruz I knew. And there was something else. Ceria saw the heart of the dungeon. And what lurks in there—you don’t need to hear about it.”

Erin shivered.

“Maybe I do. But not today.”

Yvlon nodded.

“Not today. I’m just grateful that she’s back. And so is Mrsha. Thank you for doing this.”

“Hey, it was just—”

“No. It was more than that.”

The woman met Erin’s eyes. Erin hesitated, then nodded silently. That was all they said for a while. They visited the Runner’s Guild, got directions from the [Receptionist], and were walking down the street when Erin thought of something else to ask.

“So…about the treasure. Loot. Whatever. How’s that going to work?”

Yvlon blinked. Then she smiled.

“Right. I nearly forgot! Ilvriss did offer a huge bounty on the Gnolls. What was it, a thousand gold pieces per prisoner saved? And didn’t he double that? Plus, we recovered a bunch of artifacts from the Raskghar who were carrying them. At least twenty, I think. I didn’t see all of them, but everyone wants one.”

“I bet. So how’s it going to work?”

“I think it’s a lottery. Part of what Ilvriss and Liscor’s Council will do is assign merit based on who contributed what. The Gold-rank teams get most credit for all the fighting they did, obviously. But the [Soldiers], the Watch, Ilvriss himself, everyone gets credit. So do you. A lot of it, I should imagine.”

“Mhm. I guess.”

“So we’ll all be eligible for some share. But what Ilvriss is going to do is pay the whole sum for all the prisoners rescued into a pool. And the artifacts go into the pool as well. Then we make bids on what we want. You can just ask for gold—or try and claim an artifact. If multiple groups claim the same thing, I think there’s a random lottery. Or you might get it if you did the most and you don’t want anything else. It’s complicated. Dungeon raids usually end up with a lot of fighting over who gets what anyways.”

“Wow. So could I get a magic sword if I wanted it?”

Yvlon grinned ruefully.

“You could try. But I’ll bet all the Gold-ranks will get the artifacts. I’ll be pleased just to get some gold for our team. We could use it. And the levels we gained already were treasure enough. We—oh, here we are.”

She stopped. Erin stared at the carpenter’s shop and then pushed her way in. The shop was run by a master and his apprentices. Erin edged past the apprentice who came to ask her what she wanted and strode up to the [Carpenter]. She smiled at him as he looked up with a scowl.

“Hey, I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. You’re a [Carpenter], right?  Can I ask how fast you can carpenter?”

“What?”

He looked irritated. The man had gnarled hands and grey hair. He glared at his apprentice and Erin, but she was undeterred.

“I have an order I’d like to make. Something custom.”

“I’m busy. If you have an order—”

Erin slapped a gold coin on the table the man was working at. He blinked at the gold piece. He opened his mouth and Erin dumped a handful on the table. Yvlon’s eyes shot up. The [Carpenter] wavered. He glanced at Erin and tried to adopt a much more helpful attitude.

“Uh, how can I help, you, Miss?”

“I want you to carve something. It has to be solid. One block of wood. And it can’t break. It’s not hard to make, but it needs to be good. It’ll look like this—hey, can I borrow that piece of charcoal? Thanks.”

Erin snatched the [Carpenter]’s drawing stick up and began to sketch on his piece of parchment. He blinked at her and then frowned at what she was drawing. He began nodding as she described what she wanted.

“That’s all? And you don’t want anything done with it? A wrap? Hah, that’s simple. Well, if it’s not engraving…I can get you a rough outline within the hour, no problem. Smoothing the surface takes a bit of work, but that’s an easy design. You’re lucky you came to me! My competitors can’t do quick work, whereas my Skills are far superior.”

He puffed out his chest a bit. Erin raised one eyebrow.

“Really? Well, can you give me a list of your competitors? I’m gonna get them to make some too. Unless you can make me…six within two hours? I need an oversized version too. Oh, and one with a custom grip. I’ll pay extra to get it done quick and good.”

The [Carpenter]’s jaw dropped. He stared at Yvlon, who gave him a curious, embarrassed, amused look. He looked at Erin. She smiled at him.

“Did I mention that I know Gold-rank adventurers? Say, do you happen to sell arrow shafts? Because one of my best clients is a guy called Halrac…”

A few minutes later Erin walked out of the [Carpenter]’s shop, whistling. She looked at Yvlon.

“Okay, we’ll go to one other [Carpenter] shop. The guy had a lot of apprentices so I think he can fulfill the order. Plus, he looked like he was going to work really hard.”

Yvlon looked back into the shop, which was a flurry of activity.

“I can imagine. Especially with what you paid him! What was that thing for, anyways?”

Erin raised her eyebrows mysteriously.

“You’ll see. Now I need to visit a tanner. Or a leatherworker.”

“We can ask about them at the next carpenter’s shop if you want. They tend to know other people in related businesses. But can I ask why?”

A wide smile was Yvlon’s only answer.

“Don’t worry, you’ll see what I’ve got ready in about two hours. Less, if I get everything ready. Hey, do you know where I can buy sausages? And I need more flour to make dough. Uh…how strong are your arms? I might need you to carry stuff.”

Yvlon flexed her arms as Erin eyed them with sudden concern. The [Warrior] smiled. Her arms looked bigger for some reason. Had she been working out?

“Don’t worry about me. But please tell me you’re not going to do something crazy. I can’t handle anything crazy.”

“Don’t worry! This is fun and good stuff. Besides—if I did do something crazy, could you even stop me?”

Yvlon paused.

“Yes.”

Erin hesitated.

“Right. You probably could. Well, this isn’t that crazy. Come on!”

 

—-

 

When Erin got back to the inn she found Mrsha and Lyonette had returned. Only, they didn’t have any new balls. And neither of them were smiling. Mrsha sat by herself, rolling something back and forth.

Her ball. Her worn, scratched little ball. Erin paused, looking questioningly at Lyonette. She and Yvlon were empty-handed, but Erin had spent a good deal of coin and she hoped to have things to carry soon enough.

“Did Mrsha not want anything?”

Lyonette was sitting at a table, watching Mrsha with concern in her eyes. She shook her head. Apista was in her lap and Lyonette was running her finger down the bee’s back.

“She started crying after you left and she had to decide on a new ball. She wanted her old one. I think it was too soon to bring her into the city, Erin.”

A bit of reproach entered Lyonette’s tone. Erin’s heart sank. She looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was sniffing her ball, holding it. Not really playing. Erin nodded slowly.

“Yeah. That was my mistake. Uh—is everyone doing good?”

She looked around. The Halfseekers and Horns were still in her inn. Both had stuffed themselves. They weren’t saying too much. Ceria sat at a table with Pisces and Ksmvr. She had emptied two mugs. She wasn’t exactly looking happy either. She kept looking at Mrsha.

The optimistic mood of the morning had somehow gone wrong. Lyonette glanced at the adventurers and shrugged. Erin saw Seborn talking with Moore and Jelaqua. She wandered over and heard his slightly echoey voice.

—It’s negotiations at this point. We could try for that armor, Jelaqua. But we owe Selys Shivertail a cut of whatever we get.

“I know, I know. But if we get the armor we can compensate her. And we do have a strong claim. Hell, maybe we could persuade Ilvriss or the Flamewardens to help us out if I agree to cancel my contract with Selys. But having a magical artifact like that we could own—oh, hey Erin.”

Jelaqua looked up. Moore sat up with a groan. He had a hand over his stomach where he’d been cut last night. The wound had healed, but the half-Giant still seemed tender. Or he’d stuffed himself. The mountain of dishes suggested that might be the case.

“Hey guys. I wanted to say thanks again for all you did. Really.”

Jelaqua raised one eyebrow.

“For what? Saving our hides? You gave us a victory. We had no way to beat the Raskghar. And you—”

Mrsha started and looked up from her ball. Jelaqua broke off guiltily.

“Sorry. What I meant was that we owe you, Erin.”

“Thanks. But you were fighting. I…well, I know you’re probably busy doing adventurer stuff, but I was hoping I could ask for a small favor.”

The Halfseekers looked at each other. Jelaqua shrugged.

“We’re only discussing business. It’s not like we can do anything now—it’ll be a week at least before we get to the actual dividing of loot, I bet. Gotta make sure we all get what we want.”

“Awesome. Then can I ask for you to help me deliver something? I need a few strong hands. Not you, Moore. I know you’re recovering—”

The half-Giant sat up. He smiled tiredly at Erin.

“I’m fine, Miss Erin. And if it’s lifting you need, I think I’m your half-Giant.”

He tried to rise, but Jelaqua and Seborn held him down.

Relax, Moore. We have this.

“But I—”

“No, no. Sit. Please. Let me get you a drink. You saved Mrsha. I owe you so much—Lyonette! Can we get the big mug for Moore? Fill it with something nice! Wine or ale? Something stronger?”

The half-Giant wavered, then collapsed back into his seat. Fatigue, that was it. He just looked tired.

“I suppose I could do with an ale. From Celum? Do you have any local brands?”

“I’ll check. Now, I just need four people, probably. I could do it with two, but—”

“Seborn and I are good. Who are the other two? Yvlon and Ksmvr?”

“I was thinking of making Pisces do it—”

Hah!

Erin turned and grinned at Pisces. The [Necromancer] had helped himself to a drink of his own. He sat next to Ceria.

“I will conjure you a skeleton to do the work if you desire, Erin. But you won’t get me to move for love or money. Threats of violence may suffice.”

Erin rolled her eyes.

“I don’t need skeletons, thanks. They’ll cause a panic. But just give me one second and I’ll get everything in place. It’s for Mrsha, see.”

Both Mrsha and Lyonette looked up. Lyonette frowned.

“Erin. Mrsha needs some time by herself. I don’t think an outing is right. Not at all.”

She stared hard at Erin and the young woman felt a bit of pressure on her shoulders. She blinked. Lyonette’s gaze felt heavy. And then Erin realized. She was using her aura! She met Lyonette’s gaze. Neither young woman raised their tone for fear of scaring Mrsha, but Erin silently pushed back until the pressure had left her shoulders. Jelaqua and Seborn looked from Lyonette to Erin in silence.

“It’ll be fine, Lyonette. It’s just a little outing.”

“No. Not another one! She just needs to stay here!”

Lyonette raised her voice. Mrsha looked up again. Erin sighed. She walked forwards, giving Mrsha a reassuring look. She turned away and whispered to Lyonette.

“I know. Lyonette, I know you’re worried about Mrsha. But believe me. I know what I’m doing. She doesn’t have to go anywhere right now. Neither do you. Just wait.”

She met Lyonette’s eyes, trying to be reassuring. The [Princess] glared—then saw Erin was serious. She looked at Mrsha and sighed.

“Okay. But nothing crazy, okay?”

“Why does everyone think I can only do crazy? This is just…okay, it’s a bit weird. But just a bit! Ksmvr, Yvlon, can I get you to lift?”

“I am quite proficient at lifting.”

Ksmvr stood up at once. Yvlon nodded.

“Just show us what you need, Erin.”

“Okay. We’ll be back in a few minutes! Don’t worry! It’ll be worth it!”

Ceria, Pisces, Lyonette, and Mrsha watched as the four adventurers plus Erin walked over to her door. Erin didn’t change the mana stone. She opened the door and walked through. The people in the inn heard Erin speaking to Octavia, and then the [Alchemist] raise her voice.

“What? But Erin! I thought we were partners! This is really—did someone make you an offer? Hold on! Don’t touch it! We can deal! We can make—”

The door closed. The people in the inn looked at each other. Lyonette went over and gave Mrsha another hug. The Gnoll looked up at her. Lyonette tried to give her a reassuring smile.

“I’m sure it’s just Erin being Erin. She said she wasn’t doing anything crazy.”

She didn’t sound too convinced. But for some reason that uncertainty made Mrsha feel better. She stared out the rainy window and bounced her ball. All was the same. All was different. She wished she could play, but she was a bit—tired. A bit empty.

So was Ceria. The half-Elf sat at her table. She knew Pisces was watching her, which was why he’d volunteered to stay. That and he loathed physical exertion. She looked into her mug. She’d told her teammates everything. Nearly everything. But she couldn’t tell them what it had been like. The pain, Calruz’s madness. It felt like a nightmare she hadn’t woken up from. She was free of the dungeon now. The Raskghar were dead or fled. But it felt—

It felt like she’d brought the dungeon with her. And Ceria was unhappy. So she and Mrsha sat, a bit lost, as the rain poured down. Part of them was still in that camp. Part of them still thought this was a dream. It was unreal, too wonderful, too much after their torment. It was a figment of their imagination, an illusion.

A fantasy.

 

—-

 

“Erin, please! Please! How long have we known each other? Months? It feels like years! You can’t just throw me under the wagon like this! I have relatives! I’m an up-and-coming [Alchemist]! I can’t handle rejection!”

Octavia clung to Erin’s waist, despite Erin’s best efforts to get her to let go. The young woman waved her arms as Yvlon, Ksmvr, Jelaqua, and Seborn lifted the magic door in Octavia’s shop up. It wasn’t heavy for the four of them so much as cumbersome. They began to angle it out the door.

“Erin! You’re breaking my heart here! What will it take? Gold? Potions? Be reasonable! This is business!”

“Octavia, let go! I told you I’m not stealing your door!”

“What am I seeing then? Don’t lie to me, Erin! We’ve invested too much in this relationship to lie to each other!”

What relationship? Octavia, let go! It’s just temporary! I said it’s just for today, okay?”

“Oh. Well, in that case, why didn’t you say so?”

The Stitch-Girl let go. Erin stumbled back as Seborn held the door open for the door to go through. Erin turned and glared.

“I did say so!”

The [Alchemist] had the grace to blush. She fiddled with her braids and tugged at the stitches at her neck.

“Sorry, I didn’t hear that. I panicked a bit. Your magic door gets me a lot of business, you know.”

“Well, it’ll keep giving you business! Now can I go?”

Octavia was standing in front of the door. She started.

“What? Sure, sure. But you are coming back, right? With the door? Promise?”

“Yes. Please move.”

The Stitch-Girl did. Erin hurried out of her shop. The adventurers were waiting for her. Jelaqua raised an amused eyebrow.

“Well, that’s one obstacle down. Where are we taking it?”

“Out of the city! North!”

“Gotcha. One, two, three, up—

The adventurers easily lifted the door. They began walking down the street. Erin followed them. After a few paces she turned.

“Why are you following me, Octavia?”

The [Alchemist] shrugged.

“No reason. I just…want to see where the door’s going. Is that a crime?”

Erin glared at Octavia.

“Just don’t get in the way!”

“Who, me? I would never. I’m on your side, Erin! Always have been. From the day we met I thought that we would be the best of friends. Say, where’s this door going? I could sell you some stamina potions if it’s a long haul. Not that it’s going to be that long, right? Because the door is coming back—”

Erin sighed and tried to block out Octavia’s voice. She looked ahead. Celum was busy and it was coming to midmorning. The people on the streets turned in surprise when they saw the four adventurers walking down the street with a door held between them. There were shouts of surprise. And a few screams.

Of the four adventurers, Yvlon was probably the most normal. But the other three were Jelaqua, a Selphid, Seborn, one of the rare Drowned Men, and Ksmvr, who was an Antinium. He’d been in Celum and other Human cities before, but there were plenty of people who were still shocked to see him.

Antinium!

“Dead gods!”

“Wait—there’s two of them! One of them’s half-Antinium!”

The people backed away in horror. Jelaqua, holding her end of the door with Seborn, began laughing so hard she nearly dropped it. Seborn growled. The adventurers made their way down the street until they ran into an obstacle.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, what is this?”

A Human [Guardsman] strode up to the group, looking afraid and indignant. He pointed a shaking finger at Ksmvr. He hadn’t heard of the Horns of Hammerad or fear was overriding common sense.

“Antinium are not allowed in the city! And you can’t bring a door down the street! You’re holding up traffic!”

There were indeed several wagons waiting for the adventurers. Jelaqua raised one eyebrow.

“Sorry, but this thing’s too bulky for the side of the street, Mister Guardsman. And Ksmvr’s a friend of ours.”

The Human purpled with fury.

“A friend? He’s an Ant! They don’t have friends! Move this thing out of the way! Who are you? Some kind of upstart Drake? This is a Human city! Who are you? An adventurer? I’ll report you to the guild! And what’s wrong with him? Is he sick? If he is, he’s a danger to everyone on this street!”

He pointed at Seborn. The Drowned Man had had enough. He let go of his side of the door and glared at the [Guardsman].

I’m a Drowned Man. My name is Seborn. I’m a Gold-rank adventurer. And this is Jelaqua, also Gold-rank. She’s a Selphid.

The [Guardsman] gulped. He looked at Jelaqua, who gave him a toothy grin.

“Rookie mistake. It’s the skin. Want me to open up my chest? Oh, wait. There’s kids watching.”

“Uh—I—Gold-rank?”

“That’s right.”

The officer of the Watch looked around. He realized that everyone was waiting for him to make a move. He looked at the wagons waiting impatiently behind the Gold-ranks, at the adventurers, and made a judgment call.

“Terribly sorry, sir. I don’t know what came over me. You lot! Back up! Gold-ranks coming through on business! Give them some room! Do you need a wagon by any chance?”

No. Move.

Seborn grabbed the door and stomped forwards. The watchman stepped back, face beet red. Erin smothered a grin as she walked with the others. Jelaqua couldn’t stop laughing as they proceeded down the street. She grew more somber as they left the poor [Guardsman] behind.

“That happens a lot, actually. More often in Human lands than Drake ones, if you’ll believe that.”

“Really? Are Drakes less racist than Humans?”

Erin looked curiously at Jelaqua. The Selphid shook her head ruefully.

“Nah. It’s just that in the Drake cities, all the Watch knows your face so there’s no ‘incidents’. Helps a bit, but it raises other problems. Alright, through the gates?”

They’d come to the northern gates. Octavia looked at Erin and she nodded.

“Through the gates!”

The [Guardsmen] on duty were wiser than their colleague. They stood aside and just watched as the adventurers left the city. Erin took the lead, then. She pointed and the procession brought the door north of the city. It was about a ten minute walk.

There was nothing too special about the place the adventurers set the door down. Yvlon glanced about. The area just north of Celum was grassy, and there was a stand of trees to the left. But it was just a wild meadow Erin had chosen, really. Nothing too special about it at all. It was nice and open, a ways away from the road, but she couldn’t see why they were here.

“You sure this is what you want, Erin? There’s not even a wall to lean this thing up against!”

Jelaqua looked dubiously at Erin. The young woman smiled.

“No, it’s perfect. Plus, the door doesn’t need a wall. We can make one. All we need is a door frame and a bit of wood for the backboard…darn, I should have gotten that first.”

“Hey it’s no big deal. We can get it. Gold-ranks, remember? Seborn, let’s go requisition some nails and hammers and wood.”

You do it. I’m sick of idiots around here asking if I’m sick. I hate landlocked idiots who’ve never seen the ocean.

Jelaqua laughed. She and Ksmvr went back to Celum and came back with what they needed. Erin hammered a few boards together and Yvlon helped her pound the door frame into the ground.

“Why are you doing this?”

Octavia was more curious than upset at this point. She held the doorframe and backing up as Erin and Ksmvr wrestled the door into place. Seborn and Jelaqua were arguing about whether Drowned People or Selphids got more flak from the local law enforcement. Erin just grinned.

“You’ll see. Alright, I think we’re in place! Opening the door…now!”

She swung the door open. The wooden backing disappeared and the inn appeared. Mrsha and Lyonette turned from playing catch and shaded their eyes.

“What on earth—Erin, where are you?”

“Outside Celum! This is the plan! Hey Ceria, Pisces, you come through too!”

“What plan?”

Lyonette stared through the door. The sunlight was hitting her eyes and she was still upset at Erin. She just saw grass. In the distance a wagon rolled down the road heading north out of Celum. She didn’t see how Mrsha and Ceria looked up.

“This!”

Erin spread her arms wide. She turned about. Lyonette stared at her, uncomprehendingly. Then she looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was staring through the door. At the grass. At the clear blue sky. The wind blew. And then Lyonette realized.

It was bright in Celum. The sun’s light flooded through the door, bright, golden light. Lyonette looked around. The inn was dark. A fire burned in the fireplace and Erin had lanterns and candles when needed, but the rain was still falling outside. And it was cloudy. Even with the windows unshuttered, the inn was still drab. Colorless. Like the inside of a prison cell.

Like the dungeon. But in Celum, there was grass. It was spring. A few bugs leapt through the door, confused by the sudden change in light and temperature. Lyonette saw a bird flying through the sky.

“Ooh.”

She turned and jumped. Bird was standing behind her.

“Bird! When did you come down?”

“Just now. I sensed birds. I have a Skill for it. May I go through, Miss Erin? Please?”

“Yeah! Come through! You and everyone else! Come on! I’ll bring some food through and we can play a game!”

Erin beckoned. Ceria stood up. So did Pisces. They looked at each other. Ceria blinked a few times.

“It’s so…bright. I’d forgotten what it was like.”

Pisces studied the open door. He nodded at Erin.

“I suppose a moment in the sun would be a pleasant change. Springwalker, what are you waiting for? Didn’t you say you wanted to sit in the sun with the Ring of Barkskin on at least once?”

Ceria blinked.

“I did say that. Didn’t I? But Ksmvr has the ring.”

“I would be extremely willing to lend it to you, Captain Ceria. I have imbibed enough nutrients and I believe additional mass would not be unduly limiting to your combat prowess.”

“Thanks, Ksmvr. I—yeah, sure.”

The half-Elf stepped hesitantly towards the door. Erin smiled encouragingly at Mrsha.

“If you want to come through, we can have a picnic, Mrsha. We said we should do another one, remember? And I have a wonderful new game to play.”

Mrsha stared into the grassy field. She took a hesitant step forwards and stopped. She looked back at Lyonette. The young woman looked at her. Mrsha wavered. She was afraid. But then she looked back. At the light.

Apista buzzed past Mrsha, startling the young Gnoll. The Ashfire Bee flew into the field and hovered over a flower. Erin laughed. And that laughter struck something in Mrsha’s heart. She took another step.

“What’s the game?”

Jelaqua stood in the sun, smiling. Moore, who’d been napping at his table, looked up. The half-Giant smiled.

“A nap in the sun would be nice.”

He stepped past Mrsha. Ceria and Pisces followed him. Erin laughed again. She moved aside to let Moore go past.

“Oh, the best of games. The greatest game! For someone like Mrsha, at least. I thought of it when I saw the balls in the shop. They looked exactly like something from my home. So I made a few purchases. We’ll have a light lunch and then everything should be ready! I paid for speed.”

Lyonette stepped forwards. Mrsha was on the edge of the door. The Gnoll stared at the grass inches away from her paws. She looked up at the sky. A cool wind blew and ruffled Mrsha’s fur. She closed her eyes. She smelled…growing grass. Insects. Pollen. Soil. Birds. A rabbit nest hidden under the turf twenty feet to the left. Erin. Jelaqua. Yvlon. Metal. Sweat. A swirl of strange ingredients from Octavia. And that last scent of all, which reached into her. The scent that had no part of the dungeon in it. The smell of life, of growing.

Spring.

She took a step forwards. Her paw sank into the grass. Mrsha looked at it. She touched the soil. She felt the blades of grass beneath her. She looked up at Lyonette. The young woman smiled. She wiped her eyes and looked at Erin. The young woman nodded to her. Lyonette bowed her head slightly.

“And what’s this game, Erin?”

“Oh, it’s a simple one. You have a few balls, a few sticks to hit things with, a glove to catch with…and you play it in the open. In the sun. It’s called baseball. I thought we could play. If you want. What do you say, Mrsha?”

Erin crouched. She held out her hand. Mrsha wavered. She stared back at the inn. It was familiar. But it was also dark. And ahead of her—she stared up. The sky was bright. Mrsha looked at Erin. She was afraid. Afraid this was all a dream.

“It’s okay, Mrsha.”

The young woman looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll looked at her, and closed her eyes. Then, slowly, she stepped forwards.

 

—-

 

Yvlon was wrong about one thing. The parade wasn’t in two days. It was happening right now. In Liscor, the Watch and Embria’s Soldiers and a detachment of Antinium marched down the street. They followed a stream of adventurers, who waved as the crowd roared and cheered them. Liscor celebrated as the rain fell. Relieved Drakes and Gnolls took to the streets. And at the end of the parade, Wall Lord Ilvriss gave a speech after Watch Captain Zevara had given an account of all that had passed.

The Drake did not beat about the bush. He stood on a podium, several [Mages] and a scrying orb recording his every move. The world was watching. Already, the news of Liscor’s triumph over the Raskghar was spreading. It was, all things considered, small news. After all, it was just a group of monsters, nothing more.

To most of the world, Ilvriss’ speech was dismissed, forgettable. They had already gotten used to the novelty of the scrying orbs and after dozens of people had tried to emulate Flos’ attention-grabbing stunts, there were far fewer avid viewers than Ilvriss might have desired.

But that didn’t matter. The Wall Lord spoke for Liscor, who hung on his every word. He looked at the Gnolls, who stood together. Some grieved for those sacrificed or dead. Likewise, the Drakes had lost their own. But still they stood. The Wall Lord’s voice shook with raw emotion as he shouted.

“This was a triumph! Liscor has reclaimed its own! The dungeon and the Raskghar were no match for the might of adventurers, the resilience of the Drake and Gnollish spirit!”

The roar from the crowd deafened the falling rain for a second. Ilvriss raised one fist.

“The dungeon cannot defeat Liscor! Nor can any other foe! They assailed the walls! They took your family, your friends! And still the walls stand! Liscor will never fall to invaders! And the brave souls who battled in Liscor’s name are heroes, each one! Drakes! Gnolls! Humans! Selphid and Garuda, half-Giant and Drowned Man! Dwarf!”

He paused and muttered an oath.

“And Goblin.”

No one besides Zevara heard that last bit. They were cheering, throwing things at the adventurers and Watch. Since flowers were hard to obtain, it was a rain of brightly-colored fish scales that fell, much to the dissatisfaction of all but the Antinium. But still, it was a triumph. Ilvriss’s speech was transmitted by the [Mages] to other spots across the continent and the world.

The leaders of the Drake cities watched. Around the world, those with an interest in Liscor or had nothing better to do listened to Ilvriss speaking in the rain. They assessed, listened, and judged. It was politics. And the adventurers shifted impatiently, wondering when the speech would end and they could get out of the rain. They had their fill of glory, now they wanted a hot meal.

Embria’s [Soldiers] stood proud, for once the heroes cheered by their home. The Watch was more relaxed, relieved that the crisis was over. The Antinium stared at the cheering faces and felt strange.

So it went. Glory and politics and rain. Liscor celebrated. But in an inn just a short way away from the city, a young woman and a white Gnoll stepped through a magical doorway and into Celum. They stepped out of the dark inn, out of Liscor and the ever-present rain and into the fields outside of Celum. And Mrsha looked around.

The sun shone down from a blue sky overhead. The grass was soft and the flowers blooming. The wind blew Mrsha’s fur as she looked up and saw the sun. It shone bright, a fierce, warm, comforting, brilliant, soft, wondrous, terrible light. The Gnoll breathed in. She looked around and saw smiling faces. She looked back at the inn. It was home. But here?

The meadow was empty. In the distance lay Celum, but it was far off. Here there were no walls in sight. There was no darkness. The air was fresh. Mrsha looked around. And at long last she smiled. It finally hit her.

She was free.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.44

They ran. The Gnolls of Liscor fled the Raskghar camp as Snatcher fought the Raskghar. Mrsha could hear Ceria shouting, hear the screams and snarls. But it was the howl that filled her. The Gnolls howled as they ran into the tunnels, fleeing. Some of the Raskghar gave chase, but the Gnolls ran. They ran into monsters, into traps, dead ends. Fleeing, howling, dying.

Free. Mrsha felt Elirr gasping, heard his lungs struggling as he ran with her in his arms. The Gnoll ran down a corridor. Neither he nor Mrsha knew where they were going. Neither one cared. She was a child, a cub from a plains tribe and he was a City Gnoll, far older. She had white fur. His was dark grey. But it didn’t matter. Right here, right now, they were both Gnolls. Mrsha howled and heard Elirr howl as well. The other Gnolls howled, sounding their locations.

Danger ahead. The Gnoll who cried out howled her death. Elirr hesitated and then ran left, down another tunnel. More Gnolls howled, calling out. The Raskghar were chasing them! And Mrsha heard the sounds of pursuit behind her.

They couldn’t catch her. Better that she be eaten by a monster than be caught and sacrificed. Better to step on a trap. Better—Mrsha held her wand tightly. She didn’t want to die. But at least she wouldn’t be alone. That was a terrible thing.

“Where—”

Elirr’s voice was cracked. He stopped as he came to another intersection. He and Mrsha stared ahead. Three passageways, one leading up, the other two going left and right. Something moved in the right passageway. Elirr ran left. Behind him there was a howl. But it wasn’t a Raskghar. Mrsha moved, shifting her head. She saw a shape bounding towards them, recognized the scent, the form.

Nokha. First of the awakened. Elirr gasped as Mrsha grabbed him tighter. He turned his head and ran faster. It wasn’t just Nokha—three other Raskghar were following. And by the sounds of it, at least a dozen more Raskghar were behind them. So many! They were all coming for her, Mrsha knew.

“I can’t—”

Elirr’s lungs strained as he stumbled. He ran down a corridor, leapt over a patch of dungeon that smelled of fire to Mrsha, and then froze. Something was coming down the tunnel. Elirr hesitated—

A howl rang out ahead of them. Elirr and Mrsha looked and saw a group of Gnolls. They froze when they saw the two.

“We grew lost! That way. Is it—”

Run! The Raskghar follow!”

Elirr bellowed. The Gnolls whirled. There were at least sixteen of them. A few of the younger ones howled a warning; the rest just ran. And the Raskghar slowly caught up.

They were healthy, strong. The Gnolls had been confined for days and starved. Without the head start, the Gnolls would have already been caught. But it was only a matter of time.

Nokha was fastest. She bounded towards Elirr and Mrsha, snarling. The Gnolls howled and then one fell back. He was younger, and smelled of glue. A [Fletcher]? Mrsha saw him look back, and then brace himself.

Run!

He howled as he charged Nokha and the Raskghar. The other Gnolls howled as he bought them time. Mrsha saw the young Gnoll charge the Raskghar, swinging a fist. Nokha leapt and bore him to the ground. She subdued him with two brutal blows and the other Raskghar hauled the Gnoll up. Quick as a flash, the Raskghar were chasing again.

Seconds. The Gnolls looked back and at each other. They might have been City Gnolls, but some had grown up outside of Liscor. They could tell how fast the Raskghar were moving.

“Keep moving!”

Elirr’s voice was strained. His heart was beating too fast. Mrsha could feel his chest heaving. The other Gnolls ran. They heard howls around them. The surviving Gnolls were congregating towards them. But fewer howls. The Raskghar chased. Mrsha stared back at Nokha. The female Raskghar bared her teeth. She was looking at Mrsha.

We are whole.

Even if she died, let it not be like that. Mrsha struggled. Elirr growled at her to keep still, but Mrsha had her wand out. She waved it. Grass shot up, a twisting little catch of grass. A snare, like the ones the Stone Spears tribe had used. She saw Nokha’s eyes widen. The snare caught the Raskghar’s foot—and she surged forwards. The grass was strong, but the Raskghar was stronger. She ran on, on all fours now.

Monsters ahead!

A Gnoll called out in despair. Mrsha felt Elirr’s breath catch. She smelled it too. A foreign scent ahead. Blood. But something familiar. The Gnolls hesitated.

“Let it be monsters, then! Run! Run! Better them than the Raskghar!”

One of the Gnolls shouted. They ran ahead. Mrsha saw a confusing sight ahead of them. It looked like dozens of monsters! Other Gnolls were howling panic and danger in ahead of them. But suddenly the notes changed. Mrsha heard the tone of the howl change. One of the howls echoed back to her.

Friend! And then Mrsha identified the scent. She saw one of the monsters look at her. It was tall. It had red eyes, a sword. Green skin. And it—he, was Headscratcher. The Hobgoblin looked up as he and the five Redfang Warriors led a group of at least a forty Cave Goblins. Several of the other Gnolls were wavering.

The Gnolls around Elirr froze when they saw the Goblins. But one of the Hobs—Numbtongue, threw up his hand before they could flee.

“Wait! Friends! Wandering Inn! Come!”

That was enough for the Gnolls. They ran past the Goblins, some nearly collapsing with relief. Elirr coughed and wheezed at Numbtongue.

“Behind us! Raskghar!”

“Run.”

The Hobs pointed. The Cave Goblins were already fleeing, screaming in terror. The Gnolls joined the rush. Mrsha saw the Hobs holding their ground. They stood in a line. Headscratcher. Rabbiteater. Shorthilt. Badarrow. Numbtongue. They looked…different.

Taller. Rabbiteater had a red cloak which swirled around his shoulders. It wasn’t cloth. It looked like liquid. And it smelled like blood. The Raskghar paused as they saw the Hobs.

“We have to—”

Elirr stumbled. Mrsha heard a Gnoll cry out in alarm, and then felt herself slipping. Elirr half-collapsed as another adult caught him. His face was twisted with pain.

“Too much! Someone help me!”

The Gnoll cried out and another younger Gnoll came. They helped Elirr, urging him to keep running. He moved mechanically—he’d pushed himself too hard to sprint while carrying Mrsha. The Gnoll tried to limp after the Gnolls, but they were moving too fast! The Cave Goblins were running ahead of them, and she couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth—

“The child!”

Someone shouted. Mrsha felt a pair of paws scoop her up. Another Gnoll grabbed Mrsha and they fled once more. Mrsha twisted. She saw the Hobs eying the Raskghar. The two sides froze. Five Hobs. Four Raskghar, including Nokha. Then thirteen. Then seventeen.

“They can’t hold them.”

One of the Gnolls gasped. She looked back as the Hobs spread out. Numbtongue had a guitar in his hand. His claws struck lightning. Badarrow loosed an arrow. Rabbiteater whirled his cloak as the Raskghar hesitated. They outnumbered the Hobs, but they were—nervous. They had never seen Hobgoblins before. Nokha growled, sniffing at the Redfang Warriors. She glanced at Mrsha and tensed.

Shorthilt’s sword shone. Headscratcher pointed.

Redfang!

The Hobs charged. The Raskghar didn’t expect that. The sounds of battle echoed behind Mrsha. She heard snarls of pain, a Goblin’s voice raised in song. The Gnolls ran.

“Where?”

“Follow—the Goblins!”

The Gnolls fled onwards. Mrsha could hear the Hobs fighting. They were standing back-to-back, trying to block the corridor. But there were so many Raskghar. She saw Headscratcher roaring. He smashed into a Raskghar, picked up the huge beast and threw the Raskghar into the other warriors. Then he turned and Nokha leapt. She slammed into Headscratcher. And she had a sword too.

The Hob was strong. He punched Nokha, making her reel back. He slashed left-right, but she was quick too. She parried the blows, their swords ringing. She moved like lightning. As Headscratcher cut down with a two-handed slash she stepped back. Her sword traced an arc. She slashed open Headscratcher’s side.

Blood flew. Mrsha heard Numbtongue cry out. Headscratcher stumbled. Blood ran from his side. He looked at the gaping wound. Then he bared his teeth. Nokha was grinning in triumph when Headscratcher’s blade cut her across the chest. She leapt back. Headscratcher advanced, screaming fury. His eyes blazed as he turned, cutting at the Raskghar who stepped back. They stared at him. Headscratcher didn’t seem to notice the blood. He whirled, stumbled—then fell. The other four Hobs closed around them.

Redfang.

This time the shout sounded different. Mrsha, held in the Gnoll’s arms as the Hobs grew more and more distant, saw them standing around Headscratcher. Rabbiteater had a potion in his hands as the other three tried to keep the Raskghar at bay. But there were so many. And Nokha had cut Shorthilt.

“Keep running.”

Erill had seen it too. He shook himself free of the other two Gnolls, ran on his own two feet. Mrsha kept staring. The Hobs were falling back. But now it was only a matter of time. They were going to die. To buy them time.

Goblins. Monsters. But they had done it for the Gnolls. Mrsha remembered what Erin had said. She stared at Headscratcher as he pushed himself up. They were running now, trying to retreat. The Raskghar pursued them.

It was no good. Mrsha looked around in despair. The Raskghar would cut the Hobs down, and then catch up. They still didn’t have enough time.

Time. Mrsha stared at the Redfang Warriors. Then she looked at the Gnoll carrying her. The female Gnoll was panting with effort. Mrsha closed her eyes. Then she moved her injured legs. She leapt.

 

—-

 

So this was it. Shorthilt parried Nokha’s glowing sword as it curved towards his neck. Because he had to. The Raskghar was too fast to let him dodge. But the cost—the Hob grunted as the impact nearly knocked the blade out of his grip. He saw the enchanted blade the awakened Raskghar carried bite into his steel sword. He cursed, stepped back.

Back.

Someone grabbed him. Shorthilt stepped back as Rabbiteater threw his cloak around them. Nokha’s sword lanced into the blood cloak, slowing slightly. The blade hissed and steam erupted from where she’d struck the cloak. The Raskghar backed up, eying the cloak as Shorthilt and Rabbiteater stumbled backwards. The other Raskghar advanced, keeping their shields up as Badarrow loosed another arrow.

Too many. The Raskghar were overwhelming. There were…fourteen of them now. A fair fight if the Hobs had the high ground or the advantage of surprise. Or the bell. But they had closed too quickly. And the female—

Shorthilt locked eyes with Nokha. She grinned at him, her blade making her eyes shine in the darkness. He straightened, and Rabbiteater patted his shoulder. For a second, the Hobs locked eyes and nodded at each other.

Five of them stood in a line. Headscratcher, barely able to stand. Rabbiteater, crimson cloak held up as a shield. Shorthilt and Numbtongue, guarding Badarrow. They waited as the Raskghar advanced slowly. Another minute. One more minute. Then the Gnolls might make it. Then they could escape. Shorthilt hoped they would. Then they could tell Erin—

For a second the Hob allowed himself to close his eyes. They snapped open as he heard something. A howl. It was high and echoing. It came from the side. He glanced back behind him with the Raskghar. And saw her.

Mrsha sat behind them. The White Gnoll sat on her haunches, staring at the Hobs. The Raskghar. Both sides paused when they saw her. Nokha’s eyes locked onto the white Gnoll. Mrsha stared at Headscratcher, at Rabbiteater, at the Hobs. Then she threw her head back and howled. The sound was mournful, long. Shorthilt had never heard Mrsha make a sound like that. He had never known she could.

Mrsha got onto all fours. She ran with something in her mouth. Her wand. She limped at first, and then ran. She dashed past the Hobs, past the Raskghar. Both tried to grab for her. But Mrsha was too quick. She leapt and dove, as if she were playing in the inn. She ran past the Raskghar and down the corridor, then left. The Raskghar turned. They stared at the Hobs, and then Nokha barked an order. They turned and ran after Mrsha.

Stop them!

Headscratcher bellowed. The Hobs advanced, but several Raskghar turned. They held the Hobs back as Nokha and eight of the Raskghar fled. And the Hobs could hear more howls. Raskghar. They were coming.

“Retreat! Back! Back!

Numbtongue was the one who said it. He grabbed Shorthilt as the Hob tried to cut past a Raskghar with a shield. Shorthilt hesitated. But Numbtongue was right. He turned, cursing in Goblin, and grabbed Rabbiteater. The three had to pull Headscratcher back despite his weakness. The Hob cursed and screamed at the Raskghar, who weren’t advancing. The beast-people stared as the Hobs began to fall back.

Alive. But more than one Hob wept tears of frustration. They stared back as they began to run, following the Cave Goblins and Gnolls. They heard a voice in the dungeon. A howl. It was desperate, tired. It came from a white Gnoll who ran as the Raskghar pursued her. Trying to buy the others time to flee. The howl echoed in the Redfang Warrior’s ears. A note of warning. Exhaustion.

But not despair. And the Gnolls paused. They looked back and howled. Dozens of voices echoed through the dungeon. They listened. The Hobs listened as they ran. They waited for an answer. But they never heard it. So they bowed their heads and ran. This time there were no pursuers.

 

—-

 

She had looked into Skinner’s eyes. She had known fear then. Ceria Springwalker had fled from him as her friends died around her. She still remembered the terror. The helpless paralysis. The despair. Now she looked at another monster just as terrible. Perhaps worse.

Snatcher. Facestealer. One of the guardians of Liscor’s dungeon. His claws were long. He carried a bloody bag of heads on sticks. He had no head. Or eyes that Ceria could see. His eye sockets were hollowed pits. And if Skinner was fear, he was helplessness. As he moved into the Raskghar camp, Ceria fell. She heard the Raskghar and Cave Goblins falling around her like puppets with their strings cut. They lay on the ground as Facestealer walked forwards.

Slowly. Carefully. The giant monster walked around Cave Goblins and Raskghar alike. Ceria didn’t understand what was happening at first. She felt like something had sapped her of strength. She tried to move—and couldn’t.

Spell. It had to be. Ceria could see Snatcher moving. He was heading towards the Gnoll cages at the back of the camp. Towards the Gnoll who’d howled. Towards Mrsha.

Gh—

Ceria’s lips barely moved. She tried to get up. Her arms shook on the ground. But they barely moved! What was it? She hadn’t seen the monster cast a spell. Was it an aura? Not a spell?

No. Ceria could feel something restricting her body. Something—it was magic. It had to be. She knew that because she could move. All of the others, Raskghar, Cave Goblins, Calruz, Gnolls—they were all still as corpses. But Ceria could see her arms tensing slightly as she tried to move.

Half-Elf. Descendants of magic. Ceria pushed mana into her arms. She saw ice begin to form at her fingertips, and then frost race down her arm. Not again. Not this time. She felt her arms move. She called more magic to her.

The ground froze. The ice spread around Ceria’s hands. She drew on everything she had as Facestealer walked as if he was taking a stroll. She felt her ring—the Everfreeze Ring emitting cold on her finger. She pulled from it.

And the ice grew. It pushed her hands up. Ceria shook as she stood. But she did stand. And the ice covered her legs, locking them in place. Ceria turned. She lifted her arm.

Facestealer was peering at Mrsha. It was a monster to inspire nightmares. But Ceria had already faced her nightmares in Liscor’s crypt. This time—she raised her voice.

“Back away from Mrsha, Snatcher. And look this way.”

Facestealer turned. Ceria fired an [Ice Spike]. Straight between its hollowed eye sockets. The javelin of ice flew straight as an arrow. It hit Facestealer’s head. And broke.

Ceria wavered. Then she raised her skeletal hand and loosed another [Ice Spike]. It struck Snatcher in the center of his chest. Again, it broke without leaving so much as a scratch.

Snatcher didn’t react. He stared at her. He seemed almost confused, as if he couldn’t believe Ceria was attacking him. The half-Elf panted with the effort of keeping her arm raised. She concentrated. She had to stop him! How? How—

His body was dark brown. Hide of some kind. But it looked lumpy. And in parts, the hide was missing, revealing a yellow interior. Bone? Or skin? Ceria focused on that. She shifted her aim as Snatcher began to shuffle towards her casually.

“Take this!”

This time she fired five [Ice Spikes], one from each finger. It was a bad shot. Four of her [Ice Spikes] missed her target, striking Facestealer’s body harmlessly. But the last hit one of the yellow patches on his body. The tip of her spear of ice struck and dug in ever so slightly. Ceria saw black liquid run from the wound. And like that, the paralysis inhibiting her vanished.

