8.31

(Side story chapter AND edited chapter are delayed due to…Windows Update. See Author’s Note for details. Blame Microsoft.)

 

Across Izril, people and things were moving at high speeds.

At high relative velocity—like Ryoka expelling the contents of her guts onto the floor as the curse on her added a new layer of excitement to her life.

With great distances covered each day, as with the doughty band of Goblins, Antinium, Humans…Gnoll…Vampire…and Drake who marched down the road, on the lookout for attacks from Hectval or monsters or anyone, really.

Antinium, jogging along seemingly without the need to rest, behind riding Goblins, or next to the one wagon loaded with ammunition, supplies, and so on.

Octavia rode on that, feeling marginally less useful than the potions and ingredients she’d loaded up. She watched as Garia, Fals, and Fierre jogged together, the dark umbrella over Fierre’s head bobbing. At Sergeant Gna, muttering to herself and staring at all the others.

The Goblins, arguing in their tongue. The Antinium, without sound following Bird, who was singing a Bird-song…

Numbtongue, who rode at the fore of the group, aside from Snapjaw and Icecube scouting from overhead, and Xeu, somewhere unseen, also prowling for enemies…or maybe eliminating them without telling anyone.

The Goblin was emblematic of the party, by and large. He was silent. Grim. The others might be a bit more talkative, but they were committed.

“We’re going across Izril. In search of Mrsha. We might run into armies or…we don’t know who took her.”

Octavia’s voice as she murmured to herself made the group look back. Badarrow’s head swung around; it was Ulvama who turned. The [Shaman] barked at Octavia.

“Gnolls.”

As if that said everything that needed to be said, she turned and kept riding along, doing surprisingly well on her horse compared to almost all the other riders. She had actual experience, unlike some who thought you could just jump on a horse’s back and have it carry you off into the wild blue yonder.

“Yes, but…now I’m thinking of it, it’s huge. We might be going all the way to Zeres. We might be fighting…”

Octavia trailed off as someone looked back at her. This time it was Numbtongue. The [Bard] grunted.

“Second thoughts? Go back. You might die.”

Octavia met his gaze.

“I know. It’s not that, Numbtongue.”

He eyed her, grunted, but Octavia was one of his few friends. So the [Bard] slowed a bit.

“What, then?”

“This. It’s…a great journey, Numbtongue. A…you know.”

Octavia looked around. Didn’t the others see it? Gna just stared blankly at the Stitch-Girl. Salkis, the strange Drake, might have understood, but just grinned to herself, eyeing everyone.

Garia’s head turned. Fierre glanced up as Octavia elaborated for the blank Goblins and Antinium, who had politely turned to stare as they marched.

“A quest. An adventure.”

The Vampire’s head rose. She looked back at Octavia. Numbtongue was giving her a blank look, but Fierre smiled, a pointed grin. She hadn’t wanted to say it either, but Garia looked at her and Fals and the City Runner gave them a small smile.

A concerned one, but the Humans and Vampire felt it.

The Goblins? They glanced at each other and chuckled. One of the Cave Goblins poked the Redfang. Adventure? They all snorted. Sounded like a good way to die.

The Antinium glanced at Bird for confirmation that they had inadvertently embarked on an adventure. Pivr wondered to himself if the Flying Queen would approve. Then again, if Ksmvr could do it, so could he. Bird tilted his head.

“I did not order us on an adventure, Miss Octavia. I demand we unadventure at once. We are on a rescue mission. I am in charge here!”

He waved one fist. Octavia looked at him.

“No, Bird. An adventure just happens. It’s not something we have to do.”

“…Oh. In that case, your adventure is approved. Do we get anything out of it? Will we have to kill a Dragon? I’m told it is difficult.”

Bird had some passing understanding of adventures, but Gna just growled.

“Great. I’m going to be an [Adventurer]. I hope I get to Silver-rank at least.” The Bronze-rank adventurer, Numbtongue, just gave Octavia a steady look.

“This is not a game.”

He was reproachful, and it was not necessarily easy to meet a Goblin’s crimson-eyed glare, especially as angry as Numbtongue was. Yet Octavia did it, and somehow—he blinked. Because the [Alchemist] was smiling.

“I know that, Numbtongue. I do. But look how many people came together for Mrsha. Even with Lyonette gone. That terrible [Witch]…but we still did it. We’ll get her back.”

“Even if we all die.”

Bird chipped in unhelpfully. Octavia hesitated, but then nodded.

“We all came for that. All of us. Like…like if Erin were here. We’d be doing just this, wouldn’t we?”

The band slowed. Ulvama nearly ran over Bird, and Salkis blinked. Fierre didn’t know Erin that well, but…she saw the others look at each other. As if Erin…

Badarrow smiled. Numbtongue did not, but he stopped a moment, and then nodded.

“Maybe.”

Then they kept moving.

It was just a short observation. Yet Numbtongue kept looking at Octavia. Somehow, her words had inspired something in the others. He was a [Bard]…but she was teaching him something. He kept thinking of it.

When you put it like that—an adventure. A quest, in Erin’s name. Perhaps there was some romance in it, despite the dire hour. Because of the need.

“To find the missing child and bring her home, across Izril we go. To the walls of the City of Waves or the High Passes, we fear no foe.”

He tried out a few words. Something in him wanted to have the same…basis as the kind of tales you read in story books. How did it go? Find a missing sword, slay the Dragon…finding a little Gnoll girl was close, wasn’t it?

“Goblins, Antinium, Humans? What a strange band to be seen in southern Izril. Unprecedented. We’ll probably shock the tails off everyone we meet.”

Salkis added happily, riding up to the other side. And we’ll have to fight our way through them, hopefully.

“A first for Izril.”

Bird tilted his head. Of course, only he’d heard that last bit. He glanced towards his belt where a little carrying bag hung next to his bag of holding. He nodded to himself.

“An adventure. I would like any magical bows we find. Mine keep breaking.”

Backs a bit straighter, the group journeyed on. Past the Bloodfields. Towards…well. Octavia sat back, pleased with herself as she reframed their journey for her own sake and theirs. After a moment, she decided to push her luck.

“All this to say, if we are going to be on the road for a while, and I bet we are, and if this is a grand story and whatnot…shouldn’t we have some music? Some songs to march with, at least! Or—you know, ambiance?

All she heard were the sounds of horses moving, the jingle of packs, and the sound of distant insects buzzing.

Apista would have been hurt as she buzzed along, but she couldn’t read minds.

Octavia frowned. Hardly the inspiring soundtrack like on that movie Mrsha had watched with her.

That was a good point. The group’s heads slowly turned. Some music would pass the time. They all looked side-long at Numbtongue. The [Bard] stared ahead, until he realized who Octavia meant.

He hesitated. His hand nearly went for his guitar. Then he scowled.

“No. This is serious.”

“Come on, Numbtongue. You always play the guitar!”

“No. Silence. Who sneaks up on enemies playing music?”

“…[Stealth Bards]?”

Sergeant Gna mused out loud, then turned red when everyone stared at her. A Cave Goblin started laughing. Numbtongue folded his arms. Garia called out.

“Come on, Numbtongue! Just one song? You don’t have to sing!”

“No.”

“You might level up! You’re a [Bard]! Play that one from the inn—”

“No.”

Salkis blinked. She pointed at Numbtongue, disbelieving as she turned to Garia.

“Wait. This Goblin’s a [Bard]? I thought he was a [Swordsman] or something.”

“Nope. [Bard]. Wait…how do you know Numbtongue? What’s your class?”

“Um…[Aristocrat]. With a bit of combat classes. [Warrior], you know.”

“I shall sing if Numbtongue is incapable of singing. I know over a hundred bird-songs, all of which I have written!”

Bird announced. He spread his arms wide and began to sing. Ulvama grunted and pointed. Bird kept singing, then stopped as he realized someone had just cast a silence spell on him. They proceeded on, spirits rising as they ate up ground.

Niers Astoragon didn’t have many landmarks, but he calculated they might have a shot at reaching Pallass without the magic door in eight days or nine at the most. Fifty miles with his Skill a day was possible even with civilians, and everyone here was moving far faster. He smiled.

Adventure. The [Alchemist] was speaking his language. Duty mattered, his home and company mattered. Yet this? This was what he’d come for.

 

—-

 

Speed. The fastest-moving piece of luggage in all of Izril realized that she was being carried at a speed even a Courier might be impressed by. Even so—Wanderer seemed to grow tired after the first day of flight from Liscor.

He put her down shortly after midday. Mrsha glanced up; she’d been carried under one arm, then held like little Gnolls in two arms. Then he’d made her piggyback…all of which she’d done without much objection.

She had been still, almost motionless, a good piece of luggage after Wanderer’s revelation about the nature of her fur. Yet it seemed like the white-furred Gnoll with the traveling staff and cloak had a problem. He put Mrsha down, stretched his arms, sighed, swore a few times, and then pointed at her.

“You’re going to have to run with me. You’re too heavy to carry. We’ll get a pony for you, but I can’t carry you another day.”

Mrsha looked up at Wanderer and folded her arms. Her blank-eyed look of sad guilt turned into an expression vaguely reminiscent of her mother’s look.

See here a minute! She wagged a finger at the Gnoll. You can’t just carry me off, tell me I’m Doom and then tell me I have to do all the running to wherever we’re going to! Am I a [Damsel] or not?

Wanderer looked blankly at the indignant little Gnoll’s face and her flashing paws.

“I can’t understand whatever you’re saying. Bite my fur…Coinpurse owes me a hundred drinks. Listen…Mrsha. We’re going to have to change your name too.”

He squatted down. The Gnoll fixed Mrsha with a serious look, his brown eyes intent on her. Mrsha slowed. She didn’t know his name, his class, or where they were going. She was going willingly—or not trying to bite him—but she was still closer to a hostage than companion.

Yet she had to know. If she had gotten Erin…Mrsha swallowed as Wanderer looked at her.

“I know you don’t trust us yet. So why don’t I tell you more, hm? I’m sorry; I’m trying to put as much distance between us and Liscor as possible. Plain’s Eye will try again, and we had better be out of their search radius. Give me…thirty minutes to stretch and we’ll see if you can keep up. If not, I’ll carry you. I’ve carried Gnolls before, day and night, but I’d rather not if I can help it. You’re a bit too heavy compared to a cub.”

Mrsha stared down at herself. Heavy? She was a little Gnoll! Well…she had grown a bit, but she wasn’t fat, no matter what Lyonette thought!

That was true; Mrsha was a healthy, growing Gnoll girl. So, a lot more than a Human girl her age. When she shot up to her full height, she might outweigh Lyonette by over a hundred pounds and be far taller; Krshia made even Ryoka seem fragile.

Wanderer sat cross-legged with a sigh. He unslung his ‘pack’, which was really his bag of holding. It was light as could be, Mrsha being the real weight. He fished around inside, and pulled out a cube of meat.

As in, a square of meat, perfectly geometrical. Mrsha eyed it as he stacked two—eyed her, and pulled out three. He offered her one and bit into the first.

“Here. Travel rations.”

Travel what? Who ate geometry? What is this? Mrsha went to slap the cube out of his paw. Patiently, Wanderer jerked it out of the way and offered it again.

“Eat. I’m sorry if you think it’s bad, but taste it first. It’s traditional travel rations. From Salazsar. Which is where we’re going. Drakes and their systems. They stack it up like this so it fits best in bags of holding. It’s meat and grain and…it keeps almost forever in bags of holding. Dry, though. Let me grab some tea.”

He fished in his bag of holding for a canteen, a bit annoyed. He was used to Gnolls fleeing imminent death, not picky little Gnolls who were used to pizza and decadence. Mrsha though, had gone still.

Salazsar? What’s this now? Wanderer shrugged as he met her startled gaze.

“I told you I’d explain. I was in a hurry yesterday and I don’t talk when I’m moving at that speed. Ever swallowed a bug while going that fast? It’s…no. Salazsar’s our destination. In case I forget—if we get separated, go there. Ask for…hm. Ask for Shadepaw at a bar and you’ll meet with Shadows. That’s one of her aliases. Go on, eat. Do you not eat scurry food? Please, tell me you do.”

Mrsha sat and poked at the cube. She broke off a piece and found it was dense, and not actually bad when she nibbled at it. Not great; it could use some seasoning. Some kind of base food. Slap it on a pizza, actually, add some cheese—maybe a bun and lettuce and other plants for the taste? Actually, just give her a hamburger.

Since there was no burger, she ate. She was a Plains Gnoll! True, she had come to the inn, but Mrsha was still a rugged traveller of the Stone Spears tribe, who had lived in the wilds. She hesitated, then fished for her writing equipment. Wanderer stared at the little note.

“…No, I don’t have a plate.”

Lyonette had rubbed off on Mrsha more than the Gnoll knew. Mrsha ate huffily, and Wanderer scarfed the first cube down, and poured some dark liquid into two wooden cups. He handed Mrsha one. It was old tea, long-steeped in tea-leaves, but still not too bitter. Refreshing, really.

“It’s got natural stamina effects. Eat up. Want another cube?”

Mrsha shook her head. Wanderer sighed. He sat cross-legged, massaging his aching shoulders. He felt at his side, winced.

“That damn [Witch] got me with needles. I haven’t been in a fight that bad since…hm. Two other times, really. Hey, do you see a needle in me?”

He pointed. Mrsha stared obediently. Then she frowned. She poked—Wanderer swore.

“One second.”

He slowly felt around, and grasped multiple times with his paws before his claws pulled out a tiny, wooden…Mrsha winced and looked away. Wanderer tossed it on the ground.

“That. Hurt.”

Mrsha was reminded that this Gnoll had bled for her, nearly died to protect her. He was due some consideration for that, so she listened as he went back to eating, no longer plagued by that stinging in his side.

“Alright. I’m Wanderer. You’re Mrsha. I suppose now’s the time to start from the beginning. We’re both white Gnolls.”

He gestured to his fur as he rummaged in his bag of holding. Mrsha nodded.

Good observation, genius.”

Wanderer frowned at her note card.

“You’re not what I expected. When we heard of you—our group, that is, all Gnolls with white fur—we thought you’d be wanting to go with us. That inn…seemed nicer than I could have believed, especially in a city with Gnolls.”

Mrsha nodded. Wanderer sighed as she held up a card indicating how mean he was. With a little frowny-face for emphasis. She’d learned that from Erin.

“We were still right. Plain’s Eye was on you and believe me—they’d have launched a sneak-attack if they hadn’t been caught up in that [Witch]’s attack. The first thing they do is…just walk into a room and stab you. Into your shop, into a bar and you’re dead. If that fails? They’d wait until you took a walk, until you had lowered your guard. A thousand paces out, a Gnoll with a bow looses one arrow. That’s how it happens.”

Mrsha felt a chill. It was too much like how Erin had died to be flippant about. Wanderer grimaced, seeing her sober face.

“Argh. I’m not good with children. I’m sorry. I’m just rescue. Coinpurse is going to have my hide.”

He kept using those names. Coinpurse, Shadows, and Spellcaster. Wanderer explained.

“We’re leadership of the Gnolls in Salazsar. They’re aliases. Do you know what that word means…? Okay, stop writing, I can see you do. That’s how you’ll know us. We have names of course, but they’re not our real ones. You can scry real names. For instance, mine? Wer.”

Wer, or Wanderer, indicated his chest.

“It’s the name I use and I’ve gone by for nearly seven years now. You can call me that.” Mrsha stared at the Gnoll. Wanderer was better. He shrugged.

“Fine then. Just remember. There are four of us. Well…four of what you’d call ‘leaders’. There are nearly three dozen of us in total.”

Mrsha began choking on her bite of cube. Three dozen? White Gnolls? She stared at Wanderer. He grinned.

“The biggest gathering of white Gnolls in all of Izril. Perhaps all of us aside from a few who go their own way. What, did you think you were unique? I’m afraid we’re a bit more common than you know. But we die if Plains or even City Gnolls find us, usually. Some of us are survivors; a few were in groups. Last Gnolls of a dead tribe. A few are children who were born by the survivors—they count even though their fur isn’t white.”

Mrsha listened, taking it in. Salazsar. She had wondered where they were going, and worried because she had to tell Lyonette she was alright. She needed to know whatever Wanderer knew about her powers, but…Salazsar made things more interesting.

She knew a certain Drake, a Wall Lord in that city. He might be…helpful.

Wanderer didn’t notice how acquiescent Mrsha had suddenly become. He went on, rubbing at his head.

“Some of the Gnolls are low-leveled. Almost all are [Survivors], like you, but we four are the best. We all have a different role.”

He gestured at his chest.

“They call me Wanderer because I travelled across the world before I found more of my kind. Shadows fell into the underworld of gangs—she still is. There’s also Coinpurse, who began it all by organizing us; he funds our rescues and makes sure we all have enough money. Hrr. You might go with him; you need someone to watch after you. Or Spellcaster. He’s not good with children either, but he knows magic. Real magic, not [Shaman] spells.”

So they knew that Gnolls could be [Mages]? Mrsha wrote furiously and Wanderer nodded. He looked a bit disappointed.

“So you figured that out too? It’s just one of the things Plains Gnolls refuse to understand. Like us. They call us Doombringers, but that’s not all of our power. Take it, use it—that’s the power our tribes left us. Fate, that’s how Spellcaster talks about it. We’re fated.”

Mrsha looked down at herself. Fate? It made sense; she thought of the Raskghar, the monster attacks, all the things, important, good and bad that had happened around her. But that meant…she wrote with a trembling paw.

But do I hurt other people by being? How does it work?

“I’ll show you. Later. For now—it’s been thirty minutes. We have to keep moving.”

Wer got to his feet. He gestured, and Mrsha stood up reluctantly. They tossed the cups back into the bag of holding and left almost no trace they had been there.

The two stood on a craggy hill, which Wanderer had been climbing most of the day. The ‘rolling greens’ that Mrsha envisioned of the Great Plains and the rest of Izril from her tribe’s stories bore little truth here. Wanderer was hurrying along the foothills of the High Passes; rough terrain.

He could still move, though, with astonishing speed, yet it seemed Mrsha was slowing him down. The Gnoll pursed his lips and looked at her.

“I have movement Skills, but they’d work on both of us as well as one. If you could run on your own paws, that would help me and let you move about rather than be carried.”

Mrsha nodded dubiously. She had been feeling a bit too much like a sack. She began to pad forwards on all fours. Wanderer stopped her.

“Not like that. We’ll never get anywhere if you just scamper about. Not through your shifting years, eh? Well, either way, you’ll need to move faster than that.”

That was it. Mrsha’s eyes narrowed. She’d had it up to chin-height with this mean Gnoll, who didn’t give her plates and utensils, stole her from her inn, and now disparaged her weight and speed! Without a word she leapt forwards and began racing down the hill.

She expected Wanderer to chase her or call after, but the Gnoll made no sound. Mrsha ran down the hill as fast as she could, stumbling a bit, slowing and dodging the huge rocks that jutted out from the loam. She wondered if this was some kind of geographical feature; stone stuck in hills. Maybe, as a [Druid], she could use her powers better here—

Mrsha passed by Wanderer as he leaned against a boulder and nearly face-planted as the ground leveled out. She turned to stare at him. He wasn’t breathing hard, nor had she seen him pass her!

“No, keep going. Show me how fast you are.”

The Gnoll looked amused. He gestured up the hill. Mrsha hesitated. Even Numbtongue wasn’t able to catch her at full run!

She began running up the hill, glancing back at Wanderer. He stayed there, watching her. It was slower-going uphill, slower by far. Mrsha labored, and as she was racing to the top of the hill, panting, she saw Wanderer move.

He took three steps and jumped. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. She saw him bound up the slope, jumping from rock to rock and land in front of her. It had taken him…six seconds. Mrsha nearly a minute and a half. Panting, she gazed up at him.

He winked.

“Would you like to learn how to run properly?”

 

—-

 

A few minutes later, Wanderer stood on a bare patch of grass and gave Mrsha her first lesson. She was still breathing hard, but he was going to show her…something.

“We all have something to teach you. I? I am the [Farthest Traveller]. And…a [Guardian]. There are things I can teach you. This is the key to travelling fast—well, one key.”

So saying, the Gnoll walked forwards. He did a little pose, like he was beginning to squat. It looked stupid, as he swung his arms back and forth, looking at Mrsha.

“Stand. Like this—and then just hop and curl up. You swing your arms like this. Hm. The rest is knowing not to be scared or if something is off. Try it.”

She gave him a look of moribund enthusiasm; this was not the mood for learning…what? A day, or even two, was not enough to wash away the gloom of Belavierr and leaving her home! Didn’t he know that? What was this, anyways?

“I am going to share a Skill with you, but it doesn’t work unless you know how to use it. You might even pick it up yourself if you work hard. Listen—copy me. You can do it on all fours, but it’s easier standing up.”

Reluctantly, Mrsha stood on her two legs and made the ‘potty pose’ as she instantly labeled it. She swung her arms, feeling the unsteady momentum carrying her forwards.

And what am I supposed to do now, go splat on my face? She glowered at Wanderer. He nodded approvingly.

“Good. Then the next part is pushing off. Then—you do this.”

He did a little hop, and his body rotated in the air. Mrsha’s jaw dropped.

Wanderer did a flip, and landed on his feet. It was so casual, so elegant that Mrsha was dumbstruck! She’d only seen one person ever do a flip like that—Ryoka. And she had done her tricking and big stunts.

This? This was a casual flip, as if there was nothing to spinning your entire body around. Wanderer gestured.

“You try it.”

Me? What, just like that? Wanderer smiled at Mrsha’s expression as she backed up a step.

“It’s simple. You’re young; don’t think about it, just do it. I’ve tried to teach adults and they can’t imagine it. You can flip as easily as hopping. See?”

To prove it, he walked a dozen paces and did six hops, each one a front flip without breaking stride, stopped, and did a tremendous back flip towards Mrsha. She backed up.

No way! I can’t do that! I’ll land on my head!”

“I will catch you. This is the trick. Go on.”

Encouraged despite the odd lesson, Mrsha stood on her two feet. She wasn’t a perfect walker or runner, but this? She frowned, tried to copy Wanderer’s instructions, and did a mighty hop!

Wanderer stared as Mrsha landed on all fours on the grass. The Gnoll girl gave him an abashed look. She’d forgotten the flip part.

“Try again.”

Mrsha stood up. She hesitated, swung her arms, hopped—and felt someone push her head slightly and legs at the same time in opposite directions. Mrsha spun, screamed silently as she felt herself go spl—

“Nearly.”

Wanderer caught her. Mrsha stared at the ground, up at him, and then tried to bite his arm. He put her down.

“Try again. Now you know how it feels.”

Mrsha glowered, but she had felt it. You tucked your head down and just— Mrsha did a hop, and then flipped. The world spun around her in a terrifying, amazing second, and then she felt an impact.

She landed on her butt and stared. Then laughed in silent delight! Look at that! Ryoka had never taught her…

She looked up as Wanderer loomed over her. He smiled, once.

“Now land on your feet. And spin a bit more. You need to practice so you know exactly when to stop and how far to go.”

 

—-

 

Ten minutes later, Mrsha could flip whenever she chose. It was actually not that hard once you got into it, and the fear of smacking the ground was the biggest impediment.

She’d done just that eight times, and Wanderer had lied when he’d said he’d catch her! Well, he had protected her head twice, but the little bumps weren’t fun!

Nevertheless, he was a somewhat good teacher—although Mrsha found his new instructions to be odd.

“No. You are jumping too high. Lower. I will catch you if you fall…this time. As low as you can.”

He didn’t just want her to learn how to do a flip, he wanted her to learn how to do a tight front-flip, barely an inch off the ground.

She resented his instruction, but the girl had to admit—this was something Lyonette would never have countenanced, and more physically amazing than anyone but Ryoka had ever shown her.

Mrsha found the challenge exhilarating; she could feel her fur touching the ground if she did it right. She did three super-compact flips in a row, and then Wanderer nodded.

“Good enough. You won’t hurt yourself if I don’t catch you. Now, it will take some getting used to, but if you get used to it, we’ll be moving even faster within the hour.”

Used to what?

Mrsha frowned, a bit dizzy. She didn’t see how this translated to his jumping ability.

For answer, Wanderer placed a paw on her shoulder. He looked at Mrsha as he hefted his walking staff.

“There are more classes in this world than we can dream of, Mrsha. All with little secrets and Skills. Mine? Mine is [Traveller]. A generalist class. Some call it useless. Yet there is a trick in my class. Do you know what it is?”

Mrsha raised one eyebrow. You’re going to tell me anyways.

Wer grinned with all his teeth.

“The trick is—I have the potential to learn almost any Skill that I encounter. From any class. So—here’s something I learned on my long journey. [World Traveller: Grasshopper’s Run].”

He touched Mrsha’s fur and she felt her hair lift as a sensation ran through her. She felt… Light.

Mrsha stared up at Wer. What had he said just now? The Gnoll saw her look and knew what she was curious about.

“It’s my school of Skills. World Traveller. It encompasses…special Skills.” He hefted the enchanted staff he carried, which appeared to be plain wood, but had been tough enough to survive Belavierr’s battle.

“Staff art. Running technique used by [Rangers] and the like. Stealth Skills I learned from my travels. Enough of that. Follow me. And remember—flip.

Without a word, he jumped. Mrsha saw him bound down the hill, racing down the grass and rocks without slowing. She hesitated—and then followed a second later.

They bounded down the hill, and this time Mrsha felt gravity loosen its hold on her. She raced, on all fours, and realized what his Skill did.

When you ran up a hill, and even down it, you were careful. Even the fastest runner downhill watched for cliffs, gaps, slowed to avoid the uneven terrain.