And Facestealer paused. He had no neck so he couldn’t look down. But Ceria felt a wave of terrible fury coming from it. It looked at her. Then Snatcher raised its oversized arms and charged Ceria without a word, incredibly fast. She backed up and screamed.

Run!

She saw the Gnolls stirring in their cages. Ceria raised her hand but Snatcher was fast. It swung at her and Ceria dove. She felt something pass over her head. She rolled, conjured a wall of ice. Before it had finished rising something smashed straight through it. Ceria scrambled back.

“Run!”

Snatcher stood over her. It swung one arm and Ceria saw it pass inches from her face. She raised a trembling hand, and then someone smashed into Facestealer from the side. Calruz. The Minotaur could barely stand. He hit Snatcher with a roar, not having bothered to draw his axe. Snatcher held still as the Minotaur struck him, at least three hundred pounds of weight behind his charge.

Snatcher’s body didn’t move so much as a centimeter. Calruz bounced off and stumbled back. He stared at Snatcher and the headless monster stared back. Calruz backed up, fumbling for his axe.

“Fight off Snatcher! To me!”

The other Raskghar and Cave Goblins were rising, some half-collapsing. Facestealer turned around as if surveying the situation. It swung its arms and Ceria felt her body deaden. Half of the camp fell back again, limp. But the effect was weaker.

Surround it!

Calruz bellowed. He had his axe in his hand. He raised it and shakily slashed at Facestealer. The blow was slow, weak. The axe head bounced off of Facestealer’s front. It stared at Calruz and then turned. Back to Ceria.

“[Ice Wall]! [Ice Wall]!

Ceria pointed and formed a double-layered wall of ice, at least five feet thick. Snatcher walked forwards. He paused at the wall and drew his torso-head back. He brought it forwards and smashed through the wall. Then he swung at Ceria.

This time she couldn’t dodge. Ceria jumped backwards as the claw came hurtling towards her. She felt the impact—something compressed her side and then—and then she was weightless. Ceria gaped, half-turned as she felt herself flying—

And then she struck the ceiling of the Raskghar’s camp. And fell. Twenty feet. Ceria landed on the ground and heard something scream. She’d landed on something. A Raskghar. She would have screamed too, but pain overwhelmed every part of her.

She felt something moving under her. Ceria gaped, and then reached for a healing potion. She had to—had to—

The bottle smashed as she squeezed it tight. She ignored the glass biting into her hand, let it pour over her body. Her torn flesh began to knit. She felt the pain lessening. Then she managed to scream.

Another potion. Ceria had two. She grabbed the other and drank it. Her bones were cracking. She rolled as the Raskghar screamed and pushed her off. Ceria stood—and saw chaos.

The Raskghar and Cave Goblins surrounded Snatcher. It was turning, slashing with its claws. Every time it did, Raskghar and Cave Goblins died. One swipe sent three Raskghar flying and caved in another’s head. Facestealer grabbed—and three Cave Goblins were headless. And the weapons of the Raskghar and Cave Goblins did nothing to it! They bounced off Snatcher’s hide. And as it turned, some of them collapsed.

Paralysis. Ceria couldn’t feel it from here. She pointed her finger shakily at Snatcher, saw Calruz bellowing.

Keep it in place! Archers! Fire! Enchanted weapons, to the front!

Raskghar tried to obey him. Ceria saw them shooting arrows, but half of them were too weak to move. The arrows landed short of their target or struck the Raskghar and Cave Goblins around Facestealer. He turned and swept his hand. Six Raskghar and Cave Goblins died, bodies broken like twigs. He turned—

And another [Ice Spike] struck him on his yellowed weak spot. Snatcher didn’t react, but he turned. Ceria pointed at him, trembling.

Calruz! Back me up!

“Protect Ceria! Form a shield wall!”

The Minotaur rushed forwards. The Raskghar and Goblins tried to block Snatcher’s advance. He walked through them, swinging his arms, slaughtering them. Ceria aimed for his yellowed flesh, but this time the monster blocked the [Ice Spike]. She was backing up when an arrow struck Snatcher from behind, striking his yellowed flesh.

The monster turned. A group of Raskghar with bows was taking aim at him from the far wall. They were shaky, but far enough from him that they could use their arms. They loosed a hail of arrows which bounced off his skin. But a few struck his exposed flesh. Facestealer began striding towards them, and then turned as Ceria landed another shot from behind. He turned towards her, and the Raskghar shot again.

Turn, shoot, turn, shoot. Ceria almost wanted to laugh. But it would have been hysterical laughter—Snatcher was almost comical in how he moved! He went after whomever had wounded him last! Then her laughter caught in her throat as he turned and beheaded a Raskghar. He stared at the shocked face and carefully opened his sack. Ignoring both her spells and the Raskghar’s arrows, he put the head in the sack. Then he turned around. He seemed to realize he was being struck. He turned to Ceria and she felt a chill. Facestealer stared at her for ten long seconds as Raskghar and Cave Goblins battered him from all sides. Then he turned.

Raskghar collapsed around him. Facesnatcher strode towards one of the entrances. He stopped there, turned, stared at Ceria, and then vanished into the darkness. He left a trail of black liquid. It might have been blood.

And then it was over. Ceria stared at the empty spot where Snatcher had been. She was waiting for him to reappear, but he didn’t. She realized that the Raskghar camp was completely still. All the Raskghar and Cave Goblins were staring at the same spot.

“Was…was that it?”

The Raskghar and Cave Goblins jumped and stared at Ceria. She couldn’t take her eyes off that spot. He’d just left. As if he hadn’t felt like being here. And he’d stared at her. As if memorizing her face. She shuddered, then heard Calruz’s voice.

“Raskghar—Raskghar, seal that entrance! Tend to the wounded. Someone—open the supply of healing potions. Double—no, triple the sentries!”

His voice roused the Raskghar. They began to move shakily. Calruz turned. His eyes widened.

“Where did the Gnolls go?”

Ceria whirled. She’d almost forgotten! She saw the Gnoll cages had been forced open. The Gnolls were gone!

Some of them. A few were lying on the ground, pinned by Raskghar. Most were still in shackles. But many of the Gnolls had removed their shackles! And Mrsha! She’d gotten away too! Ceria dared to hope. But then she saw Calruz striding towards her.

Liar!

The Minotaur looked as shaken as Ceria, but that didn’t stop him from seizing the front of her robes. Ceria held still as Calruz roared at her. The Minotaur pointed furiously towards the cages.

“You told me she was mute!

“She is!”

She howled!

“She can do that! She can’t speak!”

Liar! Traitor! You deceived me!

Calruz roared in Ceria’s face, covering her with spittle. His grip tightened and Ceria braced herself.

“I didn’t know that thing was going to appear! I told you the truth, Calruz! Mrsha can only howl. Or make sounds. She can’t speak!”

“That’s not what mute means!”

“Yes it is! Don’t yell at me because you don’t know the meaning of the word!”

Calruz’s eyes were wide and furious. They were turning red—but then he paused. A curious, affronted look replaced the enraged expression on his face.

“I know the meaning of the word mute. It means unable to make sounds. You are incorrect, Ceria.”

“No, it doesn’t. It means ‘unable to speak’. There’s a big difference, you giant idiot.”

“How do you know that?”

“I read it in a book. Okay, Pisces read it in a book and told me.”

The Minotaur and half-Elf stared at each other. The exchange was furious, tense. But familiar. After a second, Calruz let go of Ceria slowly. They stared at each other. Ceria was breathing hard. She pointed at the splatter of black liquid where Facestealer had been.

“That wasn’t my fault. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. That was Snatcher, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. He sometimes approaches Raskghar camps. They can usually deceive him into leaving by pretending to be statues. Usually.”

“I didn’t know. And I didn’t lie to you. Knowingly.”

Calruz hesitated.

“That is…true.”

“I could have run. I saved your life.”

The Minotaur paused. He looked at Ceria and nodded slowly.

“Yes. You did.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Calruz turned. He looked around his camp and exhaled. Slowly.

“The Gnolls fled. They’ll die in the dungeon. You there! Send a team to retrieve them!”

He pointed at a Raskghar who looked confused. The Raskghar growled. Calruz frowned.

“Already? Who? Nokha? She abandoned the camp when—”

The Raskghar backed up as Calruz snorted in anger. Ceria stared at him anxiously.

“Well? Did the Gnolls escape?”

“Nokha led a team after them the instant they fled. She will not let them run.”

Ceria prayed he was wrong. Calruz stomped away. She saw him begin organizing his camp, directing the Cave Goblins and Raskghar to physically seal the entrance that Snatcher had left by. The mood in the camp was tense, afraid. And angry. The Raskghar forced the remaining Gnolls, barely twenty now, back into the cages, beating them as if to punish them for Mrsha.

“Calruz! Stop them!”

The Minotaur looked over and shouted a word in the Raskghar’s language. The beast-people turned away sullenly and the Gnolls lay in the cages. Ceria expected them to be devastated by the failed escape attempt, but to her surprise—and the Raskghar’s—she heard laughter. The Raskghar turned, disbelieving, as one of the Gnolls sat up.

“You…are cursed.”

The female Gnoll had a bloody lip and her eye looked…wrong, as if it weren’t moving properly. Still, she grinned at the Raskghar as they snarled at her. She lifted her shackled hands, pointed. At Mrsha’s empty cage.

“You captured her. But she is your doom. White fur. Doombringer. You are doomed! Your tribe will end! That is fate! She brought it on you! Mrsha, the child of omens! You—”

A Raskghar bounded over and kicked the Gnoll in the chest. She curled up, choking, until Calruz himself threw the Raskghar back. Then both Gnolls and Raskghar were silent.

It was nearly twenty minutes before Nokha’s team returned. When they did, the Raskghar howled and gathered anxiously at the entrance to their camp, hearing them coming. Ceria ran forwards, heart beating in fear. She heard Calruz roar, saw the Raskghar make grudging way for him—

And then she saw Mrsha. The Gnoll cub was hanging limp in Nokha’s arm. She still held Ceria’s wand. The awakened Raskghar looked displeased. She growled as she walked into the camp. She had Mrsha, and the Raskghar behind her looked wounded. Had they fought monsters? Or had the Gnolls managed to fight them off? Where were the others?

“Is that the only one you managed to catch?”

Calruz’s voice was disbelieving. He strode towards Nokha, hand opening and closing as she slung Mrsha into one of the Gnoll cages with the others. Nokha turned. Her expression was furious.

“Others fled! This one ran other way! We caught! Would have caught others, but strange monsters stopped us! Goblins but not Goblins!”

“What? What? You were stopped? By who?”

Ceria listened with disbelief and bated breath as Nokha described their encounter with the Redfang Hobs. When Calruz realized what Nokha had to be describing he snorted dismissively.

“Fool! Those are Hobs! They are Goblin.”

“No! Goblins are small! Not large! They do not fight Raskghar! They obey!”

Nokha lashed out at the nearest Cave Goblin scurrying around her in fury. The Goblins shrank back as the Raskghar growled at them. Calruz shook his head.

“Hobgoblins are standard aboveground. This must have been a group that wandered into the dungeon. Somehow. They’re intelligent. Good fighters, for scum. You should have overwhelmed the five!”

“They were strong. And little white one ran other way. So we chased.”

Nokha’s ears flattened in displeasure. Calruz snorted. He cast his eyes towards the eastern entrance to the camp and Ceria saw more Raskghar dragging or carrying limp Gnolls.

“One Gnoll versus dozens? Think, fool! At least the others caught more than a single Gnoll child.”

“This one is special. White fur. Cast magic! Will sacrifice now. Get others later.”

The awakened Raskghar bared her teeth as she pointed at Mrsha. The other Gnolls were shielding her from sight protectively. Calruz’s eyes narrowed.

“That is not your decision. I am Chieftain and I say if we sacrifice any Gnoll! Understand?”

He locked eyes with Nokha. The air grew tense again and the Raskghar around Nokha grew still. The eighteen awakened Raskghar stared at her. Three had died to Snatcher. Nokha glanced around, her expression savage. Then she seemed to note the dead Raskghar and Goblins. Snatcher had barely fought save to defend himself and still a score of corpses lay on the ground. She glanced at Calruz and inclined her head ever so slightly.

“Yes.”

There was no ‘Chieftain’, or any other sign of acknowledgment. Nokha turned and stalked towards the Raskghar who weren’t working. Calruz stared at her back. His hand clenched in anger and his brows drew together, but he seemed to think twice about calling her back. He turned to look at Ceria.

“Use a potion if you need to. And find one for your belt.”

He stomped off to shout at the Cave Goblins and Raskghar laboring at the entrance. Ceria watched him go and then looked around. The air in the camp was tense. Snatcher’s attack might not have been Calruz’s fault, but the Raskghar were shaken. And they were already chafing at his restrictions. They kept staring at the remaining Gnolls. And the awakened Raskghar, led by Nokha?

They were looking at Calruz. Not fearfully, but with a calculating look in their gazes that made Ceria shiver. She stared at the remaining Gnolls in cages and at Calruz. The Minotaur looked around. He could sense it too. He adjusted the axe strapped to his back and stood taller.

Get to work!

The Raskghar obeyed. But it was only a matter of time. Ceria was certain now. She looked around, and then backed up to the cages. The Gnolls looked up at Ceria.

“Is she…?”

“Hurt. But not critically.”

“I’ll get you a healing potion. For all of you. If I can.”

The Gnolls nodded. Ceria hesitated, and then bent. Pretending to inspect Mrsha, she concentrated. A little fiery bug crawled out from her hands. It fluttered upwards, vanished, carrying a message for Pisces.

 

Gnolls escaped. Mrsha here. Raskghar rebel soon. Hurry.

 

The Gnolls stared at the fiery bug as it disappeared. They looked at Ceria. She gave them a slight nod and straightened. None of the Goblins and Raskghar around her had noticed. But then she turned and saw one of them staring at her.

Nokha. The Raskghar had snuck up on her from the side! She stared at the Gnolls and Ceria. At Ceria’s hands.

She’d seen the spell! Ceria felt a chill of fear, but the Raskghar didn’t immediately shout what Ceria had done. Instead, she locked gazes with Ceria and smiled. The half-Elf met her gaze. She glanced at Calruz’s back. She gave Nokha a frozen smile.

“Just try it.”

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice paced back and forth in her inn. She had a plan. It was a good one, or at least, it was simple. The best plans were simple. Except that they weren’t in chess. Chess was an ever-moving game of attack and defense and opportunity. You had to think a hundred moves ahead of your opponent. That was why computers were so good. But her plan had only one moving part. She couldn’t adjust it. It worked or it wouldn’t.

It would work. But first, Erin had to know where the Raskghar camp was. And for that, the Redfang Warriors had to return. It had been four hours. The magic door to the Goblin’s cave was open. Only a few people were in Erin’s inn. Pisces had gone out with Yvlon and Ksmvr to bring back the Gold-rank adventurers. Erin hoped she wouldn’t have to tell them her plan wouldn’t work today.

“Lyonette, have you eaten anything today?”

“No.”

“You should.”

“Okay.”

The [Princess] sat at a table and didn’t move. Erin looked at her. Lyonette stared past Erin. Apista buzzed around her anxiously.

“Have you fed Apista?”

Lyonette blinked. She looked at the Ashfire Bee and a bit of life entered her eyes.

“No. I—”

She half got up and had to put her hands on the table. Erin looked around.

“Drassi.”

“On it! I’ll get honey for Apista, and what do you want, Lyonette?”

The young woman hesitated. She sat back down.

“I don’t want—”

“Water and a bit of meat and cheese, maybe. Crackers? Yeah, crackers and meat and cheese. Just have a few bites, Lyonette.”

Erin tried to encourage the young woman. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had breakfast. Maybe not? Well, she was in better shape than Lyonette. Erin stared back towards the Goblin cave. Then she heard a shout from outside her inn and whirled.

Erin! Get out here!

That was Yvlon’s voice! Erin hesitated, grabbed the knife and one of Octavia’s potions she’d put on the table and raced outside. The rain pounded her face. She blinked, nearly cut herself as she went to wipe her face, and then saw the boats. The Gold-rank adventurers had returned! And they had brought—

Headscratcher! Rabbiteater!

Two of the Hobs looked up. Headscratcher tried to rise, but Rabbiteater forced him down. The boat rocked as he leapt out of it and began swimming to shore. The adventurers rowed towards Erin’s inn. But another group was heading straight for Liscor. And in them—

“They found the Gnolls! There was an escape! Erin, we need stamina potions!”

What?

Erin stared in disbelief. Yes, some of the boats had Gnolls in them! They huddled together, staring around. The Gold-ranks were escorting them to Liscor and a cry went up from the walls. Erin saw more boats headed her way. The Horns and Halfseekers rowing boats with Gnolls in them. And Cave Goblins. And the Redfangs. Erin stared at all of the Gnolls, looking for a flash of white. But there wasn’t any.

“Mrsha? Where’s Mrsha?”

The adventurers looked at each other. Yvlon stood up in her boat.

“They think she’s captured. Erin! We need stamina potions! Now!

For a second the [Innkeeper] wavered, but then she realized Yvlon was right. She turned and ran into her inn as Rabbiteater ran up the slope.

Drassi get me all our stamina potions! Some of the Gnolls are back!”

“What?”

The Drake turned. Lyonette shot up, knocking her plate of food aside.

“Is Mrsha—”

“Potions! Now!”

Erin met word with action. She grabbed her crate of potions and ran out with it. The adventurers were still rowing towards her boat.

Catch!

Erin threw a potion through the air. The glowing potion flew straight at Pisces who ducked. Yvlon fielded the bottle and yanked the cork out. Erin didn’t know why they needed stamina potions, but when she saw the Gnolls lying weakly in the boats she understood. The adventurers had enough healing potions to cover them, but they hadn’t brought many stamina potions. And the Gnolls looked half-dead.

“Get them in here! Drassi, get me food! Lyonette—”

The young woman ran past Erin. She splashed into the water.

“Mrsha! Is she okay? Where is she?”

The Gnolls in the boat were rousing themselves. Some looked at Lyonette and shook their heads, but one, an older, grey-haired Gnoll with red stripes, spoke weakly.

“She ran back. She distracted the Raskghar. To save us. She freed us too. She is alive, we think. But maybe—”

Lyonette stared in horror at the Gnoll. The adventurers ran their boats aground and leapt out. They helped the Gnolls out as Erin saw the people on Liscor’s walls trying to do the same for the Gnolls there.

In the end, all the boats had to come to Erin’s inn. The Gnolls had exhausted the last of their energy fleeing from the Raskghar and now, in safety, could barely move even with the stamina potions. Erin changed the door from her cave to Liscor and had to step back as the Watch and Gnoll families flooded into her inn. She opened her pantry and soon the Gnolls were eating small portions.

“Not too much. You’ll injure yourselves. Eat only small bits. And we must check you for broken bones and other injuries. The healing potions will not heal everything. They may make some things worse, but the adventurers have taken care not to heal wounds incorrectly.”

A Drake [Healer] was cautioning the Gnolls as they sat at Erin’s tables. They ate slowly, some surrounded by their loved ones. Many were in tears as they ate simple foods. A few spoke to Zevara and the others, recounting what they’d seen and heard.

“It was the child who saved us. She used a—a—”

Erill glanced at the Drakes and hesitated.

“She used her voice! The Raskghar thought her mute, but she howled and brought the monster down on them. We fled in the confusion, but Mrsha, she ran back when it became clear the Hobs would fall. She bought us all time to flee.”

“Mrsha. Oh, Mrsha.”

Lyonette buried her head in her hands, weeping. Erin stared at the Hobs. They were intact, although Headscratcher was still weak. They all looked like they’d healed wounds recently. None of them could meet her eyes.

“You say these awakened Raskghar were smarter? And stronger?”

“They were leaders among the others. Terrifying. The ritual—it must be stopped. And the Minotaur is insane. I saw him beat the half-Elf when she tried to stop him. But I think—I think neither will be alive much longer. The awakened are too intelligent. They will dispose of both if they are not stopped.”

The Horns and other adventurers exchanged uneasy looks. Zevara just nodded. Another Gnoll spoke up.

“We remember where they’ve gone. But I am sure—the Raskghar keep their camps watched. And there are so many. They will surely move their camp tonight.”

“And if we attack them, they’ll just fight us off. We don’t have enough bodies!”

Keldrass pounded a scaly fist into his other clawed hand. Zevara glanced at him and shook her head.

“The fact that any of you were able to escape is a miracle. Mister Elirr, I know you and the others must be exhausted. But if you’ll speak to our [Strategist], I’d be deeply grateful. Rest assured we’ll try to save the others if at all possible.”

Again, she glanced at the Gold-rank adventurers who looked away. Some of them shook their heads. Elirr bowed his.

“We owe Mrsha a debt we cannot repay. To think we blamed her—and the Goblins! They saved us.”

“Yes. Them.”

Zevara met Erin’s gaze. She shook her head.

“We’ll get a full accounting of this later. For now, let’s bring you back to the city. The Council will want your statements and then we’ll issue an announcement. Solstice, we’ll settle the costs later. Is that fine?”

“What? Yes. Go on.”

Erin nodded. She was talking with Numbtongue. The Hob’s head was bowed.

“We tried. But there were many. And the female one—”

“I understand. You weren’t supposed to fight them. It’s okay, Numbtongue.”

The Hob looked up wretchedly.

“But Mrsha—”

Erin grabbed the Hob’s shoulder, squeezing hard.

“We still have a chance. Did you find the Raskghar camp?”

“Yes. But it is…what is the word? Fortified. The adventurers will not take it. And there are many Raskghar.”

“I know. But you know where it is, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then come with me. Drassi! Change the door as soon as I’m through. Then let us back when everyone’s in Liscor!”

Erin pushed past the crowd and headed to her magic door. She slapped the red mana stone on, opened the door, and strode through. She heard an exclamation behind her and an oath from Zevara and slammed the door. She looked around.

“Pebblesnatch! Where’s Pebblesnatch?”

The Cave Goblins looked up. They stared at Numbtongue and raced over. Erin looked around wildly and saw a familiar face. Pebblesnatch and a bunch of smaller Goblins looked up from Erin’s magic chessboard. They’d constructed a very tall tower out of the ghostly chess pieces. They scrambled back guiltily as Erin marched over.

“It’s okay. Pebblesnatch, I need your help. Will you listen? Numbtongue, can you translate?”

The Hob nodded. The Cave Goblins could understand Erin well enough, probably thanks to Calruz, but the Hob translated with word and gesture so Erin was certain that Pebblesnatch understood every word she said. She crouched next to the Cave Goblin.

“The Raskghar are bad. They kidnapped Gnolls. And they’re mean to you and the other Cave Goblins. The adventurers have been fighting them. So have the Redfangs. But the Raskghar have some of my friends. Two people very important to me. I want them back.”

Pebblesnatch stared up at Erin with round eyes. She glanced at Numbtongue and at Erin. She nodded hesitantly, but then gave Erin a Goblin shrug. Numbtongue didn’t have to translate. Erin smiled ruefully.

“Yeah, that’s bad, but what can you do about it? Well, there is something. The Redfangs found the Raskghar camp. And I have a plan to get back my friends. But I need your help. It might be dangerous, but not too much. And it will save my friends. Will you do it, Pebblesnatch?”

The small Goblin looked alarmed. She looked at Numbtongue. The Hob stared at Erin. The young woman looked from Numbtongue to Pebblesnatch.

“I won’t ask her to steal a key or anything. It’s very safe. So long as you can get her there. Can you?”

“We can.”

Numbtongue nodded at once. Pebblesnatch began to quiver. She looked at Erin and the [Innkeeper] could tell that Pebblesnatch was afraid to see a Raskghar again. Erin reached out and touched Pebblesnatch’s hands.

“I know it must be terrifying. But you’re the only one I can ask. The Hobs can’t do it. And you—well, your name is actually important. Pebblesnatch. It’s part of how I came up with my plan, actually.”

All the Goblins looked astonished at that. Pebblesnatch touched her chest. Erin nodded.

“It’s true. And I know this is a lot. I know it’s scary. But I need your help. You’re the only one who can do it. So will you?”

The small Goblin stared up at Erin. She hesitated. She looked at Numbtongue and the Hob nodded. But the Cave Goblin was still afraid. She met Erin’s eyes. The young woman stared into hers.

“Please?”

Pebblesnatch wavered. Then, slowly, she nodded. Erin smiled.

“Thank you. It’s very simple. All you have to do is take these—and do exactly what I say.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled something out. Pebblesnatch’s eyes went round and the other Cave Goblins gasped. Numbtongue stared at Erin, and his eyes lit up in sudden comprehension.

“Ah. Good plan.”

Erin turned and smiled at him.

“I know, right? I thought of it myself. Now, I need Pebblesnatch to go now, but we need to time this exactly right. So here’s what we’re going to do…”

 

—-

 

“Keep all the camps on alert. Snatcher may strike at them. I want the watches doubled, but no patrols. They’re dead if they run into him. Go!”

Calruz was giving commands like normal. The Raskghar he was addressing bowed its head and moved with speed. Like normal. But the mood in the camp was on edge.

It was strange for Ceria to think of ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ after only having been in the Raskghar camp a few days. But she could tell that the Raskghar were growing discontent.  Calruz would have called it insubordinate. Ceria just thought they were finally confident enough not to need him any longer. And the source of that confidence were the awakened.

They were intelligent. They would keep being intelligent when the moons fell. Of that Ceria and Calruz were now sure. The other Raskghar seemed nervous about the absence of the full moon, only one more day away. But the awakened? They moved about without fear, followed by a pack of lesser Raskghar who ran to fulfill their every whim. And Nokha led them all.

It was like two tribes, now, really. Calruz strode about, giving orders, but the awakened did the same. And while they moved when he looked at them and told them what to do, there was an air of…expectancy. As if they were waiting to strike.

But they kept watching Calruz for now. Because he was still important. Ceria saw Nokha listening, pretending to be listening at attention as Calruz dealt with an issue that had reared its head in one of the smaller camps.

“How many sick? And what are the symptoms?”

The Raskghar growled. Calruz frowned and made Nokha translate.

“Hotness. Shaking. Throwing up. Blood in…leavings. And lumps. Yellow pus.”

Nokha gestured and Ceria made a face. Calruz wrinkled his bull’s nose.

“And the cause? Did they not cook their food again? What monsters did they eat?”

“No, Chieftain. They say it was adventurers. A few Raskghar were wounded by…arrows? And spells. They thought it minor, but the wounds grew worse. Now many are sick.”

Calruz cursed. He looked at Ceria.

“Poison.”

“Or plague.”

Ceria felt a bit sick. She knew some adventurers used those tactics, but it was cruel, even against Raskghar. And dangerous. She’d heard stories of adventurers who’d used poison against rats and killed thousands in major cities, or spread disease for hundreds of miles by accident. The Adventurer’s Guild was very strict about that sort of thing. Calruz frowned.

“Quarantine the camp. That means no one goes in or out. Not Cave Goblins, not Raskghar. No one touches the sick. Burn the bodies.”

The Raskghar didn’t like that. They tried to argue until Calruz cuffed the scout across the face. He glanced at Ceria as the Raskghar whined and Nokha barked at him sharply.

“Anything else, Springwalker?”

Ceria had to think.

“No healing potions. That can help with some diseases, but it might spread the plague faster. And…wash with hot water? There’s not much we can do without seeing what it is. And I’m not going to inspect it in person.”

The Minotaur nodded grimly.

“True. If we had an [Alchemist] or [Healer], we might try something. But we don’t. Quarantine the camp. Do as Ceria says. The surviving Raskghar and Cave Goblins will remain in place for…”

He glanced at Ceria. She shrugged.

“Four days after getting better? And don’t bring them here.”

Calruz nodded.

“Four days. They’ll patrol with healthy Raskghar or Cave Goblins to make sure they’re well.”

The Raskghar whined unhappily, but Nokha snapped and he went. Calruz growled under his breath.

“Adventurers. Damn them. I need to make sure they haven’t infected any other camps. Where are my other scouts?”

He looked around and stomped towards some Raskghar who were eating by a fire. Ceria and Nokha were left. The half-Elf eyed the Raskghar. The awakened smiled.

“You know things about adventuring. Like Chieftain.”

“Yup. More than you do.”

Ceria smiled and Nokha bared her teeth.

“True. We need Chieftain. He is smart. Knows much.”

“Even if he won’t let you kill the Gnolls? Even if you’re smart when the moon isn’t full?”

Ceria saw Nokha’s grin waver. The Raskghar looked concerned. She glanced swiftly at Calruz and back at Ceria. The half-Elf kept her smiling mask up.

That’s right. We know.

But far from being nervous, Nokha instead just smiled again.

“Yes. We still need. Someone who knows what we do not. Very important. Chieftain is valuable. Important. But won’t let us sacrifice Gnolls. Too bad.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll have to live with it. Unless you want to take his place? But oh wait, then you don’t have Calruz. Shame about that, especially if you run into something like infected Raskghar, huh?”

The half-Elf smiled mockingly. Nokha nodded. She drew closer suddenly.

“Yes. Very bad. If Chieftain was only one. Good thing we have two.”

She grabbed Ceria’s arm suddenly. The half-Elf tensed. She raised a fist, but too slow. Nokha leaned forwards—

And licked Ceria.

The action was so surprising that Ceria forgot to hit Nokha. She spluttered and tried to back up, but Nokha licked her across her face. Her tongue was rough and wet. Ceria twisted out of her grip. She wiped at her face.

“What in the name of tree crap was—”

She backed up and saw Nokha smiling at her. The Raskghar stood back, smiling. Ceria stared at her, and then remembered something about animals. They liked to mark their territory, didn’t they? Was that—

“Unacceptable!”

Calruz had seen the entire thing. He stormed over and Nokha backed up. The Minotaur snarled at her, much like a Raskghar himself and she backed up.

“Forgiveness, Chieftain.”

“Back to your work!”

Calruz roared at her. His fist clenched, but Nokha moved out of range before he could strike. She sauntered back to the other Raskghar, who had of course been watching. Ceria scrubbed at the saliva, blushing. That had felt like more than just a challenge against Calruz. It had been an attack on multiple levels. She was his companion, and that had felt like an oddly sexual jab from Nokha against Calruz as well. She glanced sideways at Calruz to see what he thought.

The Minotaur was clearly furious. He stared at Ceria, clenching his hand, and spoke through gritted teeth.

“Why did she do that?”

“She was telling me that she only needed one of us for our knowledge. She’s not afraid of you, Calruz.”

The Minotaur breathed heavily.

“No. She’s growing bolder. I should crush her. But if I do, the Raskghar might revolt. I need her to challenge me. That is their custom. This is—provocation. The next time she does that, blast her with magic.”

“I was going to, but she’s quick!”

“Do it faster next time. This is an affront on my honor. On my reputation! I have to make a reply, demonstrate—”

Calruz broke off, muttering to himself. Ceria eyed him and sidled away a step.

“Lick me and I’ll punch you.”

The Minotaur glanced at Ceria. Then he snorted. Ceria laughed and Calruz joined in. The Raskghar looked back at them, and Nokha’s smile vanished for a moment in annoyed confusion. The two adventurers laughed louder, and Ceria felt a bit of madness herself take over. Every day it felt like the old Calruz again. And not. Here they were, fighting to keep him Chieftain of a Raskghar camp. And being licked! She laughed and laughed.

And knew it would be over soon.

 

—-

 

Evening fell on Liscor. Not that you could tell in the rain. Relc Grasstongue grumbled as he stood on the walls.

“When’s it going to stop? Next week? The week after next? It should end soon, right? It has to! There’s not enough water in the sky for all this. And why do I have to stand guard duty right now? For the sixth straight day? I wanna patrol, but no…I’m too high-level to patrol in a nice warm tavern for an hour or two. Captain Z makes me stand here because I’m the highest-level [Guardsman] in the city. Which is true. I’m awesome. But still.”

His griping went unheard by the other [Guardspeople] who were actually patrolling the walls. It was a slippery, wet beat and Relc was standing beneath a temporary awning out of the rain. Occasionally one of them would shoot him a dirty glance or make a comment, but they generally left Relc alone. Because if a monster or Raskghar attacked, he’d be the first one into the fight and everyone knew it.

Still, that didn’t meant they had to stand near him. Relc stood alone, leaning on the battlements and yawning while scratching his tail until a pair of crisp footfalls made him look around. He blinked and waved as a Drake with red scales marched towards him. Wing Commander Embria’s armor was polished and she walked swiftly with her enchanted spear in hand. A helmet was on her head and her posture was perfect. Relc waved at her as he leaned on his spear and the wall.

“Hey kid. What’s up?”

Embria stopped in front of Relc. She turned to face him and stared down at Relc, which was a trick since he was taller than she was. Her voice was cold.

“Senior Guardsman Relc.”

“What?”

Senior Guardsman Relc.

A note in Embria’s voice made Relc pause. Embria stared at him without a trace of affection.

“We are on duty. You will address me by my rank.”

The Drake paused. He looked at Embria and then straightened and gave her a grudging salute. He looked past her head as he spoke.

“Yes. Wing Commander Embria.”

His voice was hurt. Embria colored, making her red scales turn a darker shade. She nodded and Relc went back to leaning on the battlements, not looking at her. Embria looked around quickly and hissed.

“Stand up straight! You’re on duty!”

Relc looked back at Embria, clearly upset. His tail swept the wet stones beneath his feet as he replied.

“I’m not in the army anymore. The Watch doesn’t make us keep perfect posture except when we’re talking to Captain Z.”

Embria hissed at her father, keeping an eye out for passing [Guardsman] or her [Soldiers]. A few had been assigned to man the walls at regular intervals.

“You’re a former [Sergeant]! You should remember how to stand at least!”

“My former commander never made me stand at attention. He was cool.”

Relc folded his arms, looking peeved. Embria hesitated.

“Wing Commander Weillmet? He’s dead.”

“What? No.”

The big Drake froze. He stared at Embria.

“When?”

The Wing Commander had to think. She shook her head.

“About a year ago. During a holding action at Shivering Straits. His flank was exposed—a division from Oteslia’s Second Infantry overwhelmed his position.”

“Damn. I didn’t know.”

Relc turned away. He stared at the water surrounding Liscor in silence. Embria stared at his back. Her tail moved restlessly.

“You didn’t hear? The army sends back regular reports—”

“I don’t read them. Too many names I recognize and a lot I don’t. Plus, it’s always about where we’re fighting next, who’s paying us. It’s always the same stuff.”

“I’m…sorry. Wing Commander Weillmet was a good officer. I served with him for a few months. He taught me a few spear techniques.”

“Yeah. He always was good with the spear. Nearly as good as I was, but he was a better leader than a soldier. Man…so why are you up here, Wing Commander?”

Embria colored again. She stepped up and stood next to Relc. After a moment she relaxed her posture a tiny bit.

“I…wanted to talk with you.”

“You can find me at my home. I’m on duty. Can’t casually chat and all that.”

“You’ve been pulling double shifts all week.”

“That’s Captain Z’s fault, not mine. I just follow orders.”

Embria bit her tongue. She stared at Relc’s side. The Drake was staring into the waters, his expression bleak. After a moment, Embria went on.

“It’s about the Human.”

“Erin?”

“Yes. I have…questions. You know I’m here for more than just defense of the city, don’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah. Making sure we’re not getting eaten by the Antinium, prodding the Council in the tails, all that. How’s that going?”

Embria ignored the question.

“One of the things I was instructed to look into were the Antinium. I know what you think—but they’re acting oddly. And the other Hives have been…irregular of late. When Xrn, the Small Queen was sighted in Liscor, the High Command was alarmed.”

“Oh, so that’s why they sent you? Not because of the Goblin Lord running about?”

“It was one of their concerns. Father, you know this is an issue. And the Small Queen and the Slayer—”

“Klbkch.”

“—They both went to her inn. The Human’s.”

“Erin’s. They have names, you know.”

“Why?”

Relc paused. He stared across Liscor’s lake and then responded slowly.

“Well, you know, back in the old days, I guess people were tired of saying ‘hey you’, all the time. So they invented this thing called names, and most people—”

Embria stomped on Relc’s tail. He bit back a shout and whirled. She glared at him.

“Don’t evade the question!”

“I don’t know, okay? Erin’s special! Klb likes her and that blue Antinium likes her too, I guess! She plays chess with Workers!”

“But why? Why do you and everyone else listen to her?”

Embria raked her claws across the spines on the back of her neck, clearly frustrated. She gripped her spear and twirled it.

“Every time something happens, not only does Watch Captain Zevara listen to her, but Wall Lord Ilvriss—a Wall Lord—listens to her! And your [Strategist]! And everyone else! They listen to her opinion even when she says the most idiotic things! And apparently Zel Shivertail himself stayed at her inn! Why?”

“Because she’s Erin.”

This time Relc pulled his tail out of the way of Embria’s foot. He cradled it protectively as she stared at him.

“I don’t know, kid. All I know is that Erin has something. But I have no idea what that is. She likes Goblins, she plays a mean game of chess apparently…and she’s just different. But I can’t say why. I just go to her inn because I like the food. And because she called me a Dragon.”

The Wing Commander snorted and turned away. Relc stared at her back for a while, and then let go of his tail. It curled up a bit, and then he sidled a bit closer to her. He leaned on the battlements.

“You know, I think it’s because people like her. They didn’t at first, but Erin grows on you. Like a mushroom.”

“And what? They don’t like me? Is that why I have to request to join every planning session and why Watch Captain Zevara keeps forgetting to notify me of important events?”

“Yeah. Probably.”

Embria clenched her claws into fists.

“I came here to defend Liscor!”

“Too late. And the army’s never here. And you came in the wrong way, kid. You strode in and expected to take command. That’s not how it works.”

Embria sagged. She leaned on the battlements, looking dispirited.

“I know. I just—I’m trying to do my job, Dad. Why is it so hard?

Relc eyed Embria in alarm. His tail hesitated, and then nearly went over to touch Embria’s. At the last moment it stopped. He cleared his throat and looked around uncertainly.

“I think it’s because people don’t know you. But I’m sure they’d like you. I mean, you’re my kid. So why don’t we go and say hi to some people? Get your face out there? Buy some people some drinks?”

The young female Drake stared into the lake. Then she turned her head.

“That was your best idea?”

“Yeah.”

“I see.”

The two stood there for a while. Then Embria raised her head. She turned it and stared. Relc looked around as well. Both Drakes heard a loud, familiar voice.

“Yeah, I know it’s off limits! I need to speak with whoever’s up there! Is it Captain Zevara? No? Where is she? Okay, who’s up there? I know it’s someone important? Olesm? Embria? Okay, well then let me talk to her! Excuse me! Excuse me!

They saw Erin push her way up the steps. The Gnoll [Guardsman] tried to stop her, but not very hard. He stepped to one side as Erin spotted Embria and Relc.

“Great! You’re on my list! Hi, Embria right?”

What are you doing up here?

Embria barked at Erin. The young woman paused. Embria grabbed her spear and pointed it at Erin.

“Are you insane? We are under martial law! Access to the ramparts is forbidden! I could execute you here and now!”

“Yeah, yeah. Look, I need to talk to you. Now.”

To the female Drake’s shock, Erin reached out and pushed the spearhead away from her chest. She advanced and Embria stared at her.

“I’ve got a plan. Relc, can you tell Zevara I need to speak with her? And Klbkch! I definitely need Klbkch. Get them to meet me in the inn in like, five minutes. Be there or be square. Got it?”

Relc covered a laugh as Embria spluttered.

“You can’t just order a Watch Captain—I’m a Wing Commander! What are you talking about? A plan?”

“That’s right. And you should be there. Bring a few [Captains] so they can listen if you want. I’m getting Ilvriss and Olesm now. Relc?”

“On it! Is this plan going to be awesome?”

“So awesome. Or we die.”

Erin gave Relc a thumbs up. He grinned. Erin turned to go, but Embria’s spear shot out.

“Hold it.”

Both Erin and Relc looked at Embria. The Wing Commander looked beyond peeved. She stared at Erin, anger written all over her face.

“This is insane! Da—Senior Guardsman Relc, get back to your post! You, Human. Why should we listen to you or follow your orders?”

“Why?”

“That’s right. You’re no [Leader]. You run an inn! What gives you the right to order anyone about?”

Erin gave Embria the blankest look the Drake had ever seen on someone who wasn’t a corpse. She thought for a second, and then shrugged.

“You don’t have to follow my orders. I just thought you’d want to be part of my plan. I don’t need you. I could use your help, but you need me more than I need you. So…see you maybe?”

The Wing Commander gaped at Erin. The young woman went to push aside her spear, but it didn’t budge. Relc coughed. He lifted the spear up and Erin ducked under it.

“Five minutes! Or ten! I can’t run that fast. All the Gold-ranks are going to be there! I’ll tell everyone my plan, then we have to hurry and get ready! Find Zevara and Klbkch!”

She ran down the battlements. The Gnoll [Guardsman] stared at Embria and then decided he needed to follow Erin. Relc and his daughter stood together. Embria looked at Relc. He grinned.

“See that? That’s why. You coming?”

 

—-

 

“Yes, I don’t think Pallass can commit any more adventurers. It’s not a question of cost—they’re not willing to empty their city and they’ve sent two thirds of their Gold-ranks to Liscor already. They do have a Named Adventurer, but they can’t force him to comply. Yes, I’ve tried to approach him directly. But I’m banned from entering the city as you know—”

Ilvriss was speaking into his personal scrying orb to someone in Salazsar. He and Olesm sat in the meeting room usually used by the Council in their infrequent meetings. Now it was a war room complete with a map of the dungeon. Olesm was poring over the transcripts of the Gnoll prisoner’s accounts of the dungeon. He was trying to piece together an image of the Raskghar camps. And he was succeeding, much to his chagrin.

“Too many Raskghar. If we fill the corridors like this and this—we can’t complete the encirclement. But without more adventurers, we can’t hold these positions. Especially against the awakened. If they can beat a Hob—what’s Headscratcher’s level?”

Olesm was muttering to himself as he did calculations. Each time he studied the numbers of the Raskghar his heart sank. Just too many to take on with all the Gold-ranks. If they were defending it was doable. But the objective was to free prisoners and the Raskghar could run or encircle the Gold-ranks. They had to do something other than a full-scale assault. Use subterfuge. Unfortunately, even the best Gold-ranks like Seborn had flatly refused to try and infiltrate the Raskghar camp.

“We must do something. Some of the Gnolls are free, but the rest will be sacrificed. Can you hire a Courier to send an artifact—yes, it’s worth the risk! No, the Heartflame Breastplate can’t solve this issue! The Selphid wearing it can fight a hundred Raskghar in it, and there are thousands in the dungeon! I don’t care about the cost! Give me a solution! Salazsar has—”

Ilvriss was arguing passionately with his fellow Salaszarian Wall Lords and Ladies. He had really committed all he could to the dungeon. Olesm had to admire that. But his fellow nobility from Salazsar were removed from Liscor’s situation. Ilvriss had been talking with them for the last hour and gotten nowhere. But Olesm had hopes. If he could get Salaszar to send some of their elites or adventurers of their own—or just one of the artifacts that the Walled Cities held in their vaults, maybe—

Hey! Let me in!

The Wall Lord glanced up with Olesm.  They both heard the shout from below. Olesm closed his eyes. He recognized that voice.

“Hey Ilvriss! Hey! I know you’re up there! Your guards won’t let me in! Move aside! I need to talk with you!”

Olesm looked at Ilvriss. The Drake covered the scrying orb with one claw and motioned him towards the window. The [Strategist] looked outside. Sure enough, there was Erin. A pair of Drakes were trying to usher her away, but she was shouting up at the windows.