Wanderer raced down the hill in nearly a straight line, avoiding only the biggest obstacles. It was more like he was…falling, and pushing himself even faster and faster down the slope!

Mrsha copied him. She was fearless suddenly, and part of it was surely the Skill helping her. She leapt, her paws barely touching the ground. Fast! Faster!

Run as if you were falling, pushing off the ground in bigger leaps and bounds as you leapt.

The two flashed past an antelope bounding down the slope, away from the potential predators. The silly creature actually stopped and stared at them flying past. Mrsha could almost hear its thoughts.

I thought I was fast!

Then it happened. As Mrsha was running, she saw a rock straight in front of her. She swerved to avoid and her paws slipped on a patch of stones. She hurtled towards the rock and then pushed—

Mrsha flipped over the top of the boulder. She landed, turned her head, wide-eyed, looking back at the amazing stunt she’d pulled, and nearly fell into a crevasse. Wanderer laughed as he caught her.

“You’re a natural after all! Now—watch. This is how you complete [Grasshopper’s Run].”

So saying, he transferred Mrsha to one arm. Then Wanderer planted the stave he was running with on the ground. He pushed hard and vaulted over the small crevasse with Mrsha under one arm.

For a moment—they flew. Then, Wanderer put Mrsha down and they ran on. She bounded up slopes, jumped, and flipped, twisting through the air. Laughing—for a second just enjoying herself. Until she saw Wanderer grinning and realized it should have been Ryoka. Mrsha turned to look back, but she didn’t know where Liscor lay.

And…she had to know. Mrsha followed Wanderer. To learn the truth of her fur. Her power.

She realized what it meant soon enough. For…

They were being hunted.

 

—-

 

Inkar was used to Gnolls by and large after having been adopted by her tribe.

She was not used to Ekhtouch, but circumstances had contrived to put her in close proximity with one of the more unique tribes of Gnolls in the world.

“I do not know if there is any circumstance in which they would welcome us into their camps in this way. Even if we were ‘allies’ in another Meeting of Tribes, it would be political, not like this.”

[Shaman] Cetrule whispered as Satar, Cers, Inkar, Tkrn, Krshia, and a group of other Silverfangs came to visit the Ekhtouch Tribe. Akrisa was still talking with Chieftain Firrelle and the others, who were considering the angle of Earth in a new light.

The cat was out of the bag, to use Rose’s expression, a phrase that invited a lot of questions when she’d used it and everyone else scrutinized her hobbies. It was not what Krshia wanted, having planned to reveal the secret of Earth—but now that Steelfur knew, things were moving fast.

Politics in large made Inkar nervous, but the concrete benefit in the small way—or not so small as she turned out to be was the giant, Gire.

A fifteen year-old Gnoll who was second-tallest of any Gnoll here. Smart, quick—she’d snuck up behind Tkrn and Inkar to stare at the phone. Sweet too; she had apologized so much for overreacting. It was thanks to her, and her alone that Ekhtouch had decided to put their weight behind the other tribes.

It was not just Firrelle, either. Why else were so many Gnolls staring—albeit from behind the hide ‘walls’ each tribe used for privacy’s sake at this odd turn of events? Ekhtouch was busy setting up their camp.

Next to Silverfang. It was a bit of an uproar in the Meeting of Tribes. They had abandoned their spot in the center of the gathering, uprooted their tents overnight, and were settling in over here. Countless Gnolls were wondering what had happened. Why had Ekhtouch decided to move here and state their affiliation so openly?

Gire. When she had convinced her Chieftain to support Akrisa, Inkar had known she had influence, but she was still a child.

It turned out Ekhtouch saw things differently. When Gireulashia spoke, they listened. Not only that—the Gnolls of all three tribes were told they had free access to the Ekhtouch camp, with the obvious proviso that Gire and the others could mingle with them.

“They have never granted such rights before! Not even to the other great tribes! It must be Honored Gireulashia. Please, Honored Inkarr—take care not to offend her.”

“I will.”

Inkar assured Cetrule, who was admonishing Satar and Cers the same way. The younger [Shaman] gazed at the Ekhtouch Gnolls, half-nodding to Cetrule as Cers listened to his father, peeking at them.

They knew it was important, but…even Krshia was distracted. Because Ekhtouch was so interesting.

The young of Ekhtouch were almost never seen outside of their tribe. Perhaps because Ekhtouch had a reputation to maintain; any flaws in their ‘perfect’ people might reflect on their product…which was them.

There were many things to be made uncomfortable by, since they were a species that did what Terandrian nobility did; breed for perfection. That you could do it in this world…well, Inkar was no fool, but she understood Ekhtouch’s arranged matches had produced many ties in the Meeting of Tribes and as they met other tribes.

Satar herself was a product of that relationship, and so some of the Gnolls regarded her like a…half-cousin. Marred by imperfection, yet one of them, family forever because she was a descendant of the same ties that kept their tribe alive.

It made Satar patently uncomfortable. Inkar, though, was drawn to the children.

Like Gire, they were all larger or quicker than other children their age. They had smooth fur of all colors, and they were nimble and quick. They learned and grew fast, such that she was astonished to see a walking Gnoll cub who was only a year old! Even Cers couldn’t walk on two legs unless someone made him.

“Can I play with them?”

Cers whined. Cetrule hushed him, but one of the children had spotted Cers. Ekhtouch and Silverfang watched as a girl raced over on all fours.

“We are allowed to speak with you. You are Silverfang. Do you want to play tag?”

She spoke, a bit too eloquently, and Cers blinked. But in a second he was grinning and showing her a ball Aunt Krshia had given him—he tossed it and they were racing off like a shot. Cers wasn’t too slow to play tag—until Inkar realized he was playing with children several years younger than he was and they were just as fast or faster.

The interesting thing was their games. Tag, fetch the ball, those were normal. But as the Silverfangs walked the camp, looking for Gire and trying not to openly spy, they heard two teenage Gnolls talking as they fletched arrows. One spoke.

“Weasel.”

The other returned, unperturbed.

“Lech.”

“Harlot.”

“Tease.”

“Embarrassment.”

“Temptress.”

At that, the other Gnoll glanced up. He sniffed at his companion, looking victorious.

“I am male. It does not follow.”

“Temptress can be male or female, I opine. You just ran out of insults that begin with ‘s’.”

She snapped back. Inkar looked from one to the other and realized—they weren’t insulting each other, they were playing a word-game.

“Sycophant.”

He retorted instantly, and she wavered just a hair too long, lost, and threw down her arrow in disgust before they began again.

“Animals, next. Taurus.”

“Snake…”

Meanwhile, the children Cers’ age were eager to show this strange Gnoll boy some more games. One paused, ball in hand.

“Let’s show him the game of Triumphs! Me first, me first! I’ll do…words and ball and tumbling!”

“Only three?”

The others mocked her. The Gnoll girl glared around.

“Just to show. Four, then. How about…maths?”

“I’ll do it! Cers, you can play too.”

“What’s Triumphs?”

Cers halted on his bum, looking interested as the Gnoll hefted the ball a few times, gauging the leather orb’s weight and the Gnoll who’d volunteered to help with ‘maths’ stared at the sky, thinking. The other Gnoll boy explained.

“You prove you can do all four! Watch! She’s going to do four—it’ll be easy. Ready?”

“Ready!”

The girl had dusky-grey fur with a striped orange pattern, like a tiger in a way. Inkar slowed as the others counted down.

“Three, two, one…go!”

The Gnoll girl bounded into action. First, she tossed the leather ball up. Not straight up, and not too high! It flew in a lazy arc in the air, with plenty of air time. Then—she began to speak as she burst into, of all things, a cartwheel.

“My fur is silky butter and I have no graying hairs or wen, They envy me from the Walled Cities, Baleros, and Terandria, I race against all Centaurs and I wrestle only Minotaurs…”

She cartwheeled across the ground, singing, towards the falling ball. Cers’ jaw dropped, but it wasn’t over yet. One of the children shouted.

“Eighteen six times!”

The Gnoll girl heard, but didn’t slow. She came up, out of the cartwheel, still singing without missing a word.

“I know of ancient chieftains and shaman tales historical…”

The ball landed in her paws. She smirked around, but uttered a triumphant finisher to the display of Triumphs.

“96!”

The Gnoll children, who had been watching with appreciation stopped. Then a chorus of jeers rang out.

Wrong! You failed!

The Gnoll girl froze, and was then pelted with clods of earth and bits of grass. Cers looked confused.

“But she sang and caught the ball and…”

“Eighteen six times is a hundred and eight! Not ninety six, stupid!

The other Ekhtouch children shouted at the Gnoll girl, who hung her head all of six seconds before raising it.

“Fine, someone else do four! I wasn’t prepared because I was just showing three!”

“I’ll do five! Um…I’ll do math, juggling, um…”

Another Gnoll boy volunteered. The others began to throw in ideas.

“Eyes closed!”

“No, that should be worth two. Do another song! Sing ‘Oh, Jolly Drakes’.”

“Too long!”

Triumphs was a game only Ekhtouch could have invented, where you demonstrated your ability to perform multiple tasks. Cers looked nervous when they wanted him to do it; math would be his downfall even if he was allowed to do just that.

“Astonishing. That’s what their children do?”

Krshia muttered to herself, eyeing the children’s game, which they seemed to be enjoying, even competitive at. She doubted this was a show; no other tribes mentioned these odd games. This was what Ekhtouch did for fun?

It might explain why the giant child herself, albeit taller than the adults, hurried towards them with such interest in her eyes.

“Inkarr! Tkrn! Honored Krshia, Shaman Cetrule, and Shaman Satar, I welcome you to the Ekhtouch camp. Please, accept the hospitality of the Ekhtouch; need you any refreshments?”

She greeted the two excitedly, her tail wagging, then remembered the others. Her bow was graceful, her tone measured. But when Krshia and Cetrule shook their heads, she was all too eager to bend down.

“May I see it again, Inkar?”

“Of course, Gire.”

Inkar carefully offered the iPhone up to the excited Gnoll [Paragon]. Gire beamed—for all of two seconds before one of the Ekhtouch called out to her.

“Honored Gireulashia, they are playing a game of ‘football’ with the equipment from Liscor. Chieftain Firrelle wants you to participate.”

“I am…entertaining our guests!”

Gire called over her shoulder, peevishly. The Ekhtouch Gnoll was made of sterner stuff than most; maybe it was the silver in her mane that Krshia suspected indicated she had helped raise Gire.

“She knows. One ‘point’, Gire.”

“Very well. Inkarr, I must go play this game. May I see it after I come back?”

Gire handed the iPhone back. Bemused, Inkar nodded.

“Of course. If you want to play…”

To her surprise, Gire scowled, not at all enamored by the game which a lot of Gnolls found so enjoyable.

“No. It will be quick.”

 

—-

 

The game of soccer or football depending on where you were from was popular among Izril’s people. Baseball had its charms, but kicking a ball around was something anyone could do. All you needed was the ball, after all, and Joseph was a celebrity.

So small wonder countless Gnolls wanted to play with the balls that Rose had brought with her from Liscor. The autographed ones courtesy of Joseph were being carefully gifted by Akrisa.

Then again, this game was all about showing off, and there were Gnolls from numerous tribes trying to prove that Pallass’ team would be nothing in the Meeting of Tribes.

They certainly had lots of Skills. One Gnoll kicked the ball so high that Inkar swore it was nearly a minute in coming down—he was told not to do that again. Another Steelfur Gnoll playing goalkeeper blocked a shot at five feet away—with his face. She just blinked and laughed as the ball bounced off her fur.

Gire stomped into the field, not looking as excited as the others. She had been ordered to score a goal, to prove Ekhtouch could do anything. The other Gnolls, [Warriors] and [Rangers], even a [Chieftain], looked like they were still having fun.

Ekhtouch is playing? That’s Honored Gireulashia! Let’s see how she does! A Gnoll from Emaspath’s tribe has the ball and she looks quick!

A Gnoll was taking Drassi’s job of announcer. Sure enough, a Gnoll was leaving a blurred path across the field as some Skill took her forwards.

Gire stood a dozen paces in front of the goal on her side and scratched at her arm, looking unhappy. Already, the soccer pitch had been doubled in size and it might need to be tripled, depending on the Skills at play.

Inkar was curious, so she watched only Gire as she stared at the game. Gire was at once shy and imposing, intelligent and childish. She seemed happy enough to race about; was it just the iPhone that made her so unhappy?

The Emaspath’s Gnoll saw Gire standing in front of the goal, and wavered. Another Gnoll raced forwards, waving a paw.

“Here!”

They came towards the Steelfur Gnoll again, watching out for Gire as more Gnolls ran after them—or slowed to see how Gire would do. The [Paragon] stood still, staring around, scratching her arm…waiting.

Both Gnolls slowed, but then the Emaspath’s [Scout] shot towards the goal. At the last moment, she kicked the ball towards the other Gnoll. He responded with a shout.

[Dust Kick]!

He actually had a kicking Skill! The [Fighter] didn’t kick the ball, but rather, dug his foot into the ground and then kicked up a wall of dust over Gire.

And the spectators. They cursed and coughed as the [Grasslands Fighter] passed the ball back to the [Scout]. Another move that was going to end up with the player disqualified…but the [Scout] launched the ball back at the goalkeeper, who was still facing the [Fighter], drawn in by the feint and Skill, shielding her face.

Gire had also closed her eyes when the dust storm rose. She stood as the [Scout] kicked the ball—and then whirled. She pivoted on the ball of one foot as the [Scout] kicked the ball straight towards the goal.

Inkar hadn’t been in the way of the dust. She saw it all.

Like a piece of puzzle coming together, Gire stepped in one motion over to a point only she could see and pivoted on one foot. Her other leg flashed up, coming around in an arc to meet the ball flying towards her. The [Scout] gaped as it seemed to the audience as if she’d kicked it straight into Gire’s path.

She had not, but the result was the same. Gire kicked the ball into the air, the rebound so powerful that Inkar lost track of it for a second. Gire stood, stared past the players who were turning, coughed in the dust, and then walked off the pitch.

The soccer ball flew through the air in a powerful arc, curving, losing momentum, but zooming across the pitch. Every player’s head rose and the goalkeeper on the other end stopped flirting with the opposing player. He swore, looked up and jumped—too late.

The ball hit the top right corner of the goal and went in. The audience didn’t cheer; they didn’t’ realize what had happened, many of them, until the dust cleared. When they did shout, Gire was already hurrying towards Inkar.

“There. I scored! Let me see the iPhone!”

She hurried Inkar off. The young woman looked at Gire.

Oh. So that was why. It just…wasn’t fun.

“Have you played soccer before?”

Tkrn gaped at Gire as she ushered them back to the Ekhtouch camp where she could stare at the device. Gire gave the [Guardsman] a frown.

“No.”

“You scored, though!”

“Yes. It’s just kicking a ball into a space. It’s eas—I mean, I’m not interested. And I’m too big to play other games. Tag or hide-and-seek…”

She looked wistful and sad.

“Well, I’ve had more fun at the Meeting of Tribes.”

“Ah. Ah.”

Inkar saw Tkrn flicking his eyes back to the pitch where Gnolls still stared after her as another Ekhtouch Gnoll took Gire’s place. He looked at Gire.

“I guess hide and seek is hard for other reasons, but I can see why tag and soccer are no fun.”

“Mhm. They never find me if I hide.”

Tkrn’s mouth worked. He looked up at Gire and at Inkar. The young woman was interested.

“Are there any games you do like, Gire?”

The Gnoll girl thought about it and brightened up.

“I like dances. Learning dances and dancing is fun by itself. And…I appreciate all the activities the [Shamans] and tribes perform, although I’ve been busy meeting with so many Gnolls. I’ve also been playing games of chess with Strategist Venaz. He can beat me.”

She smiled.

“It’s a challenge. Now I want to play the game with the birds!”

 

—-

 

Chief Warrior Merish was not in the mood to play or watch games of football that day. The power of Chieftain Xherw’s touch had left him. He woke feeling a pall over his entire being.

However, the touch had reminded him of what should be. Like someone who had seen light through the clouds after a year of rain—Merish fought to return.

So he visited their [Shamans]. Plain’s Eye might not be a city, but they did understand something about loss. They had healers of their own kind. Rituals for warriors who had lost too much.

The first of such took place before dawn, and Merish had woken up even earlier to ready himself for it. He had not eaten, and when he joined the [Shamans] with a handful of other Gnoll warriors, he was all but naked; he had only underwear on his body.

He recognized some from Rhir. Others were of his tribe, but had seen something terrible in their battles to keep the tribe safe. War or monsters. He saw one Gnoll checking her fur, manically running pawpads through her hair as if…searching for something.

Crelers, he guessed.

The ceremony was simple and designed not to have many visitors, if at all. No fanfare, no grand speeches. It was for them.

There were six [Shamans], two with special classes and markings that indicated they had a specific duty in the Plain’s Eye tribe. They were [Keepers of the Past]—or one might be an apprentice to look at him.

They remembered. The female Gnoll who was old, shrunken by age, gestured. Her eyes were deep, as if you could see past lives and names floating within. Like one of Rhir’s libraries, Merish thought. Deep, holding secrets.

He shivered, but then she spoke.

“Brave warriors. Come forwards one at a time. You have suffered. You have lost. Plain’s Eye Gnolls have died, other Gnolls have fallen and you lived through terrible sights that no one should see. Disaster. Crelers. War.”

Her eyes lingered on individual Gnolls and they shuddered as memories returned at a single word. Yet here—in this place, Merish embraced the pain. He had to. For the [Keeper of the Past] was speaking.

“Do not shy away from it. Later, you will be given draughts to forget and ease your mind. Later, rest. Here, in this place, speak to me, speak to us. Tell me their names. Do so, and I swear to you all—so long as Plain’s Eye endures, they will not be forgotten.

The Gnolls looked up. In the [Shaman]’s eyes lay a promise. Something greater than their individual lives. Something…eternal.

They will not be forgotten. Leave their names with me and rest.

So, they did. One by one, the warriors approached. They stood in front of the [Shaman] and whispered or shouted. Names, events. Some ranted and raved; others broke down.

Merish did not hear. He was recalling them. Perhaps the Gnolls in front of him spoke the same names—they too were from Rhir. It did not matter. He would speak the names that he knew. Let her remember them twice.

“Warrior Merish.”

The [Keeper of the Pasts] bade him approach. The [Shamans] were swaying, a hum rising from their throats. Merish saw some of them had their eyes closed. Their fur’s markings were glowing. He realized magic was at play here.

The keeper’s eyes were growing deeper. More than mere memory was committing these deeds to the past. He was glad of that.

“Name what you will. Our enemies. What passed. Who you have lost. Speak their names, great warrior, and let them be remembered so long as tribe and time endure.”

She told him, not unkindly. Merish nodded. His head rose. Then he hesitated.

Can I let you go? It felt almost as if he were giving over his burden.

No, he decided. No, it was not. It was honoring them. He could not forget. Perhaps, though—he would not feel as guilty after this. So he nodded, and began to recite the list that had played in his head every night. Faces. The way they spoke and laughed and died.

“Commander Cirille of Manus. Commander Uxel of the Stone Gaze Company. Delezza, Demon Hunter of Noelictus. Ser Vorn of Ailendamus. Lacten of Pomle…”

The [Shamans] began to stir as the first of their names registered. The humming faltered. One of them, the apprentice, broke in, unexpectedly. He growled.

“These are not Gnoll names, Chief Warrior Merish.”

Merish faltered. The [Keeper of the Pasts] looked at her junior with undisguised anger. Yet she waited for Merish.

“I have many names, our warriors and other tribe’s that were sent to Rhir, [Shaman]. These are among the many names I choose to remember, Gnolls and non-Gnolls alike. Is that not permissible?”

The apprentice hesitated, and then met the [Keeper of the Past]’s gaze. He lowered his head instantly.

“…Of course.”

He was young. The [Keeper of the Past] had issued no complaint, nor had her gaze wavered. Merish recited names until his voice was hoarse, and after another promise that it was done and remembered, the gathering broke up.

That was not important. Merish did not know if he felt lighter, but there was some reassurance in the act. What was…interesting…was that the [Keeper of the Past] sought him out afterwards.

“My apprentice, he interrupted your moment, Chief Warrior. For that you have my greatest apologies.”

“Perhaps I erred, [Keeper]. So many non-Gnoll names…”

He ducked his head. The old Gnoll fixed him with a steely gaze.

“Are they less worthy than the Gnolls who died, Chief Warrior? No, do not answer. You and I know the answer, both. My apprentice is simply…new. He would remember only Gnoll names. It is a recent point of view in the tribe, among some clans. If we remember only Gnoll names—history becomes strange indeed.”

She snorted and Merish almost smiled. He hesitated, though.

“New, [Keeper]? I do not recall any whispers of a change in how we performed this ceremony before.”

Not that he had attended one before. The [Keeper of the Pasts] visibly hesitated then, and the eldest of Gnolls in the Plain’s Eye Tribe looked at Merish and her face grew sad.

“…I misspeak, Chief Warrior. Recent, new—they are terms that change as I grow. I simply mean past my generation. It has been this way for a while. Never mind. The past lies with me and the tribe. It will never be undone. They will be remembered. I promise you.”

He nodded. The [Keeper of the Pasts] let him nod. He looked after her. Then wondered.

 

—-

 

“How old is the [Keeper of the Pasts]? You mean Honored Celinthe? Why? Did she get hurt or stumble?”

Khaze was worried over breakfast, later. Merish shook his head.

“No. I am simply curious.”

“I don’t…know.”

If it was odd Khaze did not, well, counting ages didn’t matter as much after you’d reached your majority in the tribes. Merish nodded and gulped down a hot bowl of Herthee mixed with meats—someone had decided it was good, much to his displeasure.

“Merish, they’re going to play a huge football game! I’m watching with the kids, you want to come?”

“I will pass, Viri.”

Merish was better, not up for that. Viri was understanding—part of Merish wished he had been allowed at the gathering, but the games and distractions were another kind of balm for the Lizardman. He had told Merish he didn’t want to go home to Baleros. That would remind him of his missing comrades.

So, after breakfast, Merish went to find Yelroan. The [Mathematician] was in his tent as usual, and Merish poked his head in, took one look at the yawning Gnoll, and came back with some tea and meat biscuits from a nearby campfire.

“Merish! My great friend! Food? Will you be my partner? I need someone like you.”

Merish swatted at Yelroan as the Gnoll sought to embrace him. The slighter Gnoll scarfed down the food; he was working hard on a ledger.

“Thank you, Merish. How can I help you?”

He grinned as he kept working. Merish hesitated.

“I don’t want to disturb you. I was just checking in…”

“You have something you want. Don’t be shy—everyone who comes here does. I like that. They do come to me!”

Yelroan chuckled as his fingers waggled, then he frowned.

“[Check Sum]. Aha! So that’s—stupid. Why do numbers have to look alike?”

He found the issue that had apparently been fouling up a ledger of incomes and grumpily corrected it. Which of course meant every number after that was off…which he’d already deduced. Yelroan blew on the paper, folded the ledger, and rang a little bell.

“Scribe Yelroan?”

A Gnoll girl raced into the tent, stopping when she saw Merish. Yelroan chucked the book at her, unperturbed by the visitor he had.

“Run this down to Crab clan.”

He meant Nebrecrab’s clan, one of the coastal parts of the Meeting of Tribes. Yelroan pointed at it.

That’s where the missing gold is. All one thousand and eight pieces.”

The Gnoll girl tucked it under her arm respectfully.

“The [Chieftain] asked me about that. But where’s the gold, Yelroan?”

“In the ledger. You mean, physically? In someone’s pockets! But there’s the gold and it’s not my problem. Shoo!”

She went. Yelroan sat back, folding his paws behind his head. Then he looked at Merish.

“So, what’s the task, friend Merish?”

“I could be just here to pay you another social call as a friend.”

Merish tried to defend himself, a bit guiltily. He looked around, coughed, embarrassed, and did his best.

“So…is the money good with the Plain’s Eye Tribe?”

Yelroan stared at him, snorted, and then rolled his eyes.

“Yes, the money is ‘good’. Would you like to compare our wild Sage’s Grass harvests incomes to that annoying [Farmer] around Liscor and see how much of a depreciation we’ve suffered over the last six years?”

“Um. No. Sorry.”

Yelroan flicked his quill and promptly sent it soaring across the room. He went after it, grumbling.

“So?”

“Just a question. How old is our [Keeper of the Past]?”

Yelroan glanced up, eyes glinting. He didn’t ask the obvious, but instead just answered the question.

“One hundred and two.”

Over a century?

That was surprising. Gnolls didn’t live that long, although Merish had heard of some who got nearly a century and a half by virtue of their class, good living, and so on. Still—it was surprising.

“Why?”

“Just something she said. It…never mind. I wouldn’t want to start rumors.”

“I don’t gossip! I would if there were anyone to gossip with—fine, keep your secrets. Oh, you should know that some of your friends were looking for you. There’s a group of Shatterstrike [Warriors] who poked their heads in.”

“I might see them. Thank you, Yelroan. I could stay…?”

His friend waved him off.

“I’m working and believe me, it’s not fun to watch. Or do. This is boring math; figuring out why Gnolls can’t add.

 

—-

 

Merish found the Shatterstrike warriors—a subset of the Plain’s Eye Tribe—and recognized some old friends and subordinates at once.

The way it worked was that each clan had their individual warriors, and Merish had been one of them until he worked his way up and left for Rhir. However, Plain’s Eye as a whole had their own warriors and people, which they could send to a clan that needed help.