“I have a plan! I need you to come to my inn! Now! It’s about the Gnolls!”

Ilvriss paused. He looked at Olesm. The [Strategist] gave him a weak grin and shrug, but part of him stirred. Erin couldn’t have a plan. He had no plan and he was a [Strategist] now! But she played chess. And it was Erin…

“Hold on. I need to address this. Stay near the orb. We haven’t finished our discussion.”

Ilvriss snapped into the scrying orb and placed it on the table. He stalked over to the window and unlatched it. He shouted down at Erin as the two Drakes began to haul her back.

“Hold! Solstice, what are you talking about?”

Erin fought free of the Drakes and waved her arms up at Ilvriss.

“I have a plan! It involves you and Olesm and Zevara and Embria! They’re all coming to my inn! I think!”

Ilvriss glanced swiftly at Olesm. The [Strategist] whispered.

“I haven’t heard anything from Captain Zevara. But Erin probably talked to her just before this.”

The Wall Lord nodded. He called down at Erin.

“You can’t have a plan.”

“What? Why not?”

Ilvriss glared at Erin.

“There is no way you can resolve this situation. I’m sorry, but there isn’t. Not in this case. The Raskghar are a threat, not a stain on your inn’s floors you can wipe away. This is not something you can make a difference with, Solstice.”

“I can with your help! Believe me!”

“She is quite good at strategy, Wall Lord.”

Ilvriss glanced at Olesm with irritation.

“Good at strategy doesn’t change facts, Swifttail! There are thousands of Raskghar! We’ve been racking our brains trying to figure out how to assist the Gold-ranks. What can she do that we can’t?”

“Hey! I heard that!”

In the streets, Erin raised a fist and shook it at Ilvriss. The volume of her shouting rose.

“You think I can’t help? I can’t fight, but I can think! And my plan needs you, Ilvriss! It needs you, and Klbkch, and Zevara—it needs everyone! Only I can pull it off. Because I’m me!

The Drakes hesitated. Olesm stared down at Erin. He put down his papers and grabbed an ink pot, some fresh parchment and a quill. Ilvriss stared at him.

“What are you doing?”

“Going to her inn.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. Stay here. Swifttail! I command you!”

Ilvriss reached out. Olesm turned. He had a hand on the doorknob.

“Apologies, Wall Lord, but I believe Erin.”

“But she’s just—”

“Erin. She killed Skinner. And I believe she’s the best chess player in this world. Better than Niers Astoragon. She saved me from Liscor’s crypt. I’m going.”

Olesm threw the door open. He disappeared out it. Ilvriss turned back to the window. He stared down at Erin as Olesm hurried past her.

“You can’t do anything. If you could—what can you do that we cannot?”

The young woman stared up at him. Her voice echoed from the houses. The rain fell, but Erin shouted over the roar.

I am Erin Solstice! I’m the craziest Human you know! And I have a plan! I can save the Gnolls! I can save Ceria! I can save Mrsha! Look me in the eye and tell me I can’t!

She met Ilvriss’ gaze. The Wall Lord stared down at her. Then he turned. He strode down the steps and out the door. He folded his arms as he met Erin in the rain.

“Let’s hear it.”

She grinned. Erin was wet and sweaty. She was dirty from falling once. But her eyes were alight. And Ilvriss dared to hope.

“I’ll give you the cliff notes as we run to the inn. Come on!”

She ran with Ilvriss following her and cursing at his adjutants to keep up. By the time they got to the inn, Relc, Klbkch, Zevara, and Embria were there. So was Pisces, Yvlon, Klbkch, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords, and every Gold-rank captain. They stared as Erin ran inside. She turned to face them.

“I have a plan. It’s very simple. Ready? Here it is.”

She spoke. They listened for five minutes. Then they argued, and then agreed. Zevara, Embria, Ilvriss, and Klbkch raced out of the inn. The Gold-rank Captains were hot on her heels. They ran into the city. Erin stood in her suddenly empty inn. She turned and looked at those remaining. Lyonette was staring at Erin with hope. Olesm was smacking himself on the forehead. Relc just grinned. Erin smiled at them all.

“Let’s do this thing. Come on, we need to get ready. Get those tables out of the way! Move, move, move! Time is running out!”

 

—-

 

It was early nightfall when the Raskghar finished restoring order to their camp. The dead Raskghar and Goblins were removed or processed into food. Two of the exits were fortified, sealed off in case Snatcher returned. Calruz had the Raskghar on high-alert. And the Cave Goblins were busy at work.

It always amazed Ceria how many there were. And how subservient they were. The Raskghar seemed to have a limitless supply of bodies—Cave Goblins were always moving in and out of the camp, bringing water, supplies from other spots, or fixing stuff up. Perfoming tasks the Raskghar wouldn’t. She saw a group of Goblins butchering a dead Raskghar, carefully removing the bones to be placed with the dead. And another group was constructing mobile barricades.

“We might be able to drag them into place if Snatcher returns. Or block the adventurers. We have a supply of metal and wood—but it’s limited. We have more metal than wood, actually. The Goblins occasionally go above to forage for wood, but Liscor is limited in that as well. Hide works best for most structures.”

Calruz grimaced as he pointed out the old and often moldy wood the Cave Goblins were lugging into place. They had crude nails and hammer and were creating metal sheets. Ceria saw the Raskghar supervising the task. They didn’t do any of the work themselves, but they made the Goblins work faster with calculated blows. She saw one small Goblin flinch as a Raskghar swung at her. She redoubled her pace, bringing nails to the Goblins making a large sheet of metal that could be used to block the tunnel entrance.

“It won’t stop Snatcher. You saw how strong he was.”

“Not if he fights. But you saw him. It. That thing only looked for heads. And it barely paid any notice to anything else, even when it was being attacked.”

“Because we did nothing to it! If it wanted to, I bet it could kill half your camp by itself. And you want to move locations with it hanging about?”

Calruz snorted.

“Of course. The adventurers could have our location. We move again! We’ll take care on the trip, that’s all.”

He glanced around. Ceria folded her arms. The other Raksghar looked at each other. Some shook their heads. Nokha and a few of the awakened growled. She prefuctorily dipped her head.

“Dangerous, Chieftain. Would be better if we had more awakened. Stronger.”

“No. We keep the Gnolls as prisoners. Under watch. And I’ll question the small one now. I want to know how they got out.”

Nokha growled.

“Little white one used magic.”

“Impossible. Gnolls can’t—”

Ceria began to object, then remembered what Calvaron had told her once. She bit her lip and stared at Mrsha. Calruz raised his eyebrows.

“They can’t use magic, correct?”

Before Ceria could reply, Nokha jumped in.

“Can. This one is special. White fur. Must sacrifice. Tonight!”

“I said no.”

Calruz bared his teeth. Nokha’s hackles rose. She looked at her companions. Ceria saw the other Raskghar look up. The Goblins froze as they dragged the sheet of metal towards one of the walls, ready to be shoved into position. There were five entrances to the Raskghar camp. Two had been sealed, and now three metal barricades were in place. The Cave Goblins crept around them, reinforcing the solid slabs of metal. Watching the Raskghar.

They could sense it too. Calruz stared at Nokha.

“Are you questioning your Chieftain?”

The awakened Raskghar hesitated. She looked at the others and then looked back.

“Yes.”

“I see.”

Calruz’s voice was calm, but a dangerous light had entered his eyes. Ceria looked from Nokha to the other Raskghar and backed up a step. They moved back as well. Calruz stood taller. He was still bigger than Nokha, but she was huge. The one-armed Minotaur and awakened Raskghar faced each other. Their voices grew louder. Now everyone was listening.

“I am in command. And I say that the ritual is performed when I desire. I will reward those I see fit.”

“When? Ritual makes Raskghar powerful now. And white one is special. Raskghar will sacrifice her. Grow even stronger. I will sacrifice her.”

Nokha licked her lips. Calruz stared down at her.

“You? And what would you do with all that power?”

“Lead Raskghar better. Grow. Sacrifice. Grow. Hunt more Gnolls. Grow. That is the purpose of the Raskghar.”

“Your purpose is what I decide it is.”

Calruz’s voice was cold. His eyes glinted as he looked around. The other Raskghar were silent, but they were watching Nokha. The Minotaur reached behind his back. He drew his axe and Nokha backed up a step. Calruz looked around, his axe’s head glowing in the faint light.

“I am your Chieftain. I, and no one else! You do not tell me what the Raskghar’s purpose is! I am in command! If you go against me, you are challenging me! My authority! Are you doing that Nokha? Because if it is a challenge, there is only one answer.”

He held his axe up. Nokha bared her teeth.

“You are weak. Chieftain. You are soft! You do not understand Raskghar. You are weak. One armed. And you trust her.

She pointed at Ceria. The half-Elf’s breath caught. Calruz turned his head. Raskghar were moving. The awakened moved behind Nokha. Calruz looked around. No one had come to stand behind him. He bared his teeth in a terrible grin.

“It seems I should. Ceria, to me.”

Ceria moved forwards a bit. Nokha laughed. She looked from Ceria to Calruz. The awakened were at her back. Eighteen versus two. Calruz muttered to Ceria.

“Keep the others back. I’ll kill Nokha and put an end to their challenge.”

“Oh, thanks. Sure you don’t want me to take on the entire tribe?”

Ceria eyed the awakened. They were spreading out. But she could raise a wall of ice, box herself and Calruz and Nokha in. If they were fast. She tapped Calruz on the arm, drew a circle in his fur. He nodded. He’d clear the area with his axe while she worked. Nokha noticed the motion and bared her teeth.

“You trust her. But she is traitor. You said so yourself.”

“Not as traitorous as you, apparently.”

Calruz stared at Nokha. His eyes were turning red. The muscles in his arm bulged as he lifted his axe. Ceria braced herself. She knew he had Skills she hadn’t seen. And judging from the way the awakened Raskghar eyed him, they knew some of them. The tension grew deadly. But Nokha still wasn’t done. She looked at Ceria and the half-Elf saw her grin grow wide.

“But she told them everything. With a spell.”

A deathly silence fell over the room. Ceria gulped. She saw Calruz freeze. And then, slowly, the Minotaur turned towards her. And when he stared at her, his eyes were red. And oh, so very mad.

 

—-

 

Mrsha saw it all. The end. Her body hurt so much. Her head spun. But she was not alone. The Gnolls held her. The remaining ones sat together, waiting. They watched the standoff between Calruz and the awakened.

Around the room, the Raskghar were standing, forming a large, rough circle. They watched Calruz, their Chieftain, face off against Nokha and her awakened. Behind them the Cave Goblins scurried to and fro. They were watching too. They kept their heads low, not daring to make a sound. Mrsha saw the Goblins working on the large metal sheets propped up against the walls. Others were building more cages. She saw a tiny Goblin run past them with a few nails and a piece of unshaped metal. She began hammering it into one of the metal sheets. The sound was background noise, though. The center of the room was silent. Calruz had just turned to Ceria.

“What spell?”

“Fire. A bit of little magic. It flies up and vanishes.”

Nokha grinned. Her awakened were spreading out around Calruz and Ceria. They didn’t have their weapons in hand, but they were tensed.  But the Minotaur wasn’t looking at them. He stared at Ceria.

“A spell. A fiery—you told me you didn’t know [Message].”

“I don’t. I told you that.”

Ceria backed up. Mrsha could see her grinning desperately, holding up her hands. Calruz turned. His grip on his axe shifted.

“But you know other spells. Spells from Wistram. Didn’t you tell me once that you knew a spell to talk with an old friend? With him? The [Necromancer]?”

“Uh—no?”

Calruz looked like he was growing larger. Mrsha felt the madness rolling off him. She stared at him, at Nokha. If he won she wouldn’t go free. If Nokha won—they’d die tonight. Mrsha wished she had Ceria’s wand, but it had been taken. She wished Ceria had her wand.

“Look, Calruz. Nokha’s making all this up. She’s trying to divide us! We have to work together!”

Ceria’s smile was frozen as she tried to desperately talk down Calruz. But now the Minotaur was focused on her.

“The attack. You swore to me that it wasn’t your fault. But you were lying. Did you send them another message after that? Have you told them about the city? Did you tell them about the secrets?”

For a second Ceria wavered. She hadn’t expected that question.

“No—what? I would never—”

“Liar.”

Calruz let go of his axe. He reached out and grabbed Ceria’s arm. She tried to twist away.

“Calruz, listen—I never did anything to hurt you. The Raskghar are going to attack you! Remember?”

“I trusted you. I called you my friend. I told you my secrets. Even when you tried to kill me, I trusted you. And this is how you repay me? With treachery? With this?

Ceria’s smile was still on her face. She twisted. Calruz stared at her. His voice grew louder.

“Betrayal! I am surrounded by it! Betrayal! Treachery! You will be first, then the Raskghar!”

He let go of Ceria. Then his arm swung. He backhanded her. The blow spun the half-Elf. Ceria heard a crack. It sounded like bone breaking. Ceria’s head jerked. Her head snapped back. She fell. Mrsha made a tiny sound. No.

Ceria lay on the ground. Her face was shattered. Mrsha saw a piece of skin lying on the ground. The half-Elf jerked, looked up. Calruz stared at her.

Ceria’s face was broken. But something wasn’t right. There was no blood. And her smile was still there. But—crooked. Ceria’s smile was frozen on her face. Frozen on her face. No. It was her face. And as Ceria rose, the mask of ice broke. And beneath it she was scowling.

“I’m getting tired of being hit in the face.”

Calruz stared at Ceria. The mask of ice fell to pieces, colored water landing on the ground and melting. The Raskghar stared. Mrsha stared. Even she hadn’t smelled the mask! Had Ceria made it out of her sweat?

And now the half-Elf’s body was changing. Frost vapor poured from her arms, her hands. It formed a layer of ice over her robes, her skin. Her skeletal hand. Ceria’s voice was cold as a glacier.

“Frost armor. Illphres always said her masks were tougher than steel. You want to hit me Calruz, give it your best shot. But watch out for spikes.”

The Minotaur stared at his hand. It was bleeding. Ceria’s ice mask had torn his skin. He looked at Ceria. She grinned at him.

“Yeah, I cast a spell. So what? You kidnapped me. You kidnapped the Gnolls. What was I supposed to do? But guess what? Right here, right now, I’m not your enemy. They are.”

She pointed with a gauntlet made of ice. The awakened stared at Ceria. They smelled wary. Mrsha saw them look at Nokha. The female Raskghar bared her teeth. She had a hand on her sword.

“Your treachery is unforgivable.”

“Probably. But you have bigger problems.”

Ceria shrugged. She stared at Calruz and narrowed her eyes. The Minotaur looked at the other awakened. He stared at her uncertainly.

“Give me one reason why I could trust you.”

The room was silent. The Raskghar waited. Mrsha waited. The Cave Goblins moved and watched. Ceria looked around. She closed her eyes, then spoke.

“Death before dishonor. I’ve lied. I’ve betrayed you. But I haven’t compromised my honor.”

Calruz froze. Ceria pointed at him. The half-Elf stared at the Minotaur.

“What do you have to give them, Calruz? Glory? I don’t have that. But I do have honor. So if you’re coming, come. The Horns of Hammerad don’t run.”

She spread her arms. The Raskghar tensed. Calruz stared at Ceria. He looked at his axe. He bent and lifted it. He and Ceria charged. The Raskghar leapt forwards. Ceria ran at Calruz, her frost armor covering her body. He raised his axe and swung. She ducked.

[Whirlwind Cleave]!

The Minotaur roared. He swung his axe and the glowing green edge extended. His arm flashed and he spun. Three of the Raskghar jumping at him were caught by the enchanted axe. Calruz cut through them all. Blood splattered Ceria’s armor. She rose and shot an [Ice Spike]. A Raskghar howled in pain as it pierced his shoulder. Ceria conjured a wall of ice, blocking two more. She and Calruz stood back-to-back. Nokha and the other awakened snarled.

“Horns of Hammerad!”

Calruz roared. Ceria laughed.

“Horns! Forward!”

They spun, taking on the Raskghar, blade and spell. Mrsha saw the lesser Raskghar watching. The awakened advanced slowly, spreading out. The Gnolls clung to the bars, watching, hoping.

And the Cave Goblins backed away. They saw the fighting between Chieftain and awakened. They scurried towards the exits of the Raskghar camp. They disappeared past the metal sheets lying against the walls. Mrsha saw them streaming out, breaking into a dead run. None of the Raskghar noticed. Their eyes were on the battle. But Mrsha caught something as the Goblins moved and stirred the stale dungeon air into a breeze. It blew at her and she smelled something.

Oil. Salt. A warm room and a young woman. The scent of floorboards, of a crackling fire. A place where good food was always there and where she was safe. A loving mother.

Home.

And then Mrsha saw the Goblin who was the source of the scent. She was standing by one of the metal sheets. She had a hammer in hand. She’d pounded something into the sheet. A piece of unshaped metal. A round, crude little thing. On the flat piece of metal it was an irregularity. Excess. But as Mrsha stared at it she noticed something. The round bit of metal was at the right spot. If you looked at it just right, it looked almost like a door—

And then Pebblesnatch reached into her pocket. She pulled something out. A shimmering stone that glowed bright purple. It shone with magic. The stone was small, slightly rounded. A mana stone to be precise. But if you wanted to, you could call it a pebble. And she placed it on the door.

And Mrsha howled. The fighting Raskghar froze. Calruz turned his head as he swung his axe with a snarl. Ceria turned, her finger raised, tracking Nokha. The awakened Raskghar growled in fury. She looked at Mrsha and stopped. Because the Gnoll was pointing.

Every head turned. Raskghar. Gnoll. Minotaur. And Ceria’s. The others frowned as they saw Pebblesnatch standing by the sheet of metal with the crude bit of metal attached. They stared at the glowing mana stone. Ceria’s eyes widened. Nokha stared at her and barked an order, pointing at Pebblesnatch. But it was too late.

The Cave Goblin grabbed the doorknob and heaved on it. The piece of metal the Cave Goblins had built was thick. It was propped up against the wall, just a sheet of metal. There was nothing but dungeon stone behind it. But as Pebblesnatch dragged the door open, light shone through. The Raskghar flinched back, snarling in confusion. They shaded their eyes, and then stared.

There was a room on the other side of the door. A room filled with warm light. Rich, hardwood floorboards filled the common room of the Wandering Inn. A merry fire burned in the fireplace. The air smelled of good food, and the inn was warm and pleasant. But in that moment, what everyone’s eye was really drawn to were the people.

They stood in ranks. Gold-rank adventurers, lined up. The Horns of Hammerad minus one, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Wings of Pallass, the Flamewardens. Every Gold-rank team in the city and Silver-rank ones behind. And behind them were the Watch. Ranks of Drakes and Gnolls stood side-by-side with armored [Soldiers] led by Embria. Relc and Klbkch stood behind Zevara. Ilvriss and Olesm stood to one side with the Wall Lord’s personal retinue. Ilvriss’ sword was bared.

And behind them were the Antinium. The Painted Soldiers stood in ranks, led by Pawn, Anand, and Belgrade. Bird sat on a table, bow in hand. The adventurers, guardsmen, soldiers, and Antinium stared at the Raskghar in silence. The Raskghar were frozen.

And then a young woman stepped into view. Erin Solstice stood in the doorway, a broad smile on her face. She had a frying pan in one hand. She waved at the Raskghar with the other. She spoke in the silence.

“Hey. Welcome to my inn.”

The Raskghar stared at her in horror. Erin’s smile widened. Then she stepped out of the way. Jelaqua Ivirith strode forwards. She pointed, her golden-red armor burning with magical fire.

Charge!

She leapt through the door, her two-handed flail already swinging. The adventurers roared and surged through the door. Jelaqua bore down on the nearest Raskghar, her flail smashing into the beast-woman’s head. The Gold-rank adventurers charged past her, throwing spells and loosing arrows. Bevussa flew over the heads of the others, slashing at the Raskghar from overhead.

Silver Swords!

Ylawes ran forwards with Dawil and Falene at his back. He crashed into a Raskghar, ramming the stunned beast man with his shield. Dawil swung his hammer into the Raskghar’s side and Falene blasted another with a shower of fire arrows.

The Raskghar broke out of their stupefaction. They howled and tried to fight. But the wave of Gold-rank adventurers overwhelmed the first row of Raskghar, and the second. The Raskghar found themselves engaged in a melee as the [Warriors] pressed them from the front. The [Mages] and [Archers] held the back around the door. They poured through as the awakened Raskghar howled in alarm. Calruz spun, shouting orders as he and the other Raskghar tried to stem the onslaught.

There were over a hundred adventurers. But there were at least ten, no, maybe twenty Raskghar for each adventurer. The Raskghar formed a line, rushing forwards. The adventurers held their ground, shouting. Mrsha scrambled to see as the Gnolls howled. Where were the others? But the door was blank. Erin’s inn had vanished. Vanished?

And then Mrsha saw the light.

 

—-

 

The last adventurer charged through. Erin slammed the door. She ripped the purple mana stone off and grabbed another one from the tray beside the door. She heard Zevara and Embria shouting as she fumbled with the dark brown mana stone.

Guardsman! Follow Wing Commander Embria’s soldiers!

Captains! Prepare the charge!

A row of Drakes in colored armor marched forwards. They stood in front of the door as Erin slapped the mana stone into place. The [Captains] shouted, their voices overlapping.

“[Daring Charge]!”

“[Shieldwall Formation!]”

“[First Strikes]!”

“[Bravehearts]!”

Wing Commander Embria raised her spear. Erin reached for the door handle and yanked open the door. The Raskghar’s camp appeared in front of them. But from a different angle. The Raskghar were all clustered on the other side of the room and the Gold-rank adventurers were facing the doorway. They turned in disbelief as the light from the inn poured towards their backs.

Now! [Blades of Glory]! Charge!

She raced through the doorway towards the Raskghar. The Drake [Captains] were next. Then the [Sergeants]. Then the [Soldiers]. The 4th Company of Liscor’s finest crashed into the Raskghar like a wave from behind.

“Men! After me!”

Zevara ran through next, Relc and Klbkch hot on their heels. The [Guardsman] of Liscor followed, screaming war cries. Their blades glowed and they threw themselves at the larger Raskghar without hesitation. Erin saw Ilvriss run through with his retinue of personal Drakes. The Wall Lord pointed his sword and shouted.

“To me! Cut them down! Leave none of these monsters alive!”

Olesm ran with him, sword held aloft. Erin waited until the last Drake was out the door and then slammed her door again. This time she heard the Antinium move forwards.

“Soldiers, prepare yourself. We enter combat.”

Anand’s voice rang out as the Painted Soldiers tensed in front of the door. The two [Tacticians] stood to one side, as did Pawn. Yellow Splatter’s fists were raised. He and Purple Smile waited as Erin nearly dropped the black mana stone. She slapped it on the door and looked at the Antinium.

“Ready?”

Belgrade and Anand nodded.

“We have already applied our Skills. Proceed!”

Erin threw open the door. Again, the Raskghar camp appeared in front of her. Again, the perspective was different.

Three metal sheets. Each one had been placed at one of the entrances to the Raskghar camp. Each one at a different spot. Erin didn’t know how Pebblesnatch had managed it, but the logic had been simple. Why attack from one spot if you could attack from three?

Chess.

The instant the door opened Yellow Splatters thundered through. He spoke not a word. And neither did the other Soldiers. They charged silently.

A wall of black bodies smashed into the Raskghar from the side. They were so preoccupied with the Watch and Embria’s Soldiers and the adventurers that they didn’t hear the Antinium. Their only warning was the sight of Yellow Splatters running towards the nearest Raskghar. The beast man turned, eyes wide, and brought up his shield. Yellow Splatter’s fist punched through it and then the Antinium knocked the Raskghar to the ground. He pounded the Raskghar with all four fists as the Antinium streamed forwards, a tide of them—

“We go in too. Pawn, stay with us.”

Belgrade and Anand strode forwards. Pawn walked after them, swinging his censer. Erin wanted to stop them, but the Antinium walked behind the lines of Soldiers. And then it was just Erin. She looked around. Her inn was empty. Her chairs and tables were piled up at the dais in the back. Even so, her inn had been packed. Now there was only her, Bird, Lyonette, and Apista left. Erin stared at Bird. He had his bow out and was aiming it.

“Do I have permission to shoot, Miss Erin?”

“Yes.”

Erin stepped back from the door. Bird nodded. He knelt and drew an arrow. He took aim and loosed in a fraction of a second. His arrow shot past a group of fighting Soldiers, so close to one that it nearly grazed the Soldier’s eye. The Soldier didn’t flinch. The Raskghar that Bird’s arrow struck did. Bird drew another arrow and loosed it. And another. And another. His four hands moved so fast Erin couldn’t keep track. He loosed one arrow and then used his other hands to loose another. The arrows flew in a steady stream, as if Bird didn’t have to aim.

And he didn’t, in a sense. The Raskghar were everywhere. And there were so many of them! More than all the people fighting. But they were boxed in from three sides. And their opponents had been waiting for this moment.

Guardsman. Soldiers. Adventurers. Antinium. One side alone couldn’t beat the Raskghar. The adventurers couldn’t take the fight to them in the dungeon. The Antinium couldn’t bypass the traps. The soldiers and guardsman couldn’t abandon Liscor. People like Ilvriss could fight, but couldn’t handle the dungeon’s confines. But a fight? In a fight it was different.

Erin stared through the door. The Raskghar were disorganized, afraid. They had never expected their enemy to commit so much to one assault. If Liscor’s defenders died here, the city was lost. But that was the thing about strategy. You went all in. And this was all Erin had.

“Bird, I’m changing the door back to the adventurer’s side. They need support.”

“Yes, Erin. The pretty bird lady should not die.”

Erin slammed the door. Bird leaned out of the way as she plucked the mana stone off and slapped the purple one into place. She opened the door and Bird began loosing arrows. The Raskghar howled. Some of them pointed at Erin’s door. She gritted her teeth.

“Yeah, come on. Try getting in here. Bird, you get ready to move back if they rush us. Lyonette?”

Erin looked around. She looked for the [Princess]. Lyonette was staring into the door. She had a sword in her hands. Erin stared at her. Apista buzzed up in front of Erin’s face.

“Lyonette? What are you—”

 

—-

 

Chaos. The battle in the Raskghar’s camp was utter chaos. The three sides tried to hem the Raskghar in, but there were so many! The organized battle line began to fracture in places. But the Gold-ranks pressed ahead. The Silver Swords fought back-to-back. The Flamewardens incinerated patches of Raskghar while Bevussa’s team flew above. But they weren’t the tip of the spear breaking into Raskghar lines.

There. You. Are!

Jelaqua howled as she spotted the Raskghar in enchanted armor. The Raskghar turned and she crashed into him. The Selphid battered on his helmet with her flail as he struck her armor with his axe. The two cleared a space as they swung at each other. Raskghar tried to come to the armored Raskghar’s aid, but arrows cut them down. Halrac advanced, loosing arrows at point-blank range.

“Halrac! You’re in too far!”

Revi shouted at the [Scout] as he covered Jelaqua from behind. Her summoned warriors were clearing the left flank for the adventurers. Her giant Face-Eater Moth was causing havoc among the Raskghar and Typhenous was blowing apart their ranks with spells. But Halrac was surrounded. The Raskghar charged at the archers.

Halrac loosed an enchanted arrow, blowing two Raskghar apart, and then turned as one with an axe bore down on him. He dropped his bow, and drew his shortsword. He stabbed the Raskghar through the hide armor on its chest and turned. He cut at the Raskghar charging him from the right, dodging backwards, blade flashing. The Raskghar howled in dismay.

Duck!

The [Scout] flung himself down. He grabbed his bow and rolled, sheathing his shortsword as an adventurer heaved a trip vine bag at the Raskghar. It exploded, wrapping them in vines as Halrac leapt back. Jelaqua and the armored Raskghar fought on, heedless of the vines. Halrac turned, raising his bow, and an awakened Raskghar charged him. The first arrow Halrac loosed froze the Raskghar’s shield arm and raised buckler, but the awakened Raskghar just hurled the shield down. It charged Halrac, stone axe swinging. Halrac reached for his sword, narrowing his eyes—

And a hand grabbed the awakened. It twisted as Moore lifted it. The half-Giant roared at the Raskghar.

Where is Mrsha?

The Raskghar bit and clawed at Moore. In response, the giant threw the Raskghar into a clump of the others. The awakened Raskghar’s body cracked as it landed among the other Raskghar. They fell down, screaming in pain and then looked up as Moore swung his staff. The half-Giant punched and Raskghar disappeared. His body rose above the others as he threw Raskghar to the ground.

Mrsha!

Raskghar tried to fight him. But a shadow moved behind Moore. Seborn stabbed a Raskghar in the back, leapt, rolled, and cut another one before vanishing again. To his right, Relc grappled with an awakened Raskghar.

“Gah! You’re pretty strong!”

The former [Sergeant] grunted, his muscles straining as he fought with the Raskghar for possession of his spear. The awakened Raskghar’s eyes widened in disbelief as Relc forced the spear tip towards its chest. It backed up, arms straining—

And Klbkch’s blades pierced its chest. The Antinium twisted his swords and the Raskghar collapsed. Klbkch withdrew his blades and looked at Relc. The Drake blinked at him.

“I had him.”

“Evidently.”

Klbkch turned, blades flashing. Relc grinned and spun his spear. The Raskghar backed away as the two charged forwards.

Hold the line! Let the [Mages] cut them down! Hold!”

Zevara fought in her section as the Watch strove to keep the Raskghar pinned. While the Senior Guardsmen moved independently, the rest of the Watch fought shoulder-to-shoulder, not budging an inch. Zevara spat fire and cut with her sword. She saw the Raskghar charging on her left and ran to reinforce that spot. But before she got there she heard a voice.

On the left!

Embria charged with the [Soldiers] under her command. The [Captains] effortlessly cleaved into the Raskghar as the lower-level [Soldiers] rushed to follow. Embria whirled her spear, stabbed a Raskghar through the throat, and cut another across the face. She turned and saluted Zevara. The Watch Captain returned the salute.

“Salazsar! To me!”

Ilvriss stood on another part of the front lines. The Wall Lord fought with his small retinue of Drakes, not budging an inch. The Raskghar fell back in front of him—the Wall Lord’s fury was a physical thing, pressing at them, beating down like invisible fists. He turned and pointed.

There! Someone stop those Raskghar!

A group was headed towards Erin’s open door. The Antinium charged to intercept. Purple Smiles swayed as he jabbed, punching and fighting two Raskghar with his four arms at once. The other Soldiers overwhelmed the group of Raskghar with their bodies, throwing themselves on the Raskghar with a fury even the beast people couldn’t match. But some of the Raskghar escaped. They ran for Erin’s inn, ignoring Bird’s arrows that pierced their hides. One charged at Erin, howling—

And she slammed the door in his face. The warrior collided with the stone wall full-force. He lay there, stunned, until one of the Gold-rank adventurers stabbed him in the back. Light flashed from the other side of the room as Erin opened her door behind the Watch.

The battle was going one way. The Raskghar fell back, howling in fear as they were pressed from every side. They were strong. Cunning! Larger than their opponents! But these other races had magic. They blew apart the Raskghar from afar, and when they were injured they pulled back and used healing potions. The Raskghar, for all their numbers, didn’t have nearly as many healing potions. They had artifacts, but not enough.

And the Cave Goblins were gone. It was only Raskghar who fell and died. The awakened tried to rally them, but the Raskgahr were breaking. Nokha, snarling, turned, and howled for her bretheren. But she heard only three answering howls in the chaos. The awakened were dying! She felt fear run through her and looked around.

They had to flee. This battle was lost. But before they could go, they had to take the special one.

Mrsha. The fighting had kept clear of the cages. Nokha cut with her enchanted sword, killing the [Soldier] who was rushing at her and bounded through the fighting. She leapt towards Mrsha’s cage. The Gnolls inside cried out as Nokha tore the bars open. One tried to tackle her—she ran him through.

Mrsha fought as Nokha reached into the cage. But the Raskghar ignored her biting. She bared her teeth and turned. Flee! She looked towards the exits and then saw someone standing in front of her.

“Put her down.”

Lyonette held a sword in her hands. Nokha stared at her and grinned. She lashed out, her glowing sword cutting at Lyonette’s head. Mrsha screamed. And Lyonette parried.

It was a perfect moment. All the weight behind Nokha’s thrust vanished. Her blade missed Lyonette and the young woman stabbed. Nokha felt a burst of pain radiating from one shoulder. She turned, wrenching the blade out of her shoulder. She swung again, knocking Lyonette’s blade away. The sword tore loose from Lyonette’s hand and went flying. The young woman stared up as Nokha lifted her sword.

Bee attack! Go Apista!

Nokha heard the voice, but it made no sense. She turned her head and Apista jammed her stinger into Nokha’s cheek. The Raskghar howled and tried to tear the Ashfire Bee off. Apista flew up as Lyonette scrambled for her sword. The Raskghar whirled. Enough! She turned, eyes blazing—

And saw Moore. The half-Giant’s arms bled, but the thorns and vines covering his body were bloodier still. With Raskghar blood. Nokha’s ears flattened. She sliced at his arm, cutting deep—

Moore picked her up, broke the arm holding Mrsha like a twig, and threw Nokha. She slammed into a far wall, screaming, and vanished in the melee. Moore bent. Mrsha stared up at him. The half-Giant rasped.

“Mrsha. Are you alright?”

She nodded. Moore’s bloody face turned into a smile. He sat with a groan, bleeding. The Gnoll heard pounding footsteps.

Mrsha!

And then Lyonette was holding her. The [Princess] clutched the Gnoll and Mrsha clung to her chest. The two stood like that for a moment as the fighting continued around them. And then Seborn appeared.

“To the door! Now!”

They turned. Erin was standing at the door. She waved at them and threw her frying pan. It clocked a Raskghar bearing down on them. Erin waved them into the inn and then saw a Raskghar coming from behind. Bird looked for an arrow.

“I am out of arrows. Oh dear.”

“Out of the way! [Minotaur Punch]!”

The Raskghar’s head snapped back. It snarled—and Erin slammed the door in its face again. She yanked the mana stone off and turned. Lyonette was holding Mrsha. Erin smiled. Then she saw Moore collapse. Seborn yanked a potion off his belt as the half-giant lay on the floor.

“Tend to Moore! This isn’t over yet! Bird, get more arrows!”

“I will find more. Are any shops open?”

Erin ignored him. She yanked open the door. The Raskghar were beginning to break. But now she had only one question left.

Ceria? Where’s Ceria?

 

—-

 

Calruz stood in the center of the Raskghar ranks. He shouted, ordering them forwards. They struggled to obey. But the adventurers cut them down. They were using [Fireballs], blasting the Raskghar apart. Calruz roared in fury. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be! If the Raskghar could pull back, if they could fight in choke points—

But something in him knew the truth. It was too late. They’d been taken by surprise. It was over. The Raskghar began to break, fleeing for the three exits, some trying to remove the barricades they’d painstakingly erected. Their morale was broken. Some fought on, but too many were fleeing.

“So this is it.”

The Minotaur stared around. His axe was heavy in his hand. He turned, staring at the three sides as they closed in. Despair made Calruz close his eyes. He had been so close! So close—

But some part of him was glad. It was a whisper, but it rejoiced. At last. Let this be an end. Calruz turned. Which side should he throw himself on? The people of Liscor, outraged over the Raskghar’s crimes? The adventurers, conquering the dungeon? The Antinium, the faceless, numberless foe? Each one was fitting. But before he could decide, a voice called his name.

Calruz!

He turned. Ceria stood behind him. Her armor of ice was cracked. Blood ran down her head. But she was alive. He was glad of that. But then three others moved to join her. Calruz paused.

An Antinium stood in front of Ceria, wearing a cloak, holding a dagger and shortsword and magical buckler in his three hands. Next to him stood Yvlon Byres, her armor bloody, gripping a sword with both hands. Beside Ceria stood Pisces, holding a rapier in one hand, his other hand glowing with magic. A creature of bone loomed behind him, a horrific spider of jagged edges. Calruz stared.

“This is it, Calruz. You lose.”

Ceria looked tired. Her hand trembled with exhaustion as it pointed at Calruz’s chest. But her eyes were steady. The Minotaur stared at her.

“So this is your new team. They aren’t worthy. Not of the Horns of Hammerad.”

“That is quite debatable—”

“Shut up, Pisces.”

Ceria turned her head to address the [Necromancer]. When she looked back at Calruz, she was smiling slightly.

“So you say. But here we are. The Horns died in the crypt, Calruz. All but you and I. But here we are.”

“True.”

Calruz felt his heart beating as he stared at the four Horns of Hammerad. He looked around, laughed, and raised his axe.

“Fitting! Then let’s make an end of it! Come! Show me what the Horns can do! Grant me death! For honor! For glory!

He charged. The Horns spread out. Calruz’s first swing was blocked by the Antinium. His buckler emitted a field of energy that blocked the swing. The Antinium swung with his dagger and shortsword. Calruz knocked away both blades. He turned and Yvlon swung her sword.

The impact nearly threw Calruz back as he blocked. The sword was enchanted! He struck her, and Yvlon’s arms buckled as she blocked the blow with her sword. But her arms did not falter. They did not break. She swung her sword and Calruz stumbled back—

And an [Ice Spike] struck his chest. The tip broke off in Calruz’s skin. His toughened hide resisted the force of the blow, but Calruz turned towards Ceria. And Pisces stabbed him from behind.

The tip of his rapier penetrated Calruz’s back. But like the spell, it didn’t go through Calruz’s flesh. The Minotaur turned, swinging his axe and Pisces blurred out of the way. Yvlon blocked another swing and stumbled back. The Bone Horror slashed Calruz across the chest. He roared.

[Hammer Blow]!

He cleaved through the thing’s head. It fell, lifeless. Ceria raised a wall of ice as Calruz rushed her. His axe smashed through the thick ice. Calruz turned. Yvlon was trying to flank him. The [Necromancer] was blasting him with electricity. Where was—

Ksmvr stabbed Calruz in the leg with his dagger. The Flamecoat Dagger sparked. And Calruz’s flesh ignited. The Minotaur screamed, his entire body aflame. He swung wildly and Yvlon’s blade cut a wide gash down his front. Pisces hit Calruz with a blast of air that knocked the Minotaur back. He tried to see. But the flames—

Cold. Something struck Calruz. It smothered the flames, put him out. Calruz groaned, pain wracking his body. He looked at what had hit him.

Snow. He looked up. Ceria Springwalker smiled at him. She lifted her skeletal finger and pointed at Calruz’s forehead. The Minotaur met her gaze. And smiled. He dropped his axe—

And the [Ice Spice] struck him between the eyes. The Minotaur fell. Ceria walked towards him. She knelt, her eyes filled with tears. Calruz stared up, his eyes wide and blank. Ceria bent.

“Stupid Minotaur. You always did have a hard head.”

Blood ran down Calruz’s head. The Minotaur laughed weakly.

“I suppose I did.”

He stared up at Ceria and reached out. She caught his hand.

“It’s over.”

“Thank you.”

 

—-

 

In the end, they stood and counted the dead. Of the Raskghar, there were too many to number. Of the attackers, well…

Erin watched as Halrac knelt and closed a Gnoll’s eyes. Nailren bowed his head, weeping. The Watch stood around their fallen, as did Embria’s [Soldiers]. The Antinium stared down at the broken bodies of their own. The symbols of the fallen soldiers would appear on the Hive’s walls.

The dead. Was it selfish that Erin had only known a few of them? Her friends had lived. It had been the low-level ones, the brave adventurers and guards who had volunteered to fight the Raskghar that had paid the price.

And yet, the mood wasn’t depressed. It wasn’t joyous either. It was…relieved. The Raskghar had fled. But only a few hundred. Their camps were still there, and perhaps some of the awakened lived. But this attack had shattered them. They would not menace Liscor again.

“It’s over.”

Zevara leaned on her sword panting and coughing exhaustedly. Keldrass was doing the same. He offered her a jar and Zevara eyed it before lifting it up. The air blowing from the magical artifact dried the blood on her face until she held it to her mouth and breathed from it. When she lowered it, she was breathing easier.

“We have lost good Drakes and Gnolls this day. And Humans as well. But this was a victory. A triumph.”

Ilvriss stood straight, although he looked as tired as anyone else. He bore a scratch on one cheek and he had buried two of his followers. But his gaze was clear.

“We saved the people of Liscor. We crushed the Raskghar in their homes. Was it worth the price? I think it was.”

“Not to mention the captured artifacts.”

Embria pointed at the dead Raskghar. The armored Raskghar that Jelaqua had finally killed, the Raskghar with the invisible bow—and far more. They had fallen with their brethren, and the adventurers had dragged their bodies out. Ilvriss nodded tiredly as the Gold-ranks looked at each other.

“We will take custody of the artifacts. We can divide it later according to each group’s contributions. And I will pay the full bounty for the freed Gnolls. Although—”

He brightened up a bit.

“—I suppose that Liscor’s involvement will mean that a portion of the bounty is rendered null.”

“Actually Wall Lord, I think that Liscor would like to claim whatever portion of the bounty possible. If only to provide the Watch pay for exceptional service and compensate the dead.”

Zevara cleared her throat, clearly embarrassed. Ilvriss sighed.

“Of course. But later. We will leave the dead here, I take it. Let the monsters have the Raskghar. We’ll destroy the doors—”

“And the prisoner?”

Everyone fell silent. Erin looked over at Anand. He and six Soldiers stood around Calruz. The Minotaur knelt, shackled, his head bowed. He did not look up, though his body was badly burned and he bled from two wounds. Zevara hissed.

“Take him to the Watch’s prison. We’ll begin the trial as soon as we can figure out all that he’s done.”

Ilvriss nodded coldly. Embria looked at her [Soldiers] and the Antinium made way. The Drakes yanked Calruz to his feet and forced him through the magic doorway. A few of the adventurers stirred. Erin saw Ksmvr, Pisces, and Yvlon look at Ceria. But the half-Elf just shook her head. Her eyes were pained as she watched Calruz go.

“He has to pay for what he’s done. Madness or not. I’ll…be there to testify.”

The other adventurers looked at the Horns. Ilvriss turned and nodded.

“We will look forwards to a full report. But later. For now—”

He wobbled and caught himself. The Wall Lord looked around. At Antinium, Drakes, Gnolls, a Selphid, Humans…for once there was no scorn in Ilvriss’ eyes as he met Erin’s.

“This was a victory. We accomplished it working together. Perhaps…no, let us say no more than that. All races came together in Liscor’s hour of need. Dwarf. Human. Drake. Gnoll. Selphid. Drowned Man. Half-Giant. Garuda.”

“And Goblin.”

Ilvriss looked at Erin. The young woman looked around. The exhausted warriors looked at her. Erin raised her voice.

“And Goblins. You may not like it. You don’t have to change your mind. But this was all thanks to Goblins. They fought for this. And it was a Goblin who opened the way.”

She pointed to Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin was staring at a dead Raskghar. She touched her former master and then looked up. She flinched as all the eyes found her. Erin nodded.

“You all fought. I’ll never forget that. But give the Goblins their due. They helped. And that is the truth. And the truth does not change. All of you saved the people I love. And Goblins.”

Ilvriss looked at Zevara and Embria. He wavered, then nodded curtly.

“So be it. And Goblins. And now—and now I think it is time. People of Liscor. Let us return home.”

And they did. The tired adventurers, the Watch, the soldiers and Antinium left the dungeon. The Raskghar camp lay abandoned. The dead remained where they had fallen. In time, monsters crept along. They devoured. And a lone figure walked, collecting heads. A skeleton danced around, giddy, laughing without a voice. But that was the dungeon.