Merish had spent time in both camps, and the Gnolls who made up the front-line of many battles with their tribe greeted him with claps on the back, sniffing him, patting his shoulders.

Merish! Here comes our hero from Rhir, eh? The others who left were moaning they couldn’t ask you for advice.”

“What was the Death of Magic like? Can you talk of it—ah, the [Shaman] told me to shut up but I forgot—”

“Will you be leading one of our groups? Or acting as [Chief Warrior] to a particular clan?”

Merish bore the greetings well, all things considered. His mind flashed to Rhir, but the morning’s ritual had helped. He brushed off paws, growling.

“Let me speak! Are you all cubs or [Warriors]? Scopikl, it’s good to see you. Where’s Emrhi?”

“Outhouse. And keep away from her—she ate something she shouldn’t have.”

The others laughed. Merish fell into their company with ease, and soon they were marching towards the nearest tent serving free drinks. Plain’s Eye [Warriors] got them free, at least—the [Kegmaster] took one look at their markings and especially Merish’s [Shamanic Warrior] ones and served them up some cheap ale.

“No Velrusk for Merish?”

One of them demanded. Merish cuffed her on the back of the head.

“Stop that. Ale is fine. Our thanks.”

Drink, eat, and swap stories. Now that felt familiar, at least. Merish stood with them in the middle of the festivities, chatting, then walked around the Plain’s Eye camp, and caught up on what he’d missed.

…Not a lot. Oh, it was the same old as he’d always known. The Gnolls told him who had retired, gotten too hurt, switched classes, married into another tribe or just married, interesting gossip and funny accidents, and battles won or lost.

It was only after an hour and a second round of drinks they got into who had died. Bad stories, rumors, mirrors of Merish’s trauma, but lighter. He told them a bit too, and they listened in somber silence to his tales of the Death of Magic.

“A terrible thing, Merish. I am sorry I was so flippant. It was wrong of me, no.”

“Think nothing of it Scopikl. We all lose friends. Here and on Rhir. I only hope the reinforcements are guarded well on Rhir.”

All the Gnolls nodded somberly. They paused, in that moment where nothing could be said or should be said. Merish knew it well. However, then a Gnoll who’d rejoined them spoke.

Emhri had left two more times for the restroom, but whatever she’d eaten seemed to have finally passed out of her system. No one spoke of the smell; you smelled everything and got used to the bad ones and the good ones. Humans, now, and Drakes, they complained when they did smell something, as if the Gnoll in the area hadn’t smelled it five minutes earlier and far more vividly.

“If we speak of tragedies—maybe there is something I could bring up to you. I know it’s for the [Chieftains] and [Shamans] to decide, but it troubles me. A rumor, Merish. Well—not a rumor since I know it to be true.”

He lowered his mug, realizing he had his appetite back. Merish peered at Emhri.

“What have you been listening in on?”

She raised her paws defensively and flattened her ears.

Nothing! I swear! I just have friends and I knew what was happening—we talk. I didn’t tell anyone, but…you’re a [Chief Warrior], Merish. You might be called on.”

The other Gnolls glanced at each other. Merish folded his arms.

“What?”

“Something…happened yesterday. I saw [Shamans] running about, and word got to me…that I know what happened is because I saw them leaving. It’s not as if someone told me to keep my mouth shut, no.”

“Spit it out, Emhri.”

She growled, but then nodded and leaned in. Whispering so only they would hear, the Gnoll [Warrior] spoke.

“Merish. A [Hunt Leader] took seventeen [Warriors] out weeks ago. Maybe a month? I can’t remember. All I know was that I knew some of the Gnolls who went. Good ones. They were all over Level 20, and the leader over Level 30. A Vision of Seir. I’ve seen them gather like that before.”

Merish’s brows rose. A Vision of Seir, like Shatterstrike Warriors, was an internal term. This referred to a heavily-armed group in small numbers, to scout or harass an enemy.

“Not bad. What were they after? Creler scouting?”

“No…and listen. They were wiped out. Every Gnoll.”

The other warriors fell abruptly silent. Merish felt his hair rise slightly. He gripped hard on the mug and cracked it by accident. He cursed, and it was a loud sound in the silence.

By whom? A [Hunt Leader] over Level 30 and a full Vision of Seir was wiped out? By what kind of enemy?”

Emrhi gulped. She looked uncertain if she wanted to continue the story, but it had been started. She looked around, and lowered her voice even more.

“I don’t know where, but I do know their purpose. They were…Doomslayers.

If it had been silent before, now it was a void of space in which no one even breathed. Merish felt a chill and met Emrhi’s scared gaze. No wonder she was gossiping.

“I see. You should keep this silent, Emrhi. It’s…not to be spoken of. Understood?” She nodded.

“I only told you because you’re over Level 30 yourself, Merish. If there was anyone who could fix—”

“I’m not going to lead a bunch of Gnolls off. I’d wait for a [Shaman] or my [Chieftain] to ask me, Emhri. Don’t spread it around.”

Merish interrupted her. But that wasn’t why the Gnoll woman had gone silent. Her eyes were round and only then did Merish realize…he turned slowly.

“Chief Warrior Merish.”

A [Shaman] stood behind the group of Gnolls, having walked over while they were focused on Emhri. One of many [Shamans] in the Plain’s Eye Tribe?

No. One of a kind.

The Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands, the greatest [Shaman] of their tribe, Shaman Ulcreziek, stood next to Chieftain Xherw and a cluster of Gnollish guards and other leaders of the tribe. Shaman Ulcre looked at Merish and the Gnoll froze.

Mismatched eyes stared at him. One was brown, regular—the other was brown too. The difference were the striations of faint color, the inner pupil of the second eye. The power there. An eye passed down across their tribe for as long as it had endured, that gave them their name.

Plain’s Eye.

To stare at it was nearly impossible. The [Shaman] himself though was kind—to members of his tribe. His brows rose and he glanced at Xherw, who himself was powerful enough to make every Gnoll’s fur prick with energy.

“We are just in time, Chieftain. The warriors are already gossiping.”

Emhri wilted. Chieftain Xherw glanced at Ulcre.

“[Shaman], you can even see gossip? Now there is a true power.”

Ulcre snorted through his nose. He tapped the Plain’s Eye and it focused on Emhri a second before turning to Merish. Normally it moved with his other eye, but if he willed it to, it could move independently. Sometimes, Merish had heard it rumored, it showed him things he needed to see, that previous [Shamans] had known.

“I do not need to read lips or strain my ears. I can see gossiping Gnolls with both my eyes, [Chieftain]. Warrior Emhri.”

“Shaman.”

She squeaked. The Gnolls around her were apprehensive, but The [Shaman] just looked at her for a second with both eyes.

“Discretion would be appreciated.”

“Yes, [Shaman].”

Merish thought Emhri would be silent with that alone. Ulcre and Xherw looked at Merish and the [Chief Warrior] felt his skin prickle again.

“Warrior Merish, we were looking for you. And it seems destiny has already moved your way. A good omen. Chieftain, I am convinced from this alone.”

Xherw nodded thoughtfully. He looked at Merish and smiled.

“I as well. Perhaps he should rest. Let us tell him and we shall see. Merish—a word.”

The [Shamanic Warrior] instantly agreed. When your [Shaman] and [Chieftain] of the entire tribe called, you went. But he couldn’t help but wonder why him, of all the [Chief Warriors]? Perhaps…fate indeed. Or Xherw remembered their conversation earlier.

He did not doubt the reason. It echoed in his mind. Something not often spoken of. A terrible name.

Doombringer.

 

—-

 

As it happened, there were multiple reasons that Xherw had thought of Merish. The Chieftain led Merish over to another gathering in the secret heart of the Plain’s Eye tribe, deep in their encampment. No one, not other Gnolls or even foreign spells could spy on them here. Not with Shaman Ulcre.

“You heard about the Doomslayers.”

Xherw did not beat around the bush. In his private tent, he sat, amid trophies of his tribe, gifts—it was not as luxurious as it could be, but it was impressive. Merish sat on a pillow.

“Yes, Chieftain. I hope you will not be angry at Emhri.”

“Angry? I will forget it in a second. Rather, I understand. Rumors spread and why not? When doom is abroad no one is safe. It is for that reason I thought of you. Well—that and two other reasons.”

Xherw lifted a paw. Ulcre stood, refusing to sit, glancing towards the tent where other Gnolls were assembling. Xherw peered at Merish.

“The [Keeper of the Past] tells me you went through the Recitation of Names. I hope you felt better, these last few days?”

“I did. You are kind, Chieftain.”

“Not always, Merish. I would have let you rest, but news of the loss of an entire group of Doomslayers reached me yesterday. I thought of you for two reasons along with our recent talk. Do you know all of what transpired?”

Merish shook his head.

“Only that they were wiped out.”

“Hrm. Not all, then. They were wiped out at Liscor, Merish. The Silverfang’s new city. The border of north and south.”

“I know of it.”

Only vaguely, but Merish felt he’d heard the city’s name on a few lips of late, and not just Silverfang. Oh yes, hadn’t there been battles there? During his time on 5th wall, and in the capital, they’d watched…

Xherw saw his expression and his face softened.

“Yes, Liscor. That city with the door and inn and such. There is a Doombringer there, Merish.”

The [Shamanic Warrior] nodded.

“Did it…kill them?”

He knew what Doomslayers did, and the Plain’s Eye had a few. They killed white Gnolls, before the doom that had destroyed a tribe could infect others. Merish…had never been asked to join such a squad. He would have, of course, despite the danger and duty.

Kill white Gnolls. They were not spoken of, but they were like Demons to Gnolls. Just as deadly.

Just like Demons? Merish frowned. He thought of Silvenia, the Death of Magic and hesitated. She was as half-Elf. A traitor to her people. So that was what white Gnolls were. Like Demons.

Worse, perhaps. If one had killed an entire Vision…but Xherw shook his head.

“Not it. Well, perhaps. The truth is we don’t know what transpired exactly, Merish. Only that an entire army was involved, the Antinium…and a [Witch] named Belavierr. The Spider of Terandria. A powerful [Witch] over Level 60.”

“Over Level 70. Perhaps over Level 80.”

Ulcre cut in. Merish’s head rose and turned.

“What, [Shaman]?”

Shaman Ulcre’s eye was deep and staring. For a second Merish thought he saw rings—before a terrible anger took hold of him.

“An old [Witch], Merish. A dangerous one—for a certain level of it. Peril to those who have lost or desire. Not like a Dragon on a rampage, but almost as bad if angered. She was angered and nearly destroyed the city. Perhaps she killed the Doomslayers.”

“Or perhaps the city, or the inn, or the army. Hectval. Yet I say it was doom, and doom from one source, no matter the many causes.”

Xherw growled. He looked at Ulcre, then at Merish.

“A dangerous Doombringer indeed.”

Merish nodded, head spinning. Over Level 80? That was the kind of thing that was legend. Myth. Like the Death of Magic.

His blood ran cold and Xherw fixed his eyes on Merish.

“I thought of you. You have survived an encounter with a monster like that.”

“I would not fight the Death of Magic again, Chieftain. Not with ten thousand [Shamanic Warriors] at my back.”

It might be cowardice, but the words burst out of Merish as he shuddered. Xherw lifted a paw.

“I would not send you for that. Not against this [Witch]. I would send Ulcre and the full might of the tribes if I thought we had to fight her…no, she has fled. But doom remains and it has left. Apparently, so my people say, with a second white Gnoll. A stranger who killed at least a few of our people.”

Merish started. Two Doombringers?

“It is as I suspected. There are more, and they conspire.”

Ulcre broke in. The [Shaman] was upset. He waved a staff skywards, at a hole for the smoke of a fire to escape through. The sky was still bright, but the tent darkened.

“I cannot see this one, or the two. But they have fled Liscor. Heading south.”

“Do you want me to assemble another Doomslayer group to hunt them down, Chieftain?”

“Yes. If you are willing, Merish. I know you are resting, but when destiny calls you like it seems to do…I will ask other [Chief Warriors], but for this task I will arm you with weapons and give you our best warriors. If you agree.”

Xherw met Merish’s gaze. The Gnoll [Shamanic Warrior] sat there, on the pillows. He could have refused, asked to think about it, or asked questions, uttered reservations.

He did not. Merish was a [Warrior] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe. A soldier of his people.

“Of course, Chieftain. You have only to ask.”

Ulcre and Xherw smiled. Merish rose after Xherw, and the [Chieftain] nodded at him.

“You honor your tribe, Merish. Thank you. We shall arrange it and you must be hunting soon—but we have to know our quarry first. There are things you should see.”

“What was the third reason you wanted me, Chieftain?”

Merish followed Xherw to a group of Gnolls outside. For answer, Xherw pointed. Merish saw a scrying orb held by a [Shaman], a group of the Plain’s Eye’s best magic-users…and Yelroan. The [Mathematician] blinked at Merish, and then waved. Xherw gave Merish a slight grin.

“Destiny? Or just friendship. Now, come see this, Merish. Doom has foolish allies, but it may help us in the end.”

He pointed at the scrying orb and Merish saw a Drake on Wistram News Network. He vaguely recognized Drassi as the Drake began speaking, her voice hoarse, strained, her eyes red. With a start, a jolt to his heart, he saw an illustration of a little white Gnoll behind her and the caption.

 

Young Gnoll Missing – Believed Kidnapped.

 

—-

 

It was a road laid with best intentions. You could even see all the logic behind it with little effort. This Mrsha was a friend of Drassi’s. The [Honest Reporter] knew her, and she had a rare position of power in Wistram News Network.

So if Mrsha went missing, Drassi would obviously report the story. The Drake made an impassioned appeal, laying out the events, even getting a [Mage] to show the devastation from the battle.

“Mrsha is a dear child, and I wasn’t able to—listen. This rat-Gnoll, this…white-haired stranger has her. I am begging anyone with information to reach out to us. I’ll be covering this story with any sightings, and if you see her, tell the Watch Captain! Again, her name is Mrsha and she can’t talk, but she can write and…”

Everything checked out. Missing child, appeal across Izril, a heartfelt story. Anyone from Chandrar would instantly sympathize, and indeed, Drassi’s appeal would lead to hundreds, thousands of appeals from other citizens across the world for her to cover missing persons—a segment that would endure.

Drassi had made just one mistake, and no one else had stopped her from making it. No wonder; Wistram News Network was run by Wistram and crewed by Drakes at the top, or City Gnolls. In short, there was no Plains Gnoll with concern on Mrsha’s side to point out how horrific this was.

Alarric stared at the scrying orb and wanted to vomit. He knew Wanderer had the child; he’d received the signal. This?

“She’s going to get them killed.”

He whispered. Drassi’s earnest face—he had to believe she meant the best. But this? Now every tribe with a scrying orb could see that there were two white Gnolls. They were taking notes and writing down the nearest location. Just not for the reasons Drassi hoped.

 

—-

 

“Other tribes have already told me they will join the hunt. Yet Plains’ Eye will not rest on them alone. Every tribe in the region will be searching for the two, but Merish, the older Doombringer is clever. He—it—apparently moves fast and was skilled enough to defeat one Doomslayer group, if with help.”

Xherw shut off the scrying orb with a wave of his paw. Merish stared at Drassi’s face before she vanished. She’d spoken of the Doombringer—Mrsha—with such passion.

Well, she was a Drake. She had no idea what she was talking about. It had given them a lot of information, though.

“Two Doombringers, and we know their ages, even the name of one. Is that not enough, Chieftain? Can we not [Scry] them?”

He glanced at Xherw, but it was Ulcre who responded.

“It should be, even if [Shamans] do not perform [Mage]’s magic, Merish. Yet we cannot. They are warded. I have called on all our artifacts capable of it and my conclusion is that one or both have means to evade us.”

He glowered. Merish nodded. Only standard.

“Hence this gathering to inform you of a place to start. We have a vague region ‘south of Liscor’. I mean to narrow it. So, then. What can you divine?”

Xherw’s head turned and Ulcre regarded the best Gnolls in the Plain’s Eye tribe for the job. After all, their tribe was known for the quality of their [Shamans]. And [Shaman] was a catch-all class.

They specialized.

Merish beheld the gathering of nearly twenty Gnolls. He saw and recognized their classes.

[Oracle]. [Seer]. [Augur]. Even the [Keeper of the Pasts]—Gnolls with insights into the weather, the future, chance and fate and what had gone before and might come again.

“It is not an auspicious time, Chieftain, but we are casting our magics and using our Skills. We shall look for great portents and signs.”

The [Oracle of Calamity] spoke, one of the Gnolls who could predict incoming dangers to their tribe. A [Seer] growled.

“One of the Doombringers has more than an artifact. My divinations return only mystery, yet I tell you they are headed east, not west. The wind howls that way alone.”

“My readings say west…no. Wait. The origin of one comes from the west, the other from the east.”

The [Augur] argued, sorting through the entrails of a fish. Another Gnoll growled.

“Don’t look to their origins, but to their destination!”

“I tried that and got an infected gallbladder. In the fish, I mean. Some kind of ward—let me try again.”

A [Shaman] pinched her nose and complained.

“Would you stop cutting open fish? I am trying to work—”

What a mess of conflicting professions and styles. Merish watched as Xherw gestured to Ulcre and the [Shaman] stopped the fighting. The Gnolls worked.

“Southeast. Along the High Passes?”

“I sense proximity to Drake stone. Maybe along the cities?”

“So they’re heading southeast, possibly close to cities.”

Merish interpreted the many Gnolls’ commentary and arguments. It wasn’t much to go on, but it did help.

…The problem was, there were a lot of cities, and a lot of ways you could take that. The map of Izril along the High Passes which formed the border between north and south was huge. Xherw growled.

“I will keep them at it and keep in contact with you, Merish. That may be enough to go on. It is frustratingly imprecise. The older Doombringer must be powerful.”

“Then I shall arm myself well, Chieftain. I would like more information, but I will set out and hope more knowledge reveals itself.”

Xherw nodded.

“That is all we can do. Unless…my last expert has an opinion?”

Both Gnolls glanced up. The arguing [Seers] and [Shamans] looked up, offended. They stared at the Gnoll, who had posed so his glasses flashed as his head rose.

“Heh. You can fool magic and Skills, but not numbers, Chieftain Xherw.”

“So you say. You know where they are then, Yelroan?”

The [Mathematician] smirked at the offended magic-users. He turned to Merish and Xherw with a superior look and shook his head.

“No idea. I need more data.”

Merish slapped his forehead. Yelroan did another pose.

“I’ll collect more data. Rest assured, I’ll have an answer soon. A real one, not ‘southeast’. Unlike spells, math doesn’t lie.”

He smirked until a fish hit the back of his head.

 

—-

 

Merish was supposed to engage in more ceremonies to deal with his nightmares and trauma.

He attended only one more, and it was to gather the Gnolls he wanted to join him. They heard him out.

“Doombringers.”

Viri hovered at the gathering. So did Khaze, clearly worried; the children were put to bed. Merish had moved fast, but he still took till nightfall to gather what he needed.

They’d be riding horses and running next to them for maximum speed. He had Gnolls from the Plain’s Eye Tribe—Xherw had given him all but the very best to recruit from and Merish had chosen experts. Trackers, those who could speed them up, and so on.

But for fighting potential, he went to the Gnolls who had come from Rhir. Survivors of 5th Wall.

“5th wall stands. I fought with great warriors from every corner of the world. We faced the Death of Magic and held her back.”

He gave a speech to them, as the warriors looked at him. Merish was supposed to speak of his experiences, hence him attending this ceremony. He was here to recruit them—but he had taken the time to speak. He had already prepared, and it felt like a waste if he did not.

Yet the words made him question them even as he spoke.

Lies. Were they lies? They had fought ghosts, illusions of magic. Had they stopped her? Had they done…anything?

Had their sacrifice mattered? He wanted, had to believe that the answer was yes. He had to.

Merish went on.

“We were not friends until that last month, but we came to Rhir and fought. We did not run. We held the line, and then we went home. The only difference was…they went back before I did.”

Cirille. Vorn. All the others. He closed his eyes. He had heard of the ghosts who walked from Rhir. Merish stood there as the Gnolls listened in silence. Then he looked at the other survivors.

“Now, I ask you to join me again. I fought by your side. It is not a battle you need to come with. I know I am asking you…to die. Yet when I was told by Chieftain Xherw to choose Gnolls who I trusted, I thought of you. For you were there.”

They looked at him. Brave warriors, some with eyes shining with tears. They did not speak—but like Merish…one stepped forwards after only a second.

“Where are we fighting now, Chief Warrior?”

The rest agreed at once. So it was done. As Merish had known it would be, really. He nodded around, gratefully, humbled.

“Reclaim weapons, armor—we leave by midnight. Muster here in thirty minutes.”

They loped off, and Merish knew most would need only to visit their tents and utter brief goodbyes before…

Khaze was waiting for him. His sister looked at him, knowing what he was about, worry in her eyes.

“So you’re going?”

“Chieftain Xherw asked me specifically.”

He did not see pleasure on her face from hearing that. Khaze met Merish’s eyes.

“You could refuse.”

Merish hesitated, then shook his head. He gestured to the ground where Gnolls were already gathering. Not the warriors of Rhir alone either. Other tribes were sending warriors, having seen the scrying orb broadcast too. He looked at Khaze, choosing his words.

“I could. But I can’t relax anyways. Not with the Raskghar about. A mixed-company of Gnolls will improve relations between the tribes, anyways. I can be of some use and it will do us all good. I will keep us all safe.”

She nodded at that. Yet both of them knew—the Raskghar were the excuse. Doombringers were the excuse.

Merish had never left Rhir. So this was a relief. It was not healing, but it was what the warriors knew. He embraced his sister and turned, already thinking of the road ahead.

The warriors set out at midnight, without fanfare, but Xherw and Ulcre saw them off to give their blessings. Then they made for the readied horses, packed with gear.

It was only then that Merish saw Viri again. The little Lizardman had a pony and was waiting.

“Viri. What are you doing? You can’t go with us. This is tribe business.”

“You can’t leave me alone. Please don’t leave me again.”

Merish’s mouth opened. He looked at Viri as the other Gnolls looked at him. He was in charge. And Merish…after a second, he nodded.

“It will be dangerous. Deadly.”

Viri smiled. The [Longstick Jumper] reached out and touched Merish’s arm.

“That’s okay. As long as I’m with you. 5th Wall stands.”

“5th Wall Stands.”

The other Gnolls and Merish spoke it reflexively. So Viri rode with them as they left the Meeting of Tribes in silence.

“I saw Silverfangs heading north ahead of us, Chief Warrior. A war party it seemed, but a small one. For speed.”

One of the Gnolls ventured after the first ten minutes on the road. Merish’s head turned. Xherw had warned him…

“We will see what happens, warrior.”

“Yes, Chief Warrior.”

So it was done and Merish saw the long road ahead, days of journeying, hunting…but a purpose. He felt almost relaxed, as the familiar duty crept on him.

To slay doom itself. He bared his teeth—until Viri looked at him.

“So what are we doing, Merish? Hunting doom?”

Merish started. And he realized—Viri didn’t know. He hadn’t asked, and everyone else knew what ‘Doombringer’ meant. The [Shamanic Warrior] turned.

“We’re hunting…”

And his mind went blank. He looked at Viri, the Lizardman, riding next to him with his one leg gripping the saddle, the other lashed into place so he wouldn’t slip. Viri’s earnest expression. Merish tried the words.

White Gnolls. Cursed Gnolls. A child that would bring death to the tribes.

For some reason…it felt impossible to say. Merish opened and closed his mouth.

“—I will explain in a bit. We must go as fast as we possibly can.”

The Lizardman nodded, and they all moved quicker. You didn’t talk while riding this hard, anyways.

Yet that was another excuse. Merish silently frowned. Viri might not understand. He had to explain it to him…properly. Explain…

He had never, ever thought of how to explain why Doombringers had to die to another people. They would not understand, of course, which was why they were not told. But Viri had to. It made sense, after all. It was right. Merish just had to explain it—properly.

They rode forwards as Merish realized even this was no longer as easy as it used to be.

 

—-

 

Wanderer stopped Mrsha by the end of the second day. Panting, the little Gnoll opened her mouth for another gulp of stamina potion, but he had halted them for other reasons.

“Time to dye ourselves. Past time. We will be hunted, and I fear…” He was glancing at something. A scroll, bearing bad news. Alrric had broken their silence to warn him. Wanderer cursed, and pulled something from his pouch.

Dye. Mrsha hated dye. She shrank back, but Wanderer crouched down.

“Don’t worry. This isn’t going to smell. Nor will it itch or make your hair dry and crack like other dyes. Water doesn’t wash it off easily either. It took Shadows and Spellcaster a long time to synthesize it. Now, which color should you be? We should be similar, but when we get to Salazsar, you can create a pattern, even.”

Mrsha blinked as he offered her a choice of colors. Not just brown? Not just Lyonette’s smelly dye she used for her hair and Mrsha’s fur—once or twice?

This dye was a lot easier to use. You didn’t have to soak in it—you just added a powder to water, and lathered it on. Wanderer had a tub and Mrsha could actually roll around in it.

She came out with reddish black fur, and Wanderer applied a similar, lighter coat. Mrsha stared at herself in a mirror as he checked for white spots.

“Who are you, strange Gnoll?”

She sniffed at herself, but it really was scentless. They were just finishing up when Wanderer’s head rose.

“Not a second too soon. Damn. Would you look at that?”

He pointed. Mrsha turned her head, and he grabbed her, pressing her down. They stared at something in the distance.

“Gnolls.”

Plains Gnolls. They were loping along. Mrsha stared at them, and then Wanderer. What was the problem? They were dyed, just in time. But the Gnoll growled.