Erin walked back into her inn and saw off every last person, thanking each one she could. She saw Lyonette go upstairs, still holding Mrsha and refusing to let go. She looked at Ceria and saw the half-Elf had changed. But she spoke little of it. She watched as all her friends went to their beds, and then slowly walked into her kitchen. She lay down on the floor in her nest of blankets and sighed. She closed her eyes.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 36!]

[Skill – Natural Allies: Goblins obtained!]

 

[Inn – Local Landmark: Liscor obtained!]

 

“Ah.”

Erin smiled for just a moment. Then she fell asleep in truth. And in a cave not far from her inn, a group of five Goblins stood in silence. They stared into the dungeon and then looked at each other. The Cave Goblins watched. The Raskghar were dead. But it was not their new masters that stood in front of them now. The Redfang Goblins turned, their red eyes flashing, and the Cave Goblins watched. They listened, and the ones below looked up. They felt it.

Something new.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Niers

“I can’t believe it. I can’t. Is it a message? A code? Were they just bored? Or—something else?”

“Mm. I don’t know.”

“It has to be something. It can’t just be nothing. I have to know what it means.”

“You agree it means something, don’t you? Foliana? Foliana?

The Squirrel-tribe Beastkin looked up. Foliana, leader of the Forgotten Wing Company, head of one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros, and world-famous assassin known as Three-Color Stalker, looked up. She was eating a plate of spaghetti. In a hot tub.

Foliana was a squirrel. Or rather, a squirrel with decidedly humanoid features but still evidently a squirrel. Just larger. She was of the Beastkin, the furred people of Baleros who resembled animals. Naturally, Foliana was of the Squirrel tribe. Her eyes were remarkable; the pupils were a mix of three distinct colors, bright red-pink, dreamy yellow, and clear green.

The rest of Foliana’s body was bland. In fact, so bland that she was often overlooked when people were standing right next to her. And if Foliana so chose, she could literally turn invisible. She wasn’t invisible now. She was sitting in a hot tub, her fur damp, as steam rose about her. And floating across from her in the water, staring at a miniature chess board upon which spectral chess pieces sat was Niers Astoragon. The Titan.

He was a Fraerling, a race of tiny people. He was also the second-in-command of the Forgotten Wing Company and considered to be one of, if not the greatest [Strategists] living. He floated in the hot tub, staring at the chess pieces that until recently had been moving and playing a game of chess all without his involvement.

“They played for over half a day and then just stopped. Dozens of chess games, all against themselves. At least, I think against themselves. The quality of their play was phenomenal. I can’t imagine they had an opponent of that level.”

“Mhm.”

Foliana slurped spaghetti off her plate. It was floating in a wooden bowl and she had a fork. The spaghetti had an ink-sauce that the Lizardfolk liked on top of it and there was a meatball.

If it seemed extraordinary that Foliana was eating spaghetti despite not having known of Italy or Earth for that matter, it shouldn’t have been. After all, there were only so many ways to make pasta and meatballs were meat…balls. It wasn’t exactly rocket science.

Now, if Foliana had called the dish spaghetti, that would have been a lot of coincidences. But both she and Niers knew the dish as a Dullahan favorite called Damcli Noodles. With meatballs. It was just that anyone from Earth would recognize the dish as spaghetti if they were in the room. Which they weren’t.

It was Foliana’s second bowl of spaghetti too. She slurped up more noodles as Niers stared at the chess board, waiting for his mysterious opponent to make another move. He didn’t seem to mind that Foliana was dripping ink sauce into the hot tub and the occasional noodle. Neither did she. She was eating spaghetti. Muffins were dead. Spaghetti was all.

“I just don’t understand. What do you think?”

Niers looked up hopefully. It was his and Foliana’s custom to have a hot bath after a campaign. They’d just finished a dirty series of skirmishes in one of the swampier regions of Baleros, which made the bath doubly important. Although Baleros was hot and humid, people preferred hot baths. It was a luxury and it provided several useful benefits if you had a bath Balerosian-style.

That meant the water was hot enough to scald, which meant it was hot enough to kill leeches and other parasites. And Baleros had plenty of bugs and objectionable things that liked to infest the body. So Niers and Foliana were bathing, as many did. Naked.

In Foliana’s case there wasn’t much to see due to the fur. There wasn’t much to see in Niers’ case, but that was only because he was tiny. Neither Niers nor Foliana was embarrassed or even conscious of their nudity, but it had been remarked upon. Foliana began to eat her meatball as she replied to Niers.

“I think it’s weird that none of your students want to bathe with us. Mm.”

Niers sighed. But Foliana had answered his question in her own particular way. He shrugged, letting his body sink down a bit more into the water. Fraerlings were natural floaters, given that there really wasn’t much weight for them to sink with.

“They’re nervous. Even my oldest students don’t want to share a hot tub. And I think you scare them.”

“Mm. Not all of them. Some didn’t want to join us because of the naked thing. Why?”

The tiny man shrugged.

“Other continents don’t practice mixed bathing. Or nude bathing. Or bathing at all, for that matter. It depends on the culture, but I don’t think that bathing together is a custom in Izril, Chandrar, or Terandria.”

“Weird.”

“Only to us. I’ve heard of foreigners insisting on wearing clothing into the water.”

“Why?”

Niers grinned, forgetting about the chess board for one moment.

“I think they’re afraid to see each other’s genitals. Especially Terandrians. I met a group of noblemen once who nearly fainted at the idea of seeing each other naked.”

“Why? Are they afraid of seeing something scary?”

“Or being seen, I suspect. The noblewomen were far more relaxed about the idea. They even invited me to join them.”

“Naked?”

“I suspect I was less threatening due to my size. Not that their husbands seemed to think so. Anyways, you won’t get my students to join me. Half are too afraid I’ll ask them a question they can’t answer or you’ll stab them—”

“Why?”

“—And the other half is too embarrassed. A shame; I thought Venaz would join us at least, but Minotaurs are surprisingly prudish. Not about seeing each other nude, but he refused to get in the tub with anyone of the opposite sex.”

“Mm…”

“He’s male.”

“Ah.”

Foliana nodded and slurped from her bowl of noodles. She knew who Venaz was of course. She’d met Niers’ students who attended his [Strategist] academy. And she had a very clear image of the Minotaur in her head. But the fact that he was big, muscular, and had a deep voice hadn’t helped her that much. He could have been a flat-chested female Minotaur. You never knew.

Niers realized he’d gotten sidetracked. He scowled and paddled over to his chessboard, which had floated away from him in the hot water.

“Enough about bathing. Back to the game. What do you think? About that.”

“I think it’s weird that your chessboard floats in the water. Mhm.”

The Fraerling glared up at his old friend, but with resignation. Foliana had an odd way of thinking. It was circular and she bounced from idea to idea and was surprisingly stubborn about changing lines of thought.

“Why? It’s a practical thing, to have a floating chessboard. Especially if I want to play while bathing. Like now.”

“But everything you have floats.”

That was true. Almost all of Niers’ possessions that were in any way valuable floated. His map case, his bag of holding, even his sword’s handle was made of highly buoyant wood that would allow it to float in the water. Niers grimaced.

“I’ve told you this before. Fraerlings like to make things that float. It rains in Baleros, if you hadn’t noticed. And if you’ve lost your sword or something valuable, the last thing you want to do is dive into a freshwater sea eight feet deep and try to retrieve it while fish and frogs try to swallow you whole.”

“Mm. So you don’t like ponds.”

“I’m six inches tall. Of course I don’t like ponds! Now will you tell me what you think about the game?”

“…This game?”

Niers splashed water at Foliana. She lifted her spaghetti bowl and kept eating, undeterred. After a few seconds, Niers began talking half to himself and half to Foliana.

“You don’t understand it. But you don’t play chess. I do. Dead gods, people think I invented the game. But this? Look at this!”

He waved a trembling hand at the chess board. Foliana looked into her bowl. It was empty. And the water was cooling. She decided she was done with her bath. She got out as Niers talked.

“My opponent—he—she—it—played twenty six games. All master-class games! At speed! Against themselves! Are they trying to tell me I’m not on their level? Or—was this a demonstration? Are there two players of that quality in this world? Selphid’s tits, tell me there are.”

Foliana paused in toweling herself off.

“Selphids have tits?”

Niers sighed. He rubbed at his face. He had grey and black hair and a sharp beard. And an irked expression. He looked up and glared.

“Selphids don’t have tits, Foliana. You know that. You’ve heard the expression before.”

“Mm. Yes. But how do you know that?”

Foliana waited, but she only heard a sigh.

“Pass me a towel, would you?”

The Squirrel-woman delicately picked up a tiny piece of fabric and passed it to Niers as he climbed out of the tub. She lifted his chess board up and set it on a table before doing the same to Niers. He industriously dried himself—his towel was spelled to absorb moisture and made of the highest-quality cotton grown on Baleros.

Foliana was using a much cheaper towel. She’d probably acquired it from someone else’s bathroom in the citadel. The former palace turned into living quarters for the Forgotten Wing company was their home when not on campaign.

“Selphids look like blobs. You know that. They don’t have tits. And yes, I’ve seen that first-hand.”

“Lewd. Mm. What would the children say?”

“They’re the ones that taught me that expression.”

Niers looked around for some clothes and walked across his table towards them. He walked past his bed, personal belongings, and a small library of books which had all been arranged on the table Foliana was sitting at. Eating a third bowl of spaghetti. This one was flavored with pieces of seaweed and a pink, sweet glaze sauce to cut the saltiness.

“So your mysterious opponent played a lot of games.”

“Yes.”

“And?”

Foliana saw Niers glance at his chess board as he came back, throwing on a pair of leggings and hose.

“And now someone else has a hold of it. An idiot, by the looks of things.”

Someone was moving the magical chess pieces. Only, they weren’t playing a game with them. Many pairs of hands were piling up the chess pieces on top of each other. Niers sighed.

“Someone else has the chess board. Damn! But who?”

They were making a tower out of the magical chess pieces. It had to be children. Niers stared glumly at the board as the tower fell over and then was quickly reassembled. He shook his head. Foliana looked interested for the first time.

“Looks like fun. Can I help?”

“No.”

“Mm.”

The Squirrel Beastkin didn’t look too disappointed. Because she already had a normal-sized chessboard and was piling up the chess pieces to make her own tower. Niers eyed it balefully but let it go. For now.

“I just don’t know what they were doing. They had to know I’d see what was happening. Right? Or they’d do this with another chess board. Unless they’re too poor to—no, they’d have sold the magical chessboard. This is a message. It must be. But what? It could be a code, but it was too fast for me to decipher. Or just a display of abilities? Maybe…”

Foliana paused in piling up a rook on top of her very tall tower of chess pieces.

“Mm. You should stop.”

“Stop? Stop what?”

“Pacing. And acting lovesick.”

She looked at Niers. He was indeed pacing around the magical chessboard, which was tiny compared to the duplicate he’d had made and sent across the world to his mysterious opponent. Niers stopped pacing.

“I’m not lovesick.”

“Yes you are. This is bad. Worse than the time you travelled to Terandria. Remember?”

Niers gritted his teeth and colored.

“I’d rather not.”

“It was when you thought there was a [Lady]. Mm. Who was a strategic genius. Remember?”

“Yes. Please stop talking.”

“And it turned out it was the Lord of the Dance instead?”

The Titan turned beet red and shouted.

“How was I supposed to know it was him? He never mentioned his name! And the stationary he sent me was perfumed!

“Mhm. You were lovesick then too. You had flowers.”

Niers Astoragon had made his enemies weep. He’d broken armies with nothing more than a quill and ink and a bit of bark to write on. He’d defeated one of the King of Destruction’s Seven and fought other Great Companies. But only Foliana could make him cover his eyes in sheer embarrassment.

“It was a mistake. And this isn’t the same.”

“Really?”

For a second Niers contemplated going over to kick Foliana’s bowl of spaghetti into her lap. He looked up sharply and saw Foliana’s tri-color stare looking right back. That was the last thing many people saw. And Niers’ anger slowly subsided. Because Foliana didn’t look like she was making a joke.

“Go on.”

The Squirrel-woman nodded. She slurped down a noodle and balanced a pawn at the top of her tower, which was several times Niers’ height. The magical chessboard’s tower kept falling over due to poor structural design.

“You used to play chess with your mysterious mage friend from Wistram. You were lovesick. Or obsessed. Mm. Close enough.”

Niers scowled darkly.

“I stopped that.”

“Yes. After you found out it was half the mages in Wistram working together to play you.”

“It was fairly obvious after all the gossip started. Mages can’t keep their mouths shut. What’s your point?”

“You could have kept going. But you stopped. Because it wasn’t one person.”

“No. It wasn’t. I thought it was Archmage Feor. He played the first few games, but he’s not at my level. Not without using predictive magics and boosting his mind, I think. It could have been another of the Archmages…so what?”

“You’re lonely.”

Foliana’s words made Niers pause. Then he shook his head.

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“I’m not, Foliana. I live in a citadel filled with people. I meet people all the time.”

“Subordinates. Other people. Not [Strategists]. Doesn’t matter. You’re lonely. No one you meet is as good as you.”

“At chess? That’s not—”

“At anything you do.”

Niers fell silent. He stroked his beard silently, and Foliana went on. Her eyes were focused as she stared at Niers around the chess tower.

“You’re lonely. You want to meet someone like you. But you never have. And you’re afraid to meet this person or find out who they are. In case you’re disappointed.”

The Titan scowled. That was the problem with Foliana. She was vague one second, and then focused the next. Rather like how she operated in everything, actually.

“What are you, my personal [Healer]?”

“Nope.”

Niers sighed. He paced away from the chessboard and came back after a moment. He spread his arms, looking up at Foliana seriously.

“I’m fine. I have students. I have a career. We built this company—I don’t want for excitement.”

“But you’re lonely.”

“Yes, damn it! Will you stop saying that? What does it matter? You don’t seem lonely and I know you don’t have anyone in your life!”

Foliana blinked at Niers.

“It matters because you’re you. You like people. You need people. I don’t. Someday I’ll retire. Go somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“Don’t know. Cottage in the jungle perhaps. Be alone. I don’t need people. You do.”

Niers grumbled. He flushed, kicked the chess board and upset a lot of Cave Goblins across the world, and then gave in.

“Fine. So what if I’m lonely? I have my opponent. I can find out who they are. I just choose not to. I don’t want to be spoiled. I want to have this and not have it ruined. Is that too much?”

He pointed to the chess board. The chess pieces were righting themselves on the board, which had flipped back over. Foliana shrugged.

“Not too much. But stop complaining.”

She began eating again and Niers realized he’d been talking to her all throughout their bath, and before that. And he’d brought up his mysterious chess opponent…well, a lot of times. He’d probably talked for at least three hours this time.

“Very well. I’m sorry.”

“Good.”

“And I will be able to play more games soon, you know. I had a new board and pieces commissioned. It took a while, but this new ‘Go’ game should be delivered to them soon.”

Foliana scratched her head. The game of ‘Go’ was sweeping across Baleros, in no small part thanks to Niers, whose love of the game had put a spotlight on it. It had even received attention from those who followed such things in other continents, although Olesm’s name had not been connected to the game. Niers had been inaccurately credited with creating the game. Again. And this time it wasn’t even his fault.

“It’ll take a while for it to arrive. But I’d bet half my fortune that it was my opponent who taught the game to this Olesm Swifttail to begin with. It’s too much of a coincidence. I know they’re in Liscor, or thereabouts.”

Foliana tilted her head.

“Why will it take a while to arrive? You hired a Courier.”

“Yes. But I had to prepare several fake boards, send a bunch of duplicate messages, you know how it goes.”

“Paranoid.”

“Not at all. I am being watched and this would attract a lot of attention. It’s a sensible precaution.”

“And fun.”

The Fraerling smiled.

“Immensely. I enjoy watching all the [Spies] and [Informants] scurry about and reveal themselves. And spreading gossip. I have a mind to send one of the Go boards to the King of Destruction. Although that might be too politically dangerous.”

“Mm. Send it to the woman with flowers.”

“Reinhart? She’d make it a talking point or use it against me somehow. Some people are too dangerous to play games around. Maybe I’ll send it to the Wistram mages. With itching powder.”

“Okay. And you’re not going to find out what the chess games mean? Or who your opponent is in Liscor?”

Niers hesitated. He visibly struggled with himself, and then scowled at the magical chess board.

“No. Not yet. But Liscor is on my watch list for other reasons. Here. Stop eating those noodles and look at this.”

Niers gestured to Foliana. Then he eyed the tower of chess pieces she’d built. He walked over and kicked the support rook out of place. The entire tower of chess pieces crashed down around him. Niers leapt out of the way as a pawn narrowly missed his head. The Fraerling breathed out shakily.

“Jungle rot.”

“That wasn’t very smart. You’re supposed to be smart.”

“Are you coming or not?”

Niers stomped over to his collection of maps. They were quite large and not Fraerling-sized, which was to say Foliana-sized. That was because [Cartographers] willing to illustrate a tiny piece of parchment with a needle were rare and because Niers didn’t mind the larger maps. He could walk over them and inspect them from every angle. The three-dimensional ones that were magical were even more fun.

A map of Izril was laid out on the table. Niers walked onto it and began pointing out details to Foliana. He had a number of pieces on the map. Pins and little flags with notes written on them. Small notes for Foliana, which meant big lists of details all in Niers’ neat handwriting.

“You know they have a Goblin Lord over there. And that there was that attack on Liscor from the dungeon. Well, I have news about the Goblin Lord and the dungeon.”

“Dungeon first. What’s new? Another attack?”

The Titan nodded.

“Something like that. I haven’t received another letter from that [Tactician] in Liscor. Olesm Swifttail, I think. Neither have my students. And reports are spotty—the Walled Cities are keeping a tight grip on things—but it sounds like something’s happening over there.”

“Monsters?”

Niers nodded. He walked across the mountain range that was the High Passes and stared down at Liscor.

“I’d bet my hats on it. A Gold-rank dungeon next to a city’s a recipe for disaster. And this one’s a vengeance dungeon by all accounts. I wish I could see it—”

“Go find your opponent while you’re at it.”

Niers ignored that. He studied the map and shook his head.

“It can’t be good. Especially since I heard a group of Gold-rank adventurers travelled from Pallass to Liscor via that door we saw. Amazing thing. That’s a useful treasure.”

“We have teleporter mages.”

“And that’s a powerful artifact that can do far more than just teleport, Foliana. I’d pay—no, never mind. I’d never get it back here without it being stolen, Couriers or no. That poor [Innkeeper] will lose it soon, if not to Wistram then to someone else raiding her inn for it. Where was I? The dungeon. Something’s going on. It could be like the one we found, you know.”

He looked up meaningfully at Foliana. She paused for the first time.

“If it is, they’re dead.”

“Probably. I just wonder how my opponent—no, forget it. Don’t poke me with that fork. The second bit of news that I can speculate on is this: the Goblin Lord’s been defeated.”

“Really? I didn’t hear that.”

Foliana didn’t pay attention to worldwide news. She relied on Niers to tell her everything, which was a wise move because Niers had a network of information that spanned the world. The Fraerling nodded.

“The reports are that Lord Tyrion Veltras—he’s one of the foremost [Lords] of Izril, one of the Five Families—assembled a massive army of Humans and assaulted them at a mountain. Here. And apparently he hired the Kingslayer’s team to help him defeat the Goblins. They chased the Great Chieftain and Goblin Lord out of the mountain and are pursuing them.”

“Oh. I did hear about that. One of your students was telling the others something like that.”

Niers smiled, for a moment becoming a proud teacher.

“Really? What did they say? I’d be interested in knowing who—and how good their analysis is.”

“Mm. It was the Lizardgirl. Nervous.”

“Umina?”

“Mm.”

“Good child. What did she say?”

Foliana tilted her head side to side as she thought.

“Goblin Lord’s on the run. Lost a big battle. Apparently the Human [Lord] is very good. At…fighting? Leading? Strategy?”

The Fraerling snorted. Trust Foliana not to remember nuance. He’d go ask Umina about her thoughts later. Make her paranoid about what he knew that she knew.

“With Elia Arcsinger demoralizing the Goblins and an army larger than theirs at his back? He’d better win every battle. That’s not skill, Foliana. That’s just good preparation. Mind you, he hasn’t engaged them yet. He’s running them away from their fortress. And that’s curious because I know the man.”

“During the Second Antinium War?”

“Yes. I met him briefly—he was younger—but I’ve been to a few gatherings. Always on Izril. He never travels. And I know reports of the man.”

“Does he like Damcli Noodles?”

Niers looked up.

“No. And I don’t think he has a favorite food. I didn’t care for him. He’s everything I don’t like about Humans. Well, about every species that has men like that, really. But he is a good leader. He can choose when to fight and he hasn’t engaged yet. There are a few reasons why that could be.”

Niers studied the map. He traced the speculative arrows he’d drawn leading away from the mountain and eyed the nearby cities. Invrisil, a section of the map he’d planted a big flag next to and written ‘Emperor?’ on in huge letters. Then he snapped his fingers and grinned.

“Ah. I see what he might be doing.”

“Fast. Sure?”

Foliana spoke around a mouthful of noodles. Niers nodded.

“It’s a good strategy. If it’s what I think he’s doing. I’d say it’s clever, too. It might work. And if it does…well, we might get some work in Izril if things go really poorly. Or well. Otherwise, we won’t be bothered. I doubt his enemies will notice it before it’s too late.”

“But you did. In seventeen seconds. Why?”

The Titan sighed.

“Because everyone’s an idiot? Or because I’ve seen this before. A variation, anyways. I keep telling my students that part of good strategy is just experience. Everyone tries the same little tricks without realizing they’re doing the exact same things over and over again. Depressing, really. And people wonder why I drink.”

“Because you’re an alcoholic?”

The Fraerling raised a finger.

“If the world was filled with an unlimited supply of any alcohol you wanted for a few silver coins, what would you do? There’s a reason why most Fraerlings who visit the city develop bad habits. You big people make things far too cheap for us.”

“Okay. What’s Veltras’s plan?”

Niers hesitated. He stroked his chin and wavered.

“I have a theory. But I’d rather not share it. Hold on. Let me write this down.”

He searched around and came back with a quill and ink. Foliana watched him scribble on a piece of paper, writing large so she could see it. Then Niers bent down and folded the paper. He handed it up to Foliana.

“You can open that in, oh, ten day’s time or so. And if I’m right…hey, stop that!”

Foliana was already opening the paper. She ignored Niers throwing his ink pot at her and read. She nodded, her tail moving a bit with interest.

“Hmm. Oh, makes sense. Hmm. Obvious when you think about it. This is good.”

“It was supposed to be a secret! I could be wrong, you know!”

Niers fumed. Foliana shrugged.

“Don’t think so. Sounds right.”

“Well, give it back. It’s no use now. I shouldn’t have written it down without warding it anyways. You could be scryed.”

“Good joke.”

“Even you could be. Come on.”

Niers held up his hands, but Foliana hesitated. She looked at the paper and then smiled slightly.

“Won’t. I’m going to show all your students so they’ll be really impressed. They’ll keep the secret, mhm. But be impressed.”

What? Absolutely not! Give that back Foliana, right now!”

The Fraerling leapt surprisingly high, but Foliana stepped back from the table and that was that. She retreated to Niers’ door.

“Going to show them now. Bye.”

She faded from view. But Niers knew she was there and he saw his door open. He roared in fury.

Dead gods damn it, Foliana! Give that back!”

She made no reply. She was moving and Niers had known Foliana for so long that he could vaguely guess where she was. And where she was going. He leapt from his table, landing lightly on the ground and raced after Foliana. For a small person his voice was very loud.

“Get back here! I could be wrong! This is my reputation on the line! Foliana! [Rapid Advance]!”

He charged after Foliana. She ran through the citadel, and Niers’ students and his subordinates and staff were treated to the Titan running after his commander through the hallways, furiously shouting at her. But Foliana didn’t slow. She ran on, smiling. And despite Niers’ escalating threats, he was smiling too. They were, after all, friends. So Foliana ran and Niers chased.

She was still naked.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.43

The Cave Goblins fled as the adventurers attacked. The tunnels and passages of the dungeon echoed with shouts and screams and the reverberations of battle. Fire lit up one passage and the Cave Goblins heard Raskghar scream. They ran as the Gold-rank adventurers pressed in, fighting the Raskghar as they poured out of their lair by the hundreds.

Some of the Goblins fought. They ran alongside their masters, bearing the crudest of weapons or fighting unarmed. They died with the rest as [Fireballs] blew them apart, or a shining comet made of light blasted forwards, eradicating everything in its path. At best, their loyalty was not rewarded; the Raskghar used the Goblins as shields, letting the adventurers cut them down while they skirmished with the Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, and other species.

So most of the Goblins ran. They had been warned. And while their subservient relationship with the Raskghar might have made them fight in other times, it did not now. Because a rumor had begun running through the Cave Goblins in the dungeon. A rumor from others of a place where there was food and no pain. Safety, from the whims of the Raskghar and monsters alike.

Of course, even that wouldn’t have made the Cave Goblins leave normally. The Raskghar would just hunt them down. But there was something else. Talk of masters who were better than the Raskghar. A word, long forgotten, that made something in Cave Goblins pause.

Hobgoblin.

Many ran. Some stayed. Others would return, finding their way to the Raskghar camp where it resettled. It wasn’t of concern to the Raskghar. Or the adventurers, so long as the Goblins weren’t in their way. They warred in the dungeon, fighting to reach the Gnolls held captive.

They failed again.

 

—-

 

At first it was simple. Textbook. The adventurers moved forwards in stealth, following the painstaking route they’d been given. Traps had been clearly marked out, and the monsters they ran across were silenced by advanced teams like Griffon Hunt. They were aware the Raskghar camp had two entrances and had divided themselves into two groups. The first would strike hard while the other would use spells and traps to keep the Raskghar from retreating. It was at the crucial juncture when they were moving into place for the attack that they were sighted.

Dragons damn it!

One of the Gnolls cursed as the Gold-ranks in position for the frontal assault heard a Raskghar howl. It was pure panic and it had come from one of the tunnels adjacent to the one they were waiting in. They heard the thump of a spell and saw a fireball explode ahead of them.

“We said to let the other teams get in position. There’s been no signal!”

“Too late! Someone was spotted! Go, go, go! Get the prisoners! Stick to the plan!”

The Gold-ranks ran forwards, abandoning the concealment of spells and shadows. They charged towards the entrance of the Raskghar camp; a passage which would allow six Raskghar to enter abreast if they squeezed together. The Raskghar were already pouring out.

Flamewardens! Blast them clear!

The first volley of flames made half the adventurers near the doors duck back. Dozens of Raskghar burned and the ones behind fled or fell to the ground, screaming. But hundreds more were running forwards. And by this time they’d closed with the adventurers in front.

Halrac and his team were part of the group fighting at the front of the camp. So were the Silver Swords. The Halfseekers had joined the team circling the Raskghar camp. From her position at the back of the line with the [Mages], Revi could hear confused shouts. She aimed her wand, trying to find a target in the darkness, but the flashes of light and melee made her hesitate. Her summoned archers had no such problems—they shot unerringly at the Raskghar. But there were too many. And the adventurers were in the wrong position.

“Fall back! Use area of effect spells!”

“No, push forwards! Hit the Raskghar coming out of the camp!”

“There’s too many! We need a better angle! We—incoming!

Revi felt the impact, but a [Mage] had thrown up a shield spell just in time. She saw the air in the dungeon move as a Raskghar with a staff sent a blast of pure air forwards. The impact sent both adventurers and Raskghar flying and knocked others to their knees. Revi shot bolts of her light from her wand, covering the stunned adventurers. And then she saw the Raskghar in armor.

She knew him. The Raskghar’s artifact deployed a barrier of magic which deflected every spell the adventurers sent at it. And behind him were Raskghar armed with other artifacts. An enchanted sword that spat bright energy every time it connected with something. A Raskghar armed with a shield with a mouth that bit, a blood-red dagger that constantly bled from the edge of the blade.

The Gold-ranks found themselves stalled. They tried to press forwards, but only a few had the armor to risk being surrounded by Raskghar on all sides. And even they had to fear the Raskghar with enchanted weapons. More than that, the Raskghar were holding the narrow choke point and the spells and arrows the [Mages] and [Archers] shot at them were being blocked.

And then she appeared. A Raskghar taller and bigger than the others. One who moved quicker, and with a clarity that the other Raskghar lacked, even during the full moon. She leapt forwards and bore a Gold-rank adventurer to the ground. Quick as a flash, she slashed his throat with a glowing yellow blade and leapt back as the adventurers tried to kill her. She disappeared behind her kin, who died as the adventurers roared in outrage. But her presence changed the Raskghar. They howled and surged forwards.

Fall back! Draw them out!

The adventurers moved backwards, holding the Raskghar back as their battle line crumpled. They weren’t losing—the Raskghar were dying by the dozens with every minute while only one adventurer had fallen—but they could not progress. And then Revi heard another howl. The Raskghar looked up and fled.

Not back towards the camp, but down the tunnels, away from the adventurers. In every direction. Some of the adventuring teams went to pursue, but their captains ordered them back. The Gold-ranks pressed into the Raskghar camp, hoping—

But it was too late. The Gnolls and Raskghar were gone. Out the back exit. And it was only minutes later that the second group of Gold-ranks appeared, battered and exhausted and said the obvious.

“We couldn’t stop them. We weren’t in position. Why the hell did you attack before we were ready?”

Jelaqua strode up to Keldrass, her armor still ablaze with magical fire. She looked ready to kill the bigger Drake. Keldrass coughed a bit of smoke and growled.

“We didn’t! One of our teams was seen. Did you see the Gnolls? Which way did they go?”

There was no way of telling. We didn’t even catch a glimpse of the prisoners.

Seborn appeared at Jelaqua’s back. His daggers were bloody and he shook his head.

“They got away.”

“We can chase them—”

“No. We failed.”

The other Gold-rank captains came over. Halrac was the one who uttered that harsh truth. The others looked at him. The former [Soldier]’s face was hard, cold. He gripped his bow with white knuckles.

“We’re too far in. We chase and die. This was our chance and we failed. Got it? We’re pulling out.”

No one argued. Halrac looked around.

“Where’s Pisces?”

“There. Pisces!

A few Silver-rank teams had been allowed to join the group that would have cut the Raskghar off. Pisces appeared, his face white with emotion. He opened his mouth and Halrac cut him off.

“We’re leaving. Get the door ready. Otherwise monsters will be all over our position.”

“But—”

Yvlon and Ksmvr looked shocked. Halrac turned and glared at them.

Now.

Pisces hesitated, but another team was already dragging the plank of wood out from their bag of holding. Typhenous motioned and Pisces produced a glowing white mana stone. He stepped over to the door, which was complete with a handle and placed it on the wood. Pisces opened the door and the adventurers moved forwards.

“Stay behind.”

“I know.”

Pisces stood aside as the adventurers marched through in silence. Their heads hung low. The [Necromancer] looked around the Raskghar’s camp, at the scattered supplies, the embers of fires—all the petty things left behind. But the thing he had come to find, the person, wasn’t there. He stood in the darkness as the last of the adventurers ran through the door, listening to the sounds of many somethings approaching in the darkness. Monsters.

Pisces didn’t care. He beckoned and two Bone Horrors appeared. Their bodies of yellowed bone weren’t even bloodied by combat. He collapsed one into his bag of holding and then motioned. The other stayed behind, the armored bear-thing, a yellow flame burning in its eye socket. Pisces took one last look around and then walked through the doorway.

The door remained open a moment longer, exuding light and warmth in the cold dungeon. Then it closed, leaving the Bone Horror behind. It began smashing the door as it closed, breaking the wood, grinding the mana stone into glowing powder. And then it turned and opened its jaws. Monsters overwhelmed the Bone Horror as it fought. And then there was only silence.

The Raskghar camp lay abandoned. There were no Cave Goblins, no Raskghar, no adventurers. Just monsters who did not see each other as they returned to their lairs.

They’d failed.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice sat in her inn, her leg jiggling. She was awake, despite the late hour. As if she could have slept. She kept her eyes on her magic door, to which was fixed a white mana stone. The light it shed was pure. Artificial. Or no—since it was magic, it was natural white light. It was still too bright at this time of night. But no force on earth would have made Erin remove the mana stone.

Her heart was pounding. Erin kept glancing at the door, and then at Lyonette and Apista who were sitting next to her, and then at the door every few seconds. She barely paid attention to Pawn and the group of Painted Soldiers sitting to her right. The Antinium were silent, watching the door with Erin. She was tensed, waiting for it to open. When it did, she nearly fell out of her chair and then leapt to her feet.

“Get back, Lyonette! What’s happening? Are you—”

The Antinium surged to their feet. The Soldiers readied themselves—and paused. The adventurers walked through the door slowly, without any of the sounds of combat Erin had been told to expect. She saw one of them—a Garuda with bright green feathers and a pink pattern running down her sides.

Bevussa looked up at Erin and shook her head as she walked forwards. She made way and Erin saw a group of five Drakes walk through the door. They were holding a body whose face was covered with a piece of bloodied cloth.

“Oh no.”

Lyonette was on her feet too. She started for the door, but Erin held her back. Both young women kept staring at the magical door, hoping, praying—but knowing the truth. No Gnolls came through the door. Or Ceria. The last person to walk through was Pisces. He closed the door behind him, plucked the white mana stone off and threw it to the floor. Then he stomped on it, shattering the glowing gemstone into dust.

No one commented on that. The adventurers looked at each other, not quite daring to look at Lyonette’s face. Erin felt like hers was a mask. She stared at the door.

“It’s gone?”

“My Bone Horror broke it. Destroyed the connection. It was then destroyed. By monsters.”

Pisces’ voice rasped. He too looked like a stranger, haggard, distraught. Halrac nodded quietly.

“We couldn’t stay.”

“I know that. But we shouldn’t have come back like this. We had everything this time. Everything! Why did we fail? Who was seen?”

Jelaqua looked around. None of the adventurers answered. The Selphid cursed. Her body was still aflame. She brought her arms down on a table.

Fuck!

The wood splintered. Erin didn’t care. Jelaqua threw the pieces of the table aside and looked around. Her gaze was despairing.

“What do we do now?”

 

—-

 

The Gold-ranks didn’t eat. Some drank enough for five meals, but no one wanted food. They talked, quietly, and then with growing passion. More than one tankard was broken, and more than one table as adventurers pounded on the wood. Jelaqua looked up as a Drake wearing lamellar armor walked over. He had a scratch on his arm, and he had carried a buckler and blade with a curved tip—a falchion during the battle.

“Miss Ivirith. I wanted to apologize. It was our team that messed up the ambush. We were getting in position when we ran across a group of Raskghar scouts. We didn’t get them all in time.”

Jelaqua looked up. The Selphid took in the Drake’s expression and connected him with the body that had been brought through.

“Your team’s…Reldiev Scalers, yeah?”

“That’s correct.”

“I don’t think you need to apologize to me. You lost one of yours to that Raskghar bitch, didn’t you?”

“That’s right. We were trying to get inside the camp. Cassa went too far ahead of the others. I guess that’s two failures. I’m truly sorry about this.”

The Gold-rank Captain’s scales were pale around his face. Almost as pale as Jelaqua’s. The Selphid stood up.

“You don’t have to apologize. Come on. You need some air. Where’s…Cassa?”

The Drake looked around.

“I—in Liscor. We need to prepare her body. Remove the armor. Notify her kin. I should find my team.”

The Selphid laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Not just yet. In fact, you should bring them back here. Liscor’s [Healer] will take care of the body. You shouldn’t have to do that.”

“But I’m her Captain. And she—”

The Drake looked lost. Jelaqua looked around and met Seborn’s eyes. He nodded. Moore was sitting by his side, staring emptily at a table. Jelaqua put an arm around the Drake’s shoulder. He flinched, but the Selphid was gentle.

“Come on. We’ll go together. And then we’ll come back. Or go to your inn. Any inn or tavern, really. You need drinks in you. Forget about the dungeon. I was angry. Has your team ever lost someone before?”

“No—no, we’ve been lucky. Really lucky. I mean, we’ve had wounded, but never this.”

“And your team’s new?”

The Drake nodded.

“We just hit Gold-rank last year.”

“I get it. Come on. Let’s find your team. You need to be there for them. What’s your name, kid?”

“Xess.”

“Come on, Xess—”

She left through the door to Liscor with the Drake. Her departure was noted. When Xess had left, one of the Drakes in Bevussa’s team, Zassil, sat up.

“If they hadn’t screwed up the ambush—”

Fast as a whip, Bevussa turned and slapped him across the back of the head. The captain of the Wings of Pallass hissed at Zassil, forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to be the captain in public.

“Shut up! They just lost one of their own! Show some respect!”

“He is right, though. If we hadn’t been compromised, we could have trapped the Raskghar. Instead, we lost a Gold-rank and they’re gone. Not good. Our one chance of saving our kin is gone. That cannot be ignored, no.”

One of the Gnoll adventurers spoke up. No one could contradict him. But Dawil, sitting and drinking his sixth mug, looked up.

“That’s true. But supposing everything did go according to plan, I’m not sure it would’ve gone the way we planned. We knew there were lots of Raskghar, but the ones with artifacts changed things. Not to mention—did anyone see the special Raskghar? Or was it just me?”

“We saw her. The quick one? The one that got Cassa? She was different. And those Raskghar with artifacts. That’s a Gold-rank threat. If we’d had to cut them down—”

“It’s the ritual. The one Ceria told us about.”

Yvlon spoke up. She looked around at the others. One of the Drakes coughed.

“The ritual? The one that involves sacrificing—”

He paused and glanced at his Gnoll teammate.

“—How could that work?”

“I don’t know. But Ceria said the Raskghar performed a ritual.”

“With your weird message spell. To the [Necromancer].”

All eyes turned towards Pisces. Keldrass frowned at the young man. He was staring blankly at his cupped hands, leaning back in his chair.

“I don’t trust it. Why can’t she use [Message]?”

“She doesn’t know it.”

The [Necromancer] replied absently. Keldrass paused.

“She couldn’t give us detailed information on the camp. Or tell us any important information. We got the location of the camp from Goblins.

“She’s a prisoner. Being watched. The spell is noticeable.”

“Still—what does the ritual do? Why sacrifice Gnolls?”

Pisces looked up at last.

“It makes them stronger. All other aspects are irrelevant. It makes the Raskghar stronger, which is why they desire the Gnolls. Is that simple enough for you, fool? You saw what that one did.”

The Drake flushed and clenched his fist, but he shut his mouth. Pisces looked around at the others. He opened his hands. A flaming butterfly flew upwards.

“She sent me a message.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell—”

“I was decoding it. Shut up. Sit down.”

Keldrass hesitated. Pisces ignored him. He spoke softly, but no one was making any sound.

“She’s still alive. But—she says we ruined everything. I don’t know what that means. She says the Raskghar escaped. That Calruz suspects treachery. Not in so many words. And she says—he ordered the Raskghar to perform the ritual with twenty more of the Gnoll captives.”

He looked up. The Gold-rank adventurers sat, frozen in their chairs. Pisces gazed around the room and found the figure holding a pitcher near the back. He met Lyonette’s eyes.

“Mrsha is safe. For now.”

But twenty more Gnolls were dead. No one spoke for a long minute. Then the other adventurers began to mutter disconsolately.

“Twenty? How many prisoners are left, then? Can we get to them in time?”

“Ancestors, I saw how quick that one moved. Cassa barely saw it leap at her. If we have to fight twenty more of them—”

“We’ve lost the camp, the Raskghar are on alert now, and we lost one of our own. How’re we supposed to beat them?”

“Wait for the full moons to disappear?”

“And risk everyone else being sacrificed?”

“If it’s that or try and fight them like that again, I say yes! There’s no point in risking our lives if we don’t have to.”

“So we let my people die, is that it?”

A Gnoll stood up, glaring at the Drake. The Drake stood too, more than a little drunk.

“I risked my life for your people! But I’m not going to kill myself or my team for nothing!”

“If that’s what your team wants to do, fine. But my team is going back down there tomorrow. We won’t stop, even if we’re going alone. We aren’t cowards.”

The Drake rumbled and his hand reached for the sword hilt at his side.

“I dare you to say that again, you—”

Enough!

The voice was like a cold wind blowing. The adventurers felt a moment of pressure and turned. Erin stood in the center of the room, looking around. She gazed from face to face, angry and helpless at the same time.

“Stop fighting! Stop wasting energy blaming each other! The Raskghar got away. They killed more Gnolls. We’re running out of time. What are you going to do? What’s your plan now?”

The adventurers in her inn looked at Erin. They looked at each other. Some shook their heads. Other just looked away. No one had an answer for Erin. And that in itself was answer enough.

 

—-

 

Twenty. Twenty Gnolls died in the dungeon. Upon an altar of stone that ran red with blood. The other Raskghar held them there, and the chosen Raskghar killed them with the same stone. Tore open their chests. Ate their hearts. And changed.

Vakk was the last. He fought the Raskghar, cursing them, and even managed to draw blood with his claws. But that only seemed to excite the bestial monsters. They dragged him over to the altar.

Mrsha didn’t watch. She hid her face in her side and covered her ears. But she still heard the scream. She would never forget Vakk’s last sounds or the ripping noises, the crack of his bones that came after as long as she lived. And when it was over, twenty one Raskghar stood together.

“Good.”

Calruz stood and nodded, his face triumphant. He stared at the dead Gnolls without any recognition in his eyes. And when he turned, the madness-scent hung from him like clothing. He inspected the twenty one Raskghar. They licked their bloody muzzles, sniffed the air. The other Raskghar looked at them as children did at adults, despite their similar forms. The twenty one awakened bowed to their Chieftain. But their eyes—their eyes glowed as they looked at the Gnolls.

The Minotaur didn’t notice. He was talking to himself, to his tribe, and to the half-conscious form at his feet. Ceria barely moved—he’d beaten her with his arm when she’d fought him.

“This was a triumph. My triumph! I was betrayed, but the adventurers could not defeat me. Not here. Not ever! And so I name you. Twenty one of my elites. You awakened Raskghar. You will all bear artifacts, become my vanguard.”

“Yes, Chieftain. We are honored, Chieftain.”

The female Raskghar spoke for the others. She was first of the twenty one, and they deferred to her. Calruz nodded. He glanced around.

The new Raskghar camp was the old one. The circular room with the partially caved-in roof. The Raskghar couldn’t move that far at night, not with the dungeon stirred up. It didn’t matter either way. The adventurers had not followed.

“A great victory. You—you have done well, Nokha. You will lead the awakened. Tomorrow. But I give you leave tonight. This is a celebration. Celebrate!”

The Minotaur turned. He roared and the Raskghar howled in triumph. They broke up, males and females, seeking each other. Some ate. Others forced the Cave Goblins to entertain them. The awakened Rasgkhar looked with interest at each other, but then they moved as one. Towards the Gnolls in cages.

There were still over forty captive Gnolls left. They shrank in their cages as the awakened Raskghar approached. Their eyes were—too bright. Mrsha backed up until she could feel the bars of her cage pressing into her back. Nokha, the female Raskghar, looked around. She had killed a Gold-rank adventurer. She had smiled as each of the Gnolls was sacrificed. Now she bent and looked at the remaining Gnolls. At Elirr. And at last, at Mrsha. She smiled.

“We are whole.”