“They’re looking for us. Worse—your friend has told every tribe there’s a white adult with my description and a child who are Doombringers.”

Mrsha’s eyes widened. Then she looked at the Gnolls.

Drassi.

The Gnolls were a band of six, [Hunters] nominally. But it looked like they had come back from a kill of two Corusdeer and were looking about. Wanderer glowered, then pointed a ring at them. Mrsha would have grabbed his paw, but he just twisted a ring and suddenly she heard their voices, still a bit muffled, but enhanced by the magic.

“I saw two just like that. They were running down a hill. I wasn’t sure if the little one was a prisoner—she looked like she was having fun, but they were movement Skills. I thought their fur was light, but it was far off…”

“Damn. I didn’t know a tribe had gone this far north! They’re supposed to be at the Meeting of Tribes!”

Wanderer snarled. He cursed himself, and Drassi, and the Gnolls. Mrsha felt Drassi was fair, and him. The Gnolls were just minding their own business.

Unfortunately, the Gnolls were getting closer to their location. Wanderer and Mrsha hadn’t been that visible; they were in the lee of a hill, not on top of it, but the Gnolls had seen where they were from afar and were coming to investigate. Only their distance was saving them from finding exactly where the two were, and the uncertainty of if they had been white Gnolls or not.

“How did you not see if they were white-furred or not? Anyone can tell. That’s white, that’s blonde. Simple, even from afar!”

One of the [Hunters] was arguing with the other who’d seen them. She was defensive.

“I’m a bit colorblind, alright? Everything looks similar from afar!”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Well, let’s just ask them what they’re about. Two travelling Gnolls isn’t that usual, especially a child. If they’re parent and child, no harm. If the child can’t talk—

“We rescue her?”

“Nope, we run back to the tribe and play dumb. Apparently the older one’s dangerous. So if we sense something’s off, just smile, make excuses, and…”

Damn, they’re coming here.

Wanderer whispered. He checked himself and Mrsha saw him look at his staff. She froze.

Wanderer had killed the Gnolls coming after her. These were innocent [Hunters]! She shook her head. Wanderer pointed. If they find us, they’ll kill us.

No! She shook her head. He growled.

“Last resort. I’ll try something else first. Hold on…I’m not sure if…” He closed his eyes, and frowned. Mrsha didn’t know what Skill he was using, but it wasn’t immediately apparent.

The [Hunters] were closing in. They couldn’t smell the dye, but they were picking up some scent of the two. They closed in, growing silent, and Wanderer’s eyes were shut. Mrsha was tensed. She didn’t want more Gnolls to die! What was he doing? Could he defeat them without hurting them? Even if he did, the tribe would know. What could they do? Maybe she could use her magic? She reached for her wand.

Then, it happened. Mrsha heard a braying call in the distance, then a flurry of curses not a hundred feet distant. She peeked over the hilltop and saw the [Hunters] whirling.

They had been heading straight for them! Yet suddenly they were pointing, moving away. She heard them shouting.

“Dead gods and fur lice! The Corusdeer herd! That buck’s coming right after us! I thought we distracted it!”

“Don’t talk, move! They’ll char us to bits, go, go!

Suddenly, the Gnolls were moving! They were running, debating dropping the two deer they’d killed as the angry Corusdeer herd sought vengeance for the [Hunters]’ attack. They fled, climbing higher where the Corusdeer couldn’t follow.

Distracted. Mrsha stared. That…that couldn’t be a coincidence! It was beyond any credibility.

Nor was it a Skill. Wanderer had opened his eyes and he looked relieved.

“We’ll move while they’re distracted. I’ll use a stealth-Skill. I’ll carry you.”

He gestured. Mrsha looked at him, then back towards the [Hunters]. She put it together in one moment.

He had used his power? Wanderer saw her look. At his fur. He nodded slowly, meeting her eyes.

“I told you we had power. This is it.”

Mrsha looked at him. Then her little face fell. Her eyes turned bleak and guilty.

Doom.

A paw touched her shoulder. Wanderer shook his head, as if he could read her thoughts.

“Not doom. Luck.”

Mrsha blinked. Then—he scooped her up and they ran. Her eyes were round. She looked back.

Luck? Luck? What were they?

Rabbits?

 

—-

 

Mrsha’s pursuers were far distant, even the ones who had started first.

An entire day of marching—or in Octavia’s case, riding along the wagon, brought them nearly past the Bloodfields in one go.

Dismayingly slow compared to that strange white Gnoll, Snapjaw reported. She landed, looking frustrated as Icecube gulped down a bucket of water from a bag of holding.

It still awed Octavia, and probably a lot of their companions, that a Frost Wyvern was flying in their company. City Runner, [Alchemist], and Frost Wyvern. One of these things did not fit in.

The difference in levels and abilities also became more apparent as Snapjaw leaned over to talk with the Hobs and Bird. Sergeant Gna listened in, as did Fierre; the rest stretched or took the moment to break and tend to the horses.

“Stupid Gnoll tracks. Hard to follow. Looks like every fifty feet…then less. Gets tired, but too fast. Like fast-fast death runners.”

She indicated the road ahead, then pointed at Fals and Garia. They looked up.

“Even Hawk takes a week to get from Liscor to Pallass! How is one Gnoll better?”

Fierre frowned, checking her burnt skin despite her layers of protection.

“My guess is he’s not. Movement Skills, stamina potions explain half of it, but remember he’s got a road. Hawk used to make this run without this new road, and his was a benchmark for the Runner’s Guild.”

“Oh, he was that good?”

Octavia saw Sergeant Gna raise her brows, unaware that Liscor’s Courier was the hero of Runners everywhere. Fierre shook her head.

Benchmark. He was…sort of average. It’s not like the fastest he can do.”

“Oh.”

Fals frowned and looked at Snapjaw.

“Er…Miss Goblin.”

Snapjaw’s head rotated about. So did Badarrow’s. Snapjaw pointed at her chest, looking delighted.

“Me?”

“Yes?”

Fals looked nervous and Garia whispered in his ear.

“That’s Snapjaw.

“Oh. Sorry.”

Flustered, Fals looked at Snapjaw and then slightly away. He was…nervous. Octavia forgot how non-Inn guests were so afraid of Goblins still.

“I was just saying that if we can see the tracks, we might be able to tell what kind of movement Skill it is. It sounds like he’s propelling himself forwards, not [Double Step] or anything else. That’s a Skill that moves faster on flat ground, maybe.”

“Interesting.”

The Runner’s knowledge of movement Skills exceeded even Fierre’s own. Snapjaw chortled.

“I can show.”

“Lead the way, Snapjaw.”

“No. Miss Goblin. I like that. Call me Miss Goblin. Sounds…person-like. Very nice.”

She slapped Badarrow on the shoulder. He grunted.

The little interplay was interesting more in how it disclosed the clear differences between this band. And while Mrsha was the common cause, there was no Erin as of yet to keep them together, just the memory of her.

Sergeant Gna stared at Snapjaw with ill-disguised hostility. Badarrow glanced at her, and she looked away. Salkis just stared at the Frost Wyvern.

“Awesome.”

They kept moving, but it became clear they would not fully clear the Blood Fields in one night. Even going as far as they had was amazing and due to Bird’s new Skill. As they made camp, Octavia stretched.

“How are we sleeping? Tents? I have one or something…”

“I’ll sleep under the wagon. That’s how my family travelled. Unless there are bugs or it’s muddy, it’s not bad and it saves time.”

Fierre offered. Fals and Garia looked surprised.

“I’ve never done that in my life. We just get out a bedroll—or the ground if it’s soft—and lie down. Like them, see?”

The Goblins were just tossing their things down and arranging them next to their sleeping space around the beginnings of a fire. Ulvama had created one with astonishing ease. She just dropped firewood out of a bag of holding, kicked it together, and pointed and it burst into flame.

“Civilians.”

Sergeant Gna looked scandalized. She stared at the haphazard camp and then turned. First to Bird, then away to Numbtongue or Snapjaw, who was petting Icecube, and then to Fierre as the best, most reasonable leader.

“This can’t be your camp! Where are the sentries? Fortifications?”

Fierre bit her lip.

“Um—Bird? Numbtongue?”

“Goblins will watch out.”

Numbtongue called back. Indeed, the Goblins had already established a sentry-order by poking each other and Badarrow had first watch. The Goblin stopped as everyone turned to stare at him. He was climbing onto a rock where he’d sit with bow in hand. He raised his eyes at Gna.

“But that’s…well, that’s something. Yet you don’t have a latrine, or organization. You should use the wagons as cover, and have some kind of basic defensive area set up. I suggest moving to a cave or—”

The Gnoll hedged, unwilling to give the Goblins credit. She turned and stopped.

The Antinium looked up from digging a trench in the ground. Workers, Soldiers…all save for two.

Bird was sitting on the ground, kicking his legs and watching, apparently not at all pressed to help out. Next to him, Pivr, the strange Antinium on all fours with wings was giving orders.

Sergeant Gna and Pivr locked gazes. The Gnoll instantly turned away.

What is that thing?

“I am the Flying Antinium’s Prognugator. Also Revalantor. Pivr. My job is to keep Bird safe. I have already established Antinium safety protocols. Observe.”

The Flying Antinium rubbed his palps together as one antennae flicked towards the Workers. Octavia realized they weren’t just making a trench; they were digging into the ground and planning on resting there.

“Perfect camouflage and protection. If the camp is attacked, we shall sacrifice the meat-things and tunnel up to assail our opponents or retreat.”

The ‘meat-things’ did not appreciate that, yet it was clear each group had their area covered. There was just no overall leadership.

The others looked at each other, unsure if this was fine to let lie. Fierre went over to the wagon, Gna stomped off to find a rock to lie behind…until Bird stood up.

“Pivr. Redirect some Workers to place dirt in front of the wagon. It will hide it and provide natural cover. Badarrow should also move closer; we will create a hill he can watch from, with a bit of cover. Strategy!

Gna blinked and turned back. Pivr looked uncertain, but some of the Free Antinium instantly moved to obey. Badarrow, who’d just finished getting settled, grumpily stood up, but when he heard Bird, he tilted his head and nodded.

“That’s…almost good. But we’re still open to attack from every other angle. They could come over the hills.”

Gna muttered, not looking at Bird. The Worker stared at her. He gestured around. They were in a natural ‘bowl’ with one opening, that Snapjaw had pointed out.

“This is a naturally defensible area. As to attacks from other angles—Ulvama. You will use a [Shaman]’s mark to ward the other directions.”

Ulvama looked up. She pointed at her chest.

“Me? No. I’m tired.”

Bird stared at her.

“But I have given the order.”

Numbtongue grunted. He nudged Ulvama with an elbow. She looked at him, at Bird, and blew out her cheeks.

Fine.

Grumpily, she went up the hill to do what Bird had said. This time Sergeant Gna looked around.

“Well, well…it’s adequate.

“It is a simple and efficient plan. You can find no flaws in it. Because I am smart.

Bird lifted all four arms. Sergeant Gna refused to answer. Inside his space, Niers Astoragon chuckled to himself.

“Bird really is smart as, well, Olesm! I had no idea!”

Octavia remarked to Numbtongue. He nodded slowly, but didn’t seem surprised.

“Bird is Bird. Maybe Klbkch taught him.”

Sergeant Gna’s ears perked up. Salkis rubbed her claws together.

“I don’t know who any of those are. You mean Klbkch the Slayer? That’s Bird the [Hunter], right? He slaughtered Wyverns at Pallass. He’s also a [General]?”

She gestured at Bird, impressed and wary. Octavia and Numbtongue chuckled at the assessment, but they realized Salkis really didn’t know him at all. For answer, Octavia gave her the most charitable answer.

“Miss Salkis, Bird is uh…Bird. He’s a bit odd, but he’s good at whatever he does.”

“I can see that. Uh—should I watch out for them in my sleep? You know? Goblins. Or the Antinium?”

Salkis jerked a claw at the Goblins. One of the Cave Goblins looked astounded and flipped a finger at her. The Antinium also heard.

“We are not given orders to kill you at this point. Your safety is assured unless we are attacked.” Pivr answered. Then he paused.

“Well, the Flying Antinium promise this. Where is Xeu? The Silent Antinium may be seeking additional targets.”

“We. Are not.”

Someone spoke right next to Gna as she was setting up her bedroll. She yelped, and rolled away with a short sword in her paw, and stared as the landscape shifted.

Xeu, the Silent Antinium slunk past Gna, who backed up. Her scythe-arms rubbed with a gentle metallic sound, but she had been silent, invisible up till now.

Dead fucking gods!

Fals shouted. Even the Goblins started; even some of the Antinium. Everyone had almost forgotten Xeu had been part of the first group.

“There you are, Prognugator Xeu. Where have you been?”

“Scouting. Three minor threats eliminated. Proximity to danger-zone Bloodfields. Resting now. Does Revalantor Bird have further orders?”

Xeu rested, her body already beginning to chameleon itself into invisibility. Octavia edged closer to Numbtongue.

I forgot she was with us!

He nodded, but Snapjaw was already relaxed and grinning.

Strong allies, eh? As good as Poisonbite at hiding! Better! Also, Drake, we don’t have bad sex. That’s Mountain City Goblins.”

She pointed at Ulvama. The [Shaman] froze as she was coming down the hill. Snapjaw and Ulvama locked gazes and the air grew frosty. Badarrow nudged Snapjaw.

“Stop.”

Interesting. Niers, Gna, Fierre…well, practically everyone noticed the rift between Goblins at that. Fierre rested her chin on her hands.

“If even the Goblins aren’t united…and the Antinium too?”

She glanced at the two foreign Antinium. Prognugators she understood, at least the leadership term. She was itching to look into Revalantors and maybe sell data, but she wasn’t at work.

“We’re all here together. Let’s just relax, okay?”

Garia tried to play Erin, smiling around and booming. The farm-girl turned City Runner was already rummaging in her bag of holding.

“I bet we’re all hungry. I’ve got lots of food for the road. Who wants to cook, or are we doing it separately?”

Another pause. Octavia looked around. The Goblins shrugged. It was Gna who muttered.

“I suppose we can pool rations. All I’ve got is travel stuff. Dry. If anyone wants to cook…I’ve got [Survival Veteran]. It uh, lets me cook at a level a bit below [Basic Cooking].”

A level a bit below…heads immediately turned to Garia. She shrugged.

“I can cook too. Fals, you have [Basic Cooking], yeah?”

“Yup. Anyone got that beat?”

No hands immediately rose. Fierre knew how to cook—mostly blood dishes. Snapjaw had decent abilities, and Numbtongue could call on Pyrite, but only for a minute. Octavia pursed her lips.

“I could help. I’m good at recipes.”

Of course the [Alchemist] was. Fals rubbed his hands together, then finally noticed the person waving his hand indignantly.

“Oh. Uh…are you better?”

The Cave Goblin glaring at him finally got the attention of the others. It had been waving its hand non-stop, but no one had noticed. Everyone turned to look at the Goblin.

“…Let’s let the Human cook.”

Gna muttered sotto voce. However, Numbtongue was intrigued. He glanced at Badarrow.

“Huh. I don’t know that Cave Goblin. Which one of us did he learn from?”

He. That was more information than the others knew. Cave Goblin? Badarrow shrugged. He pointed.

“You…”

Then he lapsed into the Goblin’s tongue. The Cave Goblin replied, almost indignantly, and smacked his chest and then his lips. He pointed to the air above his head, and then shrugged.

“What was that?”

Salkis laughed, but Octavia had some inkling. The Goblin had said about three words and done that ridiculous pantomime. Yet Numbtongue answered evenly.

“He said he was a Cave Goblin who learned from Rabbiteater. Which means he knows cooking. Not as good as Pebblesnatch, but he has [Basic Cooking] and two more cooking Skills. He’ll help or do cooking if we let him.”

The others stared at Numbtongue. In a bit of surprise or—incredulity.

“Wait a second, he didn’t say all that just now, Numbtongue. You’re putting words in his mouth.” Garia protested. Numbtongue shook his head.

“He did. Lots of words. Also, not ‘he’. His name is Rasktooth.”

The others turned to look at the Goblin. Gna frowned mightily.

“Odd name. Why’s that?”

For answer, the Cave Goblin laughed and fished something out of his tunic. He had armor on, and underneath the cloth itself…he pulled out a necklace with one long canine fang.

A Raskghar’s tooth. A trophy from dead oppressors. He bared his teeth.

“I take.”

Gna blinked at him. So did Fals.

“I’ll uh…I’d welcome the help. If we want to combine Skills, maybe?”

He meant to make sure everything was going according to normal rules of edibility, but Rasktooth was already investigating the small mountain of vegetables and prepared goods Garia had pulled out. In the end he shrugged and just grabbed a lot of dried noodles.

“Big pot. Big fry. Big eat. Slice, slice. Big taste paste.”

He communicated well. Boil the noodles, fry up meat and vegetables—slice those. Big taste paste referred to a pot of seasoning. Fals squatted there, warily, but getting into it.

“A stir-up? That sounds good for so many. Great! Er, how do you want to—”

Rasktooth was slapping vegetables on a cutting board as he chattered to another Cave Goblin, who begrudgingly filled a pot with water and began to hang it over the fire. He gave Fals a look.

I’m not an idiot. Stop getting in my way.

The City Runner hesitated—then stopped asking questions.

As the food began, Pivr watched. He turned to Bird

“We cannot ingest gluten. Revalantor Bird, have we alternative food sources? If not, I have secured ample provisions.”

Bird looked up; he’d missed the food talk in whispering to a little bag for anything else he needed to know. Belatedly, he saw the noodles.

“Oh no. I should shoot some birds.”

“No need. Here. Antinium! Sustenance is prepared.”

Pivr dug in his bag of holding. The Antinium gathered around and saw him disgorge a huge, ample portion of nutrient…

Slop. Sergeant Gna instantly clapped a paw over her nose. Fierre’s own nose wrinkled and Salkis gagged.

“What in the name of the walls is that?”

She pointed and an orange and brown…no, there was green. It was mold. But it was probably edible mold and, all things given, the most appetizing part of the nutrient paste that Antinium produced.

“Efficient food. Storeable. Compact. No fire or preparation needed.”

Pivr extolled the benefits of Antinium food. The Free Antinium looked at each other. They looked at the fire, and Fals and Rasktooth, staring in horror at the abomination of cuisine.

They edged towards the fire. They’d be happy with incontinent stomachs.

“We are not eating that, Pivr.”

“Y-yeah. We can make non-noodle food! Anything! Really. Just—put that away, please?”

Fals waved at Pivr. The Antinium, disgruntled, kicked the food into his bag of holding. The dirt would not interfere with the taste or quality of the food either. Xeu rubbed her scythes together.

“Alternative to noodles required?”

“Yes. I will shoot a bird. Or bat. Or many.”

Bird tilted his head up at the sky. Xeu shook her body, having to scuttle left and right to perform the action.

“Alternative food source. I have.”

“Really? Well then, I will eat it.”

Bird looked up. Niers frowned, poking his head out of the bag. The others watched as Xeu scuttled off. Fierre, who was watching as the Antinium formed a wall between the wagon and road, frowned.

“Wait a second. Where is she going?”

Xeu scuttled right past her, vanishing into the land beyond. But she was headed towards the road…past the road…towards the distant red earth. The area far, far out of range for even the spores or deadly tricks of—

“The Bloodfields. Xeu, wait!”

Octavia screamed, but it was too late. Xeu was gone. Half the party rose to their feet. Ulvama swore as Goblins, Humans, Vampire, Gnoll, and more raced after Xeu. She took five steps forwards, looked back, and then caught herself.

“What am I doing?”

Ulvama went to sit back down. She wasn’t going anywhere near that place.

Two Humans raced after Xeu. The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Normen and the other man had also been forgotten, uncomfortable with everyone here. Now, they charged forwards, but were drawn up by a shout.

No, you idiots! You’re not wilderness fighters! Fall back!”

They slowed. Normen glanced over his shoulder. The voice was right. They were used to street fights; neither had ever seen the Bloodfields. Who had said…? Numbtongue raced past them, sword drawn. Normen moved to follow, but the Goblin had halted.

“Xeu! Stop!”

Numbtongue bellowed. Yet he couldn’t see the Silent Antinium. Everyone halted on the road, staring into the darkness. They saw the strange, alien fauna beyond.

Bloodfields. The deathly ‘sentry’ plants which impaled the ground, the bulbous plants holding insects within, cutting grass…a thousand things ready to slaughter you. Everyone remembered the Crelers—but even without them, the Bloodfields were dangerous.

Xeu though, was nowhere to be seen. Bird whirled to Pivr.

“Where is she?”

Pivr shrugged his wings.

“I do not know. Xeu is Silent Antinium. Her Queen would know.”

“You are unhelpful, Pivr.”

Bird twisted back, staring, but even his eyes couldn’t spot her amid the twilight. Fierre sniffed the breeze.

“I’m too far away to pick her out. Anyone else have better eyes? A Skill?”

Badarrow was squinting. Gna tried to pick up Xeu’s scent, but she had been odorless and Gna hadn’t detected her even when she was right next to the Antinium! The first sign of Xeu was when the Bloodfields abruptly moved. There was a flash—and one of the bulbous pods went pop. Everyone recoiled and heard distant thrumming.

“Look! There!”

Garia pointed in horror. Normen and the other Brother stared in shock as insects exploded out of one of the pods. They whirled around, having been disgorged from the trap-plant they’d infested by…what?

Xeu! The Silent Antinium became visible in a rending whirlwind of her scythe-arms. The little insects covered her, biting, trying to eat through her armor, but unlike flesh-beings, she was the superior insect.

“Dead gods, she’s slaughtering them!”

Sure enough, the swarm covered Xeu, and then fled. She scuttled around, the bag of holding attached to one limb, and then trotted back. Everyone stared as she appeared, covered in insect blood and bits, but unharmed.

“Food secured.”

She handed Fals a bag full of diced insects. He nearly dropped it. Rasktooth smacked his lips.

“Good extra. Make more fries.”

The others looked at him in horror. But the Antinium were all nodding. Good provisions. The bugs looked tasty.

 

—-

 

“I am not eating from that pan again. Did you make that before this plate? Or after?”

Sergeant Gna nearly threw down her plate of stir-fry when she saw the Antinium’s version. It was roughly the same. Crispy meat, vegetables, all glazed with a sauce to keep it together—Rasktooth also had [Natural Seasonings]. The only difference was that instead of chewy, flat noodles, theirs were fried insects.

Garia turned pale as the plate was handed to Bird. Fals hurried to reassure the others, looking queasy.

“I made it all before that. That’s…are you really going to eat that?”

Bird looked up from stuffing his face. The Free Antinium were accepting plates as Rasktooth and another Cave Goblin handed them out with every sign of enjoyment.

“It’s bugs. I knew they were insect-people but—I’m going to be sick.”

“Oh, stop being such a baby.

Fierre snapped at last, unable to put up with the Sergeant’s constant complaining. Gna twisted.

“Excuse me, Miss?”

“It’s just bugs! You’re not eating them! Chickens eat bugs all the time. We eat chickens. Bugs are in grain—have you never seen a grasshopper leg in some wheat? I bet you eat at least one per year!”

Fierre was not impressed by the bugs; she was a farm girl. Garia looked a bit queasy, but nodded.

Rather, it was the city-folk, Gna included, who looked pale. Normen muttered into his plate as he reached for a stiff drink instead of water.

“No offense to the Antinium. Fine gents I hear, Miss. But that’s not something I’ve ever seen. Never heard of regular folk eating bugs, myself.”

“Nor me.”

Salkis and the two Brothers exchanged looks. All the Goblins tittered. They were amused. The city-folk glanced at them.

“Not ever eaten bugs? Fat Humans, fat Drakes and Gnolls. Never been hungry! Rasktooth, give us plate of bugs! Non-Goblins eat the rest.”

Snapjaw waved, a challenge in her eyes. She offered the plate back for the noodle-portion and the other Goblins gave up theirs too, grinning. All but Badarrow, who kicked Snapjaw when she poked him.

“I hate bugs.”

Ulvama refused too, but the Goblin’s teasing still clearly rankled the others. Gna’s head turned for support…and found surprisingly little.

The two Brothers were with her, and Fals. Garia and Fierre didn’t object. However, Octavia didn’t blink twice at bugs.

“I use ‘em all the time in my alchemy. They’re in potions too. Also…Ceria eats them, you know. All the time. Even worms. Say, can I get any parts left over? I’ve never experimented with Bloodfields bugs…”

Rasktooth indicated a bowl of bits, in good humor. Octavia went over, and Numbtongue accepted a plate of bug-fry with resignation. But the dour [Bard] had a bit of his own humor in his eyes as he deliberately took a big forkful and crunched on a bite.

“Pretty good. Sour.”

“Needs more good sauce.”

Rasktooth added more sauce. The thing was—which none of the Goblins said—the thing was, bugs still tasted a bit worse than noodles unless your palate was aimed around them. Most bugs were bitter or sour, because they didn’t want to be eaten. Cows were apparently suicidal because they tasted good.

Even so, they grinned as they crunched, supplementing satisfaction for taste. The others stared—until Garia slapped her legs.

“Well—well, why not? Give me a forkful, Numbtongue!”

She rose to her feet, a challenge in her eyes. The others stared as she walked over. Numbtongue was merciful; he gave her a shell-portion, which crunched, but tasted mostly of the rest of the plate. Garia’s eyes watered, but she crunched it down, then lifted an arm up.

“It’s not…bad! Really, Fals!”

He looked horrified, but someone else lifted a claw.

“Why not? I’ve had raw meat. I’ll try one.”

Salkis, grinning again like it was an adventure, actually took a raw bug and after a moment of staring at it, bit off the head. She chewed, swallowed fast, but then tossed it down.

“Hah!”

“Oh, so it’s a contest, is it? I can eat bugs. It’s happened in Liscor’s army. Give me that. I’ll just—”

Gna grabbed a centipede-thing, took a bite, gagged, and nearly threw up. Fals stared at her, lowered the fork he’d taken to try a bite, and refused.

Fierre had a bite too, mostly to see if insect-blood sated her thirst. It didn’t—or there wasn’t enough of it to help. The others chuckled or laughed, and the Antinium quietly noshed, watching the others trying their food.

“I am updating the Blood Fields as possible food source. It is not that dangerous, it seems, if food is abundant.”

Pivr opined to Xeu and Bird. The Silent Antinium rubbed her scythes together.

“Dangerous. Stalk-plants impale any Antinium. Can sense me.”

“How did you survive, Xeu?”

“I did not get close.”

“So Antinium eat bugs and they come in all forms. Goblins eat bugs, and half-Elves apparently. Strange. No one mentioned that. It’s cannibalism—sort of. And they’re all good in a fight?”

Salkis washed down the buggy bite with a drink. She was still getting her bearings. The others looked at the newcomer. All assumed that someone else knew her. Numbtongue shrugged. He counted.

“That one is good at fighting. Bird is. I, Badarrow, Snapjaw, and that one are best at fighting. Redfangs and [Chieftains]. Ulvama too, maybe. Garia can punch. You have enchanted daggers. Brothers are good. So…nine good fighters.”

He counted, and pointed at Xeu, much to Pivr’s dismay. The others stirred as Numbtongue counted them off.

“I know those two are good. Men with hats.”

“Brothers, Miss. I’m Normen, and this is Alcaz. At your service. Pleasure to be with you on this mission—heard you helped us out at the inn.”

Normen tipped his hat. So did Alcaz, the other man. A spluttering sound came from Salkis’ left.

“Wait a second! You forgot me!

Sergeant Gna. Pivr raised a claw.

“And me. I am a Revalantor of—”

“We’re not bad fighters, Numbtongue. I’ve held my own in a fair number of scraps!”

Fals protested as well. Fierre also nodded.

“I survived the Archmage of Izril’s mansion with Ryoka!”

Numbtongue shrugged, unmoved by all but that last. He looked towards his bedroll and yawned.

“I said good fighters. Most can fight. Let’s sleep. We move tomorrow.”

He went to lie down. Someone threw a spoon at him.

Sergeant Gna. She was on her feet, glowering, eyes flashing.

“I’ve had enough of this, Goblin. I may not like coming along. I may have been ordered to come along, but I am a [Sergeant] in Liscor’s 4th Company. When we get into a scrap, you’d better listen to me because I—”

Numbtongue tossed the spoon back. He spoke over Pivr, who was also trying to state his credentials.

I am a Level 35 [Bard].”

Gna choked on her tongue. Pivr fell silent. Xeu stared. Niers peeked out of his bag, grinning, and took another bite of his snack. He was damned if he’d live on bugs; he’d had a cookie he’d been eating all day. One cookie. It’d probably last him the next day too. He’d had a single noodle for dinner. Not bad eating.

Gna looked at Numbtongue, lost for words. Her paw twitched towards her side, instinctively. Salkis sat up and stared at Numbtongue, eyes glittering. The [Bard] looked around.

“Who else is over Level 30? Just raise your hands.”

He stared about. Fierre held her breath.

Level 30? It was rare to find anyone of Numbtongue’s level just hanging about. He could be a Gold-rank with that! Erin was even more exceptional. Of course, she was a Vampire, but she understood why he said what he did. There was no way—

Badarrow raised his hand, and Bird raised two of his, one for him, one for Niers. Then he lowered one hand because he remembered he was a [Liar]. Snapjaw raised a hand, and so did Ulvama.

Salkis was the last, and her eyes lit up as all gazes fell on her. Gna gaped.

Goblins with levels. The two Brothers touched their hats, and Normen muttered.

“Crimshaw should’ve been here.”

Octavia stared at the Goblins. One of them, a Redfang, folded her arms, but looked delighted at the representation. Numbtongue counted.

“Six. Good fighters.”

He rolled over.

“Go to sleep.”

Goblin dominance established, the others fell silent. Gna rolled over behind her rock, muttering, but subdued. The Antinium tucked themselves into their holes. Fierre rolled under a wagon and the Goblins fell asleep almost at once. They rested like that, and Octavia, who’d elected to sleep on top of the wagon, unsure why everyone wasn’t fighting for this space, reflected it wasn’t the worst first day.

There was tension, but they’d tried bugs, and it might work out.

…Maybe.

 

—-

 

The next day, the band of mostly not-Brothers except for the two who were, awoke. They packed up and struck camp early—Octavia snoozed through everything until they got moving. So did Salkis, and she just climbed into the wagon, muttering curses; she wasn’t used to rising like that either.

Even so, they were well underway when a commotion happened. The others slowed as Pivr came striding up the lines to Bird, who’d decided he’d try riding a horse for fun. He glided forwards, ‘hopping’ and flapping his wings to arrest his fall.

Bird! Bird! This is an unprecedented event!”

“What?”

Bird turned in his saddle. Pivr pointed back at Xeu, who was menacing a terrified worker with her scythes as the other Antinium gathered around.

Again, the column halted. Goblins turned, and even Snapjaw flew back when she saw what was happening. Gna tensed, unsure what new drama was occurring.

And here it was. Octavia saw one of the Workers who’d volunteered to come after Mrsha trembling, holding its pack and a simple spear and buckler. It carried a bow, but like the Goblins, the Antinium aside from Bird, Xeu, and Pivr were faceless.

Much like the Goblins, really. If you looked at the group, they were made up of the important, the over Level 30’s, and those like Fierre, who knew they were special.

On this great trip across Izril, some might live and some might die. The odds were it was the ones you didn’t know, the lowest-leveled ones who’d die. That was why Salkis grinned. That was why Normen and Alcaz said little. Some people had different expectations.

Most of all for the nameless Goblins and Antinium, some of whom couldn’t even claim to be over Level 10. If you wanted to name the group…

It was Numbtongue, bearing the ghosts of Reiss, Pyrite, and Shorthilt. Ulvama, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Salkis, Octavia, Garia, Fals, Fierre, Gna, Bird, Pivr, Xeu, Normen, Alcaz, Icecube…and that was about it. Then came the ‘Goblins’. Then the ‘Antinium’ as a whole.

There was Niers unseen, and if someone remembered her, a bee named Apista. The rest were the masses.

Or so you thought. The Worker was trembling as Pivr complained, loudly, to Bird.

“It is unsanctioned! It is unprecedented! Did you authorize this, Revalantor Bird?”

“Yes.”

Pivr hesitated. Bird stared at him. Pivr fanned his wings.

“…Do you even know what it is I am referring to?”

“I authorized it. So you cannot complain, Pivr.”

“You did not. That is a lie, Bird. Name the issue.”

“…Then I will authorize it when I find out, and authorize it now but in the past so my authority was always there.”

Pivr’s mandibles clacked open and closed. Eventually, he turned around.

“That Worker! It has gained a new class!”

He pointed at said trembling Worker, who had a curious decoration on his chest. He was a Painted Worker, and he had chosen a strange, nonsensical symbol to represent himself. One he had gained from his visit to the inn. It was a sign that Kevin had been teaching Mrsha during math class, a strange inverted loop, combined with the Worker’s favorite food.

A pear, in the center of the sign for infinity.

Thus, he was Infinitypear. Bird tilted his head.

“What has Infinitypear gained?”

“Infinity what?

Pivr fanned his wings angrily.

“He is an [Adventurer]!”

The column stopped. They all looked at Infinitypear. An…[Adventurer]?

“You don’t mean Adventurer as in Bronze-rank Adventurer. You mean…”

The Worker looked at Octavia, then away. The [Alchemist] realized—he’d been listening to her.

We’re on an adventure. And he believed it. Of course he did. This was an adventure for a Worker. A grand adventure.

We may die. We may never come back. Yet…as Bird began to chuckle, then laugh, a little man in his pocket laughed too. The Goblins grinned.

We may die. Or we may rise. The band was this: It was Numbtongue, bearing the ghosts of Reiss, Pyrite, and Shorthilt. Ulvama, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Salkis, Octavia, Garia, Fals, Fierre, Gna, Bird, Pivr, Xeu, Normen, Alcaz, Icecube, Niers, Apista.

And the Goblin named Rasktooth. The [Adventurer] Antinium named Infinitypear.

 

[Adventurer Class Obtained!]

[Adventurer Level 3!]

[Skill – Find Roads Less Travelled obtained!]

[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Spear obtained!]

[Skill – Spirit of the Wild (Enhancement) obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I feel as though I’ve kicked a white Gnoll. Or an entire tribe of them.

If there was ever a cursed chapter—it’s this edited one. Everything gets in the way. Case in point? Windows Update decided to delete core system files as I was just about to start working on the chapter.

…14 hours later, I ‘fixed’ it. My computer is a mess. All my files are there; nothing’s in the right place. Windows in its infinite wisdom deleted my Office files and replaced it with Microsoft 365, the most disgusting program I’ve ever seen.

I’m now using a new word program…that has none of my dictionary terms and keeps formatting my dialogue ‘properly’ by cramming it onto the same line.

I hate it all. I have written easier chapters while sick, injured, and with less than 4 hours of sleep.

Anyways, I was never in danger of losing key files; most everything is backed up including notes. I’m not a complete fool, but while I could have used a backup laptop or something, my computer is my setup and organization. It’s like…I could work from another room instead of my office, but I’m working in another room while watching my office burn down.

The point is the edited chapter is delayed. Blame Microsoft. I do. This chapter is probably shorter since I lost an entire day to technical issues. Bleh. Someone uncurse me.

 

The Wandering Inn – One Piece homage by Tnoz!

 

Yelroan and Let Me Inn by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Apista by Auspicious Octopi!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auspiciousoctopi/

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/auspiciousoctopi

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.30

A dream without image or sound was still a dream if you knew you were having it. Each time, he did, and it was a welcome dream.

Not a happy dream. Not a…good dream. But not a bad dream, either. So he clung to it. Hoping each second would last a bit longer. Until he woke.

The dream without anything was preferable to seeing something. It was about half-and-half that he got that kind of rest. So when the Gnoll sat up automatically, before the dawn broke, he felt glad.

Chief Warrior Merish heard rustling around his small yurt; comfortable, large enough to do a small circle around in, and as plush as you could want, really. It was packed with pillows, blankets, enough so that he had complained on seeing that he didn’t need the bed; he could lie on the blankets and stay several feet off the ground.

Someone stopped just outside the tent flaps. They sensed Merish waking up; or just knew him. A furry head poked through the flaps. A grin; russet brown fur with a bit of red, like his. Unlike his though, there was no blue and white dye in a warrior’s pattern, magic, the source of part of his powers.

His sister’s fur was just fur, and for a second she reminded him of a giant squirrel, poking her head through to smile at him.

“Merish, another good morning! Did I wake you?”

“No.”

“Good! Then—Sveha, Ikl. Your uncle is awake, yes? You can be louder.”

Merish heard a rustling sound, and then something small and even more squirrel-like popped through the tent flaps.

Yay! Uncle!

Sveha and Ikl, the two children of Merish’s sister charged into his tent. They leapt onto the bedding and the big Gnoll—until their mother called them back.

“I didn’t say you could attack your uncle! Behave!”

“It’s fine, Khaze.”

Merish got up, and stared at the two little Gnoll cubs rolling around. They sat up obediently, and he looked at little Sveha, still running around on all fours, and her older brother, Ikl.

Khaze sighed, but in the next moment she was smiling again. She led Merish out of the guest-tent in their subclan, part of the great Plain’s Eye Tribe that was camped at the Meeting of Tribes.

Around Merish was a sea of tents, and Gnolls rising to greet the pre-dawn day. Many still slept, but it reminded him of an army’s camp…and not of one at the exact same time. So many tents, but lacking the military straightness, the layout he was used to. At the same time…

Two Gnolls rolled out of the tent behind him. Merish and Khaze turned. His younger sister’s children literally rolled out, doing somersaults forward until they got dizzy and lay on the ground. Merish just stared at them. Khaze snorted with laughter.

“You two are too silly. Where did you learn that from?”

“Uncle Viri!”

Merish blinked. Uncle? Khaze, though, just laughed again.

“He would do that.”

She wasn’t perturbed by it, so Merish said nothing. He stood in the middle of the tents, the hustle and bustle, and realized he didn’t have his axe. He wore only a loincloth; he didn’t need armor with his shaman markings—he was a [Shamanic Warrior], after all—but a weapon was different.

He almost went back into the tent for it. Almost. Then stopped himself, deliberately. He…didn’t need it.

“Well, I hoped you were up. Ikl, Sveha, get more baskets. Two…no, three. Viri will be up soon, and Ikl and you can share.”

“I don’t want to carry it!”

Ikl protested, but he was already running off. Merish looked around. He felt lost. He didn’t have morning duties, unlike his sister. He was a returning warrior from abroad. From Rhir.

A war hero, they called him. Which meant he had nothing to do, unlike his sister. Yet it seemed today she wasn’t preparing for her usual job—[Knife-edge Slicer].

An odd class, to non-Gnolls especially. What it meant was—well, that Khaze was an expert in using knives in a variety of cutting tasks. Not combat, but butchering, cutting up ingredients for both food and alchemy, cutting fabric…anything you could want in a vast tribe like this. It was the sort of class you didn’t really get in cities unless you worked all kinds of jobs.

Today, though, she handed Merish a basket. He gave it a blank look.

“What’s this?”

His sister gave him a sheepish look and put one finger to her lips as her children ran up. She looked around for a [Shaman] and whispered conspiratorially.

“I know you’re on vacation, Merish, but you would help your sister gather some plants, wouldn’t you? There’s some fine plants to be picked today, and I need every paw I can grab—especially since few are awake at this hour!”

She had another basket and her children had two. Merish stared at the gathering basket, which he hadn’t used for over a decade, since earning his warrior markings. He didn’t mind the task, but he had to point out something he thought Khaze had forgotten. He gestured around at the tents. They stretched as far as the eye could see and hundreds of cook-fires were already beginning to glow.

This was only a fraction of the Meeting of Tribes, though. Soon, there would be countless tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Gnolls mingling and mixing. Tribes from across Izril had come. Perhaps there were millions of Gnolls here?

An army. He forced the comparison away and looked at Khaze.

“Gather what? We’re at the Meeting of Tribes, Khaze. Even the grass is being stomped flat.”

She laughed at him and slapped Merish on the shoulder.

“I know that—but the Gaarh Marsh tribe and three others got up to something last night. Now there are plants blooming everywhere! Edible ones as well as pretty flowers! A nice present, yes?”

The Gnoll blinked. He looked around and saw it was true. Unlike yesterday, the grass and dirt from so much activity had changed. A little plant had shot up overnight right next to his tent. He walked over as Khaze brought out a little bulls-eye lantern and shone it down. Merish squatted down and stared.

“That’s a tomato.”

The tomato plant sat there, three full-grown tomatoes hanging from the plant, which was already sagging under the weight. Khaze happily grabbed all three and yanked them off the plant.

“And that’s breakfast, yes? Why are you looking so surprised, Merish? [Shamans] and their tricks. Hrm. You’re still talking like a City Gnoll, too!”

Merish glanced up at her as Ikl and Sveha begged for a bite, complaining they hadn’t had food yet! Khaze assured them they would get breakfast—after gathering the unexpected plant bounty.

It was the second time she’d told him he was speaking differently.

Merish still felt like a Plains Gnoll, but his accent had changed, much to his bemusement. He had grown used to being told he spoke ‘funny’ by other species thanks to his rolling r’s and some of the idiosyncrasies of Gnollish expressions, like how ‘yes’ was both affirmative and indication of goodness, but it seemed to Gnolls from home, he had an accent.

Years abroad in Rhir had done that. Merish shook his head. Everything had changed. Sveha had been a baby, and Ikl had been younger than she was when he left. He had been eager, even ambitious, and…different.

He had come back with scars, ‘quiet’, to hear his friends and sister say it, with nightmares and stories of horror and war. And with Viri. The Plain’s Eye [Warriors] who had gone with him had come back too.

Eight of them. Many times more had gone, from many tribes. Many had gone again, to avenge the fallen. In that sense, Merish was among the lucky ones.

Commander Cirille was dead. So was Uxel. Delezza. Vorn, Lacten…

“Merish. Merish!”

He blinked. His sister was poking him in the side. He stared at her. She grinned, and he realized he’d spaced out.

“Take Sveha and Ikl with you. I would, but I’m going to fight for the rare cooking ingredients! I have to run, many thanks!”

“Wait, but I don’t even know what I’m looking f—”

She was already gone, jogging off on a quest to find something nice. Merish stared down at the tomato plant. It stared up at him, denuded of the tomatoes, probably fated to wither away or be stepped on.

You’ve taken my fruit. Leave me alone, you monster.

He looked after his sister, who was shooing Sveha and Ikl back towards him. Because they were too slow to elbow other Gnolls away from rubyroot plants and the like.

“Uncle! Mother says we have to stay with you!”

Sveha padded back over and sat there. Ikl yawned, blinking up at Merish. He looked around helplessly, almost amused, exasperated at Khaze. She hadn’t changed. She left him with her children, as if she was a cub still and foisting dishwashing duty onto him. Merish sighed, but inwardly, he smiled.

Why it didn’t translate to a smile on his face, he didn’t know.

Why is there a carrot outside my tent? Is this a prank? Ahoy! Merish! Sveha! Ikl! It’s meeeeeee—

Someone shouted. Merish, Ikl, and Sveha looked around—then up. A loud, exuberant voice cut through the quiet morning. A little figure bounced from the tent he’d hopped out of, and flew through the air like a giant grasshopper. Sveha and Ikl stared up, open-mouthed, though they’d seen Viri many times before.

The Lizardman hopped through the air and landed, planting his stick on the ground. He grinned, leaning on it as his one leg planted itself on the ground. He had only a stump for his second leg, but Viri hadn’t changed.

“Uncle Viri! I want to go hopping!”

“No, me!”

Ikl pushed his sister away. Viri hugged Sveha and Ikl and grinned.

“Merish! There’s a carrot over there. How did it get there?”

Viri could still smile. He pointed at the carrot sprouting from the ground in front of his tent, laughing with delight at it. Merish had to explain.

“We’re gathering plants. A [Shaman] made them sprout.”

“Really? Wow! That sounds like fun! Let’s go!”

The Lizardman hopped around excitedly, taking a basket from Sveha. He didn’t moan about the hour; other Gnolls were doing that, but they were used to the Lizardman, the foreigner from Baleros. Merish’s friend from Rhir.

A survivor of 5th Wall. That was what Merish couldn’t explain to Khaze. Oh, she knew enough. He had spared her all the details, but his tribe knew…and didn’t know.

5th Wall. It had come to be a phrase, almost like a password. If you understood what it meant—it was because you had been there. Merish went to gather plants on a day in the wondrous Meeting of Tribes, with his family, Viri.

He still felt like he was standing there, on distant Rhir.

 

—-

 

“Uncle, why do [Shamans] make plants appear?”

Sveha let Merish carry her as he trudged along. Viri was hopping with Ikl, who was trying to copy the Lizardman as they bounced from plant to plant. The blooms were everywhere. Merish stared at a sunflower taller than he was and gingerly plucked the entire head and tossed it into the basket. Sveha sniffed it, then looked up at him.

“Yeah, why do they do it, Merish? We don’t have [Shamans]. Our Nagas have all kinds of magic…but this is more like Centaur stuff. Dullahans are mostly [Geomancers] and stuff. Maybe it’s a [Druid] thing. But why plants?”

Viri looked expectant too. Merish shrugged.

“…As part of a way to demonstrate the power of their tribes, I suppose. Impress the others. A fun activity.”

Viri nodded. Sveha, on the other hand, looked up.

“Why can [Shamans] make plants grow?”

“…Because they have the tribe’s magic.”

“Why does the tribe have magic?”

Merish looked down at Sveha.

“Everyone has magic, Sveha.”

“Why does everyone have magic?”

Merish was stumped by that one. Sveha was little, and curious. She asked ‘why’ so many times he felt like a [Shaman] himself.

“How about we find more plants? You can ask your mother about that later. Can you smell anything interesting, Sveha?”

And Khaze can deal with existential questions about magic. Merish was a [Shamanic Warrior], but he didn’t have time for an hour-long lecture about harnessing magical power. Sveha nodded. She cast around, sniffing, and then pointed.

“There! Smells good!”

All three gatherers trusted Sveha’s nose. She was a Level 2 [Sniffer], a child’s class, so her sense of smell was even more acute than other children. Merish jogged over, seeing more Gnolls eagerly grabbing plants. They were arguing already.

“That pumpkin is on our tribe’s land, friend.”

“But I was uprooting it before you came along, good fellow Gnoll, yes? This is a bounty for all.”

“So why don’t we share it?”

Two friendly Gnolls were arguing over a huge pumpkin. Merish took his group around what might be an impending fight, and saw a tiny flower. He blinked.

“Good nose, Sveha. I think this is valuable.”

Instantly, both arguing Gnolls looked over. They were from different tribes. Sveha stared down at the purple flower with the red pistils.

“It smells good. What is it?”

“I think it’s useful. Viri, do you recognize this?”

The Lizardman hopped over.

“Nope!”

He announced triumphantly. Ikl, surprisingly, identified it.

“That’s saffron! Mother said to grab it.”

“Well, it goes into the basket, then.”

The non-native plants to Izril were growing thanks to the [Shaman]’s magic. Merish grabbed the entire flower and decided to uproot all of it.

“Hey! That’s on the Decles Tribe’s land—”

One of the Gnolls began to stride over. Merish straightened and the Gnoll hesitated. He looked at Merish, who outweighed him, out-heighted him, and certainly out-leveled him.

Merish, whose fur glowed with magical markings. The Gnoll blinked.

“…But the Plain’s Eye Tribe is a friend of ours! Why don’t we share everything? Here’s your pumpkin, friend.”

He backed off. Merish was amused—he would have split the saffron flower if the Gnoll insisted. Viri chortled.

“This is why you have to have a Merish.”

He whispered slyly to Ikl, who gave his uncle a proud look. Embarrassed—he hadn’t meant to intimidate the other Gnoll—Merish hurried off with Sveha.

More Gnolls joined the search, exclaiming over plants that had popped out everywhere. Merish wondered how long they had to gather; until they filled their baskets, he decided. They were almost done when Ikl pointed.

“Look! There’re some nice plants! I’ll get them!”

He ran over, ahead of other Gnolls to secure a spot. By now it was a competition. He’d found a patch of plants with fat fruits. Merish glanced at him, then his eyes narrowed and he snapped.

“Herthee! Ikl don’t touch that.”

Some other Gnolls looked around. A male Gnoll blinked.

“Herthee? Grab it!”

The Gnoll boy froze, one paw raised. He looked from the Gnoll to Merish, confused. So did the other Gnolls picking the herbs.

Viri eyed the plant, hopping over.

“What’s Herthee and why are we grabbing and not grabbing it?”

Merish trotted over to confirm he was right. He squatted down and eyed the bush-like growth.

The long, almost stalk-like plant of Herthee was strange. It was bright yellow turning to a healthy greenish white at the roots, with fat, appealing seeds that could be larger than your fist. Fleshy, a tangy yellow that when split open, looked almost like the inside of golden flatbread, but puffy and chewy. They hung from the stalks on miniature branches, inviting anything to just come over and eat it.

“It is Herthee! You should grab it, friend.”

The other Gnoll came over. He didn’t have markings, but he had a triangular cap on. He gave Merish a friendly nod, which the Gnoll returned. Sveha looked at Merish.

“Why don’t you want it, Uncle? Does it taste bad?”

Merish shook his head. It was a vegetable, and the looks didn’t actually deceive. Herthee tasted as good as it looked. The trouble was that it was also deadly.

“No…but it has side effects.”

The [Shamanic Warrior] glanced at the other Gnoll. The hat-wearing Herthee supporter shrugged.

“It’s not that bad.”

Merish begged to differ. If you ate the Herthee seeds, you experienced the secret poison in the plant, which allowed it to ‘harvest’ the corpses of those who thought they’d found an easy meal.

Your tongue swelled up and you choked to death. A horrible way to go. Death by suffocation, rightly giving the plant its dreaded reputation among small, foraging animals.

…Gnoll-sized people were by and large resistant to Herthee’s effects. You’d get a fat tongue and be in danger if you really gulped them down, but they were mostly annoying.

Even so, no one wanted a swollen, slightly irritated tongue for the next two hours, so Herthee had a dubious place in the culinary world. If you had anti-allergen Skills or knew how to neutralize the effects—or were just desperate or hungry—it was for you.

“Ikl, you’ll puff up if you bite it. I once had a tongue so big I had to breathe through my nose and keep my mouth open because it wouldn’t fit. For six hours straight.”

His [Shaman] had laughed so hard she’d nearly passed out. The others snorted and Viri almost fell over, laughing. Ikl backed away, but the hat-wearing Gnoll encouraged Merish.

“Any good [Cook] can deal with it. I’d gather it, friends—but my basket is full.”

He indicated his basket, which was full of the damned Herthee. Merish bared his teeth.

“We will, then. Good idea, friend. We’ll…add it to the gathered produce if our camp doesn’t want them.”

The Gnoll smiled as Merish and Ikl plucked the seed. He waved and headed back to wherever his tribe was. When he was out of eye and earshot, Merish dumped all of the Herthee into Ikl’s basket and turned to the boy.