The Gnolls shivered. Something about her words filled them with dread. Mrsha tried to hide as the Raskghar stared down at them. Then the awakened turned. They joined the others, growling, asserting their dominance. The lesser Raskghar—for that was what they were—gave way at once. The awakened chose from the lesser, males choosing females, females choosing males. They led them away and then the Raskghar paired up.

It was dark in the room. Blood and pain filled the air. The fires crackled. The Raskghar growled. And then they began to mate.

Urgent thrusting motions, low growls, moving shadows. Mrsha knew what was happening, at least in abstract. She’d grown up in a Gnoll camp after all, and privacy was limited when everyone could hear and smell what you were doing, even inside a tent. She didn’t look at first. Then she peeked. And then she was afraid.

The sounds were urgent. Primal. There weren’t just busy sounds. There were howls of pain and snarls too. The shadows danced. The Raskghar’s orgy filled the night as Mrsha hid in her cage. And she wished, oh how she wished that someone would save her. But no one came. So Mrsha covered her ears and wished Ryoka were here.

 

—-

 

Ceria heard the Raskghar begin to mate. She saw them move into the shadows, but not out of sight. There was little privacy in this room, save for Calruz’s and her ‘private’ quarters. She felt the ground she was lying on. Her head spun. She felt sick.

Twenty. He had made her watch. When Ceria got up, she had a bloody cut on her cheek and her eye was already swelling.

“So. You see the price of treachery.”

Calruz’s voice made Ceria look up. The half-Elf stared up at her former captain. Former. She couldn’t see anything she recognized in him. Not now.

“You monster.”

He hit her. Ceria felt the world go gray. Calruz pulled her up. Her head lolled.

“I warned you. I gave you my trust! And you led the adventurers here.”

His eyes were red. Mad. Ceria tried to make her tongue work.

“I swear, I didn’t. You know that I can’t cast [Message].”

A lie. She’d told Pisces what she could. But it was true in that she hadn’t brought the adventurers here. She would if she could. But she hadn’t. How had they done it? Ceria’s mind was hazy. They had to do it again. Soon. Before—

“You murdered them.”

“I made my Raskghar stronger. I was a fool to listen to you. One of them slew a Gold-rank adventurer. Twenty more of them will be enough to claim the city. Destroy my enemies! Yes. They have been far more loyal to me than you. And now—”

Calruz looked around. The mating frenzy of the Raskghar didn’t seem to disturb him. On the contrary, he seemed excited.

“Look. My tribe multiplies. This is mine. Mine! And you—you are mine too. Traitor or not. You will be mine. I will make you mine.”

He lifted Ceria up. The half-Elf didn’t know what he meant, until she saw Calruz’s private quarters, curtained off by a moldy sheet. And then she looked down. He was aroused.

“No.”

The Minotaur didn’t seem to hear. He stared at Ceria.

“The Raskghar take long to breed. But the next generation of warriors will serve me. I have them training in their camps. Hidden away. But I have not created any heirs.”

“Put me down.”

“I am your Chieftain. This is your duty.”

Ceria couldn’t breathe. Calruz had her by the throat. She forced her hand to open as he walked with her suspended in the air. She forced her skeletal hand open, tried to freeze Calruz’s arm.

“Touch me and I will kill you.”

The Minotaur paused. He looked back at Ceria and his eyes were red. He didn’t have another arm to hit her with, so he brought Ceria close and head-butted her. She went limp.

You do not order me! I give orders! I am your chieftain! Obey!

He roared in her face. Ceria felt spit strike her face. She struggled as he opened his curtains. His ‘bed’ was just a pile of worn blankets. Stained. The Minotaur turned to her, lust in his eyes. Ceria raised her skeletal hand, aimed between his forehead. She had just enough strength for one last retort.

“Ryoka would be so proud.”

Calruz stopped. A bit of sanity flickered in his eyes. He stared at Ceria. She waited, her hand frozen with magic.

The Minotaur cursed. He lifted Ceria and threw her. She flew, striking the ground hard. Her wand bounced out of her belt, rolled into the darkness. Ceria felt a rock cut her through her robes. She lay on the ground as Calruz roared.

You!

A female Raskghar came at his bidding. He disappeared with her behind the curtains and then Ceria heard loud grunting, a rhythmic sound. She dragged herself up.

“You monster.”

Healing potion. She reached for it and treated the bruises at her throat, her eye and the cut on her head. Ceria looked around. The Raskghar moved in the darkness. She couldn’t make out the awakened from the other Raskghar. But it didn’t matter. Ceria looked at the Gnolls in their cages. There were less of them. They stared at her. Ceria looked away.

“I—”

There was nothing she could say. Cave Goblins sat around fires, staring at their masters. They parted for Ceria as she staggered past them, watching her cautiously. Ceria paused at Mrsha’s cage. She stared down at the shackled Gnoll. No one was watching the cages. It would be easy to break the cage. It was flimsy. The Gnolls could do it if they weren’t shackled. But she had no way of removing the metal bindings. And even if they ran…

This time she couldn’t say anything to Mrsha. Ceria just leaned on the cage and covered her eyes.

“I’m so sorry.”

Then she turned and walked away, conscious of the little Gnoll’s eyes on her back. Ceria went to her private room, trying not to hear or see. Or remember. But she heard the scream. The last Gnoll had cursed her before he died. He had been right to.

Her bedding was worn cloth too. It was actually comfortable somehow—the Cave Goblins had created a nest for Ceria to sleep in. She had no right to it, but Ceria took it anyways.

Ceria lay down and wept as she heard the Raskghar celebrate around her. Her tears ran down her cheeks, salt and water. They dripped onto the ground and ran together, forming a tiny puddle of water. More ran from Ceria’s open water flask and into her hands. Tears and water mixed, freezing, molding a shape out of the air.

A dagger made of ice. She gave it the finest edge she could and made it sharp. Sharper than her broken dagger had been. Sharp enough to cut a Minotaur’s skin. Sharp enough to kill. It would have to be quick.

It was a terrible thing to think of. To kill your own teammate was the ultimate betrayal. But hard as Ceria tried, she couldn’t find any guilt or sadness in her heart. There wasn’t enough left of Calruz anymore. He was a monster. She told herself that as tears ran from her cheeks and froze. And she knew that she wouldn’t ever leave the dungeon. And neither would he.

 

—-

 

It was all falling apart. Erin Solstice woke up the next day and knew that the Gold-rank adventurers had no plan. They had argued long into the night—those that hadn’t left early. But at the end of it, they had nothing solid to go on. Nothing beyond trying to find the Raskghar again.

There were just too many. And they were just too strong while the moons were full. In a day or two the moons would change and the Raskghar would be weak. But by that time, Erin was sure, all the Gnolls would be dead.

Mrsha would be dead.

She had slept in her kitchen. When Erin walked into her common room, she found Lyonette sitting at one of the dirty tables. Dishes were left where they’d been last night, broken on the ground or piled up. The [Barmaid] sat in her chair, Apista in her hands. The Ashfire Bee’s legs had been healed, but it clung to Lyonette’s arm. Even it seemed to know something was wrong.

“Lyonette.”

The young woman didn’t look up at Erin’s voice. She stared ahead blankly. It was just past dawn. The adventurers had been in the inn until midnight. Lyonette might not have slept.

“Lyonette. You have to sleep.”

“They couldn’t do it. Mrsha was right there and they couldn’t save her.”

“Yeah.”

Erin stood next to Lyonette’s chair. She tried to say something in the Gold-rank adventurer’s defense. The Raskghar had been too strong. They’d been unlucky in being spotted too early. It had been dozens of adventurers versus hundreds or thousands of Raskghar. But those were all excuses. Nothing would bring the dead Gnolls back.

“I—I’m going to talk to the Goblins. They have to be able to help.”

“How?”

Erin didn’t know. She looked at Lyonette.

“If—”

She let the word hang in the air. Lyonette looked up, but Erin couldn’t give word to the feelings in her chest. She walked away and went to the door. She looked around, found the red mana stone, and stared at it dully.

It had been such a good plan. The Redfang Hobs had showed her the Cave Goblins that had known where the Raskghar camp was. She’d gotten the adventurers and made the Goblins write down a map so the adventurers could find the camp. They’d agreed to leave the Hobs behind—there was too much risk of unfriendly fire if the adventurers reacted to the Redfang Warriors.

They’d made preparations, calculated a plan of attack. They’d even had an exit strategy. Pisces and Typhenous had gotten their emergency door to work and Erin had set the door to their mana stone. They’d go in, fight their way to the prisoners and get Ceria and Calruz, and exit through the door. Pisces had claimed he could leave an undead to smash the doorway so monsters couldn’t follow. Plus, Erin could always change the door’s connection.

Last night it had seemed so possible. Now, in the light of day, Erin knew better. She opened the door and walked through.

Happy noises greeted her. The Cave Goblins looked up warily as Erin entered, then got back. To cooking. They had eight fires going in the cave, and it sounded like there were more going on in the dungeon too. Hundreds of Goblins sat around in the cave—they’d colonized the room right in front of the Shield Spider nest too, completely at home with the giant spider colony right next to them. And they were cooking.

Fish, mainly. They’d run out of Erin’s supplies as soon as the Cave Goblins had begun pouring out of the dungeon. So Headscratcher had taken Goblins back to the waters outside of Liscor and begun fishing at the edge. The Goblins had dug around for worms and grubs in the mud and after finding and eating a few, had created crude fishing rods. Some just threw the bait into the water and snagged fish with nets. Then they towed them back to the cave and began to cook them.

Erin stared at a fish that had been diced up and was now sizzling in one of the frying pans she’d given the Goblins. It had been deboned, but the guts of the fish and every other part—including the eyes—were in the pan, cooking away. And the Goblins sitting around the fire were chewing the fish bones, crunching them down with satisfaction. As Erin watched, the designated [Cook] reached into a bag and brought out a handful of salt. It sprinkled the salt over the frying fish to the Goblin’s apparent satisfaction. Then it began to divvy the fried fish up.

Every Cave Goblin got a portion. The little children greedily snatched at the fish and then dropped the hot pieces, crying out. The adults were barely more controlled. But they shared. They shared and smiled as they ate, monsters smiling to eat fish with salt. It was a heartwarming sight. But Erin’s heart hurt.

“Where’s Headscratcher? Where’s Numbtongue? The Hobs?”

The Cave Goblins looked up. As one, they pointed towards the entrance of the cave. Erin walked around the little Goblins. They looked up at her, some nervously, but most looking curious. Trusting, even. Erin saw a Cave Goblin wave at her. She stopped and saw it was Pebblesnatch, roasting a dead squirrel. Erin tried to smile and gave up.

“Headscratcher.”

The Redfangs were outside, sparring with a huge audience of Cave Goblins watching them. They looked up and stopped fighting at once. The five Hobs clustered around Erin, looking excited.

“We…win? Adventurers attack?”

Rabbiteater clumsily spoke. Erin stared at him and then shook her head. The Hobs’ smiles vanished. They looked at one another.

“Bad?”

Headscratcher looked at Erin. She nodded.

“Very bad. The Raskghar got away. The adventurers…they lost one of their people. And the Raskghar sacrificed twenty more Gnolls.”

The Goblins looked surprised. Not shocked. They exchanged a glance and then formed a huddle. Erin watched as they urgently signed to each other and then all began smacking Numbtongue on the shoulders. For once, the Hob didn’t need encouragement. He knocked their hands away and looked at Erin.

“We’ll go back in. We will find Raskghar camp. Again.”

Erin blinked.

“You can do that?”

The Hobs looked at each other and then at the Cave Goblins. They nodded decisively.

“We can find. Again. Many Cave Goblins. They know many spots. All we have to do is find other Cave Goblins. We can find. Before tonight! Adventurers try again?”

Numbtongue looked expectantly at Erin. She stared at him, and then felt herself wake up a bit. That was right. They could try again. They had to.

She didn’t know what she’d expected from the Hobgoblins. But this is what she’d needed. Erin nodded.

“If you can find them—I’ll find the others. We have to try again. We have to. Can you locate their camp soon?”

“Will look. Will go now.”

Numbtongue pointed at the others. Headscratcher was already looking around, giving orders in the Goblin tongue. The Cave Goblins scattered. Erin stood a bit straighter.

“Thank you. Thank you so much. Don’t get too near the camp. Please be careful. But find them. And I’ll get the Gold-rank adventurers to—to—”

She wavered. Erin’s face fell. To do what exactly? Try the same tactic again? They’d failed the first time. Even assuming they were willing to give it another shot, the Raskghar would be on alert. And now there were twenty one of the special ones. Could they do it?

What other choice did they have? Erin stared at the Hobs, who’d caught her uncertainty. Shorthilt nudged Numbtongue and made a few gestures. Numbtongue made a face and nodded.

“Old plan failed. Adventurers must have new plan. Do they have one?”

“No.”

Numbtongue paused. Erin saw Badarrow grimace behind him and Rabbiteater scratch at one ear. Erin bowed her head. And yet—Mrsha. Ceria. She scrubbed at her face as the Hobs watched her. There had to be something they could do. There had to be.

Could Olesm help? The Gold-ranks hadn’t consulted him, but he was a [Strategist] now. Then again, Erin had never seen how good his strategies were. Could she get Zevara to send her Watch into the dungeon? What about Embria? Ilvriss? No, he’d refused.

There had to be something. But Erin didn’t know what. She wavered, and then looked up.

“Go find the camp. I’ll think of something.”

“You?”

Numbtongue looked incredulous until Rabbiteater kicked him in the shins. The Hob turned, kicked Rabbiteater back, and then nodded uncertainly.

“We go now. You keep the door open. We’ll tell you as soon as we return.”

Erin nodded. Numbtongue’s grasp of English really was close to perfect. The Hob turned. Headscratcher had a group of sixteen Cave Goblins and was waiting. The Hobs filed into the cave. Erin watched them go.

“I’ll think of something. Who else can?”

The Gold-rank adventurers had given up. They had no idea what to do. But there was a chance. Erin walked back into the cave and back into her inn. One of the Cave Goblins peeking through the door jumped and ran when she walked past him. Erin absent-mindedly walked over to a table. Lyonette was still sitting in the same spot.

There was something on this table. A chess board. The ghostly pieces were set up in a game. Erin looked around for the other chess boards, but they must have been placed somewhere else to make room for all her guests. She looked at Lyonette and decided she didn’t care. She stared at the ghostly chess pieces.

She’d been playing a game with her mysterious opponent. She’d stopped ever since Mrsha had been kidnapped, but it had been her custom to spend at least thirty minutes each day playing a game. Now her opponent had been waiting days for her move. Erin stared at the board, which had been a thrilling back-and-forth game between the two. She swept the pieces from the board and began resetting them.

A black and white side stared at her, completely untouched. Erin stared at the pieces and then moved a pawn. She turned the board around and then, without waiting for her mysterious opponent to make a move—if he was even there—she played his side. Knight to F6. Alekhine Defense.

She didn’t know what she was doing. Erin was certain she shouldn’t be playing chess. But she had to think. She had to think. What could she do? What could they do? If they could find the Raskghar camp—but if the adventurers couldn’t win an all-out attack—her hands moved automatically, sending her pawn forwards, playing the black side against the white. There had to be something. Something that would work.

She had to think. The Cave Goblins staring through Erin’s portal door into her inn stared in awe at Erin’s magical chessboard. They began creeping forwards. Watching. Learning. And Erin played against despair. And thought.

 

—-

 

Mrsha dreamed she was in her bed. Just for a moment. But it was a wonderful dream. She dreamed she was lying next to Lyonette, and Apista was lying on her little bed by the windowsill.

It was too early so Mrsha was all curled up, warm, lying next to Lyonette. But soon she’d smell cooking and know it was breakfast. And then she’d run down stairs and sit at the table and Erin would smile at her and tell her what breakfast was, and then Lyonette would come down and tell Mrsha how good she was for washing her paws and setting the table—if Mrsha remembered and—

And then reality seeped into the dream. Mrsha smelled dried urine and feces. She shifted and felt the hard stone beneath her, and her empty stomach. And she opened her eyes and knew she was in the dungeon. In the baddest of places.

Mrsha sat up and remembered where she was. She looked around and saw the Raskghar. They were eating ravenously, satisfied. The Cave Goblins ran about, bringing them food. They’d mated last night and now, content, they were in a good mood. Mrsha wished they would all die horribly. She wished the Frost Faeries would freeze them, or Zel would appear and slash them all to bits.

Not even the Goblins were as bad as the Raskghar. The Goblins were terrible monsters. But the Raskghar were worse. They were like Gnolls, so close that sometimes Mrsha thought she could smell or see something familiar in them. But they did the worst things. They killed Gnolls. Sacrificed them. And then became…

Whole. That was what the female Raskghar had said. And as hard as Mrsha wanted to believe that was a lie, she thought it was true. The awakened Raskghar looked complete. If the ordinary Raskghar were beasts who could think, the Raskghar who had performed the ritual were people wearing the skins of monsters. But not good people. Oh no, not at all.

And now there were twenty one of them. The Gnolls huddled together whenever one of the Raskghar who’d performed the blood ritual passed by. The awakened were each followed by a small cluster of lesser Raskghar. And Mrsha saw that they were standing taller. And she had a horrible feeling of what that meant, too.

Urksh used to say that his position as the tribe’s [Chieftain] was based on two things. Respect and ability. There might have been other Gnolls who were better than him at leading, but part of leading was being trusted. And Urksh had the tribe’s trust in him. But Calruz? The Minotaur?

He had the Raskghar’s fear. And he was strong. That made him their leader, and his ability to think. But when Mrsha looked at the awakened Raskghar, she knew they commanded more than just fear. And they could think. And—she looked at one of them as he glanced around, his gaze full of bright danger. She didn’t think he was afraid of Calruz anymore.

“Monsters.”

One of the Gnolls spoke the word quietly. Mrsha looked at them. Elirr and the other Gnolls from Liscor sat together. They were clearly starving, battered, hungry. But they stared at the Raskghar with as much hate as Mrsha.

One of the Raskghar noticed. The awakened Raskghar, a male with dark grey fur and white stripes, walked over to the cages. The Gnolls drew back as he bent down. He grinned at the Gnolls.

“Prey. You are prey.”

His voice was guttural and his words were awkward. But he spoke! The Gnolls recoiled. The Raskghar bared his teeth, clearly enjoying the reaction. He pointed at Elirr.

“You. Cannot save kin. We kill. We sacrifice. Then we take more. More. More awakened. You first. Then you. Or you.”

He pointed at the other Gnolls, at an older female Gnoll woman, and then at a Gnoll child. The Gnolls clung to each other. The Raskghar laughed. Then he jerked. Too late. The bit of brown struck him squarely in the nose and glance upwards, striking his left eye. He recoiled with a roar and swiped at what was clinging to his face.

Poo. Wet poo. Mrsha took aim with another handful. The Raskghar surrounding the awakened one leapt back, as she threw her poo at them. The one covered in it howled as he tried to scrape it off his face and then got it on his paws. Mrsha raced about her cage, looking for more ammunition, but she hadn’t eaten much so there was no more.

White one!

The Raskghar howled in fury, but not too loudly for fear of waking Calruz, who was still asleep. He clenched his paws as the other Raskghar sidled away from him. And then he heard laughter. Immediately his ears flattened. He turned on the Gnolls with rage. They were laughing. But not just them.

Some of the other Raskghar had seen what had happened. The ones who hadn’t witnessed it could still smell what had gone on. Several of the awakened laughed at the unfortunate poo-covered one. And even the lesser Raskghar couldn’t contain their amusement.

The awakened Raskghar didn’t flush as far as Mrsha could see with all the fur on his body, but he looked furious. He glared at Mrsha in her cage. The Gnoll cub raced around inside, sticking her bottom up at him. For once, Mrsha relished the cage’s bars despite the shackles. She could still throw things with her bound hands! And the Raskghar couldn’t kill her. Not until it was time for her to be sacrificed.

The Raskghar growled deeply in his throat. He took a step towards the cage and a warning bark made him turn. The female Raskghar stared at him and shook her head. The awakened clenched his paws, but he glanced at Calruz’s private quarters and hesitated. Mrsha could see him hesitating. Not yet. Reluctantly he turned away.

Mrsha grinned at his back. She saw the other Gnolls straighten a bit, enjoying this moment of victory. Mrsha smiled widely—and then saw the awakened turn. The Raskghar looked around, growled, and then loped over to something. He came back with a key.

The other Raskghar growled warningly at him. But the awakened Raskghar was too incensed to care. He opened the lock on Mrsha’s cage and reached inside. Mrsha tried to run, but she was too slow. He grabbed her, shackles and all, and then lifted her out. She struggled. The Raskghar growled. He lifted Mrsha up and casually, before any of the other Raskghar could stop him, smacked Mrsha into the ground.

The blow was savage. Mrsha’s head and body hit the ground as hard as the Raskghar could throw her. She felt something crack. Pain. She curled up and heard pounding feet. The female Raskghar and two of the awakened snarled and dragged the one who’d struck her away. He let them do it. The damage was done. Mrsha felt huge paws pick her up and shove her into the cage. It hurt. Her mind flickered on and off. It hurt. It hurt! It hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it—

The Gnolls were silent as the Raskghar turned, locking the cage again. Their moment of triumph was gone, replaced by more hate and fear. The Raskghar walked away. The one who’d been struck by poo grinned even after he’d been cuffed hard by the female. He turned, nearly stumbled on a stick lying on the floor, and kicked it back towards Mrsha’s cage with a growl before going to find water to wash himself with. Mrsha didn’t respond. She lay there. It hurt so bad. She just wanted it to stop. All the hurting. All the pain.

It was too much.

 

—-

 

Ceria woke up late. She shouldn’t have gotten a good sleep, not with all that had happened, but her body had decided that her bed in the Raskghar’s camp was decidedly better than some of the sleeping spots she’d had while adventuring. So she got up after Calruz and all the Raskghar. Ceria stumbled out of her curtains and heard a familiar voice.

“Prepare the team. We strike at the nest of Children today. The awakened Raskghar will form the spear of the assault. I want to see how effective you are. Maintain a watch on the camp. I don’t trust the adventurers not to try to attack again. Double patrols!”

Calruz was standing at his impromptu war table, surrounded by the awakened Raskghar. They nodded deferentially to him. The Minotaur turned as Ceria walked towards him. The ice dagger was frozen to Ceria’s back. Literally frozen to her skin. The ice didn’t melt and Ceria knew no one would notice. She ignored the freezing sensation—she was used to worse from studying under Illphres and looked at Calruz.

“You’re attacking a nest?”

The Minotaur grinned at Ceria. He was satisfied from last night. His rage seemed like an afterthought, as did his fury over Ceria’s supposed treachery.

“Yes. I want to test the abilities of the awakened. You will come with me of course. Have you had breakfast?”

“Nope.”

“Collect some, then.”

Ceria walked towards the stew pots. It might have been maggot-insect the Cave Goblins gave her in a bowl, or the chunks of meat could have been some other monster. Or Gnoll. Ceria decided not to eat when she thought of that, though she was ravenous. Instead, she went to the pile of dead adventurer’s belongings and fished around until she found some travel rations that were only a bit moldy. She ate that instead and washed it down with stale water.

A fitting final meal. Ceria stood up and looked around. Her eyes went to the Gnolls in their cages. She wondered if there were anything she could do for them. Probably not. The adventurers would have to do something. If they got there in time.

At least she could save Mrsha. Maybe. Ceria tried to figure out what to do. If she could end things with Calruz—the awakened Raskghar were tough, but none of them were mages. There was a chance. A slim one, but there was no other way. She couldn’t sleep in this camp another night.

The Gnolls were awake. They were staring at Ceria. She didn’t want to meet their eyes, but she felt she owed them something. An explanation. Another apology. But she couldn’t give anything away, not with the Raskghar able to hear everything she said. So Ceria just met their eyes, trying to convey her feelings.

Something was a bit odd. The Gnolls stared at Ceria and then looked as one to Mrsha’s cage. Then they looked back at her. That was clearly a sign. Ceria frowned. She got up and walked over to Mrsha’s cage. The little Gnoll was curled up inside. Ceria glanced at the Gnolls, but they were afraid to speak. She bent down and inspected Mrsha.

Nothing looked wrong. The Gnoll wasn’t moving, though. She was alive, but she was terribly thin. She hadn’t been eating, and no wonder. The other Gnolls must have been worried. Ceria straightened.

“I’ll try to get you rations. The adventurers have some.”

She turned, not seeing the frantic shaking of Erill’s head and the way the Raskghar looked up warily. Ceria was too distracted. She looked at Calruz. It would have to be quick. He was stronger than she was. Tougher and quicker than before, too. She had to get right up close to him, under his guard.

“Finished eating? Then we go. Come!”

Calruz was in a good mood. He downed the last of the meat he’d been eating and stood up. The awakened Raskghar and some of his better-equipped warriors strode out of the room. Ceria followed silently. The ice dagger was still attached to her back, radiating cold. The handle was simple, but the edge was keen. Illphres had taught her how to make ice that strong. But she’d always told Ceria that she expected more.

“Your ice is weak. You can make ice solid now, which is something. But you can’t shape it. You can’t design your structures.”

“Like you do, oh great and powerful master?”

“Exactly. Stop being sarcastic or I’ll freeze your nose off. I’ve shown you how I build my [Ice Walls]. It’s not just one solid mass of ice—that’s inefficient and it can break. I structure it, like an [Architect] would design a wall. But at a miniature level, far too small to see.”

“I can’t sense it.”

“Of course you can’t. You’re an amateur. But one day you will be able to. And then you’ll finally be competent enough to shape your spells rather than relying on set designs. Ice magic can create an infinite variety of shapes. Like my mask. It can be armor, a trap, a disguise…now, cast the spell again. And this time, try to put an edge on that dagger, will you? I’ll slice my bread with this and make you eat whatever I can’t cut.”

The memory made Ceria smile. Just for a moment. She walked with Calruz through the dungeon, passing traps, watching with disinterest as the Raskghar skirmished with a group of invisible monsters she didn’t bother to point out. The sense of smell of the awakened Raskghar was stronger, like everything else about them.

Three. She could at least get three. The female first. One good [Ice Spike] between the eyes—or in an eye—would do it. She raised her skeletal finger. Yes, she could dual-cast with her wand—

Her wand. Ceria felt at her belt. Where was it? A flash of panic ran through her. Her wand was missing! She remembered Calruz throwing her and cursed. She must have dropped it!

“Too late to go back for it now. I do this with one hand, I guess.”

Ceria gritted her teeth. The dagger was all that mattered. What came after—well, maybe she’d get lucky and the Raskghar would declare her their new chieftain like they’d done for Calruz. More likely…

Caught up in her thoughts, Ceria didn’t realize one of the Raskghar had fallen back until a finger tapped her on the shoulder. Absently, Ceria looked sideways and froze.

The female awakened Raskghar, the original one, was walking by her. She’d moved without a sound. Now she loomed over Ceria, a hunched, furry shape with bright eyes peering at her in the darkness. Ceria felt fear seize her. The Raskghar leaned forwards. Her breath was rancid as she spoke.

“What are you?”

“What?”

Ceria fought the urge to step back. The Raskghar moved forwards even closer and sniffed. Ceria stepped back, suddenly sweating. Could she smell the ice dagger on Ceria? It was just ice, but maybe—

The Raskghar didn’t seem to notice Ceria’s concealed weapon. She sniffed again and then spoke a word.

“Half-Elf. Chieftain called you that. Half-Elf. What is Elf? Are there more like you above?”

Her eyes were too intelligent. Ceria gritted her teeth.

“That’s none of your business. You want to know what I am? Go ask Calruz.”

“Don’t want to ask him. I ask you. Tell me. You are Chieftain’s. Also Raskghar’s.”

The female leaned forwards, uttering a growl that ran down Ceria’s spine. She was very big and she showed Ceria her canines. She was trying to assert her dominance. Ceria gritted her teeth.

“Leave me alone.”

She raised her skeletal hand. Not to blast the Raskghar, but to freeze her nose off. The Raskghar caught Ceria’s hand in a flash. Her grip was like steel as Ceria fought. The half-Elf was afraid to try and freeze the female. The awakened Raskghar smiled at her.

“I will not hurt you. You are the Chieftain’s. His.”

She let go. Ceria yanked her hand back.

“Oh yeah? Do all the Raskghar mess with his…people? You seem pretty disloyal to him.”

The female Raskghar made a rumbling sound. Ceria thought it was a laugh. She raised her paws.

“Not disloyal. Only curious. We Raskghar need Chieftain Calruz. The Chieftain is smart. When the moons fall, the Raskghar need him. Who else can think then? Only Chieftain.”

She tilted her head, giving Ceria a toothy grin. Ceria stared at her. In that moment, the half-Elf realized something. Something important.

The Raskghar was lying. Intelligent she might be, but she hadn’t learned to control her expressions or body language yet. There was no need to in Raskghar society. But to Ceria’s eye, she could see the tells in the female Raskghar’s body. She was lying. But what had she said—

Ceria realized she was staring too long. She fumbled for a reply to conceal her realization.

“Oh yeah? Well…he needs me more. I’ll save the Gnolls, the rest of them. You won’t sacrifice any more of them!”

“Hrr. You can try.”

The female grinned at Ceria, clearly thinking little of the half-Elf’s threat. She ran ahead of Ceria, joining the Raskghar moving down the tunnel. Ceria stared at her back, and then swore a blue streak. She caught up to Calruz.

“Calruz.”

“Speak.”

The Minotaur looked perfectly at ease as he strode forwards. Ceria glanced up at him and then nodded as casually as she could to the female loping ahead of them.

“That Raskghar. The first one to perform the…ritual. What’s her name? Do the Raskghar have names?”

“They do. They’re not complete monsters like Goblins. That one? She’s called Nokha. She’s…quite intelligent. For a Raskghar. And a competent warrior. She led the raid on Liscor, which is why I gave her the honor of being first.”

“I see. And you trust her?”

There was a moment of hesitation.

“Of course I do. Why?”

“Oh. No reason.”

Ceria dropped it at that. She saw Calruz glancing from her to Nokha. Soon, they reached the nest of Children.

“Springwalker, stay by my side. Nokha, take your awakened. Show me what you are capable of. We will support you if necessary.”

Nokha grinned. She lifted her enchanted blade and the other awakened raised their enchanted weapons. They moved forwards.

The battle was over quick. The nest of Children, the white-skinned doppelgangers that pretended to be children of other species, had been built into a room with numerous porous openings for them to nest in. At the Raskghar’s intrusion they came out, screaming, and swarmed the awakened.

They died in droves. Ceria watched the awakened tear through them with unmatched brutality. The Raskghar were strong and the awakened were easily the equivalent of a Level 35 [Warrior]. At least. With the enchanted weapons they bore, the Children were no match. By the time they were finished, the last of the Children were fleeing, and the Raskghar stood surrounded by blood and gore.

“Magnificent.”

Calruz looked around approvingly. He kicked one of the white-skinned monsters that was trying to crawl away, its guts hanging from its bisected torso. He studied the nest.

“And so another nest of monsters falls. The Children will no longer trouble us. You awakened have done well. I will consider allowing other Raskghar to perform the ritual tonight.”

“Chieftain is kind. Chieftain is wise.”

Nokha bowed her head humbly. Calruz grunted in satisfaction.

“You may return to the camp first. Springwalker, with me. We’ll search for any treasure these monsters may have kept hidden. Warriors, guard the entrances.”

He beckoned. Ceria stepped into the bloody room. Now was the time. She saw Calruz walking past the dead Children, staring into the small tunnels that had been their homes. The ice dagger came loose from her back with a bit of her skin. The pain and cold chill of the hilt made Ceria feel awake. She hid the blade against her arm as she walked forwards.

“Efficient, these Raskghar. Aren’t they?”

“I am pleased. It was right to perform the ritual. A shame I don’t have more Gnolls. With enough, I could make an army capable of taking the city in a single raid. I haven’t committed all my forces, but I should. There are what, forty four Gnolls remaining? Enough for a strong force.”

“I bet. And what will you do when you run out? Raid Liscor for more Gnolls?”

The Minotaur paused as he bent down.

“Perhaps. The city is well-defended and no doubt on alert. It would be a mistake to try after the full moon wanes. Indeed, I will have to pull back into the dungeon, father away from the rift. Bide my time. But if the awakened hold onto even a shred of their intelligence or strength…”

“They’ll be useful. Yeah, I can see that.”

Ceria’s voice was too calm. She felt like she was discussing tactics with Calruz like in the old days. Humoring him, really. He and Gerial would love to get into this kind of debate over a drink. Ceria didn’t enjoy it, but Calruz loved pretending to be a [Tactician].

“You’ll see. The Raskghar will become even more effective under my command. I will lead the awakened into the city tomorrow and see how many infested we can cull. And next month…yes, perhaps next month we will make enough progress.”

“Exciting.”

The ice dagger was ready. Ceria stared at Calruz’s back. She had one chance. It had to be in the throat. She could imagine him surviving a stab to the liver and she couldn’t get through his ribs. But his throat—she had to break his healing potion too.

“I’ve forgiven you, you know.”

“Oh?”

“For your betrayal. You might have been telling the truth. If not, I could understand.”

Calruz reached into the hole and pulled something out. He brushed at the dirt and other crusted substances and revealed a dented gold chalice. He grunted and fished further inside. Ceria edged around him. His head was too far in the hole.

“Kind of you.”

The Minotaur paused and drew his head halfway out. Ceria tensed—but he was looking at her.

“Don’t mistake me, Springwalker. I don’t think you truly follow me. I know you want to return. But when you’re here, I can’t help but feel reassured. I need you. To help me—think.”

“Really?”

Ceria frowned. This was new. She hid the blade as Calruz nodded. He stared at her. His eyes didn’t look as crazy as normal. In fact, they looked lucid. Ceria wished he were raging. That would make things easier.

“I know I’ve done…terrible things. By any standard. I’m aware of that, you know. I know sacrificing the Gnolls would earn me the headsman above. However, it feels like most days that it doesn’t matter. But I do know it’s wrong. Always.”

The half-Elf wanted to laugh. Now he acknowledged it? Too little, too late. She waited for him to turn his head.

“Then why do it?”

“I must. I must find the heart of the dungeon. There’s no other goal larger in this world.”

“Even if it means sacrificing innocent people? Killing your fellow adventurers?”

Calruz bowed his head.

“Even then. You don’t understand, Ceria. I’m doing this for our team. For the fallen. Gerial, Hunt—I’ll conquer this dungeon in their name. What comes afterwards doesn’t matter. Only the glory of victory matters. Only that.”

Ceria shook her head. She could see the Raskghar standing idly by the entrances to the Children’s nest. Blood ran around her feet. Calruz was covered in grime. He looked mad.

“Do you think you’ll really make them happy? Is this what they would have wanted? Really, Calruz? Are you that stupid?

She expected Calruz to rage. And his brows did draw together. But again, the Minotaur surprised her. He looked down at the golden chalice he’d set on the ground. He reached down and touched it.

“Of course I’m not. I know this won’t bring them back. I can’t give them any of this wealth. But what else do I have, Ceria? What else can I honor them with? What else can I return from the dungeon with, but glory?”

He looked at her. Ceria shook her head. Tears were in her eyes as she tightened her grip on her dagger.

“Glory? Is that all, Calruz? We didn’t need glory. What about honor? Wasn’t that why we made our team? Wasn’t that why we fought?”

“Honor.”

The Minotaur closed his eyes. Ceria hesitated. Her arm tensed—but she couldn’t do it. Calruz opened his eyes and Ceria shifted her posture.

“I don’t have any honor left. I know that. I lost my team. I fell in with monsters. There’s only glory for me. Wretched glory. But they will speak my name for decades for this if nothing else. The Minotaur who lost his team. The failure who became a traitor. But he conquered the dungeon of Liscor. But he did that.”

“Can’t you just leave? Can’t you just go?”

“Death before dishonor. The Horns do not run. I will not retreat. I will not lose. Not again.”

Calruz turned. Ceria blinked the tears out of her eyes.

“I see. That’s like you. I never could get you to change your mind.”

“True! I’d almost forgotten.”

Calruz threw back his head and laughed. Ceria lunged. Her dagger flashed towards Calruz’s throat. He looked back and flung his arm up. Ceria’s dagger went flying. The half-Elf raised her skeletal hand and the Minotaur caught it. He twisted Ceria’s arm and she knelt.

“The Raskghar can smell everything about you, Ceria. They smelled the dagger on your back and told me. I wish that you hadn’t betrayed me a second time. Nokha was right.”

He twisted Ceria’s arm more. She groaned and knew that if he pressed any harder her arm would snap. Calruz’s eyes were calm as he stood over her.

“I understand. But twice is too many times. Once is too many. I need you. And yet, what should I do with a traitor? Break your arm? Too lenient. Cut one off? Perhaps. But I want my teammates at full strength. Should I sacrifice the Gnoll? The white one? Mrsha?”

“No. No, Calruz. Please don’t.”

The Minotaur knelt. He looked at Ceria’s pained face.

“Give me one reason. One reason why I shouldn’t.”

“The Raskghar will betray you. They’re going to soon anyways.”

Ceria gasped around the pain shooting down her arm. She felt the pressure on her joints lessen a fraction. Calruz stared at her.

“Have you any proof of this?”

“The female—Nokha—talked to me. She was asking about half-Elves. But then she talked about you. She said you were essential because you could think when the moon wasn’t full. But she was lying. I saw it, Calruz.”

The Minotaur frowned.

“That’s hardly evidence. You could be making all this up.”

“Would I?”

“I think so. You just tried to kill me.”

Calruz added pressure and Ceria bit back a scream. She could see the Raskghar glancing back and laughing at her. But they couldn’t hear, or so she prayed. She spoke as fast as she could.

“Wait! I’m sure she was lying. I just don’t know why. The awakened performed the ritual, right? Maybe—maybe the ritual does more than just give them strength and intelligence. Maybe it makes them smarter all the time.

Yes, that was it! It was so obvious! Ceria knew she was right the moment she said it. And suddenly Calruz stopped twisting her arm. The Minotaur let go of Ceria and rocked back on his heels.

“Impossible.”

Ceria straightened slowly, wincing. She held still because Calruz was still very close to her. The ice dagger was melting on the floor. Even if she’d had it, Ceria wouldn’t have risked another attack. Calruz was fast.

“Why is it impossible? Did the Raskghar ever tell you what the ritual did? Or did they just say it would make them more powerful? I bet they kept bugging you to kidnap the Gnolls, though.”

“They did. They—were very insistent.”

“And why was that? So they could grow an inch or two and gain more muscle? No. No, they have one big weakness. And that’s that they can’t think. But what would the ritual do? Give them intelligence all the time. And if they have that, they don’t need you, do they?”

Calruz looked shaken. The Minotaur stood up and walked past Ceria. The blood was drying, but the smell was still overpowering.

“No. No. They wouldn’t dare. They would never—I am Chieftain! They need me. My expertise, my strategy—that’s irreplaceable even if they kept their intelligence.”

Ceria massaged her arm. She tried to inject as much sarcasm into her voice was possible.

“So? They’ve been watching you. It’s not like they can’t figure things out. They learned to speak in, what, a day? Think they can’t copy you? And who do you think they want as a ruler? A grumpy Minotaur with one arm or one of their own?”

Calruz glanced at his stump of an arm. Then his eyes hardened. He snorted angrily.

“This is all just conjecture. If they dared—if they tried to challenge me—I’ve killed challengers before. The Raskghar are no match for me.

“Sure you have. But have you fought an awakened Raskghar? With enchanted weapons? I bet you could still win against one. But how about twenty one?”

The Minotaur’s face froze. Ceria bared her teeth. Her arm was a knot of pain, but Calruz’s face was worth it. She could see suspicion and paranoia taking over. Madness.

“They’re planning it. That was what Nokha kept demanding more rituals. Of course! If they keep their powers…and they’re armed. With my artifacts. How could I have been so blind?”

“You need to let go of the Gnolls. The Raskghar will perform as many rituals as they can. Get rid of the awakened. No, just run. Run from the tribe. Go to Liscor. They’ll protect you.”

Calruz was nodding, but he stopped when Ceria suggested running. He growled and shook his head.

“Run? Unacceptable! I won’t run from these usurpers. They want my position? I will kill them. And you will help me. If they are more intelligent, then I only have to wait two more nights to see. And if they do challenge me—I will make an example. Yes. There are twenty one at the moment. Too many. But if I…”

He broke off, thinking, his brows furrowed. Ceria straightened.

“I’ll help you. I don’t want the Gnolls to die. And if I help you, you’ll let them go.”

“I should trust you? After you betrayed me twice?

Calruz glanced at Ceria with a sane, sardonic look in his eyes. She grimaced.

“No, but do you have a better option? Besides, if I kill you, the Gnolls will die. This way I have a chance to save them.”

“True. True…very well. I agree. I’ll spare the Gnolls if you help me defeat these awakened.”

Calruz nodded decisively. Ceria felt a surge of hope in her chest.

“No more Gnoll sacrifices?”

“No more sacrifices. For now.”

The Minotaur straightened. He glanced at the golden chalice and kicked it aside.

“I must return to my tribe. Follow me. You and I have much to discuss about. Where the Raskghar can’t hear us.”

He gestured and Ceria walked after him. The Minotaur called out an order and the Raskghar on duty straightened. They looked surprised, but after Calruz barked, they jogged ahead of him, leaving the two behind. Calruz and Ceria looked at each other warily. Then they began to walk.

She’d been about to kill him. Ceria still felt the cold of the dagger in her hand. But this—this would do. She was relieved, really. She walked behind Calruz as he led her back towards the camp. After a few minutes, the Minotaur looked back at her.

“That was truly an imbecilic plan, by the way. Attacking me with an ice dagger? I have [Thick Skin] now. And you were always pathetic with edged weapons of any kind.”

“I could have cut you with that dagger. One good thrust to the throat and you’d be dead without a healing potion.”

“Perhaps. And what was your plan afterwards? Kill all the awakened Raskghar and my entire tribe by yourself? And how would that save the Gnolls?”

“I—shut up. I was only thinking about you. I was going to improvise.”

“Hmf. This is why Gerial and I never included you in the strategy meetings, you know.”

“Look how disappointed I am.”

The Minotaur grinned and turned ahead. Ceria smiled, just for an instant. She was going mad too. But she couldn’t help but hope. Hope. It had slowed her thrust towards his throat. In the end she was soft. Illphres would have called that her real weakness.

She couldn’t do anything to stop Calruz. But maybe she could buy some time. And maybe, just maybe—Ceria concentrated. She had to focus hard to form the message with her arm aching, but she did it. Her fingers released another little messenger, this one shaped like a flickering firefly.

Raskghar ritual. May make smart all time. Challenge Calruz maybe. Dangerous. I help. Buy time to save Gnolls.

It fluttered upwards and then vanished. Ceria hoped Pisces would see it. They had another day, maybe two before the Raskghar would make their move. Maybe less time. But if they had to die, at least she’d die on Calruz’s side. She wouldn’t run. Not again. There was some comfort in that.

 

—-

 

Pisces saw the bright firefly flicker up as he opened his eyes. He sat up and once and cupped his hand. The firefly flashed shapes and colors at him. The [Necromancer] forced his weary mind to decode the symbols and then threw back his sheets.

Dangerous. I help. Buy time. Ceria had to be insane! But it made sense. Pisces cursed as he realized he should have considered the ramifications of the Raskghar’s ritual from the start. He leapt out of his bed and made for the door, not bothering to dress. He slept in his robes since they couldn’t get dirty or wrinkled.

“Erin! Erin!