“Ikl, take all of them and toss them in the nearest fire.”

The Gnoll boy nodded and ran off. Merish sighed.

“Let’s go back to Khaze.”

They found only one more plant on the way back, another plant more endemic to Izril than the rare saffron. This time, Merish brightened up because unlike Herthee, he actually liked this plant.

“Lyepeppers. Viri! Come take a look. You too, Sveha. You will like this.”

Both Lizardman and Gnoll girl watched as Merish hurried over and began to pluck the fat peppers. Both gave Merish a very dubious look.

“Uncle. Those are bad.”

“Yeah. Are you sure that’s not poison, Merish?”

Viri pointed to the peppers. They resembled the tooth-like peppers you could find in other varieties, fat and fully-grown. The difference was…well, the coloration.

The Lyepeppers were a mix of colors, each so bright as to seem artificial. One was bright red with green spots that almost looked like warts on it. Another was distinctly yellow, with tiny blue dots as if it was sick. If there was any unhealthy or poisonous look—it was that.

“Lyepeppers aren’t bad, Sveha.”

Merish assured his niece. He offered her one, but Sveha, normally eager to bite any snack or treat, even dirt, closed her mouth.

“They have spots. I was eating this thing, but not this with spots and Mommy said no.”

The Gnoll girl stared up at Merish as if that last sentence made sense and had a conclusion. Her gaze somehow managed to convey accusation for Merish going against Khaze’s rule against spotted plants.

He tried to explain and reassure her.

“Lyepeppers are…liars, Sveha. Only Lyepeppers are edible, even though they look like…”

He showed her a purple, striped Lyepepper crossed with an unhealthy orange.

“They try to trick you. They’re good, see? Just be careful; they do mix with weeds…er, bad plants. So you break a bit off and rub it on your skin. Under your fur. If you don’t get itchy, it’s probably a good Lyepepper. So you take a little bite and wait. And then…”

He gave up on the survival explanation because she was giving him an even more mistrustful look.

“…We have [Cooks] who can appraise all the ingredients. So we’ll gather it all.”

The little girl watched Merish and Viri pluck the rest of the peppers. She didn’t like them—or her empty stomach.

“I want Mommy!”

She scrunched up her face, casting around and glaring at Merish, but Khaze was nowhere to be seen.

“We’ll find her.”

“I want her now.

Her face turned dangerously upset. Merish sighed, and looked for Khaze, but before Sveha could start crying, a claw tapped her on the shoulder.

“Sveha. Psst, Sveha.”

She looked around. Viri popped up beside her.

Bleargh!

He made a huge face, sticking out his tongue and making his eyes wide as possible.

Sveha just stared at him. Viri stared back. Neither one laughed. After a second, Viri dropped the face.

“How about a Lyepepper? Look, isn’t it funny?”

He offered her one that seemed like it had a face on it, a unique striped look. Sveha grabbed the pepper.

No!

She hurled it away, grumpily. Viri cried out.

Nooo! My pepper! What are you doing, you mad child?

He hopped after it, waving his one arm in dismay. Sveha peeked after him, and to Merish’s relief, began giggling. Viri came back, a mighty frown on his face.

“Okay, I got it and it looks good. But promise me you won’t throw it again, okay? Here…put it in the basket.”

He handed the pepper to Sveha. She picked it up, stared at it, and then at Viri. He waited.

She tossed the pepper.

My pepper! How could you?

The Lizardman leapt in horror, splatted comically on the ground, and rolled over until he could grab it. He pushed himself up and began hopping back.

“Okay. Sveha? I need you to put it into the basket. Here—no, don’t—!”

Away the pepper flew. Viri chased after it, brought it back, and didn’t seem to understand what would happen next if he handed it to Sveha. The little Gnoll girl forgot her tantrum and began laughing in delight as the little Lizardman grew increasingly more dismayed.

“Don’t throw it away again!

“The poor pepper! Oh no!”

“Nagas help me! She’s gone mad! She’s throwing my pepper! Merish, stop her!”

 

—-

 

By the time they got back, Sveha was panting from laughing too hard. Khaze laughed herself as Ikl waved at them.

“I was told you got rid of some Herthee, Merish? Good job! Remember when your tongue looked like a slug? Sveha! Are you making poor Uncle Viri chase after your pepper?”

“I don’t mind, Miss Khaze!”

The Lizardman hopped over, a huge smile on his face. She looked at him appreciatively.

“You are so good with cubs.”

Everyone liked Viri. The cheerful little [Longstick Jumper] had ingratiated himself into the tribe on the first day he’d met them. Khaze took Merish’s basket.

“Ooh, you found saffron? Well done. Lyepeppers—Sveha, stop throwing that.”

The Gnoll girl looked disappointed that the game was over, but she hopefully stared at the cooking station set up. Breakfast was going to be more special than the regular; Khaze was chopping up some of the findings and preparing a pot. She gestured at the table.

“Put everything on there and we’ll see what else we can put in. We have some goat…I just need to make a fine stew around it. How do tomatoes sound? Tomatoes and…where are my spices?”

She looked around. Merish set the basket down as Sveha whined.

“I want beef.”

“Goat is fine. Don’t whine, Sveha.”

Her mother, exasperated, looked at Merish.

“Children. She complains about the type of meat, never mind that we get it every breakfast.”

The [Shamanic Warrior] felt his lips move up. He smiled, for the first time that day.

“As I recall, Khaze, you used to throw beef jerky on the ground because it was ‘too salty’.”

She blushed under her fur.

“I was just—”

Boom. Merish saw a flash out of the corner of his eye as he heard a sound. Viri screamed.

Spell—

The [Shamanic Warrior] whirled. He looked up and saw an unnatural flash cross the heavens. A spell. An attack.

Lights fell down from the sky.

A second dawn; a false one, tricking the defenders of 5th Wall into believing they had survived the night of Demons.

It only brought oblivion as Merish looked up, seeing the Demon soldiers fade to nothing and realizing he had battled an army of ghosts. His companions, friends fallen to a…spell.

It took Cirille as he watched. A flash from above, something hidden beyond the clouds. Then she and everyone around her were gone. That brave Drake who had led them—gone in a second. Before she even saw their foe’s face.

The Death of Magic.

“Merish. Merish!

For a second, the voices were intermingled, the shouting from his warriors—Merish was on 5th Wall. Then—he was back in reality.

He came to his senses. The Gnoll was panting raggedly. He heard Khaze’s voice, shocked.

“Merish?”

Merish was crouched behind the upended food preparation table, the hard-gathered ingredients lying on the ground, utensils and dishes overturned.

Gnolls gathered around cooking fires were staring. Viri was flat on the ground. Everyone else, from Khaze to Ikl and his clan were just…looking at Merish. He straightened, then flinched as another boom echoed in the air. He turned to see the flash—

A silly little face, a cartoonish Drake, floated overhead. Mage lights. Someone was artificially darkening the air and shooting up spells into the sky. A [Merchant] or someone with a wand, perhaps. Not [Shaman] spells. Merish stared up at the lights. Then at the table.

“I…”

He heard a small sound. Then he looked down and saw Sveha.

She was lying next to the table. Sveha was whimpering, curled up and holding her leg. He’d—Merish saw her staring at him.

“Uncle. Uncle—you threw me! He—”

Then she began to howl. Khaze instantly raced over to her and scooped her up.

“It’s alright, Sveha. Show me your leg. It’s just bruised? Merish didn’t mean to do it. It was just—”

Merish stood there, staring at Sveha. He walked over, but she wailed and swung a paw at him, and Khaze fished for a potion.

“I don’t have a healing potion. Sveha, it’s not bad! One second…”

“I have one. Let me—”

Merish was blocked as something hit his leg. He looked down. Ikl had seen his sister crying. The little Gnoll boy began to punch Merish’s leg as hard as he could, snarling.

“Ikl! Enough!

Khaze shouted at her son. Viri was getting up. He looked at Merish. The Gnoll looked at Khaze, at the others coming over to pick up the fallen goods. Khaze met his eyes—then hurried for a potion. Merish stood there, trying to say something. Explain? In the end, he could only look at Khaze, and repeat himself.

“I’m sorry.”

 

—-

 

When he dreamed of nothing, it was welcome. The alternative was nightmares.

Blood and terror. Hacking down a Demon [Soldier] in his way. Turning. Hearing the bang. Ser Vorn falling.

Light from the sky.

He woke up with his fur matted with sweat, howling a cry to arms. Seeing light flash down from the heavens.

It was another day. Merish woke before dawn, the day after the disaster with Sveha. No Khaze to greet him. He wondered how upset she was. Understandably…or was she giving him space?

Of course, the day went on after the incident in the morning. But it colored everything. What had he done after that? Merish washed his face, wondering if he’d woken anyone up. Then again—his clan might be used to it by now.

He stared into the bowl with water taken from a flask. The Gnoll found he couldn’t actually remember. He’d done something. Eaten. Gone around with Viri, maybe?

The world was grey, sometimes. He forgot what he was doing. He felt…out of place, no matter where he was, even with his sister. He was glad he wasn’t with the entire clan; shamefully, Merish was glad his mother didn’t see him like this, which was part of the reason why he had volunteered to join the Meeting of Tribes.

He wondered, if his father had been alive—what he would have said. Maybe he would have understood. Merish’s father had been a [Shamanic Warrior] too, and even if he had never gone to Rhir…

The Gnoll did not leave his tent for a while. He sat, rummaging through his things. He nearly reached for his enchanted axe—left it be. After the incident with Sveha, he didn’t trust himself with it. No accident had been fatal, or injured people beyond Sveha’s leg. But if it did?

Merish unfolded a bit of costly paper. He sat, cross-legged, and conjured a bit of light from his fur markings. The pattern lit up his dark yurt, giving him ample light to read by. A beautiful pattern. He didn’t look at it.

 

I still feel like I am at 5th Wall. I have to go back and settle things there. For Commander Cirille. If you choose to come back, there will be a place for you with us.

 

The writing was neat, cursive, and Merish had found it hard to read at first. Yet he’d read it so many times he could recite the letter by heart.

Captain Shellc. No—hadn’t he been promoted? Merish’s finger traced down the letter.

Ah, yes. It said here. [Swordgrace Major] Shellc. Merish stared at the letter and thought about it again.

If you choose to come back…

Would that be for the best? He had leveled too, even if he hadn’t changed his class. Their reward for surviving the massacre was to level faster than anyone else. Merish had left, to come back home. Perhaps he would leave? What would Khaze and his family say?

Merish folded the letter. Then he went to wake up Viri. It was just a hunch—but it proved to be correct.

The day after seeing the lights-show, Viri did not emerge from his guest-tent beaming and smiling like normal. He was thrashing in his sheets, crying out. Merish heard him even before he pushed back the thick fabric. Viri was shouting in his sleep, like Merish.

Call the charge, Uxel! Uxel! Where are—

His face was twisted up, and his legs were kicking. Both legs—the whole one and the stump. Merish reached down.

“Viri. You’re dreaming. Viri—”

He touched the little Lizardman and Viri’s eyes opened wide. He looked at Merish and cried out.

Demon!

He slept with his staff by his side. The little staff blurred.

Viri struck at Merish three times with his staff in a fraction of a second, so fast the Gnoll couldn’t block the third blow. Merish stumbled, his head ringing with the impact. Viri dragged himself up—then, like Merish—came back.

“Merish? I—Nagas—”

He reached out, but Merish waved him away.

“I’m fine. You were having a nightmare.”

“I…was.”

Viri swayed—then fell over. He stared at his missing leg. Then he curled up.

“I’m sorry, Merish. Can—can you leave me alone for a moment?”

Merish nodded. Without a word, he backed up and left the tent. He heard Viri crying before he swung the flaps closed.

What a wonderful day in the Meeting of Tribes.

Merish stood in the darkness, shoulders hunched. Head bowed. He waited for something—for Viri to emerge. For something to happen.

It was someone else who came to find him. Merish’s head rose. He saw someone walk towards him, straightened, and then dipped his head.

Chieftain.

Merish did not kneel or bow, but he was surprised. This was not his clan’s leader, but the [Chieftain] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe.

Chieftain Xherw smiled. One of the greatest [Chieftains] of Gnolls here or anywhere walked forwards, out of the night. No bodyguards or escort—not among his tribe.

“Merish. I hoped to speak with you. Is now a bad time?”

He could hear Viri too. Merish hesitated, then stepped away.

“No, [Chieftain]. Of course not. Is something wrong?”

“Not with the tribe, Merish. Walk with me.”

Xherw gestured, and Merish fell into step with him, walking through the camp. He looked at Xherw, sidelong.

The Gnoll had dark fur, almost black, but with faint lines of silver breaking the uniform fur. He was not as tall as Merish, and he was certainly far older. Twice Merish’s thirty three years, nearly.

He wore a [Chieftain]’s garb. Lightweight, free clothing, like most Plains Gnolls wore, but ancient cloth, still perfectly maintained by magic. Practically relics unto themselves; the Raiment of the Plains. They were decorated with motifs of their tribe, and the cloth was probably stronger than Vorn’s steel plate had been.

Xherw also carried a light hand axe, for throwing or close combat. It wasn’t the spear he would take to battle; just decoration at the Meeting of Tribes. His pawed feet were bare, as were Merish’s, and if you could not see the power of the magic he wore, he might look almost normal.

That was just physical appearance, though. The Chieftain of the Plain’s Eye Tribe was more than just his looks. Where he walked, you felt it. Merish could feel it.

It was like walking beside…solemnity. A temporal disturbance. Gnolls looked up, or came out of their tents, feeling it even from afar. They called out, waved.

“Chieftain!”

Xherw waved at them, calling greetings, but led Merish away from the tents, and the Meeting of Tribes itself. If he was careless, he could wake up everyone within a hundred feet of him just by walking past them as they slept.

It was the power of Merish’s [Chieftain]. That he had come here was humbling, and Merish wanted to know if he’d heard about Sveha, or…

Well. He was respectfully silent as they walked away from the Plain’s Eye camp, past sentries, into the Great Plains. It was dark, and the two Gnolls strode along at a good clip. Only when they were truly alone, and the wind blew in a distant gale across the dark plains did Xherw speak.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it? Is Rhir so, Merish? I have seen images on the scrying orbs—but never been.”

Merish hadn’t expected that. He looked across the flat Great Plains, which stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Flat land, that made you want to run forever. Once…Merish would have raced into that distance.

He thought of Rhir.

“It is different, Chieftain. No part of Rhir save the Blighted Lands is not in some way managed. They have glorious fields, tall structures. Beautiful and deadly—but it is like walking through an armory. The walls are magnificent, but Rhir is all geared to war.”

“I see. Some beauty there.”

Xherw paused, and the two Gnolls slowed. Merish waited, trying a few different sentences out in his mind, but he couldn’t break the silence.

He was a [Chief Warrior]. This was the [Chieftain] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe, far beyond him. Normally, [Chief Warrior] was a rank close to [Chieftain], but the Plain’s Eye Tribe was different.

It was one of the largest tribes of Izril. It had so many Gnolls in it, hundreds of thousands, that it rivaled Drake cities in population alone. Accordingly, it had many ‘clans’ which were all part of a greater whole. Xherw commanded it all, such that there were at least a hundred [Chief Warriors] under his command.

Still, Merish was important enough to have been chosen to lead the expedition to Rhir. That he was important enough for Xherw to meet himself—well, that was as much his brush with the Death of Magic as anything else. He had been questioned by the [Shamans] and other [Chieftains], as well as Xherw.

“I heard you were disturbed by the light show yesterday. I asked they confine it to the night-time, or inform the tribes when such displays would take place.”

Merish jumped. Then flushed.

“Chieftain, that was my fault. All the tribes?”

“It disturbs children, and we should regulate it. Think nothing of it, Merish. The nightmares and visions of Rhir continue, then?”

Xherw looked at Merish. The Gnoll nodded. The [Chieftain] sighed.

“We will send for an expert if our [Shamans] cannot mend your pain somewhat, Merish. It is not good to heal the body and leave the mind behind, no. Tell me. What do you dream of? Is it always…her?”

“Yes. The Death of Magic.”

The wind dropped for a second, as if even here, the name alone had power. Merish shivered. He saw her, laughing, sweeping down and blasting the [Clown], before attacking 4th Wall. Xherw shook his head.

“I have seen great names, Merish. I have met Zel Shivertail, and Sserys of Liscor. I have even beheld the Centenium. I saw one die a final death during the Antinium Wars. I dream of them, sometimes. But the Death of Magic? That is an old legend. I grieve that it haunts your waking and sleep.”

Merish nodded.

“I am ashamed. I thought even if I met the Deathless on Rhir, I could stand against them. Fight. Now? I suppose this is what it is like to see a true story, not dream of it, Chieftain. It is—painful.”

He did not daydream about fighting the half-Elf, or even hurting Silvenia. He couldn’t picture it. Xherw touched Merish’s arm. The Gnoll started, but his [Chieftain] just shook his head.

“I do not mean to judge, no, Merish. You saw something I have not. Tidebreaker, even the Antinium are recent tales. The Death of Magic is the oldest of stories. Like a Dragon of ancient days reemerging, not the hatchlings who sometimes appear every few centuries.”

He stood there, arms folded, shaking his head. Merish listened as Xherw stared across the empty plains.

“I have lived three Meetings of Tribes. The [Chieftain] before me lived six. Six, Merish. And she told me that the elders when she was a cub said how small the Meeting of Tribes had become. Small. Look.”

He pointed back at the sprawling encampment. Merish looked, and couldn’t credit it himself. So many Gnolls, so many tribes.

Then he thought of the Death of Magic. Xherw nodded, knowing Merish’s thoughts.

“Old stories. I would like to see the Death of Magic gone for good, Merish, but part of me does not.”

“Chieftain? Why not?”

The Plain’s Eye Chieftain stood there, sighing.

“Dragons are dying out. Perhaps they are all dead already. For the best for them, yes. One could say the same of Giants—they made terrible war and sided with the Demons. Perhaps we say the same of Cyclopes when they go too, hm? Then there will only be nicknames, like that for Pallass’ Cyclops, Grand Strategist Chaldion. But each time they go—they become stories, and we forget they were real. We are an old tribe. If stories die out, do we lose our power too?”

Merish had no answer. That was a [Chieftain]’s dilemma. Xherw speaking of such things before Merish was an honor.

“Will you go back to Rhir?”

The [Chieftain] also saw through Merish. The Gnoll hunched his shoulders.

“I do not know, Chieftain. Viri is thinking of it. If he goes…I would go with him. If not?”

“I understand. Know this, Merish—you have done enough. You could stay with our tribe, and I would give you the position of [Chief Warrior] in any clan with an opening. Or a post among the warriors in the central tribe.”

“That is a great honor, Chieftain.”

Merish ducked his head. Xherw studied him.

“Perhaps it is not what you need, though. Ah, Merish. I come to you with my worries, not to help! I am sorry.”

“Not at all, Chieftain.”

The two Gnolls stood there in the darkness a while. Merish’s ears perked up. He glanced sideways.

Voices? Xherw had heard it too. He looked to the side and three [Shamanic Warriors], like Merish, the elite of the Plain’s Eye Tribe, appeared out of the darkness.

Xherw’s bodyguards after all. One nodded to Merish and Xherw.

“The Gnoll, Kerikool, is asking to see you, Chieftain.”

“Again? Tell him later.

Xherw scowled. Merish glanced at Xherw, not recognizing the name. The [Shamanic Warriors] nodded and melted back into the darkness. Merish saw their dyed fur glow—then they turned transparent.

[Camouflage]. They took on a glass-like appearance, melting into the landscape. Scentless too. The power of his kind.

“Who is that, Chieftain?”

Merish wasn’t sure he should ask, but Xherw just snorted derisively.

“Just another pest from Manus. Asking if we will represent the Walled City before the other tribes.”

“Manus? For what?”

Merish was not surprised that someone would seek Xherw out. The Plain’s Eye Tribe had strong relations with the Walled Cities, actually. As Merish recalled…well, they had some kinds of longstanding trade agreements. Xherw waved a paw.

“[Soldiers]. Experts, as always. Anyone they can lure to their ‘High Command’. I will talk with him, later.”

“If I am keeping you from him, Chieftain…”

“No.”

Xherw looked at Merish. He stood there a moment longer, then sighed.

“The Plain’s Eye Tribe is old, Merish. Gnolls are…old. We have endured much, but even in the days when Dragons hunted us with Drakes and we hid under the earth, I cannot know if we were this…few.

Such somber words. Merish would have flinched at them, but then a paw took his arm. Strong, even now. Xherw smiled at Merish, and the touch had that power in it. It made Merish feel strong, for a second. Strong enough to face dreams. To go back to Rhir.

“We will survive. With your strength, the strength of Gnolls like you, with cunning, and with resolve, Merish. I am glad you returned. I came here to tell you that. If you would stay—we have need of you.”

He turned before Merish could reply, and walked away. The [Shamanic Warrior] stood there, feeling humbled at the trust. He walked back to camp an hour later, thinking.

 

—-

 

Xherw’s meeting with Merish was more than a gesture. It meant something. Well, a [Chieftain] singling you out was already a sign you were honored, or on your way to it.

But the touch was something too. Merish felt…alive. That was Xherw’s power, or part of it. He felt clear-headed, hungry.

When he came back to the clan, he actually smiled and waved Viri’s apology aside. He ate breakfast, apologizing to Sveha, talking with Khaze. She nearly dropped her plates.

“What has gotten into you, Merish?”

“I met with the Chieftain.”

“Olmpe? Why would that old nag make you feel better. Unless—”

Ikl and Sveha looked up. Khaze spun around, wide-eyed.

“No. Chieftain Xherw?

Merish smiled. Khaze made a sound and threw up her paws.

“I have to brag about this! My brother! What did he want?”

“Just to talk. He touched my arm. I feel…good.”

“Of course you would! What an honor! No—you might be Honored Merish! Do you hear that, Sveha, Ikl? We might be moving up! He touched your arm? I heard a Gnoll ran a hundred miles after that happened—without any movement Skills!”

Merish smiled, enjoying Khaze’s excitement. The energy that blew away his depression seemed to fill Viri too—such that they were actually out and about the camps, rather than being tugged into something by Khaze.

“Merish, Merish. Do you want to play some games? You can win money if you win some of the tossing games.”

There was a Gnollish game that involved tossing bolas, or just balls if you were smaller, through goal posts. Playing was free, and there was already a crowd. It was just one activity among the Meeting of Tribes, and Viri was being practically carried by Sveha and Ikl towards it. Khaze had work, and Merish for once felt tempted. However, his conscience pricked him.

“I actually have someone to call upon, Viri. I will catch you later—don’t buy sweets for Sveha and Ikl with your money.”

“No promises! Sveha, are you good at tossing things? Want to show me?”

Viri bounced away, Sveha clinging to his leg and shrieking with delight. The Lizardman was watched by a bunch of Gnolls, shaking their heads at the odd sight. Merish smiled. Then—he went to call on his friend.

 

—-

 

Merish had friends. It occurred to him he had not prevailed on any of them since returning. Now, with Xherw giving him energy, he tried to make amends.

They were glad to see him, mostly. Some weren’t sure what to say, but Merish was a [Warrior], and thus many of his comrades just clapped him on the back, avoided talking about Rhir. He knew Gnolls from many clans in the Plain’s Eye Tribe, and did a circuit of the entire camp for four hours.

Four hours of straight walking and he didn’t clear the Plain’s Eye camp. That was how large it was. Merish actually called on the power in his markings to relieve the exhaustion in his legs. He greeted a fellow [Shamanic Warrior], Ghamen, and the two Gnolls stood a while.

“Anything interesting happening where you are?”

“Aside from the clan wanting more [Hunters]? Or in the Meeting of Tribes?”

Ghamen leaned on his spear, then shrugged.

“Ah, well, I heard my sister kissed Lehra Ruinstrider.”

“…Huh. And?”

“That’s something. Not everyone can be visited by the Chieftain!”

Ghamen slapped Merish on the shoulder, pretend-irritably. He grinned.

“Aside from that, I wish you’d been there in a competition yesterday. Twenty eight of our [Shamanic Warriors] engaged in a brawl with other tribes’ warriors.”

“A fight?”

“No…an organized thing. You know, to show how good we are? Just fists. Not weapons. Disappointed some of the tribes, but we’ve had too many injuries already.”

“So a tournament.”

“It looked like a brawl, yes? I was in it. We did pretty well, of course. But Steelfur? It’s like punching chainmail. And some of those tribes…well, all the regular [Warriors] were easy targets.”

Merish smiled. The tribes were competitive, and [Shamanic Warriors] like Ghamen and himself considered themselves to be the best of all. He inquired after about ten minutes.

“I have to keep going, Ghamen. My friend, Viri, can’t be left alone or he spends all his gold on my niece and nephew.”

“Of course. We will see each other another night. I am glad you are not as gloomy as before.”

Ghamen nodded, and Merish smiled.

“Me too. Here is hoping the Chieftain’s touch lasts a while. But Ghamen—do you know where Yelroan is? I think he would be at the Meeting of Tribes, yes?”

Ghamen snorted.

Yelroan? Try the central camps. I forgot…well, he’s certainly here. Tell him…no, just have fun meeting with him.”

Merish bade farewell to his friend and headed for the center of the Plain’s Eye camp.

[Warriors], [Scouts], [Hunters], [Rangers], [Trappers], and so on. Warrior-friends, and childhood friends in various non-combat roles. All were part of the Plain’s Eye Tribe, in various levels and positions. Merish realized—he was above them all in status. Especially after leveling and surviving Rhir.