Pisces clattered downstairs. As usual, he was late. Yvlon and Ksmvr were already up, but they’d apparently decided not to wake him. They sat in absolute silence, their food practically untouched. Pisces didn’t even see the Halfseekers. The adventurers had given up, or resigned themselves. He felt a flash of anger but quelled it as he looked around.

“Where is Erin?”

“Through the door. She was playing chess in here, but she left.”

Yvlon pointed dully towards the open door. Pisces paused as he saw it was attuned to an unfamiliar place. And were those Goblins sitting around fires? Cooking fires?

The Goblin cave. Of course. He strode towards the door. Yvlon stood up, looking grey in the face.

“Pisces, what’s wrong? What are we going to do?”

Pisces gave Yvlon a strange look.

“Rescue Ceria, of course. I just received another message from her. The Raskghar are intending to revolt against Calruz. She will ally with him—prevent any more Gnolls from being sacrificed in the meantime. We have more time.”

“To do what?”

He didn’t know. But giving up was unacceptable, so Pisces hurried through the doorway. The Goblins looked up in alarm as he strode through. They sprang to their feet and some drew weapons.

Pisces…paused. Only now did he realize that the cave did in fact contain a lot of Goblins. Hundreds, in fact. And he had forgotten both his rapier and his bag of holding containing all his bones in his room this time. He held up his hands.

“I ah, come in peace. I just want to see the [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice?”

The Goblins stared at him. They did not look friendly. Nor, now that Pisces thought about it, did they look quite so weak. He could easily imagine taking on a hundred Cave Goblins. With preparation. And his rapier and Bone Horrors deployed. But in close quarters? Without weapons?

And then Pisces heard a voice to his great relief.

“Let him through!”

The Cave Goblins looked at each other and parted reluctantly. Pisces saw a familiar shape sitting on the ground, playing on a chess board. Erin didn’t look up as he approached. She had an audience. All the Goblins not eating and a good deal of them that were sat around her, watching as she played a game of chess against herself on the magical chessboard.

It was an impressive display. Pisces saw Erin’s hands moving rapidly and realized she was playing at a level beyond him, hard as that was to admit. He hurried to her side.

“Erin. Ceria contacted me. The Raskghar are intending to revolt. The ritual makes them too intelligent—they don’t need Calruz anymore. She will ally with him. We have time—I doubt he intends to create more Raskghar who could overthrow him. But they might rebel soon and if they succeed, both she and the Gnolls die.”

“Rebelling Raskghar? Got it.”

Erin glanced up from her chessboard at Pisces and then looked down. He stared at her.

Well?

She looked back up.

“Well, what?”

“We have to do something!”

“I agree. But without a plan to beat the Raskghar, we’re still stuck. Ceria’s still in trouble and so are the Gnolls. Do you have a plan for that?”

Pisces did not. But he had never let that stop him before. He sniffed and drew himself up to his full height, his mind racing for answers.

“We failed last time to defeat the Raskghar. But the plan was not wholly unsound. We must try again. If we could track the Raskghar—or the Goblins could find their camp—”

“They’re going to find it.”

“They are?

“That’s what they said. They’ll report back before night if they succeed.”

Pisces wavered. He stared at Erin. Why was she still playing chess here?

“Then—that’s excellent news! We must inform the other adventurers!”

“They won’t go for it.”

“Why ever not?”

“They failed last time. And now there are more super-Raskghar. We need a new plan, Pisces. That’s why I’m thinking on it.”

“By playing chess. In a cave full of Goblins.”

“Yup. Helps me think. What are you doing?”

Pisces was thinking. His mind raced as he stared at Erin. The Goblins could find the Raskghar camp again. Well, that was incredible! If they could launch another attack—he tried to imagine the Gold-rank teams fighting another battle. That was the problem, wasn’t it?

“There must be a way to oust the Raskghar or defeat them without a frontal assault.”

“Yup.”

“Relying on brute force was a mistake. We should have employed a better tactic.”

“Are you going to keep stating the obvious?”

“The Goblins know where the Raskghar camp is?”

“They can find it. And if they can find it, we need to figure out how to get the Gnolls. That’s why I’m here. And you’re distracting me.”

Erin stared at her chess board. Her brow furrowed. She was relentlessly assaulting the white side’s pieces with the black side’s pawns.

“The thing is I’m no [Strategist]. The thing is that chess isn’t like real life. I keep telling people that. I don’t know why it would help level up a [Strategist]. I think the system’s weird like that. Anyways…chess is all about assaulting enemy formations. Trouble is, you can’t ever win or get to the king in one move. You always have to make the enemy open up their formation. Best you can do is win in two moves. But the enemy has to give you that opening. What’s the opening for the Raskghar? Any ideas?”

Pisces had plenty. Most were idiotic. His mind raced as he took a seat next to Erin, nudging aside Cave Goblins. There had to be something. He had considered the problem before, appealed to his new master for help and been flatly rejected. He had tried his own tactics, but he didn’t have the power. Not yet. His Bone Horrors were too weak, and too inefficient. He had the bones of an Archmage but not a third of the mana supply needed to keep such a creation running. But this—

“We have Gold-rank adventurers. Surely they have a spell or a…a Skill that would aid us.”

“If they do, they haven’t used it. Flamewardens have fire breath. Wings of Pallass can fly. Seborn’s nearly invisible…none of this works against the Raskghar’s artifacts and numbers. Typhenous said he poisoned some, but if he did, they went off and died. And he can’t use the really bad stuff without killing Ceria and the Gnolls instead. I thought about trapping the Raskghar in.”

“How?”

Erin gave Pisces a blank look.

“With walls. Duh. Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers made the wall in the dungeon there. Pretty strong. It can block all those Shield Spiders from coming out.”

She pointed vaguely at a hole in the wall of the cave. Pisces paused.

“Wait, this cave connects to that part of the dungeon? And the Shield Spider nest—with gargantuan spiders and hundreds of thousands of smaller ones—is right there?”

“Yup. Behind the wall. Actually, there’s a hole in it. The Goblins keep poking the Shield Spiders when they try to come out with sticks. Go look if you’re curious.”

Pisces’ jaw worked for a few moments in silence. Then he decided not to point out the obvious and moved on.

“So your plan would be…?”

“Wall the Raskghar in. Starve them out? If they can make a bunch of walls in secret, the Raskghar are stuck, right? Reinforce the walls with magic…trouble is, I bet they could smash through. And if they couldn’t, it’s a hostage game, right? They’ll eat or kill the Gnolls before giving up. So that’s a bad plan.”

“Perhaps. But the idea has merit.”

The [Necromancer]’s mind was working as hard as it could. He glanced at Erin’s door. It seemed imprudent to connect her inn to a cave filled with Goblins who might be hostile, and the nest of Shield Spiders. He stared at Erin, and then at the door. Then his brows slowly snapped together. In that moment Pisces knew he was a genius. First the Face-Eater Moths, now this? He’d never let Ceria live it down when they rescued her.

“I have it.”

Erin looked up sharply. So did the Cave Goblins. One of them, a Goblin toying with a few pebbles, looked at Pisces. He ignored the Goblins.

“The plan is simple. We need your door, Erin, and a team of adventurers. Multiple teams that will seal off the Raskghar in their lair as you envisioned. But the real plan needs to come from your inn. We will gather every [Mage] in Liscor—every mage in Pallass and Celum if we have to! And we’ll place one of your magic doors in the dungeon. The adventuring teams will carry it there.”

“And do what? Launch another assault? The Raskghar will see it coming, walls or not. They won’t escape, but they could just kill us. If they have time to mount a defense—we only have the adventurers and they’re outnumbered.”

Erin frowned, but Pisces shook his head. He was trembling with his own insight.

“No, there will be no fighting. Yes, an assault is too dangerous with our numbers, especially since the Raskghar will inevitably detect our assault before we can make it into their lair. However, if we were not fighting them—you see, once the adventuring teams have walled off every tunnel around the Raskghar’s camp, we will put the door’s entrance facing the Raskghar camp and submerge the other end of the door in the water.

The Cave Goblins gasped. The [Innkeeper] looked around and her brows slowly rose.

“Hold on. You mean you want to go Noah’s Ark on them.”

“Um. What?”

Erin scratched her head.

“Biblical reference, never mind. You’re saying that you want to drown the Raskghar. Put the door in the water and pour through what, enough to drown them?”

Pisces nodded.

“Flood their camp at least. I don’t intend to drown the Gnolls or Ceria, but the water would certainly inhibit them. And if we blocked off all the corridors—”

“They can’t get out. Okay, so they’re facing drowning. Then what?”

Pisces hadn’t gotten that far. He spoke as he thought.

“We do two things. If they are amenable to negotiation, we retrieve Ceria and the Gnolls. If not—we fight. But on our terms. We can arm the Gold-ranks with equipment that will allow them to outmatch the Raskghar. Ksmvr’s Ring of Waterbreathing. And we have a few experts at underwater combat like Seborn.”

“Yeah, but it’s still one against thousands.”

“Thousands who have no experience fighting underwater, I would imagine. And it is possible to use spells like [Chain Lighting] to devastating effect.”

Erin was nodding. But then she frowned.

“True, true. However, all of this puts the Gnolls and Ceria in a lot of danger.”

“It would still give us an advantage!”

Pisces flushed, not wanting to hear criticism. But Erin was staring at her chess board. She moved a bishop and then raised a few fingers, ticking them off.

“A few problems. One, I don’t know how much capacity my door has to transport all that water, every mage in Liscor or not. Water’s heavy and that’s a lot of volume to fill any camp. Two, I don’t know if the walls will hold. How strong can we make them? Three, the Raskghar might detect the Gold-rank teams that have to get into place anyways. Four, we’re risking Ceria and the Gnolls in a hostage situation.”

These were all good points. Pisces inhaled and tried to figure out what to say in response.

“It’s still better than our current plan, which is nonexistent.”

Erin nodded.

“It is. But it boils down to a fight and the problem is, Pisces, the problem always is that the Raskghar have numbers, position, and hostages. Even a water assault means they’re in position. And they can block those tunnels. Yvlon told me what happened. No. I’m sorry, but your idea won’t work. There are too many moving parts. But I agree we need a surprise attack. My door might help. If we can get one person close…there’s something to that.”

She broke off, frowning. Pisces scrubbed a hand through his hair.

“Someone under [Invisibility], perhaps?”

“No good. The Raskghar are used to fighting invisible monsters. They can’t see a lot of them due to something in the dungeon according to the Redfangs. Hold on…invisible monsters. But they can smell. Damn. So what…?”

Erin frowned and smacked her lips. She looked thirsty, so one of the Goblins wandered off and gave her a cup of water. Erin looked up.

“Oh, thanks Pebblesnatch.”

It didn’t surprise Pisces to learn that Erin knew the little Cave Goblin’s name. The Goblin beamed at Erin as the young woman reached for the cup. Then Erin paused.

“Pebblesnatch. Door. Invisible—wait, that part’s stupid. Surprise attack?”

She looked down.

“Chess. Gotta love formations. Hold on. I think I have an idea. Want to hear it?”

Pisces did. He listened as Erin described her idea. His jaw dropped.

“But that plan is terribly risky! If it went wrong—”

“What’ll happen? We get ambushed and die?”

“Yes!”

“Well, it won’t. And it’ll work. The Cave Goblins think it will, right?”

Erin looked at her audience. They exchanged nervous looks. One shrugged, and a lot of them scratched their heads. Pisces was just as dubious.

“Your plan is just as risky as my plan! Erin, you cannot be serious. You’d trust the fates of Ceria and Mrsha—of everyone to—”

He leaned forwards, but Erin wasn’t having it. Her raised finger came up so quickly that it nearly went up Pisces’ nose. He jerked back. Erin stared at him. He had never seen her so serious, so focused.

“It will work, Pisces. It has to. Your plan’s got too many moving parts. It could work, but mine’s got only one moving part and it’s based on something I’m sure about.”

“Which is?”

Erin looked around at the staring Goblins, and then back at Pisces.

“Trust. I might not be a [Strategist]. I’m definitely not a [Mage]. I can’t talk about whether this or that will work, but I do know one thing and that’s people. And chess. Two things. And this? I know I can make this work.”

Pisces opened his mouth to protest and Erin stared at him. Their entire history lay between the two of them. Pisces remembered how they’d met. He’d thought she was just a fool and he had been looking for a meal and some coin. He wondered how he’d come here, squatting in a cave, surrounded by Goblins, plotting to save his friend from the dungeon. And then he realized Erin was right.

“You are sure?”

“I am. Do you think it will work?”

Pisces thought. He ran the numbers in his head, tried to calculate the odds. He was no [Strategist], but no matter how he looked at it, the odds were good. If Erin’s plan worked. If it didn’t—Liscor might fall. Of a certainty, he and she and everyone they knew would be dead. But he didn’t say that.

“I think it will work. If you think—”

“I do.”

Erin stood up. Her eyes blazed. She ignored the chess board, which saw the chess pieces sliding around as her mysterious opponent tried to get her to keep playing the game. The Cave Goblins backed away from Erin and the board. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes blazed with confidence. It made Pisces’ heart leap in his chest.

“Find every Gold-rank you can. Stop them from entering the dungeon and get them back if you can manage it! I need to find Zevara. And Ilvriss. And Embria! And maybe Olesm and Venim if I have time. They’re optional.”

She strode out of the cave and into her inn. Pisces stared around at the Cave Goblins. They’d all heard the plan. Any one of them could destroy it. But somehow, some crazy part of him thought they wouldn’t. Not because they were Goblins or hated the Raskghar. But because of how they stared after Erin with the same look that was in Pisces’ eyes.

Trust. And then Pisces turned and ran after Erin. She had a plan. And despite himself, he had to admit.

It was a good one.

 

—-

 

She couldn’t remember what Urksh said anymore. She couldn’t remember. It hurt too bad. Mrsha lay in her cage. Her body hurt. The Raskghar had broken something when he’d smacked her onto the floor. Or fractured something. Mrsha remembered Gnolls who’d fractured ribs during a bad hunting accident, and how they’d lain around, groaning, until the tribe could find a healing potion.

It hurt. It hurt so bad. But she wouldn’t cry. If she did, the Raskghar won. She wouldn’t let them see her cry.

Mrsha the Very Brave snuffled and tried not to cry. Ryoka wouldn’t cry. Urksh wouldn’t cry. Erin and Lyonette…probably would cry. But they would tell Mrsha it was okay. But she wouldn’t. Because she was brave. Oh, so brave.

It hurt very bad. Very, very bad. Mrsha curled up and tried not to move. She wished Ryoka were here. Then she wished she wasn’t. Because Ryoka would die. And Mrsha would soon die. And so would Erill and everyone else.

No one was coming to save them. No one could help them. The Raskghar would eat her heart. Mrsha knew this. She lay still as she heard the hunting party return. The awakened rejoiced. She could smell them.

Even though Mrsha was hurt, her nose worked perfectly. Better, since she was closing her eyes. She could smell the Raskghar, what they’d eaten, the monster they’d killed, which tunnels they went down, the wood in her cage, which Goblins had touched the hide, the Gnolls in their cages, the bugs crawling on the floor, Ceria—

Ceria? Mrsha’s head rose a bit. She could smell Ceria nearby. It was faint, but the half-Elf’s scent was there. Not just from where she’d been standing, either. She could smell something of Ceria’s. Only, she was still gone. Mrsha could smell that, too.

But what was smelling of Ceria? Mrsha turned her head. It hurt. She nearly curled up again, but curiosity got the better of her. She snuffled around and then found it. There. A little bit of Ceria. What was—

A little stick had rolled up against Mrsha cage. A little stick. A piece of wood, really. Relatively pointy on one end, and wider on the other end, with a handle worn smooth and wrapped with a bit of leather to grasp. A little stick that the Raskghar had paid no attention to and the Cave Goblins had overlooked. But Mrsha recognized it.

It was Ceria’s wand.

The half-Elf had dropped it when Calruz threw her. It had fallen to the ground and it must have been near Mrsha. The Raskghar had kicked it over and so it had rolled up against her cage. A wand. Mrsha’s eyes widened. She reached out and grabbed it.

A wand. And as Mrsha touched the little thing, she felt the magic in it. And she remembered something. She was Mrsha. A small Gnoll cub with white fur. Doombringer of Gnolls. Mrsha of the Stone Spears. Mrsha the Great and Powerful.

Mrsha the [Druid].

And she had a wand. Mrsha waved it and felt her arm and ribs scream at her. But she mastered the pain. Because she had a wand. She had left her wand—Pisces’ wand—in her room. But this? This was as good as his wand. And Mrsha knew she could cast a spell with it. The problem was—and here the Gnoll’s face fell—she only knew two spells.

[Grow Grass]. And [Wild Growth]. Of the spells Mrsha would have taken into the Raskghar camp, it wouldn’t have been those two. And unfortunately, she knew exactly what those spells did.

[Grow Grass]…grew grass. It could be thick or sparse and Mrsha had even managed to create blue grass, much to Lyonette’s befuddlement. But it was just grass. As for [Wild Growth], well, Mrsha could make her grass really tall…but that was about it. She’d tried using it on the faerie flowers and made one bloom in moments, but just that had exhausted Mrsha.

None of these spells were useful. But still, Mrsha held the wand. She had nothing else to cling to. Just the knowledge of her own magic. She knew a spell. And because she could, because it was the only thing she could do that was her choice, she cast it.

[Grow Grass]. Mrsha pointed at the floor of her cell and cast the spell. It was hard. The wooden bottom of the cell was old and dried and dead. But the spell worked. Slowly, a clump of glistening green sprouted up. Mrsha stared at it. It was the one bright flash of color in the dungeon. It was soft when she patted a trembling paw on it. It was…

Useless. But it made her feel better, so she grew more. Mrsha had no fear of being caught. The grass could disappear as soon as she willed it and last for hours if she wanted to. It had no purpose. But she wanted to grow it, even so. The Gnoll ran her wand across the bars of her cage, growing the grass. Then she shifted and felt a chafing. She looked down.

Her paws were still manacled together. Mrsha had nearly forgotten them, but now as she tried to manipulate her wand, she remembered them. The Watch had even made shackles in Mrsha’s size. With them on, she couldn’t move. She certainly couldn’t run. Mrsha scowled. She tried to manipulate her wand to point at the shackles. No good. In the end she stuck the wand in her mouth and pointed the tip at her shackles.

It was a childish fancy. If the shackles are on me, I’ll cover them with grass! Mrsha had no idea that the other Gnolls were staring at her. They’d smelled the grass and seen what she was doing. Their eyes were round and Mrsha poked her shackles. There was no good spot to put her wand’s tip, so Mrsha jammed it into the locking mechanism. Then she tried to grow grass.

It was hard. Ten times harder than dead wood. At least! But Mrsha was angry. She hated her shackles, hated the cell, hated the Raskghar. And she had time and determination. And she knew it could be done. The memory of the spell’s instructions burned in her mind.

Grass springs forth from soil and wood—even stone.

If it could sprout out of stone, why not metal? Metal was just a type of stone, right? It came from the earth. Mrsha gritted her teeth and pushed.

Grow, the earth calls. And remembers.

It wasn’t as if she was trying to make the shackles explode. It was just grass. Mrsha felt sweat roll down her fur. She was lightheaded. Hungry. But she fought. And she pushed magic into her wand and felt something give. A tuft of grass sprouted from the hole in the shackles where the key should be. Mrsha grinned. A bit of grass! Then she had an idea. She cast [Wild Growth]. How big could she make the grass?

That was an easy spell compared to making grass grow in the shackles. She saw the magic work instantly. The blades of grass grew, intertwining, and then stopped. Mrsha frowned. It was stuck in the shackles! She pushed more magic into her spell. Grow! Grow! She stubbornly fed the spell energy as the shackles resisted the growing grass. And then something gave. Mrsha saw the grass expand suddenly. And she heard a sound.

She heard the metal crack. Mrsha jerked in alarm and the shackles fell from her wrists.

She stared. The shackles were lying on the floor in two pieces. The grass had split the fatigued metal, tearing open a seam. Mrsha felt her arms rise. She stared at her paws and her free feet. She stood up slowly. She blinked—and realized she had an audience.

The Gnolls of Liscor stared at Mrsha, their mouths open as wide as could be. Erill gaped at Mrsha. At her wand. He pointed at it.

“[Mage]? But Gnolls cannot cast magic. They cannot learn it!”

No one had ever told Mrsha that. She looked at her wand, flabbergasted. But Erill’s surprise didn’t last long. He looked around wildly and then motioned at Mrsha.

“Sit, child, sit! The Raskghar will see!”

Alarmed, Mrsha sat. The other Gnolls looked at each other and then carefully faced away from Mrsha. Erill edged closer to her. He whispered so low only she could hear.

“Child, can you cast that spell again?”

Mrsha stared at Erill. She stared down at her shackles. Then she nodded very slowly. Erill raised his shackles. Mrsha aimed and the Gnoll flinched.

Really, all he had to worry about was having grass grow from an orifice. That wasn’t the real problem, anyways. The problem was that Mrsha had never cast a spell at range before. She tried it now.

It was hard. Oh, so hard! The wand was slippery with sweat and Mrsha was tired and hungry. But she kept trying. She knew what Erill wanted. But she couldn’t do it. She was about to give up when she heard a whisper.

“Do it. Please. Cast the spell.”

One of the Gnolls was whispering to her. Mrsha stared in shock at the Gnoll. It was the young female who’d hated Mrsha! But the Gnoll was wide-eyed and trembling now. She was afraid. And Mrsha was afraid.

“Please, child. If you have the strength…”

Erill trailed off. He stared at her.

“No Gnoll has cast magic in living memory. Not [Mage] magic. But you have it. Use your gift. Use it.”

“Yes. Use it.”

“Please.”

The whispers came from the others. Mrsha stared at them. They had hated her. Hated and feared her. Blamed her, even. But whatever feelings of anger she had, whatever reservations vanished as she saw a Raskghar pass by, scratching at his groin. There were more important enemies. She took a deep breath and pushed.

And grass sprang from the keyhole in Erill’s shackles. He jerked, but Mrsha aimed past him. At another Gnoll. She pushed. Erill leaned out of the way and the Gnoll shuffled forwards. More grass. More growing.

It was impossible to get all of the Gnolls free. They knew that and as soon as they realized how hard Mrsha was struggling, Erill told her to free one Gnoll in each cage. She grew grass in all of their locks and then cast [Wild Growth] almost as an afterthought. The shackles snapped, making several Raskghar look up. The Gnolls winced, but the Raskghar, after seeing the Gnolls were still in their cages, growled for silence and looked away.

But now the Gnolls were free. And though only one Gnoll in each cage was free, that meant a lot. They slowly straightened, flexing their arms, and then, at Erill’s urgent instructions, pretended to be shackled again. There were eight free and Mrsha was so tired she had to lie back against her cage.

“Rest, child. Rest! Perfom the spell again when you have strength!”

Erill urged her. Mrsha lay back and rested. Soon she had the energy to try again. It wasn’t as if [Grow Grass] was a taxing spell. The difficulty was convincing the metal to make grass. But the cost wasn’t high to Mrsha. Soon, the little cracking sound of Gnoll shackles breaking was background noise. Perhaps only the Cave Goblins noticed, because they glanced over now and then at the Gnolls, looking confused.

Twelve. Then nineteen. Then twenty three. At twenty seven, Mrsha fainted. She woke up hearing the Gnolls urgently calling her name. She sat up and realized she had a nosebleed. And that she was sprawled out. She hastily pretended to be shackled and heard Erill’s voice.

“We cannot make her do any more spells today. Later! Let her rest! We must find her food!”

“But if the Raskghar try to sacrifice more tonight—”

“We will see. But they may not! If they do—if not, we will do it tomorrow. Tomorrow! Let the child rest!”

Erill turned to the others. Mrsha lay back against her cell. She didn’t expect anything else, but then she heard a whisper.

“Thank you.”

“Our thanks.”

“Magic. White one, thank you.”

“Thank you. Mrsha.”

Erill looked at Mrsha. He lowered his head, looking ashamed. That made Mrsha’s tail wag just a bit. She’d forgotten the pain. Forgotten her situation. She had done it! She was saving the Gnolls! Over half were freed. And that just left the cage doors. And the cages weren’t that strong. The Raskghar had built them out of wood and hide—not precious metal. They could escape! If they had time, an opening.

And then Calruz returned. The Minotaur stomped into the Raskghar camp, looking more bad-tempered than usual. He snapped at the Raskghar and sent them scampering. Then he stared at the awakened.

“I have decided not to perform any sacrifices tonight.”

The Raskghar stared at him. They looked at Ceria, who was standing behind Calruz. The Gnolls looked up hopefully. Nokha, the female who seemed to lead the Raskghar, growled questioningly.

“Chieftain, why? Awakened are strong. Serve you. Why stop ritual?”

Calruz grunted.

“I will reward those I deem worthy. In my time. It is my decision.”

“But—”

The Minotaur rounded on Nokha.

“My decision! Or do you question my orders?”

Mrsha, staring out of her cage, wondered if Nokha would. Her ears flattened and the other awakened tensed ever-so-slightly. But then Nokha bowed her head.

“No Chieftain, of course not.”

That was a lie. Mrsha smelled it. And she could see that the Minotaur knew it too. And the Raskghar knew that the Minotaur knew. They glanced at each other and Mrsha felt the unspoken danger in the air as the Raskghar glanced at Ceria. The Gnolls did too and grew very still. All of them were thinking the same thing as Mrsha. Let it not be today. If it was tomorrow, it didn’t matter. The Gnolls would run and they would be safe. If it was tomorrow—

“I want to see your awakened fight. If they perform well, I may, may perform the ritual. But we shall see. Prepare yourselves. We enter the city.”

“The city, Chieftain?”

Nokha clearly didn’t like that. She flicked her gaze to the others uncertainly.

“City is dangerous. City is—”

“These are my orders. Prepare!”

Calruz growled at the Raskghar. The awakened hesitated. One flicked his ear at Nokha. She was staring at Calruz and at Ceria, her eyes narrowed. She didn’t move right away.

“I said, prepare. Are you deaf? Or blind?”

The Minotaur’s eyes started to turn red. He raised his arm and the awakened and all the Raskghar in the room tensed. Mrsha saw Ceria’s eyes go wide. If he struck Nokha—

Goblins, Gnolls, and Raskghar held their breath as Calruz’s fist rose. Nokha was snarling, waiting for the blow to fall. Calruz raised his arm high, looking past Nokha, at the Raskghar behind her. His hand hovered near his head, a fist. Near the handle of his axe. He paused—

And then slowly, lowered his hand. Nokha looked up, surprised. Then she saw the look on Calruz’s face.

Fear. The Minotaur was not furious. The red in his eyes slowly faded. His arm lowered and he stared past Nokha. Past the Raskghar. At an entrance to the camp. At something poking out around the doorway. Slowly, all of the Raskghar turned. And they froze too.

A head stared into the Raskghar camp. A head. On a stick. A little Cave Goblin’s head stared blankly at the assembled Raskghar and Calruz. Mrsha, staring at it, felt her hair stand on end.

“What is that?”

Ceria’s whisper was completely audible throughout the camp. Calruz backed up slowly. He whispered.

“Facestealer. Snatcher.”

The Raskghar backed up as one. Calruz turned. Ceria was opening her mouth. And her hand was raised. He grabbed her, covering her mouth with one arm and yanking her hand away.

“Silence.”

The Minotaur’s voice was a bare whisper. The Raskghar looked at each other and then rushed. Not for the exits, but for the cages. The Gnoll cages. Mrsha saw them rush at her and nearly ran. The Gnolls froze as the Raskghar opened their cages. They looked at Elirr. He shook his head just once before the Raskghar were inside. They didn’t seize the Gnolls, though. Instead, to Mrsha’s bewilderment, the Raskghar immediately covered the Gnoll’s mouths!

To prevent them from making a sound. The Raskghar hadn’t noticed some of the Gnolls were free. They covered the Gnoll’s mouths and pressed their arms into their throats, practically choking the Gnolls so they couldn’t speak. The Raskghar stared at the entrance to the room. Mrsha held very, very still, but none of the Raskghar moved towards her. Why?

Cave Goblins stood together with the Raskghar. They stared at the head on the stick. It was just staring. Eyes blank, mouth a bit open. A Cave Goblins’ head. And then another head appeared. A Raskghar’s head, mounted on another stick. It stared ahead.

No one moved. That seemed to be what the Raskghar wanted. They froze, holding the Gnolls. Stiff as statues. Mrsha didn’t understand what they were afraid of, but she sensed the danger. If they moved, if they made sound, whatever was holding the sticks would come out. And it was terrible, she had no doubt.

A minute passed like that. Then five. A third head joined the other two, another Raskghar, and then a fourth. All the heads looked…fresh. Very fresh. None of the Raskghar or Goblins moved. Calruz held Ceria and they stared at the heads. Waiting for whatever was there to go away.

No one could speak. The Gnolls were being held silent, and the Cave Goblins and Raskghar held deathly still as the heads on the sticks rotated left and right in a grotesque parody of sight. Mrsha, silent, saw the Raskghar beginning to relax. Maybe this was a good sign? One of the awakened, Nokha herself, was holding Erill. She shifted as she relaxed. Her arm jostled Erill’s shackles. And they came apart.

For one second Mrsha thought Nokha wouldn’t notice. Erill scrambled to put the pieces together. The Raskghar shifted, looked down, and froze. She stared at the broken shackles. Then she stared at Erill. The old Gnoll’s eyes were wide. The other Raskghar looked disbelieving, and then they noticed that half the Gnoll’s shackles were undone too. They froze, and then changed their grips. Now the Gnolls were held tight, with no chance of escape.

Mrsha felt despair enter her. She stared helplessly at Erill, who was struggling now, to speak or move. He could do neither. Nokha was snarling, and her grip on Erill was tightening. He looked past her, at Mrsha, desperately. She saw the knowledge in his eyes. Death. Death and doom. They’d tried so hard, she’d tried so hard. But it was all for naught.

It wasn’t fair. Mrsha wanted to cry. She felt tears leaking from her eyes and swiped at them. She wanted to say something. Why was it not fair? But she had no voice. No voice. She stared at the heads on a stick. She wished the monster would come in and devour them all. Then the Raskghar would be dead. She looked at Erill. And then her eyes widened.

None of the Raskghar had bothered with Mrsha. Because they’d heard Ceria. Mrsha was mute. But that was a part truth. A lie. And as Erill stared despairingly at Mrsha, he realized the same thing. Mrsha sat up. She let the shackles fall. They clanged noisily and the Raskghar looked over. They growled in fury and one came towards the cage to stop Mrsha from making a noise. But the Raskghar was more concerned with keeping his eyes on the heads on sticks, which had turned towards the noise.

And Erill was looking at Mrsha. Just looking. She locked eyes with him. Mrsha heard a voice, from Vakk. She heard his cry.

“Let it be an end to all of us! Gnolls, the cursed Raskghar! Bring death, Doombringer! Use your power and destroy these ancient monsters!”

He had told Mrsha to end the Raskghar. As if she had the power to cause this. As if this was her fault. Well, Mrsha had no power. None that she could control. But she did have one thing. And this was right. Let there be an end. To the Raskghar, to their tribe, to all the misery and hate of it all. Mrsha saw Erill nod. So she sat back on her haunches. The Raskghar was fumbling with the lock, cursing quietly. Too late.

Mrsha looked around, at Ceria, at Calruz, at the Gnoll and Raskghar. She sat back. The small Gnoll drew in all the air in the world and held it, her lungs bursting for one second. Then she threw back her head and howled.

The sound was piercing, loud, pure. It was a howl of grief, of rage, of loss. It was a call to battle, of warning. It was the loudest sound in the world and it echoed in the room the Raskghar had called home. The heads on the stick had been retreating, pulling back. But as the howl pierced the silence of the dungeon, it woke monsters from their slumber, attracted the attention of what held the heads on a stick, and the ears of the Hobgoblins walking stealthily down a corridor.

And then the heads on a stick appeared. One by one. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. They popped out past the edge of the door frame and stared. The blank eyes of the dead Goblins and Raskghar looked at Mrsha. Straight at her. And then something came around the edge of the door.

The world went black. Mrsha found herself lying on the ground. She didn’t know what happened, but she couldn’t get up. She was paralyzed. From her angle on the floor she could see Raskghar slumped over, and Cave Goblins. And the Gnolls and Calruz and Ceria too. They all lay on the ground, eyes wide, staring, helpless.

And something walked into the room. It was tall, wide. A torso of brown without a head. Two staring dark sockets. Two huge clawed hands which each held four heads on a stick. And a bloody bag hanging from its arm. The thing had a hide of brown skin, but it looked—wrong. Parts of it looked lumpy, as if it had been bigger. But in places the hide had been burnt away, revealing yellow innards or bone. The thing looked damaged. But that just made it more terrible.

Snatcher entered the Raskghar camp, looking around. Holding the bag of heads. It stared at Mrsha. It walked forwards. The Raskghar lay helpless. The Gnolls lay helpless. Mrsha lay on the ground, her wand inches from her paw. She couldn’t move. Snatcher appeared by her cage. He moved incredibly fast, or she’d passed out for a moment. He bent down and looked at her, two hollow eye sockets. Mrsha bared her teeth. It was all she could do.

And then she heard a voice. It was higher-pitched than normal, desperate, but oh, it was glorious.

“Back away from Mrsha, Snatcher. And look this way.”

Snatcher turned. A piece of ice flew and shattered on its face. The thing didn’t recoil. It stood very still. Ceria, panting, aimed her skeletal hand again. Another [Ice Spike] shot across the room and shattered as it struck Facestealer’s front. Again, the monster didn’t respond. It seemed surprised. It shuffled forwards, and Ceria raised her hand.

Take this!

She shot five [Ice Spikes] at once. The five pieces of ice shot at Facestealer. Four broke on his brown hide. The fifth struck the yellow flesh exposed by his missing skin. And drew blood. Snatcher had no head to turn, so he couldn’t look down at the black blood running from his side. But he clearly felt it. Mrsha felt her arms and paws move. She scrambled up. Snatcher raised its oversized arms and charged Ceria without a word, incredibly fast. She backed up and screamed.

Run!

The Gnolls were getting up. The Raskghar were trying to rise, but they were both equally weak. Mrsha grabbed Ceria’s wand and threw herself against the bars of the cage. Calruz was roaring. Cave Goblins and Raskghar were trying to surround Facestealer. It swung its arms and the Goblins and Raskghar collapsed, paralyzed again. Ceria staggered, but she didn’t fall. She raised her hand and shot another projectile of ice at Facestealer, striking its exposed parts.

“Run!”

And the Gnolls were on their feet. Erill kicked Nokha as he rammed past her. He was out of his cage! More Gnolls were running, trying to drag those with shackles still on with them. Others just ran. The Raskghar were concerned with Facestealer. Mrsha ran about her cage, trying to force the bars open. But she was too weak! She saw the Gnolls running—and then saw a shape run at her.

Erill smashed into her cage. He seized the wooden bars and tore them apart with desperate strength. He reached inside and Mrsha leapt up. The Gnoll grabbed her as Nokha and the other Raskghar rose. The awakened Raskghar pointed at the two.

“Capture!”

“Fight off Snatcher! To me!”

Calruz roared as he tried to charge Facestealer with a body that only half-worked. Erill fled with Mrsha in his arms. Behind him, Nokha and several awakened Raskghar gave chase. Erill panted, his lungs heaving as he tried to run. He dashed out of one of the camp entrances, running down the corridor as fast as he could as the Raskghar pursued. Mrsha clung to him.

They would probably die. They would probably be captured. But for one glorious moment, oh for one second, they were free. Erill looked down at Mrsha. He smiled.

“Doombringer.”

It was the same word. But somehow it meant something different when he said it. Mrsha smiled. And then she howled again. Home. She called for home and the Gnolls howled with her. They were going home.

One way or another.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.42

“We have defeated the adventurers. They flee this dungeon, too exhausted to fight longer. The Antinium have retreated. Their dead lie in droves and they have failed to take the dungeon once more. My strategy succeeded, as I knew it would.”

Calruz stood at his war table, staring down at his map of the dungeon. The Minotaur’s arm flexed as he cleared the crude pieces of colored stone from the map. For the last six hours he had been overseeing the Gold-rank adventurer’s counterattack into the dungeon as well as the Antinium incursion. Now, as both sides retreated, he gloated.

“I told you they would never reach the main camp. Not with so many monsters roaming the labyrinth. Not without knowledge of the traps and secret tunnels. I told you, did I not?”

“Yes, Calruz. You did.”

The Minotaur glanced triumphantly down and to the side. The half-Elf standing next to his war table stared silently at the map. Ceria’s ears were drooping, and her voice was quiet.

She felt crushed. The half-Elf [Cryomancer] looked at Calruz’s map and tried to guess how many turns and junctions, traps, and secret doors lay between the main Raskghar camp and the surface. Too many to count. She tried to plot a course from the dungeon’s entrance to where Calruz had said they were and failed. Nor did she have time to study the map—Calruz folded the grimy parchment and tucked it into his belt pouch possessively.

“I told you. And we have won. But we will not rest on our horns. Not yet. The outsiders are just a nuisance. You and I have much to do, Springwalker. The Horns of Hammerad will conquer the dungeon yet.”

“Right.”

Calruz glared down at Ceria. She stood a bit straighter.

“I mean, yes Captain.”

He grunted in approval. Ceria turned her head, but she couldn’t help but stand to attention. It was that or risk Calruz’s wrath and—her gaze turned towards the Gnoll prisoners in their cages—she had seen what that resulted in.

The Raskghar camp. The prisoners. Calruz. Ceria had barely been awake a day and it still felt like a bad dream. Seeing Calruz turn and shout something to the Raskghar in their own language was unreal enough. But seeing the warriors hurry forwards and the others stand to attention?

Madness. That was what flickered in Calruz’s eyes every time he looked at Ceria. When he’d ordered teams of his Raskghar to try and kill Jelaqua’s team and ambush the others—she’d tried to argue with him. But he’d ignored her. Worse, he’d threatened to sacrifice more Gnolls if she kept arguing.

So she’d stayed silent. Now, Ceria’s gaze travelled across the cavern while Calruz barked commands in the Raskghar’s foreign tongue. The Raskghar camp was as primitive as she’d expected. Cook pots, butchering areas where monsters were cut apart, sleeping quarters that were really just soft hides or piles of bedding—it resembled a Gnoll tribe’s camp.

Save for the prisoners. The shackled Gnolls sitting in cages were one thing that caught Ceria’s eye. She stared at the little white Gnoll sitting in her cage and looked away. Focus. She had to focus.

The other main difference was the Cave Goblins. They scurried about. For every Raskghar there were ten Cave Goblins, tending to fires, bringing food to the Raskghar, maintaining weapons, butchering—and there were hundreds of Raskghar. Thousands. In this camp alone, Ceria guessed there were at least two thousand Raskghar, almost all of them warriors. All of them were larger than the average Gnoll, stronger. And during the period when both moons were full, they were all incredibly intelligent.

She saw it in a myriad of little ways. A Raskghar puzzling over a locked crate, a group of Raskghar finding a deck of cards in an adventurer’s pack and figuring out how to play a game with them, one more disassembling and reassembling a crossbow. As Ceria watched, the Raskghar with the crate improvised a lock pick and successfully opened the wooden chest. It reached inside, pulled out a strange, decorated cup made of red and white ceramic and stared at it.

“Well?”

Ceria turned. Calruz stared down at her, a smile on his broad face. He grinned at her, revealing damaged teeth. The Minotaur gestured around the camp.

“What do you think of my warriors? My tribe?”

“They’re…powerful.”

Ceria didn’t know what to say. Her answer seemed to satisfy Calruz. And it was true, the Raskghar were the most dangerous fighting force Ceria had laid eyes on. Even the assembled adventurers from Pallass couldn’t compare in sheer numbers or brutality to the Raskghar. Despite their lack of Skills and their inability to gain classes, the Raskghar were deadly. And worst of them all—

There she was. Ceria stared at one of the Raskghar, crouching at the center of the group that was playing with the deck of cards. On first glance, the Raskghar with the dark grey-brown pelt wasn’t too noticeable. She was female—she wore a crude breast band and loincloth—but was otherwise naked save for the stone axe at her side. But what made her stand out from the other Raskghar was her height and the way she moved.

She was one of the tallest Raskghar present. And that made her nearly as big as Calruz, a huge creature of bone and muscle and flesh. But more than that—this Raskghar looked around and Ceria saw her eyes shining with intelligence. Where the other Raskghar were cunning, intelligent by the light of the moon, this Raskghar seemed even more awake. She saw and questioned. She saw and understood.

She was the one who had performed the ritual. Ceria didn’t know what it was—blood magic, or something else, but she had seen that female kill the Gnoll on the Raskghar’s altar. She had drunk his blood and grown larger, smarter. Now she sat at the center of the others and the Raskghar around her deferred to her slightest motion or growl instantly. She looked up and Ceria saw her eyes flick towards her. The half-Elf turned away, and then wondered why.

Why was she being so meek? She glanced around, suddenly upset with herself. Here she was, surrounded by monsters, and she was acting like a shrinking violet, a coward! She was an adventurer! She was a [Mage]! She could throw ice from her hands and she was the Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. Not Calruz. She turned to the Minotaur—

And saw he was looking at her. Ceria’s ears, which had perked up, immediately lowered. Calruz stared at Ceria and then snorted.

“What is that fool doing?”

He turned his head. Ceria looked as well. The Raskghar who’d opened the chest had decided to pour himself a drink from the cup. Intelligent he might have been, but wise he was not. As soon as he put water in the cup, it began to hiss. A thick, black gas began to emanate from the cup and the Raskghar howled in fear as it clung to his fur. As Ceria watched in horror, it began melting into his fur, growing on him.

Dorak! Keel dorak!

Calruz bellowed an order as he pointed. Ceria saw the Raskghar try to throw the cup away but he failed. The other Raskghar sprang to their feet. They ran towards the stricken Raskghar holding the cup as it continued to pour black smoke. They hesitated, reluctant to touch the stuff. Calruz charged forwards.

“Do not touch it! Grab spears! Nets! Drag it away if the cup continues to activate!”

Raskghar bounded across the camp, doing what Calruz had ordered. Ceria saw the female Raskghar standing far back as the others formed a circle with the Minotaur. They were braced, ready to act if the cup continued to emit the terrible black gas, but it did not. After it had spewed enough to engulf the Raskghar it stopped. Ceria could see a black mass where the Raskghar had been. It twitched and shook, as if the Raskghar inside was trying to break free. And then the movement stopped.

“No one touch the cup. Bring no liquid near it. Cave Goblins—remove this thing.”

Calruz stared at the black substance and the newly-formed statue sitting in his camp. Ceria saw Cave Goblins hurry forwards with nets, very cautiously approaching the dead Raskghar and cup. The half-Elf blinked.

“Was that normal?

She stared at the Raskghar. None of the others in the camp seemed too unduly worried about the death of their friend. They walked back to their places, looking unconcerned as they sheathed their weapons. Calruz stomped back towards Ceria.

Now. Ceria drew breath to ask Calruz what the hell that had been about, and wilted as he stared at her. The Minotaur snorted angrily as he walked back to the war table. He had a holster at his back. He was strapping a single-edged axe into place with his one arm, grunting with irritation as he tried to maneuver it into place.

The axe was clearly magical—it looked like it was made of some kind of false gold metal and the edge was bright green. It shone of magic in Ceria’s sight, though she couldn’t guess what kind. The Minotaur finally got the axe sheathed and glared at Ceria.

“That fool. I tell the Raskghar not to activate any magical artifacts, but they are harder to control during the full moon. Their intelligence makes them arrogant. I must keep them busy or they engage in idiocy like that!”