And all of them, even Merish, had a class that was not unique to the tribe. They had many [Shamanic Warriors], even though it was a higher-level class. Every role overlapped, and Gnolls could occupy any place within the tribe. You were only expelled if you truly could not fit in; there were places for the solitary, the grumpy, and the odd.

However, Yelroan, Merish’s land friend from childhood, was truly unique. No one in the Plain’s Eye Tribe had a class like his, Merish knew. Perhaps no one in the entire Meeting of Tribes had a class like Yelroan’s.

 

—-

 

The Plain’s Eye Tribe was one of the greatest traditionalist tribes in the world. Az’muzarre, Wild Wastes, Gaarh Marsh…they were the tribes you spoke of.

Plain’s Eye were alchemical ingredients. [Shamans]. [Shamanic Warriors]. Tradition.

Yelroan stood on a stump, striking a pose. The Gnolls around him tried to ignore him.

“Children, if you want to learn how to hunt—with me!”

A [Hunter] was trying to entice a bunch of Gnolls old enough to begin learning a profession away from a [Cook] who was cunningly handing out snacks to an eager group. Merish watched.

It was a job market, of sorts. The Gnolls were competing, trying to lure promising young Gnolls to apprentice with them.

Yet this crowd of nearly two hundred of the most promising Gnoll cubs taken to the central camp to apprentice with some of the best instructors was distracted.

By Yelroan. The Gnoll was posed on the stump, standing above all the other instructors. It was…a pose. Merish stared up at his friend.

Nobody stood like that. Yelroan was perfectly balanced on one leg, the other pawed foot resting against his leg, yet he stood perfectly straight. One paw was laid across his chest, two fingers forming a ‘V’. The other paw was held to his face, as if supporting the flashing spectacles perched under his eyes.

He’d somehow managed to stand just so the sun glinted off the glass. It was currently blinding one of the [Shamans] trying to gather her own promising apprentices.

Spectacles on a Gnoll. That was already strange, but Yelroan’s fur was combed up. He had a proper mane, dyed—not in shamanic colors, but like ‘hair’.

He also had full-body clothing on. No loincloth, no easy, simple and free cloth like most Plains Gnolls, but a City Gnoll’s attire.

…If City Gnolls had such vibrant colors. Long, dark leggings cut with white, and a flashy red jacket. Merish covered his own face, trying not to look.

“Er—apprentices, if you want to hunt…”

The [Hunter] trailed off. Even the [Cook] was failing to get commitments from the two hundred potential apprentices.

They were all staring at Yelroan. How could you not? He had a crowd around him, little Gnolls who were waiting to see what his class was. After all…they might well follow this Gnoll, right?

Everyone waited. Yelroan held his pose perfectly still. He let the silence build, then dramatically raised his head. The Gnoll had piercing eyes. He smirked, glancing around at the ‘lesser’ classes around him. The other instructors glared at him. Yelroan took a breath, exhaled. Then he pointed at the sky, striking a second pose.

Math!

 

—-

 

Merish came to find Yelroan after everyone had left. His friend stood on the stump, in the same pose.

No Gnolls had chosen to learn from him, even just to try it. Again. Merish didn’t think he’d ever seen Yelroan acquire even a single apprentice, and that had been years before he’d left for Rhir.

“The clothing is new. So is the pose. Why?”

Yelroan sprang to his feet. He beamed at Merish.

“Merish! Do you like it? I tried to do something and it almost works. They stare at me.”

“Right until you start talking.”

Merish shook his head. Yelroan sighed.

“I got an apprentice last year with this trick. She lasted for…half a day. I need more respect.

“And you think doing that will get respect? Yelroan, just be honest.”

“I am honest. Math is amazing!

Yelroan did another pose, arms crossed. A [Hunter] tried to hurry her apprentices away, telling them not to look. Merish smiled. He reached out and hugged his friend. After a second, Yelroan did the same.

The one, the only, the unique [Mathematician] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe embraced Merish hard.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Merish. Chieftain Xherw told me he’d see you.”

Merish blinked. His friend was slimmer, although a bit taller; not a warrior. He looked at Yelroan.

“Did you ask him to see me?”

The [Mathematician] gave him a sly look and pushed his glasses up. Somehow, they caught the light and blinded Merish with an afterimage.

“I may have made the request. After all, I had good odds.”

Merish stared at Yelroan. His friend gave him a sidelong look, holding the pose. After a few seconds, they laughed so hard both had to hold onto each other.

 

—-

 

Yelroan was the most interesting Gnoll that Merish knew. A [Mathematician], a class so rare that even city-people didn’t know what it was.

It just meant Yelroan was good at math, as far as Merish was concerned. Really, really good at math.

…It didn’t sound too impressive. Until Merish told stories about their youth, like when Yelroan had answered a math question that had stumped every [Shaman] in the Plain’s Eye tribe. It had been something like…what was it?

“Add every number from one to a hundred up.”

Yelroan entertained Merish in his private tent, overflowing with parchment, paper, quills, and books. More books and ledgers than anywhere else in the Plain’s Eye encampment, and many written by Yelroan himself.

“Ah, yes. That. Why did we even wonder about it?”

Yelroan grinned.

“The [Shaman] mentioned it to us. A clever question posed by someone from Chandrar. And I solved it while you were all adding numbers up.”

“Yes. But why does it matter?

“It was a test. There’s a way to solve it quickly. Well, that set the tone for my future, didn’t it?”

It did indeed. Yelroan hadn’t gained the [Mathematician] class at first. He’d become a [Scribe], an [Accountant]…then, as he was appointed to calculating the entire clan’s income, managing supplies, and such, he’d morphed into the [Mathematician] class, rather than [Administrator] or some reasonable class.

“You could have been a [Manager] or [Accountant] or something. Why [Mathematician]?”

“Because I’m good at numbers, Merish. Not scribing. Not managing. Numbers. I’m fairly good at managing things. Math is my talent, though. You see?”

Merish did. And ‘fairly good’ meant that Yelroan was the administrator for the entire Plain’s Eye tribe. He calculated income from each clan, assigned supplies, made sure the numbers…were the numbers.

It hurt Merish’s head just to see one of the ledgers that Yelroan wrote out. His organizational strategy, his calculations had caused fights with the [Shamans], who normally oversaw such things.

Yet it worked. The [Chieftains] and then Xherw had decided just to…leave Yelroan alone. Within a year of taking his position, Yelroan had found over sixty three cases of misplaced supplies going nowhere, faulty incomes—only two examples had been actual cases of [Chieftains] embezzling money.

He was the kind of Gnoll who could tell you where the coppers went missing when you bought supplies. If the Plain’s Eye Tribe went to war, the [Warriors] owed Yelroan a debt of gratitude because he could calculate how much they needed to carry.

It didn’t get him much respect. As his lack of apprentices each year indicated. Yelroan was in the central camp, but he wasn’t ‘Honored Yelroan’. He was an outsider among his people for his odd, City Gnoll ways.

Even though Merish had never met a City Gnoll who could calculate half as fast as Yelroan. He quite liked his friend, who had a penchant for showing off and touting math’s many virtues.

Yelroan could also do more…interesting things. Even as a child, he’d shown Merish interesting tricks.

“I still remember when you calculated how many ants were in that ant hive based on…something something with squares.”

“Averages.”

“Yes, that. We tried to count them all and Khaze had so many ants in her fur the [Shaman] threw us in the lake.”

The two chortled over that as Yelroan poured glasses of juice. No alcohol for Yelroan; another oddity. Yet the Gnoll had more talents than just the magic of good math. He sighed.

“Math is power, Merish. I keep telling Chieftain Xherw that. He knows my Skills. If we had…eighteen Gnolls with my class, Plain’s Eye would make Pallass look over its shoulder.”

“I thought we traded with Pallass.”

Merish was reminded of Xherw talking about Manus. Yelroan flapped a paw, exasperated.

“Of course we do! And quite profitably—we have an exclusive trade deal, the only one of any tribe, as far as I know. I have no idea how Xherw negotiated that back in the day…we have other deals too that keep us on top. But give me eighteen—no, seven more [Mathematicians] and some deals with tribes, and we could replace Pallass and sell everything directly.”

“Mm. Seven more Yelroans. I can’t imagine it.”

“You can’t imagine parabolas.”

“…Those aren’t regular bolas? Magical bolas?”

Yelroan groaned and Merish grinned to himself, having done that last bit on purpose. He had to take Yelroan to task for one thing, though.

“Why the spectacles? You don’t need them.”

Yelroan had perfect vision, in fact. The Gnoll winked at Merish.

“Do you like them? I had to figure out how to make them catch the light like that. They’re specially treated with alchemical substances to reflect the light.”

“…That is the most obnoxious thing I have ever heard of. What kind of [Alchemist] would make that?”

“Saliss of Lights. I did an accounting job for him, once.”

Merish put his head in his paws. But he laughed. Yelroan fiddled with the glasses, doing the pose again.

“I decided to wear them after I saw some people with glasses. The stylish [Scholar], you know? I thought it would help my image. Actually…you met someone like that on Rhir.”

“I did?”

Merish glanced up, frowning. Yelroan scribbled something down; he was working as they talked.

“Perhaps not directly. It was…Bastion-General Quiteil. Um—”

“Fourth Wall.”

The tone of Merish’s voice made Yelroan look up. The Gnoll nodded slowly.

“Yes. Him.”

“How do you know him?”

The [Mathematician] smiled slightly, but watched Merish’s face.

“He offered me a position. Quite well-paid. I said no. I’m a Plains Gnoll in the end. A member of the tribe. Even if…well.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“If you go back to Rhir, I might take the job. But you’re probably not going to.”

Merish started. Yelroan knew about that? Then again, if he had persuaded the Chieftain to visit him…he was important. People just forgot that.

“How do you know I’m not going to go?”

Yelroan glanced at Merish, then pulled out a sheet. He handed it to Merish.

“There’s your odds of going.”

Merish stared down at a strange series of notations. Then at the final number.

“22.8%?”

“Yep.”

“You can calculate that?”

Merish laughed. Yelroan looked at him over his spectacles.

“Merish. I can calculate anything.

The [Shamanic Warrior] blinked. Yelroan held the gaze, serious as could be. It reminded Merish of the time he’d shown his friend the true power of his Skill. Probability. Calculation. If you gave a Skill to that?

Then Yelroan crossed his arms and did a pose.

Math!

The moment ended. Merish put his friend in a headlock and laughed.

 

—-

 

The moment Viri saw Yelroan, he was awestruck.

“That is the coolest Gnoll I have ever seen!”

Yelroan posed in front of Ikl and Sveha, who stared at him open-mouthed. Merish was much amused.

“Sveha, Ikl, you don’t remember Yelroan?”

“Mother says we shouldn’t copy him.”

Ikl piped up. Yelroan laughed and swept back his dyed hair. His glasses caught the light and flashed.

My eyes!

Someone screamed and toppled from a ladder. Merish hurried the group off.

The Meeting of Tribes was brighter to Merish. Or maybe it was Yelroan plus Viri and the children. Khaze met them, sighing at Yelroan, but she embraced him.

“You don’t visit us at all, Yelroan. Not that we see you in the central clan apart from gatherings like this.”

“I’m often busy. Besides, I heard what your partner thinks of me.”

Khaze coughed, and Merish wondered what her husband, Inir, did think of Yelroan. The Gnoll was occupied with the tribe’s job all day, at any rate, so there was no conflict.

“Ah, the tribes! What shall we do, now we’re all together, like when we were cubs?”

Khaze looked around. Yelroan glanced at Merish, but the Gnoll had no preference. Viri gestured at the festival-section, which had lots of games, some of which you spent money on.

“We’ve been playing games all day! I uh, spent some money. Want to play? And pay?”

Sveha and Ikl tugged the older Gnolls over to some of the games. Many were indeed free, and prizes were given out to winners; it was the Meeting of Tribes, not just a place for [Merchants].

However, there was money to be made anywhere there were this many Gnolls, and they’d already wrung Viri dry. He pointed accusatorially at one booth.

“Look at that!”

It was a variation of a game many cultures had—a guessing game. Some Gnoll, a clever [Craftswoman], or expert in string or just games, had created a huge ball of thread, with multiple outlets. Pull the right string of the dozens upon dozens dangling there, and you got to win whatever it was connected to!

Predictably, the cost of a pull was only three coppers while the prizes were worth much more. A fabulous little Centaur doll that made Sveha’s eyes go round, a sharp dagger…Viri had tried multiple times and refused to tell Merish how much he’d lost.

Yelroan glanced at the stall, amused. Merish agreed to try and stared at the string. His [Shamanic Warrior] class let him see and interact with magic, so he tried to use that to his advantage.

One string looked magical…and there were a few magical strings connected to the winning prizes. He pulled the magical string.

Nothing happened. The owner of the game smirked slightly and Merish knew it had been a lure. Sighing, he watched as Khaze refused to play.

“What about you, Yelroan?”

The others glanced at Yelroan. He raised a paw.

“I’ll pass.”

Merish frowned, but thought no more of it. They went on, dragging Viri away from the ‘one more time’ game. Merish actually did manage to win some snacks when he pitched a bola around a target, more from luck than skill, and gave some spicy crackers to Ikl and Viri. He saw horse races in the distance, which you could bet on, competitions of strength…

“Merish, there will be songs later tonight. Will you join us?”

Merish had never been in the mood, but he agreed at once to Khaze asking if he wanted to join them. He was looking around for Viri—who was slowly edging towards the betting on horse races—when Yelroan jogged over.

“Merish! Where’s Sveha?”

“She’s playing with some cubs. Creler Escape. Ikl too.”

The more modern game was simple. A ‘Creler’, a Gnoll dressed up with horrific claws and in a costume, ran after little screaming children. The last one to be caught got a prize.

“Oh, good. I’ll give her this afterwards.”

Merish turned. Yelroan had the little Centaur doll in his paws. Khaze blinked.

“How did you—? How much did you spend?”

“Three coppers.”

Merish guessed at once. The [Mathematician] winked at him. He gestured back at the stall.

“Er—you might be banned from there. I certainly am.”

“Why don’t you come to the horse races? I could bet some money!”

Khaze instantly looked to the place where Viri was headed. Yelroan shook his head.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

The Gnoll winked once more.

“I’m banned there too. The [Bookies] know a dangerous class when they see one.”

“Math!”

Khaze did a pose, mimicking Yelroan. The Gnoll grinned.

Statistics.

Both his friends gave him a blank look.

 

—-

 

Viri being Lizardfolk meant that he stood out among the Gnolls, but there were members of other species who had come for this great event.

Some of note, like Venaz, Peki, Merrik, Wil, Yerranola, the students of the Titan. The team of Lehra Ruinstrider, and so on.

The fact that Merish had a passing acquaintance with the Stargnoll herself made Ikl and Sveha agog. Merish himself had to…think about it.

“I feel as though I have been under a cloud.”

He confessed to Yelroan and Khaze. They listened sympathetically. Merish wanted to apologize, but Khaze was just glad he was ‘back’.

“It won’t last forever, you know. The average time for the Chieftain’s effect to last is a day. Five days is the longest significant time excluding outliers.”

Yelroan glanced at Merish. The [Shamanic Warrior] had no idea what outliers were, but he knew Yelroan was right.

It was already wearing off. He could feel himself jumping at loud sounds, and he certainly kept away from any non-[Shaman] magic. Merish was more impressed that Viri could smile and play with the kids. Perhaps it was a front.

So, he made his night last. Merish ran a footrace and came in distinctly average. He ate more than he had all month, and nearly got sick stuffing puffy sweetened bread down his mouth.

He smiled and laughed, and actually showed off his class’ Skills for Ikl when the boy pulled over some new friends. Merish’s fur lit up and shone. Then he called on the magic.

“Viri. Do a big jump.”

“Sure. What are you going to—whoa!

The Lizardman leapt and did a double-take as Merish followed him up. Laughing, the Lizardman and Merish leapt around, and Viri hugged him.

“You never did that back on Rhir!”

“I was serious back on Rhir. You never were.”

Merish smiled and put an arm around Viri. They put Sveha and Ikl to bed; the little Gnolls had run around in an excitement-high and crashed before it was fully dark. But Merish helped Khaze get them up one last time.

“Mommy. What are we doing?”

Ikl whined, sleepy and carried by Merish. The lighter Sveha was in Khaze’s arms.

“Stop whining, Ikl. This is important. This…is your heritage. We’re attending the songs.”

The little Gnoll peeked out of Merish’s arms. He saw Gnolls, thousands of them, gathering around a bonfire.

The lights had gone out, but countless torches and fires remained. In this place, though, it was dark. There was just the central light, from the blazing fire.

A few Gnolls stood together. Merish recognized the [Shaman] in front of the fire.

This was a Plain’s Eye event. It was…music.

The Gnolls made sound at first, finding places to sit or stand. The talk died down quickly, and the crackling fire filled the night. The [Shaman] spoke then, into the darkness, to the gathered group.

“Gnolls from across Izril, we are honored by your presence. We have had great [Singers] and heard tales of [Bards] on other nights. [Storytellers], [Shamans] reciting great tales. Today? Nothing so dramatic. Let us…simply sing. The old songs. Together. To lead us is [Singer] Ecleif.”

She gestured at a young Gnoll, who bowed slightly. He looked nervous, but he would not be alone.

Viri stood on his staff to watch, but solemn, eyes shining in the darkness. Next to him, Yelroan smiled and helped Sveha and Ikl stand on the shoulders of the adults—Khaze’s husband, Inir had joined them, but all were silent in this moment.

Merish found himself standing alone, as it began. He had missed the name of the song, but it didn’t matter. As soon as he heard the tune, he knew what it was.

There were some songs every Plains Gnoll knew. Passed from tribe to tribe, old to young, generation after generation.

It began with humming. A growling sound, from deep in the throat. Crooning Gnolls of every pitch. A rumbling buzz that filled the night and sky. Ikl and Sveha listened, wonderingly. So many voices, providing a backdrop.

Then Ecleif began. He sang at first, but a second later, dozens, hundreds of Gnolls joined in. Anyone who wanted to sing, could. Most, like Merish, just hummed, following the tune.

So when my fur calls me to Igawiz’s Jet…

Ecleif’s voice was strong and rang across the crowd. The other voices swelled, a powerful chorus. The song…Merish knew it. It was the same song that had called him to Rhir. A desire to go beyond Izril’s shores.

A beautiful song. A melancholy song if you listened to the words. They called it…

 

Great Plains Sing

 

So when my fur calls me to Igawiz’s Jet

To seek my people’s kingdom in that distant jungle land

Oh, finding the glade where the Queen of Gnolls still lies

And find the heart of stories my [Shaman] sang to me.

 

Race across the wilds where [Explorers] feared to go

Continents apart in which the Gnollish people died

To howl and greet their bones, to tell them we remain

One day we’ll reclaim lands as yet untamed.

 

So when my fur calls me across the Kraken’s Pass

To follow Garlen the Explorer over The Last Tide

Seeking mountains in the High Passes never climbed

And find the heart of stories my [Shaman] sang to me.

 

[Adventurers] long past call upon distant winds to me

Chieftain Seru’nial took her tribe beyond the clouds

The Gnolls who passed their years o’er and under land and sky

So not a patch of grass could say it never had seen Gnolls…

 

And on the song went on. Verses of Gnolls who had gone beyond the continent they all stood on. Tales of when their people had spread across the world.

Merish felt his fur rising. He felt…connected. A part of the mass of Gnolls around him. As far as he had gone—he was still a Plains Gnoll.

He looked around. Viri was listening, eyes wide, to the Gnolls of many tribes singing. A sound he might never hear again in his life. Sveha and Ikl were experiencing it for the first time.

Khaze held her partner, singing loud and clear.

As for Yelroan? He stood there, humming. Apart in his garb, in his class. Yet…here. Part of the Plain’s Eye Tribe. He had turned down better offers for better pay, perhaps more respect and power. Because this was home. A family.

Plains Gnolls all. Merish stood there, as the last of his Chieftain’s gift faded. For an hour, though, as they sang, for this night—someone else let him push aside dark memories. He sang with his people.

Then he slept, going back to his tent with the others after the bonfire had burned low, to embers. Merish only wished…they could be good dreams for once. Or oblivion. That would be a fitting end to it.

He had nightmares. For dreams of Rhir were not kind to him. Merish dreamed of Demons and light in the sky.

When he woke, it was to screams. To howls of horror. To nightmares in waking. He emerged from his tent, axe in hand, as Viri leapt out, watchful, and Khaze cried out to him in fear.

He almost laughed. Merish almost thanked them, even as his teeth bared and his fur stood on end. He was almost grateful, because it proved he was right.

I am not crazy. I’m not going mad. No—at least some of the madness is right. There are nightmares, even back home.

It was almost a relief. Merish heard the word on the wind. Horror had arrived. It had a name.

“Raskghar.”

 

—-

 

The army from Pallass brought them.

Raskghar. Not all of them. A mere dozen. Chained, in cages, to show the Meeting of Tribes.

Nevertheless, the effect they had on the Gnolls was extreme.

Raskghar! Nightmares of old! Ancient enemies! The names whispered to frighten children. Predators of the dark.

The Feasting Betrayers. Darkstalkers. The Gnolls Who Abandoned Sun.

Raskghar.

A great howl went up among the Meeting of Tribes, from everyone who saw it. Other Gnolls picked it up, hearing the fear in the air. The army from Pallass halted, warily stopping as thousands of Gnolls joined the sentries surrounding them.

It was a…gift. A gift from the Assembly of Crafts, from High Command and Chaldion. See your enemy. Know they remain.

The first ranks of warriors parted as a scream shook the air. They looked up and scattered as a bird larger than any Wyvern, massive, furious, landed. Gnolls leapt from the Roc’s back as one of the greatest predators of the sky shed members of the famous tribe.

Az’muzarre. They howled, and one of them, the Roc’s rider, lifted a sword.

Fear not, Gnolls of Izril! We will let not one of these monsters claim one of our kind!

The [Relicbearer] hefted the sword of Dragonbone. The Drakes standing in neat formations eyed the sword made of their Ancestor’s bones uneasily. Then they saw more of the small, deadly tribe appear.

Here stood the power of the Great Plains. Az’muzarre stood together, forming a line a hundred Gnolls wide, confronting the Raskghar.

The caged monsters stared at the Gnolls, warily, but without fear. They sniffed the air, eying the Az’muzarre tribe. Wary of the Roc pecking at the soil. They had never dreamed the world was this vast on the surface. Even so…what they saw were Gnolls.

Prey.

Merish was part of the crowd who had gathered to see the Raskghar. He saw them—like him, but different. Bigger, hunched. Bestial, ancestors who had gone down a different path than Gnolls.

That was not what chilled him. It was the innate sense, the revulsion in his very bones. Something in Merish told him they were enemies.

He was among regular warriors, axe in hand. He saw Az’muzarre begin to move forwards. They struck the weapons they held, making a rattling sound. The Pallassian [Commander] hesitated. Then raised a hand. He was smart enough to move the Drakes back.

“Are they going to take them into the camp? They should be killed!”

One of the Gnollish [Warriors] snarled, voicing a thought shared by many. Merish stared at the Slayers of Muzarre. He saw them strike their weapons. Then realized—a [Shaman] was leading them. She pointed at the Raskghar.

Raskghar! Enemies of old! There is only death for them here. Warriors of Az’muzarre, protect the Great Plains!

His eyes widened. The warriors began to advance. As it happened—they were not planning on letting the Raskghar exist another second at the Meeting of Tribes.

Some of the Gnolls growled assent, but Merish looked around. No. Wait. He was as unsettled as the others were by the Raskghar, but you didn’t kill your enemies. Rhir—the Blighted Kingdom didn’t kill every Demon if they took prisoners.

Yet Az’muzarre was advancing and the Pallassian [Soldiers] did not look ready to bar their way. The Drake [Commander] rode forwards, but one caw from the Roc and his horse nearly threw him off. The Gnollish warriors stepped forwards, and three bearing relic-class weapons moved towards the Raskghar.

The Raskghar began to snarl. Merish swore he heard one say something that sounded like…words. He was pushing through the crowd, but everyone resisted him.

“Stop. Don’t be fools!”

Merish growled. He began to use more force, and shoved Gnolls aside. Too slow. He saw the first warrior bring up a Dragonbone sword, howling, as the [Shaman] exhorted her warriors.

The Az’muzarre Gnoll never got a chance to execute the Raskghar in their cages. The air was full of howling, shouts, screams, but a noise broke through the chaos and fear.

A roar. It was angry and loud. A bear’s roar, but scaled up. Merish whirled. So did Az’muzarre’s tribe. The warriors stood in a bunch, continuing to be reinforced as more raced towards them. The [Shaman] stared back—then up. One of the angry [Relicbearers] moved to block someone striding forwards. Gnolls parted before the giant figure. The [Relicbearer] looked up—

A paw shoved the Gnoll aside. The other Az’muzarre Gnolls stirred—took one look at the giant Gnoll—and backed away.

Merish’s eyes went wide. He saw a Gnoll towering over the others, half again as tall as the tallest Gnoll, striding forwards. Behind her—he saw more Gnolls marching out of the Meeting of Tribes.

The Chieftains are coming! Do not touch the Raskghar!

Someone shouted. The Gnolls’ heads turned. Merish heard a questioning voice.

“Which [Chieftains]?”

The answer soon became self-evident. Which ones?

All of them. They emerged from the center of the Meeting of Tribes, some with their tribe’s warriors around them, others alone. Not just the [Chieftains]. [Shamans] strode forwards. But who came first were…the Gnolls that Merish knew.