“I see.”

Ceria nodded meekly. Calruz eyed her.

“Another reason you are here. Do you know what that black gas was? Or the cup?”

“No, Calruz. I’m sorry. I’ve never seen an effect like that—it looks like some kind of gas spell, but I have no idea what kind of damage it does. The cup probably converts liquid into the gas.”

The Minotaur nodded.

“That was my thought. Very well. Don’t bother inspecting the cup—I won’t risk you on it.”

“Right.”

The Minotaur nodded and turned away. Ceria sighed with relief. Then she straightened. Why the hell—

Something was very wrong. Ceria stared at Calruz. Her brows crossed. He was busy with his map again. He glanced at her and she felt a pang of fear run straight through her. Not just fear—an overwhelming urge to obey. Ceria felt her ears begin to lower and grabbed them with her hands. Calruz stared at her oddly, and then looked back down at his map.

Only when he’d looked away did the oppressive feeling vanish. And finally, Ceria began to figure out what was going on.

A Skill. He was using a Skill on her. Or maybe he wasn’t using it intentionally—he might just have one. But that was the only reason why she could explain why she hadn’t yet tried to make a break for it or fought back harder. Calruz had broken her will by sacrificing the Gnoll. He’d won the contest of leadership and now he was making her follow along like a good subordinate.

That pissed Ceria off. She glared at Calruz. It was easier to do when the Minotaur wasn’t looking at her.

“It’s been nearly a day since I woke up and all you’ve been doing is sending orders to Raskghar in other camps. If you’re done trying to kill my friends and the Antinium, do you mind telling me what you’re actually doing in the dungeon?”

Calruz glanced up. Ceria felt her confidence drain away, no matter how hard she tried to hold onto it. Unwillingly, she opened her mouth again.

“Uh, please?”

The former captain of the Horns of Hammerad stared blankly at Ceria. She waited for him to rage or snap at her, but instead, he grunted softly.

“You never used to say please for anything. I quite like the change.”

“Yeah, well—”

Ceria searched for words and didn’t find any. Calruz shook his head slightly.

“The reprisal from the adventurers and the Antinium assault needed to be addressed. Now I am certain they will not threaten my camps, it is time to go back to business. Conquering the dungeon. But first, the night’s work. Come.”

He turned. Ceria found her feet moving automatically to keep up. She tried to fight it, but only succeeded in keeping the tiniest bit of demand in her voice. She had to remember to walk with her back straight.

“What’re you doing now, Calruz? Clue me in. You went to all this trouble to grab me, after all.”

The Minotaur nodded absently. He grunted, and then growled and waved at a Raskghar sitting around a fire. The beast-woman looked up and Calruz repeated the word.

Menz. We’re moving camp. You will come with me. My warriors will scout the way while the rest of the tribe moves behind us.”

The Raskghar looked unhappy, but she sprang to her feet. The Cave Goblin tending to the stew pot turned and scrambled away. Ceria saw the little Goblin repeating the word to the other Raskghar, who stood up, some growling. One swiped at the Cave Goblin and knocked it to the ground as it got up.

“Strike the camp! Scouts, check the tunnels! We move to Rally Point B! B!

Calruz roared at the Raskghar. Several Raskghar turned and loped towards the exit on the far wall. The Minotaur nodded at Ceria.

“It is easy to command them during the full moon. At other times, the savages can barely remember letters. Come, we’ll move ahead.”

“Just like that?”

Ceria stared at the camp. There were supplies, equipment, and the Gnoll prisoners remaining behind, but the Raskghar were already moving in one huge mass towards the exits. Calruz nodded.

“The Goblins will follow. The Raskghar go to clear the way of monsters. Don’t worry about the prisoners. They will be brought as soon as the scouts report back.”

Another group of Raskghar was busy with the cages. They opened the cages, grabbed the Gnolls, and effortlessly hoisted them onto their shoulders. Any resistance was beaten away and the Gnolls were carried out of the room. Ceria stared at the Cave Goblins.

“There are so many.”

The Minotaur looked up and grunted as the Cave Goblins set to work. Rather than carry the cages, it looked like they were breaking them down into component parts to be reassembled at their destination. He shook his head dismissively.

“Scum. They’re expendable. But useful in that they can perform menial tasks. Or slow down other monsters. The Raskghar have ruled over this Goblin tribe for centuries. Give them orders if you need to. But they’re largely useless.”

He turned.

“Time to go. Follow close and don’t step away from the route the Raskghar take. Come.”

He strode out of the domed room. Ceria followed him. The Minotaur joined a group of armed Raskghar—at least a hundred strong—and they began marching down one of the corridors. The Raskghar in front took a relatively straight path, but every now and then they would walk to one side to avoid what must have been traps. In one spot they paused and deliberately hopped over a patch of the dungeon. Ceria and Calruz imitated them with the rest of the Raskghar. Calruz called out orders as he marched, exhorting the Raskghar around him.

“Faster! Faster! I want to be at the camp in an hour’s time!”

The Raskghar silently adjusted their pace, moving even faster. Ceria puffed as she jogged alongside Calruz.

“An hour? How big is the dungeon?”

“Large enough to dwarf Liscor many times over. And hold hundreds of thousands of monsters. We are headed towards another sector of the dungeon. The labyrinth we stand in has four exits, save for the dungeon rift, all at the outermost corners. They lead up through vast monster nests to a series of trapped corridors. However, closer to the center the monsters and traps grow more numerous. We head to one of the corners now; it will be far from the adventurers and safer.”

“Okay.”

Ceria’s mind spun as Calruz casually dropped that knowledge on her. Four exits? And a nest of monsters? Was that the Shield Spider nest that Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers had found? If so, it meant that the dungeon was a gauntlet of gauntlets—adventurers would have to detrap the random network of trap tunnels, risk activating an entire nest of monsters, and only then find themselves on the outermost corners of the labyrinth and have to work their way towards the center.

Valuable knowledge. On the other hand…Ceria glanced up at Calruz. The Minotaur’s stare was fixed on the dungeon ahead of him as he jogged with the axe on his back. Ceria coughed, glanced up at Calruz, and spoke loudly.

“So, yeah, I’m good. I’ve been working out. Lost my hand, but the bone’s still there. I ate these fish flakes that Erin made yesterday. How’s your day been?”

For a second Calruz didn’t respond. His fixed glare ahead of him wavered, and then he glanced down at Ceria.

“What?”

“Oh, just asking how you’ve been. You know. As one does. Anything happen? Meet anyone fun down here? It’s been what, six months since we talked? Read any books?”

Calruz snorted. He glared at Ceria.

“Are you mocking me?”

The half-Elf halted. The Raskghar behind her streamed around her as Calruz slowed to a stop as well. Ceria glared up at Calruz.

“No. Yes! Don’t you find this weird? At all? One second I’m exploring the dungeon, the next I find out you’re alive and leading Raskghar? How did that happen? Tree rot, Calruz! We thought you were dead!

Her voice echoed. Calruz clapped a hand over Ceria’s mouth.

“Be silent!”

She hesitated, and then nodded. Calruz blinked a few times and drew back his hand. He scratched at his head. He looked confused.

“I didn’t tell you? How I survived?”

“No.”

The Minotaur’s eyes flickered and he scuffed the ground uncertainly with one foot. He shook his head.

“I’ve dreamed so long of what I would say when I met you and the others again that I…I must have forgotten. Come. We’re falling behind.”

He started moving again. Ceria followed Calruz, and thought for a moment that he’d forgotten again. But then the Minotaur spoke.

“After the ambush—no, after I lost my arm, I fled. There were Ghouls biting me, zombies clinging to me—I had to get away. I couldn’t think. I ran.”

“I know. I saw you disappearing down one of the tunnels.”

“Yes. I should have run back, but—the pain made me stop thinking. I just ran. I must have run into a trap, because I charged right into a room and the floor vanished. I fell. The undead fell with me. Hah, that was what saved me. If I hadn’t landed on a zombie I would have broken my neck. As it was, I was barely alive. But no undead followed me into the hole. I think I’d lost too much blood at that point so I passed out. I must have drunk a healing potion because I didn’t die in my sleep.”

Ceria nodded. That made sense. Pisces had shown her the hole Calruz spoke about—the chute that connected Liscor’s crypt to the dungeon. She remembered the room as well—it had been filled with piles of bones. Raskghar bones.

“The place you fell into—what was it?”

Calruz shuddered.

“A graveyard. Not the same as the crypt above. This one was a Raskghar graveyard, where they interred the bones of their dead. Not that I knew that. When I awoke in the darkness and saw the bones around me I panicked. Only after I’d smashed a dozen piles did I realize they weren’t undead. And then I realized I was lost. I tried to climb back up, but the hole was impossible to scale even if I had rope and tools. So I started exploring.”

“Alone?”

Ceria tried to imagine it. Gold-rank adventurers could barely handle some of the traps in the dungeon. Calruz had survived it by himself? He was a [Warrior], not a [Rogue]! But the Minotaur was shaking his head.

“No. I must have made my presence known to the Raskghar. They came to investigate their graveyard and found me. A group of six attacked me not fifteen paces out of the room. I tried to fight them, but my arm—and my axe was badly damaged. I killed one, wounded another, before they subdued me.”

He spoke the words almost shamefaced. But Ceria looked up sharply.

“You took on six Raskghar and killed one after losing your arm? With your crappy battleaxe?”

Calruz’s steps faltered.

“It was a fine piece of metal.”

“There was more iron in that thing than steel. You bashed it on so many monster’s heads I’m surprised it didn’t snap when you sneezed. But go on.”

The Minotaur turned and Ceria flinched, thinking he would glare at her. But instead he almost smiled.

“Well, I must have impressed the Raskghar because they took me captive rather than kill me. They dragged me across the dungeon to their camp. It wasn’t nearly as large as this camp—barely eighty or more Raskghar. They threw me in a cage. I think they wanted to know how I’d gotten into the dungeon. Perhaps they intended to interrogate me during the full moons. Either way, they never got the chance.”

“How so? Don’t tell me—”

“I broke out that night and tried to kill them all.”

Calruz snorted proudly. Ceria sighed.

“Of course you did. And they didn’t kill you because?”

“Because they admired my warrior’s spirit and my force of will.”

Calruz stared ahead as Ceria shot him a disbelieving look. She kept staring and after a few seconds, the Minotaur sighed.

“Fine. I managed to kill two of the largest Raskghar as they slept. It turned out one of them was the Chieftain, so the Raskghar decided they needed to vote after they recaptured me. I picked up on their dialogue, tried communicating with them. I convinced them to let me go and they made me their new Chieftain.”

“Just like that.”

“Just like that.”

Ceria thought about the odds of that happening. She looked at Calruz.

Bullshit.

The Minotaur grinned. It was the first real smile Ceria had seen on his face.

“Well, it didn’t go that smoothly. But essentially that was what happened. There may have been a few other details. Such as a Raskghar female who was attracted to my stunning physique.”

“You’re kidding me.”

He looked offended.

“Why is that so hard to believe? Anyways, the Raskghar soon realized that I was the leader they needed. I was an adventurer. Wounded, but more powerful than they were with my Skills. Moreover, I knew about tactics, strategy. And the nature of dungeons and monsters. And most of all, I wasn’t one of them. Unlike the Raskghar, my intellect does not wane with the moon’s passing.”

“Still, that’s incredible that they’d make you Chieftain.”

“And as I said, it was my force of will that won them over. The Raskghar knew I was their better. So I trained the tribe, gathered the others together. I forged the Raskghar into better fighters, gave them discipline, organization. I began conquering the dungeon sector by sector until the adventurers started appearing. Then I sent my Raskghar above to acquire Gnolls to make them yet stronger. That was when I found you.”

Ceria’s smile faded. Everything until that last part had sounded—well, worthy of a legend, really. But it was Calruz casually mentioning his raids on the adventurers that bothered her.

“Calruz, that’s incredible. Really. But when the adventurers started appearing, why didn’t you try and contact them? Why not get out of the dungeon?”

The Minotaur looked surprised.

“Why should I? I was perfectly placed to conquer the dungeon at that point. I admit, part of me wished to return to the surface, but when I saw the first adventurers striding into the dungeon that I had sacrificed so much for—trying to rob my—our team of our success—”

His breathing became heavier. Calruz’s eyes began to turn red.

“At that point—at that time—”

You’d already gone insane. Ceria stared up at Calruz. Her eyes stung a bit. She tried to imagine it. Months of solitude in the dungeon, with only the Raskghar. Eating dead monsters, wondering if anyone had made it. Losing his arm. It was enough. Ceria didn’t have to make excuses. Calruz had fought as well as anyone else had. He had been honorable, brave. Her captain. He’d just broken, that was all. She didn’t blame him. But how she wished it hadn’t turned into this.

The madness was in Calruz’s voice. His reddening eyes and disjointed sentences added to the unease Ceria felt. She saw the Raskghar ahead of them moving a bit faster. They’d probably seen this a hundred times before. Calruz turned to Ceria, the light of insanity in his gaze—and then it vanished. He stared at Ceria.

“And then I found you. I was overjoyed to learn you were alive, Ceria. Truly.”

His voice was soft. Genuine. Ceria stared up at Calruz. She faltered and nearly stopped. The Minotaur slowed as well. He looked away.

“I knew you had to be alive. I knew it. My team wouldn’t fall so easily. I don’t understand—the others are dead? You’re sure? They’re not in hiding?”

It was the third time he’d asked. Ceria felt her heart twist. What must it have been like, not knowing? All these months?

“I’m sure, Calruz.”

The Minotaur quickened his pace, still not looking at Ceria.

“You’re absolutely sure? You could be wrong. I survived.”

Ceria wished there were some doubt. She kept her voice low, trying not to remember and failing.

“I saw them die, Calruz. Gerial saved me. Skinner got him. Hunt, Corr, Sostrom…they all died. I buried them.”

“I see.”

The Minotaur did not look at Ceria. He paced ahead of her, using his longer legs to move ahead. Ceria stared at his back. She nearly, nearly missed his arm come up. He might have been wiping sweat from his forehead. Or tears from his eyes.

The two marched through the dungeon for fourteen minutes, following the Raskghar. Ceria jogged after the Minotaur and Raskghar, cursing them and their longer legs. The Raskghar loped effortlessly through the dungeon and Calruz looked like he could run at that pace forever. On the other hand, Ceria enjoyed not running a lot more than running and as such, her legs were already hurting.

It was surprising, but Ceria began feeling sweat running down her back. Not from fear or tension—but from the blistering pace Calruz set. Without having to worry about traps or monsters, the Raskghar could move fast through the dungeon and Ceria found herself struggling to keep up.

“Hold up, Calruz. I need a break.”

The half-Elf called out and slowed. She felt at her belt and was relieved to find her water flask was still there. She twisted off the cap and drank sparingly, so as not to overwhelm her thirsty body. Calruz slowed. He grunted in surprise when he saw the water bottle.

“You’ve provisions? The Raskghar have food and water of their own.”

Ceria had seen the Raskghar’s thick water skins, made of some kind of monster hide. Or perhaps Raskghar hide. She shook her head, shaking her water bottle. It was completely full.

“I’ve got water. Should have drunk it before—I’ve got healing potions and mana potions too. We were prepared for the dungeon, you know.”

“Apparently.”

Calruz hesitated, then held out a hand. Silently, Ceria passed him the water flask. Calruz drank, tilting the flask up and pouring it down his throat. He knew she hated other people’s lips touching her water flask. Ceria glared at Calruz and then kicked him.

“Oi. Don’t drink all my water.”

The Minotaur stopped. He stared down at Ceria and fury crossed his face. For a second. Then he blinked.

“I forgot you used to do that. That hurts, you know.”

Ceria found her heart beating rapidly. She’d kicked Calruz reflexively, not even thinking about it. She didn’t feel as…subdued around Calruz. Why was that? Because he wasn’t ordering her around? She managed a shaky grin.

“What’s the point of doing it if it doesn’t hurt?”

Calruz eyed her. Then he handed back her water flask, two-thirds empty. Ceria scowled and drank another mouthful before tightening the lid. Calruz gave her a few seconds and then gestured. They set off again. After a moment, he spoke.

“Tell me about them. This new team you assembled in my name.”

“In your name? I thought we agreed that the team was our idea. Gerial, yours, and mine. We started it together.”

Calruz’ right eye twitched.

“But I was the one who came up with the Horns of Hammerad as the name.”

“So? Doesn’t mean you own it.”

“Yes it does.”

“No it doesn’t.”

Ceria grinned, enjoying the back and forth. That was like normal. What she wasn’t prepared for was for Calruz to whirl and grab her with his arm. He lifted her into the air by her robes to eye-level. The Minotaur snarled at Ceria.

“The Horns of Hammerad was my idea! Mine!

Madness again. Ceria held very still, staring into Calruz’s eyes with her wide ones. His expression of rage lasted a heartbeat longer, and then he blinked. He dropped Ceria.

“I—I’m sorry.”

He took a step back from Ceria, caught himself, and turned. Ceria adjusted her robes. After a long minute, the two kept moving. Calruz wavered several times, and then spoke as if nothing had happened.

“Who did you recruit?”

“Um. Pisces and Ksmvr. He’s an Antinium—the Prognugator that replaced Klbkch. And Yvlon.”

Calruz looked shocked. And offended.

“The [Necromancer]? And an Antinium? That was your pick? Byres I can understand, but them?”

Ceria bristled.

“I didn’t exactly have a lot of candidates. It was a spur of the moment thing! Besides, they’ve proved themselves. Look, I wouldn’t have even reformed the team. You know, all the other teams and adventurers refused to even speak to me when I returned to the Adventurer’s Guild? I still haven’t gone to the guild in Celum—I was ready to quit adventuring. So was Yvlon. We had no money, no leads…but then Olesm found this map. Of Albez.”

Calruz looked shocked. He half-twisted to look at Ceria and nearly ran into a wall.

Albez? A map? You don’t mean just an outline, do you?”

“I mean a genuine set of blueprints. With secret rooms outlined and everything.”

The Minotaur gaped. Ceria had to explain the entire story from the start. She told Calruz how she’d led the other three into Albez and found treasure in the very spot where he and she explored many times with little to no success. The Minotaur was agog and insisted on hearing about each of the items they’d recovered and then the ones Ryoka had brought back. He paused when Ceria mentioned how Ryoka had exchanged one of the artifacts.

“Ryoka. Is she well? Did she complete her task in the Blood Fields? I…regret the way we parted. I thought of her when I was down here.”

“She’s…okay. I saw her again.”

“Where. When?”

“Well…okay, she lost some fingers—it happened during the winter. That Gnoll I told you about? It happened like this. Remember the Frost Faeries?”

It was another story, summarized for the sake of time and Ceria’s breath. She jogged with Calruz, giving him her perspective on what had happened with Ryoka, until the Runner had vanished after the disastrous battle with Regrika Blackpaw—whoever she’d been. The Minotaur was equally curious about that. When Ceria was done he shook his head.

“You worry too much. She will return. I told you. She has spirit. This would not stop her. She will return when she is ready. But it is good she is well. A false Named Adventurer. I wish I could have seen that. All that passed above…”

He paused, although his body kept jogging ahead. After a second, Calruz looked back at Ceria. His face was suddenly worried.

“I never asked. But the dead. The fallen. Gerial and the others. We arranged for pay in case of their deaths, but we never envisioned everyone falling. Were you able to give something to the families of our team? Did we…?”

His voice was anxious. Ceria remembered when they’d first started their team. Calruz had insisted on making a name themselves. The Horns would be associated with honor as well as strength in battle. And he was a Minotaur. She nodded, trying to keep her voice as reassuring as possible.

“Yvlon took care of it. Liscor confiscated most of our gear, but we had the money reserves of each team. And I think she might have asked her family to cover some of the debts. She never said so, but I think she did. We paid everyone what we could. We made arrangements.”

Calruz nodded absently.

“We did. We did. And Byres took care of it? I should have expected no less. She was always honorable. She was—”

He shuddered. Ceria reached out, but Calruz moved away. The Minotaur moved ahead of Ceria. She saw his shoulders trembling. All that had happened while he’d been down here. After a second, Calruz raised his voice.

“Let’s go. I want to be relocated within the hour.”

He picked up the pace. Ceria stared at his back. He was in there. Part of him. She reached out—and then lowered her hand. She stared at it. Her skeletal hand didn’t sweat. It was…she flexed it and knew it moved, but she couldn’t feel it. Not anymore.

Both of them had changed. So Ceria let Calruz guide her onwards in silence.

 

—-

 

The rest of the march to the Raskghar’s new camp was quiet. Ceria found her legs burning by the end of it. When she finally entered the chamber that was the new camp—a strange room with two sets of staircases running up the sides of the very long, very tall chamber and ending in a raised platform where broken fragments indicated something had once stood—she had to immediately sit down.

“Dead gods, do you do that every day?”

“Every night. You’ve grown soft, Springwalker.”

Calruz didn’t sit. Hundreds of the Raskghar had already made it ahead of him. Some had taken fights getting here—they’d cleared the way ahead of Ceria and Calruz as well. The Minotaur had them tending their wounds and then setting guards on the two entrances to the room.

“The platform had an entrance at the back. I never allow the Raskghar to camp in a room with only one exit. Scouts, report! Have the other camps moved to the auxiliary rally points?”

The half-Elf shook her head as Calruz made the Raskghar tell him the progress of the other Raskghar camps. Minotaurs loved their military formations. In this case it made sense; the Raskghar were too many to cram into one room and that was dangerous. So Calruz had a number of permanent and semi-permanent camps that smaller groups of Raskghar inhabited.

Normally they were safe staging grounds to attack from, but apparently something was wrong. Ceria’s head rose as Calruz began talking to one of the Raskghar. The Minotaur spoke in the common tongue, but he listened to the Raskghar growl his report in the bestial language they shared.

“How many? All? And you found—you’re sure? Are you sure? Very well, abandon it.”

He turned as Ceria got up, her legs telling her to sit in no uncertain terms. The half-Elf massaged her calves.

“Trouble?”

“One of the smaller Raskghar camps was wiped out. Thirty of my Raskghar were found dead. A patrol in the tunnels and the base camp. Slaughtered where they stood.”

“By what?”

Calruz glanced at the Raskghar scouts.

“They don’t know. Which is unusual. There were a number of foreign scents, but nothing stronger than that. They could smell no other creatures. Only the blood of Raskghar and Goblins.”

Only Raskghar and Goblins. Ceria froze for a second as she worked her fingers into her thigh muscles. She glanced up casually.

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. The Raskghar were killed with blades. Well, most of them. It could have been a patrol of enchanted armor. Or perhaps…something else.”

“Like…?”

Ceria wasn’t sure if anyone had told Calruz about Erin’s Hobs. Her mind raced. Had she…? No, they hadn’t come up. And she hadn’t seen a single Hob among all the Cave Goblins, not one. Calruz frowned and shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know. But my concern isn’t exactly what it was. I’ve abandoned the camp. Things like this happen. Even the largest camps can be attacked.”

“Even this camp?”

Incredulous, Ceria looked around the camp where hundreds of Raskghar were continuing to pour in. Calruz nodded.

“There are things in the dungeon that can take on a thousand Raskghar and win. Large nests—luckily no Crelers. But the four great nests are death to awaken. Well, three nests. One is empty.”

“One is? What are the other three? One’s a Face-Eater Moth nest and the other one’s Shield Spiders, right?”

“Correct. The last is fungus. Just fungus. Some of it moves, the rest is stationary. It’s sealed off. Good thing too. If it had a chance to spread, it would be deadly. Half the spores the Raskghar showed me are toxic. Some explode. Others…”

Calruz shook his head. Ceria paused.

“And the last one? Why’s one empty?”

The Minotaur hesitated.

“Something killed off whatever was inside. All of it.”

He let that sink in, and then turned.

“The camp’s being set up. I’ve a mind to replenish our water supplies before doing anything else. How much water do you have?”

Ceria held up her empty water flask and shook it. Calruz nodded.

“With me, then. We’ll gather water and return. It won’t be more than twenty minutes.”

He turned and called. Forty Raskghar loped over. Ceria frowned as she looked around. A bit of hope blossomed in her chest.

“Water? From where? The surface? Are we that near to the dungeon entrance?”

Her hopes were dashed as Calruz shook his head.

“No. There are multiple natural springs in the dungeon that provide clean water. We’ll go to one of them. You didn’t think the dungeon had no water supply for so many monsters, did you?”

“I hadn’t actually thought about it.”

Calruz snorted. He began striding away with the Raskghar. Ceria hurried after him.

“Oh come on. I’m not an expert at dungeons. You’re the Minotaur. I should have known you’d be an expert on labyrinths.”

“That is a stereotype of my people.”

“A true one, though, right? Didn’t you say there was a labyrinth in your homeland? A famous one?”

“…Come on. We’re wasting time.”

 

—-

 

The water flowed up from below. From some deep underground sea of water, apparently. The pool was so dark and deep that Ceria could barely see more than fifty feet down, even when she hurled a [Light] orb into the water. According to Calruz, the Raskghar had tried to explore the depths but never succeeded.

“They fish from this one. There are fish, apparently. Sometimes they’re a threat. It also means anything entering the water might not exit. So don’t get too close to the edge.”

“Got it.”

Ceria felt almost relaxed around Calruz. Not around the Raskghar, but she felt like he was a lot more…well, a lot more like himself now. She watched as the Raskghar filled the huge water skins with water, keeping an eye out for danger. If it was like this, if she took out the parts where they attacked Liscor and sacrificed Gnolls, she could admire Calruz. What if she could convince him not to sacrifice the Gnolls? Could she bring him back like that? Surely not. But if—

The room with the pool of water was a sloping basin with four entrances. The Raskghar clustered around their entrance, watching the other four. The first monster crawled into the room so slowly that Ceria didn’t notice them at first. Then she looked up and froze.

A group of huge bugs had entered the room. They had long, serrated legs and wings. Their bodies were armored plates of chitin and they had huge green eyes. On the tops of their bodies. On the bottom half they were maggots. The insects were half-emerged from their bodies, going through some kind of slow transformation. They were disgusting, to put it mildly.

And the Raskghar hadn’t raised the alarm. Ceria eyed them, but the not-Gnolls were working away without a care in the world. The insects must not have been dangerous, then. Ceria relaxed—until she saw one of the insect staring her way.

“Um. Calruz.”

The Minotaur was overseeing the water collection, impatiently. He glanced up at Ceria.

“What? We’ll be done soon.”

“Right. But about those things.”

Ceria waved her hand at the insects. Calruz glanced in the direction of the maggot-insects and frowned.

“What things?”

“Them. The Raskghar don’t seem bothered and I guess you’re not. But are you sure they’re safe? One of them’s looking at me.”

The insect-maggot was indeed staring at Ceria. But it seemed to decide the water was more pressing. The maggot half of its body oozed forwards and it bent its insect-body to drink. Ceria saw more ooze into the room, some looking exactly like giant maggots that were longer and wider across than she was. Others looked like they’d nearly completed their transformation and they looked like they’d be fast and deadly once their legs were done.

“What things?”

Calruz stared blankly at the space Ceria was looking at. She glared at him.

“Those—”

Then she realized the Minotaur wasn’t seeing the monsters at all. His gaze flashed past the group of monsters without even pausing. Ceria halted.

“Calruz. There are a group of fourteen insect-maggot things at the pool’s edge, across from us. Do you see them?”

The Minotaur froze. He tensed, and then grabbed his axe. He uttered a low growl that made all the Raskghar freeze. They instantly abandoned the water skins and reached for their weapons. Ceria went wide-eyed as Calruz backed up.

“Invisible monsters.”

“Invisible? But I see them.”

“I see nothing. But this is a known phenomenon. There are invisible monsters in the dungeon. A large number of them. If you can see them—where are they exactly?”

Ceria eyed the monsters. They were drinking from the water’s edge, but some had begun moving around the pool. She had a sinking feeling that they were coming over because of her.

“Nine are at the water’s edge. Five more are coming around. Three on the left, two on the right.”

Calruz stared.

“Yes. I can see the water moving. Okay. Quarr. Dret! Yalk.

He pointed. The Raskghar split up. Half went left, the other half went right. Calruz motioned Ceria forwards. He signaled at her with his hands. She pointed. The Raskghar advanced slowly, tense, until they were less than ten feet away from the maggot-monsters. Then Ceria pointed and Calruz straightened.

Charge!

The Raskghar howled and leapt forwards. The insect-maggots reacted immediately rearing up and casting about. They seemed surprised! They stared at Ceria until she shot an [Ice Spike] into one’s head and then began to lurch towards her, ignoring the Raskghar. But the beast people knew they were there, and began cutting the monsters apart.

They couldn’t see, but it didn’t matter. The Raskghar used the tips of their weapons as guides. When they encountered a monster, they immediately struck and leapt back. They howled as they fought in groups, surrounding their enemies, attacking from all sides.

Attack!

Calruz and Ceria took on the group on the water’s edge. Ceria shot an [Ice Spike] at another maggot-insect and watched blood spurt around the spike as it lodged in the creature’s side. But the monster was tough. It reared up and scythed at her, making her duck back.

“[Ice Wall]!”

A wall of ice blocked the creature from leaping at her. The ice cracked, but held. Ceria aimed with her wand and two fingers and fired three [Ice Spikes] simultaneously. The monster lurched backwards, but it was still alive. It was tough!

“Ceria!”

Calruz bellowed. He had his axe out and was scything through the air, trying to find the monster. He looked at her. Ceria shouted.

“Left!”

The maggot was oozing past Calruz. The Minotaur turned. The tip of his axe cut into the monster and it jerked in surprise. Calruz instantly brought his axe up.

[Hammer Blow!]

Ceria brought up another wall of ice just in time. The thump of the blow was less than she’d expected—because Calruz’s axe head sheared so perfectly through the insect. It split in half and the two pieces fell apart. Calruz grunted in satisfaction. He yanked his axe head up—it had split the floor of the dungeon—and then swung it at the monster’s corpse.

“[Gore Splash].”

The corpse exploded. Ceria saw a rain of body parts and blood fly across the room. She tried not to throw up. But the Skill Calruz had used was more than just decorative.

The blood covered the monsters and Raskghar alike. Suddenly, both sides could see each other because Ceria saw the movements of both the Raskghar and insects change. The insects realized they were outnumbered and tried to run. The Raskghar advanced and cut and hacked them apart.

When the battle was over, the spring of water was dark with yellow blood and body parts. The Raskghar didn’t seem to care. They bent and lapped from the water, washing the few wounds they’d picked up. Calruz wrinkled his nose. He smashed his axe on the wall and the Raskghar looked up.

Boil the water! Savages! I told you, boil it first!”

He yanked one of the Raskghar back. Ceria, staring at the water, decided she wasn’t thirsty after all. She stepped back as the Raskghar filled their water skins with the bloody water and took a few deep breaths.

“Dead gods. What was that about?”

“I told you. Invisible monsters. They are a plague. But it seems you can see them. Incredible. This is a huge advantage.”

Calruz leaned on his axe, looking pleased. Ceria glanced at him.

“Say what? I have no idea why I could see those things and you couldn’t.”

“Why not? It must be your heritage as a half-Elf. You must be able to see through the [Invisibility] spells.”

The half-Elf frowned, doubting very much that was the case.

“I’ve never seen Pisces when he’s been invisible.”

“Well, maybe it’s a lesser invisibility spell.”

“A lesser invisibility spell? That would be [Chameleon Skin] or something like that. And I wouldn’t be able to see through that either. I told you, Calruz. Half-Elves resist enchantments placed on us. We don’t get magical eyes. That’s Gazers you’re thinking about.”

The Minotaur frowned as he cleaned his axe head in the water.

“Huh. But you clearly have some ability the Raskghar and I don’t. I’ve fought invisible monsters before. I never saw one.”

I’ve never seen an invisible monster in the dungeon.”

“True.”

Ceria opened her mouth and flushed.

“Wait, I meant—I mean, my team haven’t even encountered one! Neither have any of the other adventurers, as far as I know.”

Calruz shook his head.

“You must have been lucky. They’re everywhere. They attack on sound—or if you run into them. It’s one of the reasons why an active guard has to be maintained on the camps at all times.”

“Wait, so there are lots of invisible monsters. But those insect-things didn’t spot you at all. They were only looking at me.”

That had been curious. Ceria frowned. So did Calruz. He glanced at the dead insects. Ceria did too.

“You can see them?”

“When they’re dead. These things are…ah, the changing maggots. They’re deadly when they reach maturity. But they seldom do in the dungeon. I’ve seen non-invisible groups of this kind of monster, come to think of it. The monsters that are invisible can be anything. Shield Spiders, Flesh Worms, Stone Starers…anything.”

“Wait, Shield Spiders? And you don’t think that’s weird?”

“No. Maybe it’s an enchantment. Some room in the dungeon. Maybe it’s a curse.”

“Or maybe something’s up.”

Ceria’s mind raced as she stared at the insects. She looked at one and realized it was still alive. The Raskghar jumped as it oozed over and grabbed their weapons. The insect-creature flailed weakly with one of its remaining legs. Ceria held up a hand as Calruz turned with his axe.

“Hold on, I think I might know of a way to test this.”

 

—-

 

The Raskghar were blind to the invisible monsters, but they weren’t stupid. They could hear and smell and touch the creatures, and so when Calruz and Ceria and the water-gathering expedition returned, the Raskghar were already ready. Dozens of Raskghar aimed bows at the entrance and several Raskghar holding magical artifacts were standing at the ready—until they saw the Raskghar and Calruz. They stopped, sniffing the air, confused.

“Move aside. We have a monster.”

Calruz ordered the Raskghar. They made way, staring at the invisible, bloodied thing in the air. To them it must have looked like some strange ripple in the light, perhaps only visible through the bloodstains and the way the Raskghar held it. But Ceria could see the injured maggot-insect quite clearly.

It was nearly dead. The Raskghar would have happily beaten it the rest of the way to death, but as Ceria had pointed out to Calruz, the monster had to be alive for this to work. The instant it died, the corpse would be visible to everyone. But in life—

“There. Do you see it?”

Ceria approached the Gnolls for the first time. They recoiled as Calruz and the other Raskghar approached. Several stared with hatred and hostility at Ceria, but the rest glanced over her shoulder and gasped.

“Monster!”

They cried out in horror. The other Gnolls stared wildly at the thing the Raskghar held.

“What is it? Invisible?”

“No—it’s some kind of maggot and insect! Can you not see it?”

Astonished, the Gnolls looked at each other. Half—and Ceria noted it was the ones in the cages who’d arrived first—stared wide-eyed at the invisible monster. The rest could see it clearly.

“There. You see?”

Ceria turned to Calruz. The Minotaur snorted incredulously.

“They see it. But how?”

“I don’t know. But it’s not just me. There’s something different to the Gnolls in those cages, the ones who can’t see. Something’s happened to them. But what?”

“I will find out. You—dispose of that thing. And you—”

Calruz took one of the Raskghar to one side as the warriors happily dropped the dying maggot and kicked it to death. The Cave Goblins scurried forwards with butchering knives and Ceria’s stomach roiled as she imagined eating the thing. She glanced at the Gnolls in cages.

“I’m sorry. I’ll try to get you out.”

They stared at her, confused, angry. Ceria looked for Mrsha and saw her huddled in her cage. The poor little Gnoll couldn’t move, shackled as she was. One of the Gnolls edged up to the side of his cage and spoke urgently to Ceria.

“How do you know that monster? That Minotaur. Why is he doing this?”

Ceria wavered. She bent and whispered urgently.

“He’s my former team captain. He was lost on the expedition to Liscor’s crypt. He…took command of the Raskghar. He’s…lost it.”

The Gnolls’ ears quivered. The Gnoll in the cage stared at Ceria.

“Can you make him let us go?”

“I can try. What was that ritual?”

The Gnoll lowered her voice.

“Something dark. Something evil. We do not know. A [Shaman] from one of the plains tribes might. Get us out of here before it happens again.”

“I’ll—”

“Ceria!”

The half-Elf straightened. The Gnoll edged back as Calruz marched towards her. The Minotaur was smiling. He ignored the Gnolls completely and beckoned her over.

“We know the difference now. The Gnolls have been fed. But those Gnolls have been watered as well.”

“Watered?”

Ceria stared at Calruz. He nodded, triumphant and furious.

“Water. There’s something in the water! It has to be that. The Raskghar can’t think of anything else that separates the two and they’re certain those Gnolls drank water while the others were waiting for our expedition to return.”

The half-Elf blinked in surprise. Water? It sounded so insane, but it made sense. She wavered.

“We were just at the pool—do you think—”

“Naturally. Faugh! It’s just like these damned dungeon creators to put something in the water! Or enchant it! And that’s what’s kept this dungeon populated; the monsters don’t fight if they can’t see each other! And I’ve been drinking the stuff!”

The Minotaur cursed, paced past Ceria, and whirled.

“This is good to know. From now on, I will drink only rationed water. As will you.”

He turned and beckoned Ceria over to a pile of equipment, mostly untouched. It was all gear that the Raskghar couldn’t use or had no interest in. Calruz pawed through it and came up with a few flasks. He opened the cap, sniffed, poured some clear liquid out, and nodded.

“This was taken from dead adventurers. They should have—hrr. Yes. Water flasks. The Raskghar prefer their hide bags. Here.”

He tossed one at Ceria. She tried it cautiously, and found the water flask held only stale water. Ceria grimaced as she drank a bit.

“What about the Gnolls?”

“What about them? They can drink the dungeon’s water. If I had more supplies, I’d make some of the Raskghar drink clean water, but we’ll have to be the only ones who can see. I hope the effects on me will wear off soon.”

Calruz shook his head, drinking deeply. Ceria hesitated.

“About the Gnolls—”

She quailed as Calruz stared at her. Then she straightened.

“Look, Calruz. If you let a few go—”

“No.”

And that was it. Ceria tried to speak, but Calruz’s Skill crushed her voice. The Minotaur glared at her, and then tossed his head. He sprayed a bit of water at Ceria and looked around.

“This has all been useful. But that is not the reason why I need you. Warriors! Assemble five companies! We fight in the city!”

Ceria kept her head bowed until Calruz turned away. Then she could move and think. She followed Calruz, conscious of the Gnoll’s eyes on her back.

“The city? You don’t mean Liscor?”

The Minotaur turned and grinned.

“Oh no. You haven’t seen it yet, have you? Follow me. Your adventurers, the Antinium—they’ve only entered the dungeon. But there’s a final part of the dungeon yet to be uncovered. The city. And beyond it—the end. Come and see.”

 

—-

 

The city lay at the heart of the dungeon. The path to it was long, crossing through rooms with traps, past monsters both visible and invisible to the Raskghar. But Calruz had set up his camps so that he and his warriors—nearly four hundred Raskghar—could move from safe space to safe space. They marched fast, but it was still hours before they reached it.

The city in the dungeon. Calruz paused at a staircase. Ceria stared up it. A huge pair of double doors waited above. They were closed. And writing was etched into the wall above it. The letters glowed faintly. They looked like the same words that had been written on the crypt’s walls. She couldn’t translate them without using a time-consuming spell, but they made her afraid.

“Calruz. What is this?”

The Minotaur turned. He stood at the head of the ranks of Raskghar. They were armed with stone weapons, most of them. A few had coveted blades made of steel or iron. Calruz hadn’t taken any of the Raskghar with artifacts. The Minotaur gestured up towards the doors. His eyes were wide with excitement. Madness or anticipation, Ceria couldn’t tell.

“This is the gateway. There are eight. Eight places where the labyrinth ends. Places where you can enter the heart of the dungeon. All of this?”

He gestured around at the stone corridors, the winding passages he and the Raskghar had traversed.

“This is the labyrinth. But it is not all of the dungeon. There is a center. But no Raskghar has ever come close to it. The city is the last protection before the heart of the dungeon. It is a world unlike this closed space. But dangerous. Do you wish to see it?”

“Do I have a choice?”

Ceria regretted her flippant answer. The Minotaur glared at her and she felt herself shrinking. The Raskghar waited impatiently, glancing between her and Calruz.

“Yes, Calruz. I do want to see it. But those doors—the words. They’re like Skinner’s warning.”

The Minotaur glanced up. His good hand tightened on the haft of his axe.

“I know. And they are not without reason. But this place makes sense. It is safer than the dungeon in some ways. Now. Open the doors. Ikeld! Advance!”

The first rank of Raskghar ascended the stairs. They hauled on the metal doors and heaved them open. Ceria saw red light, almost blinding in the dungeon’s darkness. She saw the Raskghar stream through one rank, then a horde of bodies. Calruz beckoned. Ceria was afraid. For once she didn’t curse the Skill that made her run after Calruz. She climbed the stairs, charged through the door—

And looked up. A ceiling greeted her. Only, it was a ceiling two, maybe three hundred feet above her. Ceria gaped. Red lichen hung from the rocky ceiling overhead, gently glowing. It provided a bright, almost too-bright crimson glow that illuminated the entire cavern. Only, it wasn’t a cavern.

It was like stepping out of the dungeon and into a castle. Or a palace. Or—Ceria’s breath caught as she saw the tunnel open wider, wider—

A city.

The rocky floor opened out past the metal doors. The ground became flat. For a few hundred feet there was only rock and dirt. And then a pair of walls rose. The rock was reddish, tinted by the light from above. Red lichen grew on the stones, but the walls were largely intact. They weren’t tall—not by the standards of Drake cities, barely thirty feet high. But they stretched around the city.

The city in the dungeon. Ceria could see it past the walls. Tall buildings made of crumbling stone, roofed houses, and, as she stepped forwards wonderingly, she could see how vast the city was. The Raskghar streamed towards the walls, barking warily at each other. There was an open gate meant to allow hundreds of people in every second. Ceria jumped and whirled as Calruz came up behind her. The Minotaur stared towards the city, a fierce light in his eyes.

“You see it? This is the true nature of the dungeon. The city in the dungeon.”

“I can’t believe it. This is the center of the dungeon? People? A city?”

The Minotaur shook his head.

“No people. Just the city. And the death lurking here.”

“Death?”

Ceria looked around. The open space between the city’s walls and the metal door was empty. Disturbingly empty, in fact. Ceria felt her skin crawl as she realized how vacant the city seemed. Where were all the monsters? Calruz nodded towards the Raskghar.

“They’re securing the entrance. Follow me.”

He set a quick pace after the Raskghar. They were waiting at the gates. Calruz jogged towards them, speaking over his shoulder.

“This was once a place where people dwelt. Now it is infested. What is not infested is guarded by the enchanted suits of armor. An entire legion patrols constantly and occasionally sends smaller raiding parties out into the labyrinth.”

“The enchanted armor?”

Ceria blinked at Calruz. She’d seen and fought the metal suits of armor. They were the one oddity in a dungeon full of organic monsters. Calruz nodded.

“They have guarded this dungeon for ages, according to the Raskghar.”

“But how could they still be around? Those things break. If they’re fighting monsters or getting damaged—”

“I imagine there were hundreds of thousands of them. Or tens of thousands at the least.”

Tens of—do you have any idea how much that would cost?”

“Yes.”

Calruz turned calmly. He was too calm. The city’s gates loomed over Ceria, red, the bricks covered in lichen. The half-elf stared around, panicked for the first time. The city was too quiet. This entire room, this cavernous place was too vast! She was being watched. She could feel it.

“It makes sense, Ceria. For a city of this size, and given that they could build a dungeon of this quality, it makes sense they would have a force that strong. Look at this city.”

Calruz pointed up at the walls high above his head. He pointed through the gates. Ceria could see a broken street, red, and broken houses waiting for her. Some had caved in. Many were intact. They all seemed empty. But something was in there. Her skin crawled.

“This city, these walls and the houses—it is bigger than Celum. Bigger than Liscor as well. Imagine how many souls lived here.”

“It must be the size of a Walled City.”

“Close.”

“And the people?”

Ceria took a step forwards and then retreated. She looked at the Raskghar. They weren’t at ease like Calruz. They were tensed, scanning the streets, the houses, the windows. The ceiling. They knew something was there. The Minotaur grinned.

“Everything’s dead. As I said. What is not dead are the infested. They’ll come soon. They know we’re here. We’ll move around the edge of the city. We can’t stay in one place. If we do, we’ll be overrun.”

“By what?”

Calruz didn’t answer. He turned.

“Move forwards! Take that street! Shields in front! Archers, ready!”

The Raskghar moved as one. They were alert, superhumanly quick and intelligent. But they were afraid. Ceria saw it in the tense way they reacted to Calruz’s order and saw the wariness on the Minotaur’s face. They made her afraid as well. She was braced, waiting for anything. She did not have to wait long.

It leapt out of one of the house’s windows. It screamed. The Raskghar froze and the archers loosed arrows. The thing staggered as arrows clattered off the wall behind it and several pierced its flesh. The arrows feathered it. A spike of ice burst out of its face. It staggered and then screamed again, around the [Ice Spike]. Then it charged the Raskghar.

It was a person. Or it had been. Like the lichen, like the walls and street, the thing was red. But a fleshy red. Its skin was too smooth, and it had—holes in its body. More of the others, the infested, came at the first’s call. They charged the Raskghar, ignoring the arrows that pierced their bodies. They charged when filled with arrows .They moved when their heads were off, swinging wildly. Even when they were chopped into pieces they moved for a while, until their limbs ceased.

It looked like something had eaten part of them away. That was the first thing Ceria noticed after she’d stopped screaming. The fleshy creatures, the infested poured out of the houses where they’d been hidden, climbing, falling off the roofs and running at the Raskghar. They were fearless, which was good. Because the Raskghar hacked them apart.

The not-Gnolls were intelligent, stronger due to the full moons. They tore the infested apart with their claws, attacked and dodged with incredible agility and precision. They could have killed any regular group of soldiers with ease. They struggled against the infested.

It wasn’t that the infested were tough. On the contrary, they were just flesh. They moved fast, but only as fast as a normal Human could sprint. The thing was that they had no limits. They sprinted, fought, and screamed without getting tired or winded. And they were incredibly hard to kill. A Raskghar split one of the infested’s head open and it grabbed the Raskghar, clawing at it, trying to bite through the Raskghar’s fur before the furred warrior bashed it into the ground again and again.

They had teeth. And claws. And tails. Ceria whirled, blasting every one of the red creatures she could see with [Ice Spikes]. She heard a roar and saw Calruz swing his axe, cutting through three infested at once.

[Ice Wall]! Guard our left! Raskghar, advance with me!

He shouted at Ceria. His voice cut through the panic in her body. She turned and raised a wall of ice, cutting off an alleyway to the left. The infested slammed into it and began to try and climb the walls. But the delay allowed the Raskghar to press forwards. Calruz led them in a bloody charge and his axe sliced the infested apart. They didn’t even try to dodge his powerful blows. They ran forwards and died. But Calruz was advancing too far.

“Calruz!”

Ceria screamed a warning. But the Minotaur didn’t listen. The Raskghar around him fell back. Ceria shot [Ice Spikes] towards the infested, but they were surrounding Calruz. What were the Raskghar doing? They were going to let him—

The Minotaur raised his axe. The green head on the golden metal shone bright. Ceria saw the edge grow, turning transparent, until it was three times larger than the axe head. Calruz turned and cut. At least thirty infested fell as the magical edge of the axe sliced through them like butter. The magical axe swung, and Calruz cleared the space around him with effortless swings.

“Incredible.”

He had an artifact. Ceria burned with awe at the weapon. That was a weapon worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer! Maybe even a Named Rank one! But then she heard the infested scream. She turned and shot [Ice Spikes], bringing them down as Calruz cut them down by the dozen. But there were more of them. More and more and more—

“Ceria! Springwalker!”

Ceria jerked. She raised her skeletal hand and wand, but Calruz knocked her arms aside. He grabbed her.

“It’s over.”

Ceria looked at Calruz. Then she looked around. How much time had passed? Hours? Minutes? Seconds? The ground was covered in blood. Red bits of squirming flesh lay everywhere. The Raskghar were tending to their wounded. And the dead. At least thirty Raskghar had fallen, but they’d killed hundreds of the infested. Ceria looked around. She had blood on her robes and her hand was shaking uncontrollably.

“What—what—”

“Those were the guardians of the city. Along with the enchanted armor. We have a moment’s reprieve. More will come. Breathe. Look at me. Breathe.”

Calruz’s orders made Ceria look up. She remembered to inhale, and felt the world stabilize. A bit. But her shaking didn’t stop.

“That was worse than Ghouls. Way worse than Ghouls or zombies! They don’t scream! That was worse than Crelers—no, just as bad! What the hell are they? What in the name of trees…”

She trailed off. Calruz grunted. He turned.

“You didn’t see? Come.”

He grabbed her and towed her over to one of the corpses. It wasn’t moving, but Ceria stayed well back, expecting it to. Calruz bent down.

“This one’s dead. But see—”

He grabbed it, ignoring the blood, and twisted the torso. He’d cut this thing in half, which let Ceria get a good look at the infested for the first time. She saw a protruding jaw, a humanoid body. Shiny red skin—claws on the hands and legs—a long serpentine tail.

“It looks familiar. But what…?”

Ceria stared at the infested. Its shape was so hauntingly similar to something she knew. But her mind resisted her understanding. It was only when Calruz opened its mouth and showed her the teeth that she realized what it was. Ceria bent over and vomited. She’d eaten very little, but she threw it up anyways. She stared down at the dead infested in horror.

Sharp teeth. A reptile’s teeth. Only, it was important not to ever say that in front of one of them because they’d punch you. A long serpentine tail. Claws and sometimes wings, the relics of their distant ancestors. The infested had all of these. What it didn’t have were scales.

It was a Drake. Skinned. Flesh had grown over its body, and it had holes in parts of its stomach, its legs, arms, as if something had eaten it. But it was a Drake. Ceria looked around. Suddenly, all of the infested looked the same.

Drakes. This was a Drake city. And the infested—

She bent to throw up again. She thought she hadn’t anything left to give, but her body surprised her. Ceria choked on her bile and vomit. Then she felt a hand on the back of her neck.

“Easy. Drink.”

Calruz offered her his water flask. Ceria washed her mouth. When she looked up at him, she spoke two words.

“What happened?”

Even Calruz looked mildly unwell. The Raskghar were staying far away from the infested, warily watching their surroundings. The Minotaur shook his head.

“I don’t know. At a guess, these were Skinner’s victims. Or perhaps they were the creators of the dungeon who fell prey to it themselves. Or perhaps there was something…else. You see, I have not found any records of the dungeon. Nothing I can read. But the Raskghar understand something of the writings on the walls. Ancient Drake. And they found something. We’ll visit it before we leave.”

He took the water flask. Ceria was about to tell Calruz she wanted to leave the city now and burn everything down. But then she heard a scream. It was far off, but it was joined by hundreds more. Her blood ran cold.

“More infested. We have to go. Follow me. Warriors! We cut towards the monument! Move!”

Calruz turned. The Raskghar ran with him. Ceria did too. The infested came, leaping from rooftops, appearing in alleyways, out of windows. This time Ceria blasted them with all the magic she knew. She cast [Fireball] and destroyed a group of them. She didn’t feel guilt, not in the slightest. Destroying these poor Drakes would be the ultimate mercy.

“Onwards! Don’t fall behind! If we are surrounded, we die!”

Calruz roared as he cut a path ahead. The Raskghar were falling—but only a few with each attack. They were too large and tough to go down to the infested, especially since the infested had nothing but tooth and claw. Things got trickier when they ran into the first patrol of enchanted armor.

Twenty of them!

“Take the infested! I’ll cut them down! Warriors, on me!”

The Minotaur bull rushed the first suit of armor. When he swung his axe, it bit into the animated metal knight’s chest plate. Calruz threw the animated armor to the ground and battered it with his axe as the Raskghar did likewise. The enchanted armor took longer to kill, but the Raskghar were up to the challenge. The real problem for Ceria and the other Raskghar was holding off the infested. After that battle, Calruz called a break.

“We’ve taken twenty percent casualties. And killed at least a thousand infested. Not bad. Your spells turn the tide.”

“I can’t keep casting spells. Even with mana potions.”

Ceria wiped sweat from her brow. Calruz nodded.

“I’m no fool. But we are nearly at our destination. Come, I want you to see this.”

He led Ceria down a wide street. There was a large plaza, reminiscent of Liscor’s central square. But in the center of this one—Ceria halted. Something had been erected in the center of the square, at the heart of a spiral of red tiles. A large monolith. And something had been carved onto the top of it.

Heads. Three, to be exact. Each one was grotesque. Each one was horrific. But it was the one facing Ceria that made her knees shake. She began to tremble uncontrollably until Calruz grabbed her. He held her.

“Steady. Steady.”

Ceria looked up at the stone face. It was stone. And the creature was dead. But to look at it was to remember. Skinner stared down at Ceria, his flesh mask grinning at her through empty eye sockets.

“Calruz. What is this?”

“A warning. The Raskghar found this when they explored the city. Long ago. The markings on the monolith are hard to read, but they uncovered a few words. It warns that this dungeon is protected by the…the Mother. The Mother of Graves.”

“The boss of the dungeon?”

“Exactly. The Raskghar have never seen her, but they read the rest of the monolith. It tells of three guardians of the crypts who serve her. Three. You know one.”

“Skinner.”

He stared down at her. Ceria remembered him reaching down, grabbing Gerial. Tearing—Calruz hugged her tightly to his chest.

“He is dead. You told me. If he was not, I would kill him. Calm, Ceria, calm.”

She clung to him. Ceria wrenched her eyes away from Skinner.

“The other two.”

The other two heads were facing outwards. Ceria saw a strange, headless torso with two gaping sockets. And another—a long, angular head and wide, wide eyes and a tongue that hung with apparently no mouth. She stared up at them in horror. Calruz looked grimly up at the two heads.

“Skinner. Snatcher. Stalker. They protect the dungeon in the name of the Mother of Graves. This city is their legacy, I think. They were…venerated by the people here. Until something changed. Now the city is a grave of the infested. But they remain.”

“Dead gods. Dead gods. Two more? Two more?

Ceria shook, but clung to Calruz. His chest rumbled as he spoke.

“One more. And the Raskghar know it. I have seen him before. Snatcher.”

“Where?”

“The labyrinth. That is his home. The Raskghar call him—it—Facestealer. He is dangerous. Deadly. They have been unable to kill him. I have tried, but to no avail.”

That was the thing the Redfang Goblins mentioned. It had to be. Ceria looked around, terrified.

“Is he—do you think he’s—”

Calruz shook his head.

“No. He doesn’t enter the city. There’s nothing for him here. The infested and enchanted suits of armor don’t interest him, I think. He takes heads. And I know that the guardian of this place is gone.”

“How?”

For the first time, Calruz laughed. Ceria stared up at him in shock. The Minotaur shook his head. He pointed to the base of the monolith.

“Look.”

It took Ceria several heart pounding seconds to understand what he meant. At first, it looked like nothing was there. Just the spiral pattern of tiles. Only when she realized that the spiral was wrong, that the tiles didn’t match up, did she realize there was something there.

“What is—”

“Come. There isn’t any danger.”

Calruz led Ceria forwards. She walked hesitantly, and then stopped.

Something was curled around the base of the monolith. Something large. It was so large in fact, that Ceria had to halt ten feet away or touch the body. But she could barely see it. It was camouflaged so perfectly against the tiles that even when Calruz reached down and touched it, she could barely tell it was there. Calruz pointed at the silent shape.

“Behold. Stalker.”

Ceria scrambled back. She raised her wand, and then froze as she made out the final, crucial detail of the body. Stalker was curled around the monolith, a vast shape, hidden from view. But she could make out enough the more she looked to realize something important. Stalker was dead.

Something had torn its head off. And as Calruz looked at Ceria, she figured it out.

“Facestealer?”

He nodded.

“I don’t know what happened. Perhaps they turned on each other. But at some point, Snatcher killed Stalker. And now it lurks in the labyrinth, preying on all those it encounters. Of the three, I think it is the most deadly. Skinner was fear. But Snatch is paralysis. You cannot approach it without falling to the ground. Helpless. And its body can resist enchanted arrows. It collects heads. Puts them on sticks.”

Ceria stared at Calruz, aghast. Snatcher sounded like something right out of nightmares. Even adventurer’s horror stories didn’t come close. She looked at the Raskghar. They were keeping well clear of the monolith.

“How did the Raskghar survive down here with it all this time?”

“They breed faster than it can kill. And there are many monsters with heads for Snatcher to take.”

Calruz’s lip twisted. He turned, then turned back and kicked Stalker’s body. Ceria shuddered as the near-invisible body moved. The Minotaur looked at her challenging.

“Do you fear it, even in death?”

The half-Elf nearly said ‘yes’, but then she recovered a bit.

“I fear whatever’s on your foot now. Haven’t you heard of monsters with acid for skin, you rookie? Poke it with a stick if you have to show off.”

Calruz bared his teeth at Ceria. She tried to smile, and then whirled. Another scream. Calruz grunted.

“We’re out of time. We’ll reach a higher vantage point so I can show you the end. Then we leave. Raskghar!”

He led them out of the plaza. Ceria ran with him, almost relieved to be fighting. The infested were real, but she didn’t want to stand near the monolith. Or think about Snatcher.

They paused one final time on the walls of the city. The infested were coming in a huge wave. Calruz ordered the Raskghar to fight for a few precious seconds and pointed.

“There! You see it!”

Ceria squinted past the streets full of infested rushing at her. She saw the rooftops of houses, tall buildings, and then—blackness. She blinked.

“Is that a…hole?”

“Yes! Move!”

Calruz roared and the Raskghar fell back. He and Ceria raced down the walls as the infested pursued them. They raced towards the metal doors in full retreat, pausing only to cut down the nearest infested twice. When they reached the doors, Calruz shouted. The last Raskghar leapt through, crashing down the stairs while two slammed the metal doors shut.

They’d trapped two Raskghar. The beast people were too slow. Ceria heard them howling in fear and pounding on the doors. Then she heard screams. She backed away as the Raskghar braced themselves. The Raskghar fought until the end, and then there was tearing. Silence.

The Raskghar and Calruz stared at the door. Then the Minotaur nodded. The Raskghar backed away and began tending to their wounds. Ceria wasn’t sure that was safe.

“If they open the doors—”

“They won’t. We’ve fought the infested before. The armor patrols will pursue, but the infested won’t. They go a little ways into the dungeon at most, but then they retreat. And close the doors. I told you, they guard the dungeon.”

He turned his back on the doors. Ceria looked at them uneasily, but the Raskghar were already moving. They headed back towards their camp. Their numbers had been depleted, but they’d eradicated thousands of the infested. Which was part of Calruz’s plan.

“The infested don’t regenerate. They survive terrible injuries, but their numbers are finite. They’re too deadly a foe to face without a vast force—you saw how close we came even with your help. And they react to larger forces entering the city, especially if they stay longer. If I take a thousand Raskghar, ten thousand infested attack. But a small force like this can do great damage, especially on the full moon.”

“How many times have you done this?”

Calruz grinned, his yellowed teeth flashing.

“Many times. And there are less of the infested than before. The Raskghar would never dream of this kind of battle—there’s nothing for them in there. They won’t eat the infested. Even the Cave Goblins won’t. But I see the advantages of a city that can be fortified. And you saw it.”

“A hole. In the center of the city. What was that?”

“I’ve only seen it up close once. It’s a vast hole. It goes down…I can’t say how far. But it’s wide. Half a mile across if I’m a judge. I’m certain that the infested guard it—they cluster around it most of the time which is why they don’t react to us at the edge of the city at first. And in that hole is the center of the dungeon. The Mother of Graves and the dungeon’s treasure, if it exists, lies down there.”

Ceria shivered. The sound of it! She had no idea the dungeon was this large! But to hear Calruz say it like that—

“You’re this close?”

“With the Raskghar, I am. I just need to clear out the infested so we can descend. And as I’ve said, it’s doable.”

Ceria nodded. Her mind was racing in the absence of fear or danger. She looked back at the distant metal doors as an adventurer.

“It’s a war of attrition. If you don’t lose any Raskghar to the infested, or if you kill more than you lose—”

“I win. The infested don’t come back. There are no traps. It is just a battle against them. A fight. An honest one!”

The Minotaur brandished his axe. He’d cut down hundreds of infested himself. He was faster than he had been before the crypt. Stronger too, despite his missing arm. Ceria stared at Calruz. The numb shock in her body faded a bit. Something like amusement tickled her fancy. She felt her lips quirk into a smile.

“Congratulations, Calruz. You’ve finally found a dungeon made just for you.”

The Minotaur blinked.

“I have, haven’t I?”

The two of them looked back at the doors. Calruz whispered.

“It’s right there. I could run forwards and fall into that pit. But I don’t know what lurks beneath. I’m certain that is the heart of the dungeon. And I have been clearing the infested skirmish after skirmish. There are so many of them. And the enchanted armor. But once they’re gone, the city is open. And I will be the one to throw a rope down into that abyss and descend.”

“The dungeon. This one’s so much bigger than we ever imagined. We thought it might be big. We were prepared for multiple levels. Eight floors, even. But I never imagined…”

Calruz nodded. He and Ceria stood together. The Minotaur clenched his hand.

“This dungeon is on another scale entirely. I’ve seen the old dungeons near First Landing, the ones already conquered. Even the magic dungeons don’t come close to this. This—this is on the level of the dungeon Niers Astoragon conquered before he founded the Forgotten Wing Company. This is a dungeon worthy of a Named Adventurer—no, one that makes a Named Adventurer. And vengeance dungeon or not, I’m certain they would have hidden their greatest treasure with this boss monster. The Mother of Graves. The Raskghar have plundered the city and the dungeon and come away with artifacts worthy of any Gold-rank adventurer. This axe alone would make me Gold-rank.”

He pointed to his axe. Ceria stared at it. She remembered how it had grown and thought of the other Raskghar that had magical artifacts. The one with the invisible bow, the warded armor…and she’d seen more Raskghar with similar weapons.

“You have an army. And they know the dungeon.”

“Precisely. I could take ten Gold-rank teams and perhaps not do as much. There are thousands of Raskghar and Cave Goblins. This was just a trial of your abilities. With the awakened Raskghar, the ones who perform the ritual, and with Cave Goblins, we could eliminate the infested within a month. And then—”

And then that abyss awaited. Ceria’s heart pounded in her chest. Anticipation, excitement, fear, dread—it all mixed together. It was a rush, the indescribable feeling of being alive that made her keep adventuring despite it all. She looked up at Calruz, unable to stand still. She saw the same burning passion in his eyes.

This was an adventure! This was a challenge! Ceria grinned at Calruz. They could do it! They could really do it! She reached out—

And then she’d remembered what he’d done. Her smile vanished. Ceria let her arm drop. Calruz saw Ceria’s expression change. His softened expression hardened and he turned.

“Follow.”

 

—-

 

Mrsha the Great and Terrible sat in her cage. She felt the cold, hard, painful shackles on her paws. She saw the cage, the bars of wood and hide. She smelled the fear in the air, the blood. She saw the Raskghar pacing back and forth, some training with weapons, others bullying the Cave Goblins. She looked at the other cages full of Gnolls and saw the fear in their eyes, the terror.

Mrsha peed a little. She couldn’t help it. There were no bathrooms here and the Raskghar didn’t let the Gnolls out. She shifted uncomfortably, but she couldn’t help it. She’d already done the very bad in the corner of her cage, and she knew the other Gnolls had done the same by the smell.

That didn’t bother her. It might have bothered Erin or Lyonette or Selys, but when you were a Gnoll, you could smell the outhouse even when you weren’t sitting in it. So long as there were other smells, it wasn’t too bad. Actually, it was sort of interesting because if you were really good, you could tell who ate what and who’d pooed last. Mrsha had a great nose.

…But this wasn’t the time for that. Mrsha could smell the fear on the air, a sharp, urgent smell. That made her feel very scared. It came from the Gnolls. And the Cave Goblins. The Raskghar didn’t smell of fear. They smelled of death and blood. Mrsha didn’t like them. She wasn’t afraid—but she peed a bit more when one of them looked at her.

The Gnolls were talking. That was all that had happened. Mrsha didn’t know how long she’d been down here, not exactly, but she remembered waking up. And then being very scared and trying to get loose, and then she’d seen Ceria and thought everything would be well! But it hadn’t. The bad Minotaur had pointed at the cages and then—and then—

And then the horrible thing had happened. Mrsha still remembered the Gnoll screaming as the Raskghar tore out his heart. She shook wildly and tried to breathe. Don’t think about it. Don’t think. Something had happened, and then Mrsha had been too scared to sleep. But she must have, because the next thing she remembered was a bunch of Cave Goblins lifting her cage and the Raskghar grabbing Gnolls and dragging them through the dungeon.

That had been scary too. But almost fun. Almost. And then the Raskghar had come to this new room, which smelled like they’d been here before. Ceria had come back with a horrible monster that the Raskghar killed and talked about ‘invisible monsters’. She’d said a lot of things, but none of it made sense to Mrsha. Why wasn’t she saving everyone? She was an adventurer. But there were a lot of Raskghar. And the Minotaur was very scary.

And now the Gnolls were talking. They’d been silent ever since the first time they’d woken up. The beating from the Raskghar had broken bones. And after the ritual they’d been terrified. But even that terror couldn’t make them sit in silence forever. Now they were growling softly to each other, talking almost inaudibly.

That was necessary, Mrsha knew. If the Gnolls made anything approaching loud sounds, one of the Raskghar would strike the cages or throw something at the prisoners. Anything after that would earn a savage beating. But since Gnoll ears and Raskghar ears were equally good, the Gnolls could still have a quiet conversation without alerting their captors. And since Mrsha’s ears were even better than normal Gnoll ears, she could hear too. She was young. Plus, she was a tribal Gnoll, not a silly city Gnoll like Miss Krshia and the others. She heard everything clearly.

It was the old Gnoll, the one who’d called her ‘Doombringer’ who was speaking. He was the oldest of the Gnolls held captive, or nearly. And he was the most important. The others deferred to him. His name was Elirr. He spoke, a bruise puffing up one eye as the others, adults, a few children, turned to him.

“In the past, it was said that we were enemies of the Raskghar. It was said that in the time underneath the earth, they broke away from our kind. That they became beasts, unthinking, and hunted us. We thought it was for sport, but the old legends were incomplete. It is clear they performed these rituals and gained…strength from them.”

Some of the other Gnolls nodded. The children tried to hug the adults, but they were shackled. It was very painful. Mrsha had seen the adults try to break the metal shackles, but they had been taken from dead [Guardspeople] and the metal was sturdy. The Raskghar had the keys.

“But how?”

One of the Gnolls whined softly. She was afraid. The Gnolls around her growled softly and her whine lowered before it could disturb the Raskghar. Elirr shook his head.

“It may be a thing of classes and Skills. Or not. The Book of Levels does not mention such things. But I know there is magic of blood, yes. And worse things. Things Gnolls have forbidden as the worst of deeds. Perhaps the Raskghar found such secrets in the darkness. All we can hope is that Ceria Springwalker convinces this Minotaur to release us.”

“How? You saw her. She bows to him. She submits! And he is mad. Clearly mad!”

“Hush. I know. But she is our only chance. You heard what he said. The Gold-rank adventurers cannot reach us. And we have moved camps. Even the Antinium could not best this dungeon. What other chance is there?”

The other Gnolls fell silent. They were afraid. Mrsha could smell it on them. On Elirr, for all he tried to project authority. That was the problem with Gnolls. They could smell your fear, so how could you lead them?

By showing them fear is conquerable. By being brave despite fear. That is what inspires.

Mrsha heard the voice in her head. For a second she couldn’t place it. And then she remembered. Urksh had said that. He had been a good [Chieftain]. Better than Elirr. Better than Krshia. She missed him so much. She cried when she thought of him, but she didn’t cry now. She had to be brave.

But then one of the Gnolls looked at her. Mrsha flinched. It was the female Gnoll, the one who’d whined. She stared at Mrsha and raised her voice.

“What about her? This is all her fault!”

She pointed. The Gnolls looked as one. Mrsha flinched. The brown eyes staring at her found her white fur. And she heard the murmurs.

“Cursed one.”

“White fur.”

“Doombringer.”

One of the Gnolls, a young male, glared at Mrsha. He bared his teeth and she shrank against the far wall of her cell.

“She did this. She brought this disaster upon our people! We should have killed her when Brunkr came! We should never have let her in the city, driven her away! Look what has happened!”

“Vakk, enough.”

Elirr raised his voice. Not to denounce Vakk, but to calm him so the Raskghar didn’t come over. One was looking their way, and the Gnolls had seen how the Raskghar liked to torment the Cave Goblins when they were bored. Vakk lowered his voice, but his growl was still menacing as he stared at Mrsha.

“She is cursed! Just like the legends say! I did not believe it, but look at the misfortune that has struck Liscor! Honored Krshia’s shop—the Face-Eater Moths, the Goblin Lord—”

“Not all that is her fault.”

Another Gnoll spoke up. Mrsha’s ears perked up hopefully, but the Gnoll did not look at her. Vakk growled.

“Too much has happened since she came! Too much! Brunkr warned us. He told us to kill her. We should have listened. He was raised in the Silverfang tribe! He knew the truth!”

“But he changed his mind. And Honored Krshia told us he was wrong.”

“Yes. And look what happened to Brunkr. He was killed by a traitor. And Krshia lost her shop. She nearly lost our great contribution to the meeting of tribes!”

“We gained something of greater value—”

“Enough!”

Elirr’s sharp voice was a whisper, but it quieted the other Gnolls. He looked towards Mrsha and shook his head.

“I do not know enough of the old legends. Yes, rumor says the cursed white fur is the death of tribes, but is it the cause? Krshia did not think so. And I do not know. That it is a sign I will not argue. But perhaps this doom was inevitable and the child was a herald of it. I do not think she caused it.”

“But would her death stop it? And why do the Raskghar value her?”

The other Gnolls went silent. Mrsha trembled. She wanted to cry. But Mrsha the Brave wouldn’t cry.

“Even if she were to die, we would be here.”

Vakk slumped against the side of his cage. The Gnolls looked at each other, despairing. But then Vakk raised his head. He looked at Mrsha, his eyes burning.

“But if she is disaster, let it not be for just us. Doombringer, bring doom on the Raskghar.”

He rose. Elirr tried to grab him, but Vakk twisted away. He stood clumsily, his paws were shackled, but he fell forwards and grabbed the bars of the cage. He stared at Mrsha. And now his voice was loud.

“Do it. Let it be an end to all of us! Gnolls, the cursed Raskghar! Bring death, Doombringer! Use your power and destroy these ancient monsters! Do it!

He shouted at Mrsha. The Raskghar turned. One of them shouted something. Vakk didn’t listen. He pounded on the cage.

“Don’t just sit there! Do something! Anything!”

“Vakk! Enough! She is a child!”

Elirr barked at the Gnoll. He managed to get up. He grabbed the young Gnoll, but Vakk threw him off. He began to howl, in desperation. Some of the other Gnolls took it up.

“Quiet!”

The older Gnoll ordered desperately, but it was too late. The Raskghar howled in return. They bounded to the cages and opened them. The Gnolls stopped howling as the Raskghar entered and began beating them. Vakk got the worst of it. By the time the Raskghar left, his face was a bloody mess. The Gnolls lay, moaning, weeping. Mrsha hadn’t been touched. She saw them stare at her and heard the same whisper.

“Doombringer.”

Mrsha wished she could tear her fur off her body. She wished she could speak. It wasn’t her fault! She wanted to scream it. But a part of her wondered if it was. And was afraid.

There was no more talk after that. The Gnolls huddled together. The children clung to the adults. One was so young he tried to nurse. The female Gnoll in the cage with him wasn’t pregnant, but she let him try. Mrsha sat, listening to it all. Then she smelled it. Her head turned a good few seconds before the others looked up. The Raskghar sprang to their feet.

Ceria was back. So was Calruz. The Raskghar with him returned, wounded, smelling of—of other things. Sweat. Death. Blood. And something else. A new place. The Minotaur smelled triumphant. Mrsha hid in her cell as he walked into the camp, laughing, in a good mood.

She didn’t trust it. His mood, that was. The Minotaur—his name was Calruz?—scared her. Mrsha could smell his good nature, see it on his face. But she knew it would change in the blink of an eye.

Bad mood. Good mood. Mrsha wanted to scrub her nose each time he passed. There was something wrong about the Minotaur. Something that made her hair stand on end. Sometimes he would be normal. He would speak to Ceria like a person and act like an adult, like a Chieftain and make the Raskghar scurry around efficiently. But then his scent would change.

It was the faintest of things. Something Mrsha could smell and know, but not focus on. It was so faint, so infinitesimal a change that even her keen nose could barely detect it. But she knew it had happened because then Calruz would go crazy.

The other Gnolls couldn’t smell what Mrsha did. The adults had weaker noses and the children were city Gnolls. They didn’t have the practice Mrsha had growing up, smelling squirrels and rodents beneath the earth, or scenting rain in the air.

Not even the Raskghar could smell it. Mrsha could. So she stayed back from Calruz, wondering when his mood would change and the smell would become terrible. He scared her. But the Raskghar scared her more.

“Chieftain.”

One of them came forwards. She was large. Her eyes shone. The Gnolls froze when she passed them. Mrsha thought her heart would explode or stop. She was the one. She had performed the ritual.

She was an awakened Raskghar. That was what they had called themselves. The Raskghar bowed to Calruz, pretending to be subservient, but the Gnolls and other Raskghar watched her. She was different. Special. She was like Krshia. A leader of the pack.

Gnolls were matriarchal. Usually. They respected good leadership over tradition, which is why Urksh had been a leader and why they looked to Elirr now. But the Raskghar were very traditional. And she had performed the ritual.

“I am stronger, Chieftain. Stronger. Smarter. Faster. I hunger for battle. I will be your greatest warrior. I already speak language. And I offer you this.”

The Raskghar had gone hunting. She presented Calruz with the head of something. The other Raskghar who’d gone with her had to drag it forwards. It was huge. The Minotaur inhaled sharply. He moved to one side and Mrsha saw—her hair stood on end.

“A Face-Eater Moth. Tree rot. That’s—is that from a mother?”

The head was nearly as tall as Ceria. It had come from one of the giant Face-Eater Moths, one of the ones who’d crawled out of the dungeon. Mrsha stared at the female Raskghar. She had killed that? By herself?

“You slew it by yourself?”

“Leading sixteen others. Yes, Chieftain. And I located a treasure site. One that may be opened. I puzzled over the solution. I would show you. But I am one. More rituals will mean more awakened Raskghar. More of us.”

She drew closer, touching Calruz. Mrsha knew she was flirting. The Minotaur growled and pushed her back. But then his gaze turned to the Gnolls. And Mrsha was afraid.

“Calruz, you can’t. You don’t need more Raskghar. You need…hostages. We fought in the city just fine. But the Gold-rank adventurers will keep coming so long as the Gnolls are here. If you let them go, or you could strike a deal. Negotiate for items. Potions.”

Ceria’s voice was high-pitched, desperate. She hovered around Calruz, looking afraid. Smaller. The Minotaur glanced at her.

“That is true. But I told you not to argue with me.”

“I’m just—”

Calruz brushed her off. He strode towards the cages. The Gnolls looked up at him. Calruz looked from face to face.

“Who leads you.”

“I do.”

Elirr sat up. He was bleeding from a cut on his mouth in addition to his black eye. Calruz frowned.

“Why were the Gnolls beaten?”

“They began howling. They had to be silenced.”

“Hmf.”

Calruz stared at Elirr. The Gnoll met his gaze, but Mrsha saw his hands clenching. He wavered, and he looked away. Calruz snorted. Elirr spoke hoarsely.

“You are making a mistake. We are citizens of Liscor. The Watch will not rest until we are freed. Nor will the adventurers. And the Drake cities know of the dungeon. You will never be safe if we are killed.”

“Are you trying to threaten me?”

There was a dangerous note in the Minotaur’s voice. Elirr tried to look at him, but the Minotaur was too scary. Mrsha tried to cover her eyes and peek at the same time.

“No. No. But I ask—we beg you for mercy. We will pay any ransom.”

“My goal is the dungeon’s treasure itself. No one city could afford what I seek to find. As for mercy—I have promised Ceria to let some of you go if she obeys me. I keep my word.”

Elirr looked up hopefully. Instantly, the female Raskghar protested.

“Chieftain. The Gnolls are needed. For ritual.”

“Not all of them.”

“All! We must have them. You must—”

“Must?”

Calruz spun. His hand shot out. He was fast. The female Raskghar tried to dodge, but Calruz’s hand was at her throat. She struggled—and then stopped as his hand tightened on her windpipe. The other Raskghar stirred. Mrsha was glad to see they were afraid, even if it was of Calruz. His arm flexed as he drew the female Raskghar closer.

“You speak as if you were Chieftain. But you are not. You are weaker than I am, even with the ritual. Or do you challenge me?”

“No, Chieftain.”

The female Raskghar lowered her ears and head. She submitted and hunched, lowering herself as he let her go. Calruz turned.

“So. My order stands. Not all of the Gnolls will be sacrificed. How many depends on Ceria. I have a mind to spare whomever she picks. And the white one.”

“No. Not that one! She is special!”

Another Raskghar protested in a guttural voice. Quick as a flash, Calruz turned. He backhanded the Raskghar so hard that the beast man lost a tooth. A spray of blood flew—the Raskghar fell.

Silence!

There was. Calruz looked at Mrsha. She tried to back into a corner of her cell and landed on her poo as he bent down.

“You. Ceria tells me that Ryoka knows you. And Erin. Why are you special?”

Mrsha quivered. Calruz glared at her. His eyes turned red.

“Answer me!”

She opened her mouth desperately, tried to point at it. The Minotaur grew angrier. He opened his mouth and his hand cracked as it dug into the top of her cage.

“Calruz, stop!”

To Mrsha’s relief, Ceria pushed forwards. She grabbed the Minotaur. Though she couldn’t pull him back, she spoke urgently and quickly.

“She’s mute. She can’t speak.”

“Mute?”

The Minotaur straightened. He looked suspiciously at Mrsha. Ceria nodded.

“She’s been mute since birth. Ryoka befriended her, like I told you. Her fur’s white—that’s probably why the Raskghar think she’s special. But she doesn’t have any powers.”

“I see. Do you think she’s special?”

Calruz glanced at the female Raskghar. Her eyes turned towards Mrsha. The little Gnoll cub flinched.

“Oh yes, Chieftain. White fur is special.”

“Why?”

The Raskghar hesitated. She looked uncertain.

“We…do not know. But we feel it. We know it. Here.”

She pointed to her chest. Calruz grunted. He looked at Elirr.

“You. Do you know why the Raskghar think she’s special? What does white fur mean among Gnolls?”

Elirr hesitated. The old Gnoll glanced at Mrsha and at Calruz. He opened his mouth. The Minotaur cut him off.

“If you lie, I will sacrifice half of the Gnolls here.”

The Gnoll bowed his head. Mrsha stared at him in terror.

“She is cursed. According to the legends of my tribe, those with white fur appear after disaster. Or before it. They may cause disaster or warn of it, but disaster comes either way. They are shunned. I thought it legend myself, but…”

Elirr glanced despairingly at Mrsha and said no more. Calruz straightened.

“So. There is some truth to these legends.”

“It’s all superstition. Come on, Calruz. You don’t believe in that. And Mrsha matters to Erin. To Ryoka.”

“Ryoka.”

The Minotaur paused. A wistful expression passed over his face. He looked at Ceria, at Mrsha, and shook his head.

“I will…deliberate. I will make my decision later. Tonight, before we eat. I will not hear any more arguments.”

“I—”

Ceria opened her mouth. Calruz turned and she froze. He turned away and strode towards the curtain that had been set up at the far end of the room. He disappeared behind it. The other Raskghar backed away too, staring at Mrsha and the Gnolls. That left just Ceria. The half-Elf hesitated, and then bent down.

“It’ll be alright, Mrsha. I’ll figure something out. You’ll be okay. You…and the others.”

She tried to smile. Mrsha stared at her with wide eyes. She might have been young, but even Mrsha knew that Ceria was lying.

That was what adults did. They lied. But Mrsha clung to the lie. She sat in her cage as the Raskghar got back to work. A Cave Goblin scurried by. He picked up the Raskghar’s tooth and checked Mrsha’s cage for damage. Then he brought food for the Gnolls with the other Cave Goblins.

It was monster meat. Cooked over a fire, but monster. Mrsha knew it was part of the maggot. She heard the Gnolls crying out in disgust, but that was all the food that was offered. The water tasted of blood. Mrsha tried to eat and drink, but her stomach roiled. She bit the meat, gagged, and curled up.

She missed Erin’s cooking. She missed Lyonette and Apista and hot food! Mrsha did not cry. She would not cry. She waited until the Cave Goblin took the food away and then as more time passed. And then she heard arguing.

“Chieftain! Please! Gnolls are important. Must use in ritual. Must—”

There was a crack and a howl of agony. Calruz appeared, striking a Raskghar with his fist. The warrior—not the awakened one, another female—retreated. The Minotaur battered her to the ground and kicked her repeatedly.

“I will not be argued with! The Gnolls are mine! Mine! I am the Chieftain! I give the orders. There will be no sacrifices! Not now! And if I demand it, not ever! I will release some of them. Parlay. I want potions. And equipment!”

“You could get fresh water. Maybe a way to remove the blindness curse?”

Ceria hovered around Calruz, looking visibly delighted. The Minotaur turned and nodded.

“Yes. That’s right. We could do that! I could release the Gnolls, order the adventurers to halt the incursions into the dungeon in exchange for a few—or even assault the city. Yes.”

Mrsha sat up hopefully. Her tail began to wag. The Gnolls looked at each other in disbelief as Calruz strode over to the cages. He looked down at Elirr.

“You. If I send a message with your people, will Liscor hear it?”

“Yes. I swear it. We will bear any message you send.”

Elirr looked hopefully at Ceria, who was nodding. The Raskghar were unhappy. They growled, but as soon as Calruz turned they went still. They were more afraid of him than anything. Even the ritual couldn’t make them rebel. Mrsha felt hope.

“We will send one…no, two tomorrow. Two, yes. The Cave Goblins can escort them to the entrance. Make sure they make it to the surface. Or let the Gold-rank adventurers find them. They will make it clear that I am in charge and—and present them a list of my demands.”

“I can help with that. I’ll write the letter, add in whatever details you want. This is the right move, Calruz.”

Ceria smiled, clearly flattering the Minotaur. He stood straighter.

“Of course. I need penmanship. And paper! The Raskghar barely have parchment—I—I should address the Council. And the Gold-ranks. I’m…I should be—”

Mrsha smelled the confusion and madness in him. The Minotaur touched a hand to his head. But for once the madness was working against the Raskghar. He turned to Ceria.

“What should I do? You know them best. What is the best way to convince them of my sincerity?”

He trusted her. Mrsha could smell that too. Ceria smiled.

“Let’s find paper first. Do you have a quill and ink?”

“Yes. You there—bring me—”

The Minotaur strode away. The Gnolls glanced at each other, their eyes perking up. Freedom! Hope was a dizzying rush in Mrsha’s chest. She saw the Raskghar glancing at each other in frustration. The Cave Goblins scurried around, not paying attention to anything.

Ceria and Calruz stood together, talking over the details of his ransom note. The Gnolls and Mrsha listened, hearing Ceria manage Calruz’s madness and his twists of mood. He trusted her, ignoring the Raskghar, lashing out at them when they tried to whine. Mrsha was happy. Even though her belly rumbled loudly and her butt smelled like poo, she felt safer.

Freedom! Maybe she would be one of the Gnolls chosen to leave tomorrow? Probably not. But Erin would do everything to get her back. And so would Lyonette. And Jelaqua, and Halrac, and Selys…

It was hard to tell when it was night in the dungeon. Especially since the Raskghar and Cave Goblins worked in shifts at all hours. But the Gnolls, accustomed to the day and night cycle, felt themselves tiring and began to drift off. Mrsha found herself yawning despite all the excitement in her. She tried to be more comfortable in her cell with the painful shackles—which might come off soon—and saw that most of the Raskghar were getting ready to sleep. Ceria slept in a separate spot behind some curtains, and Calruz went to his bed too.

The room quieted. Mrsha began drifting off, although she kept waking up every time a Cave Goblin pattered by. She turned, shifting a rock out of the way and smelled poo and pee. She turned onto her side the other way and sighed. She felt her thoughts haze—

And then she heard a howl. It was loud, echoing, a note of pure terror from the Raskghar. Instantly, Mrsha shot up. She saw the Gnolls and Raskghar wake immediately and the Raskghar grab weapons. Mrsha saw them look around, trying to place the call, and then felt a whumph.

It wasn’t a loud sound, but a deep one. It went through the ground of the dungeon, through Mrsha’s bones. It was the sound of some incredible impact or explosion. Mrsha’s ears rang and she saw the Raskghar running in a haze of silence. She saw them howling at each other, using sign, language, pointing, rushing past her. Then she saw Calruz emerge, axe in his one hand. Ceria ran out, wand at the ready. He pointed and roared.

A bit of hearing returned. Mrsha heard confused voices.

“—where—ready—did you—attack!”

Calruz pointed. The Raskghar moved, howling. Ceria backed up as Calruz turned on her. She raised her flesh and skeletal hands, her eyes wide. Mrsha tried to hear. It was one voice out of all the shouts and now, the distant sounds of fighting. Calruz was bellowing.

“Did you do this? Was this your plan?

“No! I don’t even know what’s going on! What’s happening? Who’s attacking?”

“The adventurers! They’re attacking! They’ve found the camp! They found their way here! Without alerting my sentries! How? How?

“I don’t know! I don’t! Calruz—”

He raised his axe. Ceria raised her hands, frost shimmering in the air between them. Calruz paused for one terrible moment and whirled.

“Defend the camp! Begin retreating! Send the Goblins forward! You! Grab the prisoners! Take them away! Now!”

He roared and the Raskghar moved. They sprang forwards, hundreds of them, running towards the fighting. So many. Mrsha had seen the adventurers. There weren’t enough! And then she saw the Raskghar running towards the cages. The Gnolls tried to fight, but the Raskghar clubbed them and lifted the prisoners onto their shoulders. They ran towards the other side of the room, out the exit the adventurers were not besieging.

“Calruz! Stop! This is a mistake! Don’t! Try to negotiate! Please—”

Ceria tried to grab Calruz’s arm, but he turned. His eyes were red. Fury burned in them. And madness. He struck Ceria with the handle of his axe and she fell. Calruz pointed and roared and charged out of Mrsha’s view. The white Gnoll sat in her cell, wide-eyed. She saw the Raskghar coming towards her and tried to back away. But she couldn’t. And as the Raskghar lifted her cell, she heard Ceria whisper. A single sound amid it all.

“No. Please—”

It was a heartbroken voice. A pained one. It sounded to Mrsha like desperation, shock, incredulity and sadness and grief. It sounded like failure.

It sounded like despair.

 


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