That every Gnoll knew. Lehra Ruinstrider and her team appeared, the Stargnoll wearing her armor already. Chieftain Iraz and the Steelfur Tribe stormed forwards. Yet every eye was on the first Gnoll, who had pushed through the Az’muzarre Tribe. Now, she stared down at the Raskghar, who backed up in their cages. Eying her with clear disbelief.

She was thirteen feet tall, as if someone had…stretched her. Her arms were long, hanging low at her sides, and she wore a ragged cape that stretched to her legs. The cape was…hide.

A bear’s hide. The Gnoll was growling. Roaring.

“Who is that? What kind of—she looks like a bear herself. What kind of class turns you into that?

One of the Gnolls didn’t recognize her—or couldn’t put name to the truth. Merish knew her. Someone else breathed, a [Huntress] who lowered the bow she had been clutching.

“[Racdelbear Shapechanger]. That’s…Garsine. Wallbreaker. I thought she was dead.”

The Gnoll who had broken the walls of six Drake cities came to a halt, in front of the Az’muzarre tribe, facing the Raskghar in cages. The [Shaman] tried to give an order and Garsine looked at her.

The [Shaman] fell silent.

Merish heard a familiar howl among the others. A muster-call from the Plain’s Eye tribe. He began to push towards it. It was for [Shamanic Warriors]. Before he got there, he saw another group emerge.

Gnolls. Each one was tall. They were akin to him—he stopped as he saw the first wave of them appear. He smelled them too. When he saw them, Merish knew in an instant who they were.

Each Gnoll looked to be covered in muck. Mud, detritus of nature. A swamp’s coating. They were practically masked in it, from head to toe. They left a trail behind them. As if the swamp had come to life itself.

“[Marsh-Guardians of Gaarh]. The Gaarh Marsh Tribe’s greatest warriors.”

Behind their tribe, Merish thought he saw the hill, the living embodiment of their tribe itself moving. Then he heard the howl and moved.

 

—-

 

Gnolls looked around as the Steelfur Tribe’s [Warriors] began to march towards the Raskghar. They joined Gaarh Marsh—and then other tribes.

[Shamanic Warriors] of the Plain’s Eye Tribe. The Woven Bladegrass’ fierce warriors.

Krshia Silverfang had come to a halt when the Raskghar arrived. She remembered them and their horror, and was thus less affected by seeing them than the other Gnolls who had never glimpsed such things. She saw the Gnolls stream forwards. Not just Az’muzarre, or new heroes of Gnollkind like Lehra.

Summoned by the word of these monsters from myth, older than even stories of the Death of Magic, older than Demons, all the Gnolls were coming.

Honored Berr strode forwards with Wild Waste [Berserkers] and [Barbarians], bare-chested, not smiling, their weapons already drawn. Next to him strode giants, not as tall as Garsine, but taller than any other.

“The Ekhtouch Tribe.”

Krshia recognized them instantly. The Gnolls in the crowd were calming, recognizing the greatest tribes. One pointed.

“Who is that?

A Gnoll strode along, the second-tallest Gnoll but for Garsine. Taller than the other Ekhtouch!

“That must be…Gireulashia Ekhtouch. Their [Paragon].”

Krshia started. She saw her sister by her side. Chieftain Akrisa had come, with the other Chieftains and [Shamans]. She moved past Krshia, towards Garsine.

The other Gnolls were coming to a halt next to her, facing the Raskghar.

The legends of Gnolls. Next to Chieftain Iraz marched a Gnoll whose entire body was metal, not just his fur. Even his skin underneath looked like moving metal.

Adetr Steelfur, nephew of the Chieftain of the Steelfur clan. Inheritor of the same will that had created his tribe.

He looked like a statue of a Gnoll cast in metal come to life. His teeth, his claws…all but his eyes were metal. And even the eyes…the whites had turned to iron or something like them. Only the pupils looked like flesh.

The ranks of Steelfur parted. Krshia, moving towards the front with Akrisa, saw even the other tribes stop. Steelfur Gnolls looked back and moved aside.

A Gnoll was coming. Krshia stared past them and saw an honor-guard wearing curious armor escorting an elderly Gnoll. He was walking with help, but he slowed.

“Honored Deskie?”

Krshia jumped. She saw Deskie, the Longstalker Tribe’s great [Magical Weaver] behind her. Chieftain Eska was there. Deskie raised her own aged head.

“Is that you? Shedrkh?”

The Gnoll was so old he had gone to full-grey. But never white. His eyes had a trace of rheum and a Gnoll had to support him as he walked. No wonder he had not been seen like the other famous Gnolls. Yet his was a famous name as well. Krshia instantly ducked her head with the Gnolls around her and stepped back.

The two Gnolls met. Deskie joined Shedrkh, who gestured to his guard as they admitted her.

“Deskie, I am told terrible foes have returned. Come…I would not have the courage alone. Show me these ancient nightmares of our people.”

They moved on. Eska held back, but Chieftain Orelighn didn’t recognize the old Gnoll. He whispered to Krshia and Akrisa.

“Who was that?

Both looked incredulously at the Greenpaw’s Chieftain.

“Didn’t you recognize him, Orelighn? Honored Shedrkh. The Keeper of Hides!”

Orelighn frowned; the name was familiar to him. He blinked, then focused on Shedrkh’s back.

“A [Tanner]?”

Krshia corrected Orelighn, almost about to slap him for his tone.

“A [Tanner] who made armor out of Kraken’s flesh. Who has made more leather out of Wyverns than a lesser [Tailor] has made cloth out of cotton.

She pointed at his honor-guard. Some of them wore unfamiliar, leather-ish armor. Flexible as fish’s scales. Tough as…Orelighn’s eyes went huge.

“Do we go with them? Us?”

Akrisa’s partner, the [Shaman] Cetrule, wavered. He represented the Silverfang Tribe, but Krshia had to admit—she didn’t know if Akrisa fit, even being a Chieftain with these Gnolls.

“We go. We are Chieftains and you are my [Shaman]. Krshia, you are my sister. You fought these Raskghar. We belong.”

Gnolls turned to look at Krshia. Akrisa’s chin rose. A voice came from behind them.

“Yes. Silverfang and Liscor. You do belong. Let us go.”

The group of Gnolls turned. They fell back a step, but the Gnoll just walked towards Akrisa and nodded his head. Armor covered him, and he leaned on a strange polearm that Krshia had never seen before, despite being a [Shopkeeper].

“I have never seen such things, and I have walked every land in this world. If you know more, then come, Chieftain of the Silverfang Tribe. I would be honored to walk with you.”

The adventurer inclined his head. Akrisa stuttered.

“That—we are honored, Honored Gadiekh.”

She fell into step with him. Orelighn pointed wordlessly and Krshia nodded.

Gadiekh, the World-Pact Adventurer. The Named Adventurer who was unanimously given his rank by eighteen different nations.

One more great Chieftain joined the procession near Krshia. She too, was unmistakable.

“I am…sad. This day dawns again. Can no old horror ever truly be ended? My cousin should have been here to see it. Feshi, come. You must see them too.”

Krshia saw light. The dawn was still breaking, yet somehow, impossibly, light also shone down from the sky. The dark clouds overhead parted.

A Gnoll walked in the light.

The sun shone down around her. A beam of light that broke even rain and clouds apart and shone on her always.

Torishi. Chieftain of the Weatherfur Tribe. Next to her walked Feshi. They joined the Gnolls, who formed a semi-circle. The Raskghar in their cages snarled, eying the others. Sensing their power.

They recognized Krshia. One actually pointed at her, howling what might have been an insult in their tongue, and she saw countless heads swing her way. Krshia stared at the Raskghar.

Now they see you. Can you overcome our people at their strength? I think…not.

She felt safer here than she had in Liscor, even with Chaldion and the army. Krshia bared her teeth. Then she felt the world tremble.

Something was walking. Krshia’s head slowly turned. The snarling Raskghar fell silent. They looked up—then tried to squeeze back against the bars. The Pallassian [Commander] gulped.

The Gaarh Marsh Tribe’s greatest guardian was moving. The huge thing that you could mistake for a hill, so still it had been. Now, it walked.

It rose above them all, even the Rocs and Garsine Wallbreaker. A figure of earth and swamps. The greatest power of the old world.

Earth Elemental.

 

—-

 

Merish felt the thing with each step. He gazed up at the Gaarh Marsh’s protector. He saw the Earth Elemental stop.

The great elemental was not shaped like a Gnoll, or a humanoid, really. It was too squat. Yet it had limbs. He had heard tell there were smaller ones in times past, and they could change shape.

That they were intelligent was also a given; the Earth Elementals, like Treants of old, were great, natural protectors. Guardians of nature, which could doom cities if roused to wrath.

All that Merish knew. Yet, as the living piece of earth halted, Gnolls moved back, wary, like people around an unpredictable animal.

They underestimated it. Merish did too. For he saw a line split across the Earth Elemental’s body. Not where a mouth would be on a regular creature; along its belly.

Yet it was a mouth. It moved. The Earth Elemental pointed one limb at the Raskghar.

It spoke.

RASKGHAR.

Merish heard the emotion in that single word. Wrath, fury—an implacable hatred that reached back far past the days he had been born—all delivered in the immortal tones of grinding earth, the very squelch of mud, the shifting of the firmament itself.

The monsters flinched at that. The Earth Elemental walked forwards further, raising a huge limb. The Gaarh Marsh tribe ran around it, trying to calm its wrath.

Was it going to slaughter them? Merish didn’t think even Garsine could stop this great creature’s wrath. The Raskghar flinched, almost resigned to their fate.

They could have died in that moment, surrounded by so many Gnolls feeling the ancient grudge amplify the old stories and nightmares carried among the tribes. The Earth Elemental was moving, the Gnolls tensed.

Then a howl disrupted the Elemental’s movement. It slowed, and the last great tribe appeared. Merish began to walk forwards, following the first Gnoll as he walked through the ranks of the [Shamanic Warriors].

The [Shaman] stared ahead with mismatched eyes. He had removed the eye patch that normally covered the unnatural eye. He walked forwards, and the Raskghar focused on him. Then looked away.

They couldn’t help it.

The Plain’s Eye [Shaman] of [Shamans], greatest of them all, advanced, his eyes unwavering. Gaze into the eyes of the Shaman of the Eternal Grassland. The Raskghar shuddered. For his eyes recognized them. His eyes had seen Raskghar before.

One eye had.

The [Shaman] stopped, and the last figure approached. Merish felt him coming. A familiar feeling. He straightened, and locked eyes with the Gnoll as he passed by for a moment. He saw the lips move, the words unspoken, but there.

Old stories, Merish.

Something—walked with the greatest Chieftain, leader of Merish’s tribe. Chieftain Xherw halted next to his [Shaman]. The Gnolls regarded each other, then turned as one to face the Raskghar.

The beasts of Liscor’s dungeon quailed. Thus, the Raskghar came to the Meeting of Tribes. Merish saw Garsine snarling, the implacable wariness of Iraz. The wary battle lust of the Woven Bladegrass Chieftain and her people.

Thereafter, he realized, the Meeting of Tribes could not be the same. He felt it in his bones as he looked for Viri. A calling back to war.

 

—-

 

The day the Raskghar arrived at the Meeting of Tribes caused chaos. Not productive chaos, mind you.

It reminded Krshia too much of how Liscor had dealt with the first attacks. A lot of condemnation, outrage, and unity—but no resolution. The tribes united against the Raskghar threat. Thereafter?

Splintered. The great meetings with the Chieftains were about to begin, and it became clear that the Raskghar issue, the tribes going to Chandrar, the Antinium, would be among the contentious issues discussed.

For instance, Az’muzarre wanted the Raskghar dead. They would execute them within seconds if they got their paws on them, which was why Az’muzarre wasn’t given responsibility to guard them. That fell to a joint task-force while the Raskghar’s fate was decided.

A lot of tribes wanted them dead, but the cool-headed ones wanted to know all there was to know first. One side effect of the Raskghar arriving was that it thrust Pallass into the limelight. The Walled City had as many grudges with and against the tribes as any Drake city, but this certainly helped their image. Then again—others wondered if this was a ploy, to distract the tribes.

Silverfang’s involvement with the Raskghar was far more of a net positive, and Krshia and Akrisa were invited to tribe after tribe to re-tell the story of the Raskghar raids.

That was how their tribe finally worked its way into the fore of the Meeting of Tribes, rubbing ears with even the biggest and best. And there were a lot of stronger tribes. Silverfang was good.

Compared to the legends of Gnolls, Krshia recalled they weren’t superior. But good.

Good…at what Silverfang did.

“Hrr. Are these Silverfang’s chief warriors? Well met.”

The Wild Wastes Chieftain looked the Gnolls armed with silver-alloy weapons up and down. They had no fancy names like the marsh guardians or shamanic warriors of other tribes, and were not a recognized class or force.

They were…[Silverarms Warriors]. As in, you literally carried silver. And presumably this helped with the stabbing or fighting.

It actually did, a bit. Silverfang’s warriors were quite good at fighting mage-barriers and the like. They were a reason no Drake city picked a fight with their tribe lightly.

On the other hand…the [Silverarms Warriors] stood behind Akrisa and Krshia and tried not to sweat as they eyed their counterparts from the Wild Wastes Tribe, a tribe known for their combat prowess.

[Barbarians]. [Berserkers]. Gnolls who somehow contrived to outweigh their Silverfang counterparts by sheer height or muscle, despite the armor the Silverfangs wore. The likes of Honored Berr, Berr the Berserker, were cut from the Wild Wastes Tribe.

Chieftain Perale was bare-chested, sitting in a loincloth to greet the Silverfang’s delegation. Akrisa, the technical junior in age as well as her tribe’s might, dipped her head slightly.

“Chieftain Perale, you honor us.”

“The honor is mine, Chieftain Akrisa. Please, share our fire and hospitality. Ah—what is this?”

He sniffed the air and some of his bodyguards—a lot less professional-looking than the Silverfangs, some lounging around, but decidedly more deadly—perked their heads up. Akrisa gestured. Baskets heaped with snacks were brought out.

“Merely some refreshments. Let us share in it, Chieftain Perale.”

He grinned.

“Silverfang is generous! Then we shall talk of Raskghar—and eat like [Princes], yes?”

Krshia sat, among the Honored Gnolls, close to her sister, but able to glance around. The Wild Wastes tribe was fascinating to the [Royal Shopkeeper]. Mainly because of a few things.

Wild Wastes. Mighty Gnolls who had actual [Barbarian] classes, the theoretical basis of the ‘savage Gnolls’ stereotype. In truth, they were quite civilized, albeit traditionalists, who roamed to the far northeast of Liscor, along the mountains of the High Passes. They did crazy things like fight cows, climb mountains, and often took work as [Mercenaries]. They had herds, and other goods, but they were known for being among the best fighters in close combat.

Honored Berr waved at Krshia, and turned back to a small group of far-younger Gnolls, each one marked with a [Berserker]’s dyes. He bore few decorations, and his warriors, despite being some of the best of his tribe, were simply armored, with enchanted weapons…little to no armor.

Here was the interesting thing: the Wild Wastes tribe was poor. Or, they had little gold to spend, an important distinction.

Krshia saw it everywhere. When they had asked to meet, Chieftain Perale had instantly volunteered to host them. It might have been a power-play, but now Krshia thought it was so they could offer the fire, tents, and limited refreshments. Traditionally, the visiting tribe brought gifts.

The snacks from Liscor, including cookies and new items from Erin’s inn, but also including snacks purchased or made by the Silverfang tribe vanished fast. The Wild Wastes Gnolls literally stuffed everything they could grab into their pockets or belt pouches—or mouths. They looked at Silverfang, and Krshia saw them eying the jewelry many of her tribe wore, their clothing, with a bit of envy.

“Ah, Chieftain Akrisa, such good snacks. Sometimes I envy tribes who trade more with cities.”

Perale confided, the older Gnoll scratching at a battle-scar under his fur. After the greetings were done, he was quite retiring.

“Wild Wastes has its charm, Chieftain Perale.”

Akrisa tried to be diplomatic. Perale just laughed.

“Charm is not a replacement for money! Whenever we leave our homes, I feel poor. When we return, I will feel all is fine. When we win a war or battle? I will feel rich! For about six days. Then all the gold vanishes.”

He grinned. His tribe had lots of [Mercenaries]; hence, Krshia supposed their income was very random.

“Surely the Wild Wastes tribe is not that poor. Your [Warriors] are known Izril-over.”

Krshia spoke up when she had an opening, as her position allowed. The Wild Wastes Gnolls chuckled. Perale rolled his eyes.

“That lot? Honored Krshia, from Liscor, yes? You overestimate my warriors. Fierce in battle—lazy at home. They train, yes. They practice and fight, and eat without doing much. And when they break each other’s bones, who has to pay for healing potions?”

He jerked a thumb at one of his head warriors. The Gnoll called out, completely unabashed.

“We hit things, you make decisions, Chieftain.”

“So they say. Silverfang has Gnolls who can work jobs that pay. My Gnolls? Many earn money only a fraction of the time.”

Perale sighed. Silverfang was clearly richer than their tribe. Which made Krshia feel they had some ground to stand on. A tribe like the Wild Wastes could use a rich friend, and Silverfang a powerful ally.

But they were just introducing themselves today, so Krshia let Akrisa and Perale talk and walked the camp after she’d told Perale about the Raskghar. He listened intently, growling at hearing the sacrifices, but it was clearly not news; Krshia suspected her story had made the rounds everywhere, but Gnolls liked to hear it from her lips.

She talked to the one Gnoll she did know in the camp. Honored Berr. He was the oldest Gnoll she saw still acting as a [Warrior]. His fur was grey, and he was short.

Unless he chose to grow. He stood like a dwarf-Gnoll among a group of giant, far-younger [Warriors] in their twenties or thirties at the latest. Krshia nodded as he smiled. Berr was scarfing down cookies he somehow had a dozen of.

“Honored Berr. Are these Gnolls all your apprentices?”

He shrugged as the Gnolls sniffed at Krshia, nodding to her, also chowing down.

“My apprentices—and offspring. That’s my son. And that one. And that one…hrr, they were all boys. Eleven. Strange, eh?”

He pointed out three Gnolls among the warriors standing around him. One, with blonde fur, tall, handsome, and a scar running from the ear down along his neck, gave Krshia a smile. He was like a Gnoll out of stories, and some of the Silverfang Gnolls were giving him admiring looks.

Krshia just grinned. Honored Berr gestured around.

“Isn’t it annoying? They crowd me so, so I like to leave my tribe. Shoo!”

He pushed at his son, irritably, but the tall Gnoll just rested his chin on Berr’s head.

“Father, we have to learn from you. Such an honored Gnoll. Give us wisdom.”

“Don’t mock old Gnolls. Here is wisdom!”

Berr ducked, swung a fist up, and hit his son in the chin. The Gnoll went cross-eyed and staggered, and then swiped at Berr. The [Berserker] was already gone, and the others laughed uproariously.

[Berserkers]. [Barbarians]. What was amazing was that they weren’t all Gnolls. The laughter cut off as one of the warriors apprenticed to Berr came forwards. He had emerged from the guest tents, rather than greet the Silverfangs.

He didn’t even notice Krshia, as he fell to his knees in front of Honored Berr. The female Gnoll started and stared. The other Gnolls fell silent as a tear-stained man, seven feet tall, as muscular as Grimalkin—almost—sank to his knees. His eyes were red; his scarred arms reached out as Berr stopped jesting and turned to him, gravely.

“Master. I ask you to teach me, now. I have rested from my journey, and I must learn or go mad.”

“Hrm. Solen, isn’t it?”

Two companions came out of the tents and joined the Human man. They were all Humans, similarly strong, but wearing armor. Their accents were…Terandrian?

“I apologize, honored Berr. He would not rest.”

One of the men spoke, clumsily adding the title. Solen ignored his friends. He reached out, supplicating. To…Berr.

“I have…I have taken too much blood, master. When the pounding is too loud—it consumes everything. Already, the crimson sin knows my name. I cannot live like this. I will slay all I love. Can I be cured? Can the beast inside me be tamed?”

Krshia’s fur rose slightly. She looked at the [Berserker], and finally noticed something that wasn’t a scar on his cheek. An ashen brand; a tattoo in his flesh. It looked like a slave-marking, but if he was from Terandria…she took a step back.

[Berserker]. One didn’t have to guess what blood he had taken by accident. Yet why had he come here?

For Berr. The small Gnoll looked up, unafraid, though even his sons and the other Wild Wastes Gnolls were wary. He laid a paw on Solen’s shoulder.

“There is a way. I will teach you what you must know, Solen. Now…no. If you cannot wait, please excuse me, Honored Krshia. We will begin the first lesson.”

The man clutched at Berr’s paw, the light of hope in his eyes.

“Thank you, master.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m not…well, don’t call me that.”

Berr gently led the man away. Respectfully, the others watched and the two lesser [Berserkers] followed. Krshia was curious.

“They come to Honored Berr to teach them to master their tempers?”

She turned to his son. The Gnoll grinned.

“My father? Of course. He is calm. A rare thing in our class. This lot came from distant Terandria. That one—he killed his father in battle-rage.”

He nodded at Solen. Krshia was struck again, with sympathy, wariness—and also curiosity.

Now that she thought of it, she had never seen Berr lose his temper. Even in that fight with Inkar and the others, he had seemed like he was having fun. Even when the Raskghar came and half the Gnolls were in a frenzy—if she didn’t know his class, she would have never guessed it.

She went back to the discussions just in time to see Akrisa rise to her feet. Perale was standing too, and Krshia feared some offense had been given. But both Gnolls turned to her.

“Krshia. There she is.”

Akrisa pointed. A panting Gnoll turned to her. It was…Beilmark? She was supposed to be with the Silverfangs.

“What is wrong? Beilmark?”

The Senior Guardswoman looked at Krshia. She spoke, her voice ragged from sprinting here.

“Krshia. It’s Liscor! It’s Mrsha. She’s been kidnapped.”

 

—-

 

It was a game of catch-up. News travelled—but always too slowly. Krshia Silverfang and her tribe learned of the attack on Liscor after it had happened, after Mrsha had been kidnapped, too late. They reacted—but slowly.

In the same way, Wil Kallinad felt how far he was from the action when the call came for him. The Order of Seasons rode to war against Ailendamus, and he was far too far from his home kingdom to help if Pheislant had to fight.

Even this…he turned to Yerranola, limping along next to him.

“The Professor. I can’t believe he’s in trouble. Why’d he go to Izril alone? Isn’t he the one who always says ‘don’t take stupid risks’?”

She slowed, resting an arm against a tent pole. Wil felt bad and slowed, but Yerranola just kept walking after a moment. She was still…stiff in her body, which was something he had never seen in a Selphid. She bared her teeth at him; she had a Gnoll body to blend in.

“Maybe, but the Professor’s not always careful, Wil. This sounds like something he’d do—but are we going?”

“I don’t know. Let’s see what the others say.”

Wil kept on. He had received a communique from ‘home’, that was, the academy. No less than Professor Perorn had written to him. Him and the students here. Asking if they would join in…what?

She hadn’t specified. A search, or a rescue mission. Perhaps combat. Wil wasn’t an idiot. He knew that if she was reaching out to them, there might be trouble indeed for the Forgotten Wing Company. One of his classmates said that the entire academy was in a furor. Something was going down on Baleros.

And here they were, enjoying the Meeting of Tribes. Which was the point! Heal Yerranola, help/watch Feshi gain the approval of the other tribes, and enjoy themselves.

They had been doing just that, today. Wil and Yerranola arrived just in time to see what was, by now, a regular start to their day in the Meeting of Tribes.

Venaz losing.

There were worse ways to start your day. Of course, Venaz could later ruin it by being surly or challenging you—or denying he’d lost, but a good Venaz-defeat put a smile on Wil’s face, even now. There was something about the Minotaur’s superior attitude that invited it.

Only he’d consistently choose to lose like this, as well. The Minotaur lay face-down in the mud. He came to after a second.

“Eight losses each morning. What will it be tomorrow, Minotaur?”

An amused voice called out. One of the Gnolls watching, a tall one even by the standards of their kind, chortled. Venaz sat up, blinking.

“Easy—you idiot.”

Merrik and Peki hurried forwards. They checked Venaz, but he wasn’t concussed—just knocked out. He swigged a bit of healing potion, spat out some blood, and looked around.

“Chess. Chess tomorrow, again. I nearly had the timing right.”

“Sure you did.”

Merrik rolled his eyes. The Gnolls laughed. But it was the tallest of them, the giant who’d laid Venaz low with a single punch, who bent down.

“I do not see the desire behind your actions, Venaz of the House of Minos. I hope I did not hurt you?”

If there was anything to wound the Minotaur’s pride…he took the paw slowly, and was effortlessly lifted to his feet. Wil stopped as the second-tallest Gnoll in the entire Meeting of Tribes lifted Venaz up.

Gireulashia Ekhtouch and some members of her tribe surrounded Venaz, as tall, or taller than the Minotaur. Superior Gnolls…bred to be superior. And Gireulashia herself was the best among them.

A [Paragon]. Venaz spat again, a bit of blood landing on the ground. He bowed slightly to the female Gnoll, and snapped.

“I am not hurt, Honored Gireulashia. But I insist on another try! Tomorrow. If you are willing, of course.”

She nodded. Wil stared up at her. Magnificent red-brown fur, nine feet tall, and strong enough to knock a Minotaur flat with a punch—she was an Ekhtouch among Ekhtouch.

“I still fail to see the point, Honored Venaz. I am using my Skill. [Superiority Made Manifest]. By definition, all that you do shall be inferior to my action.”

“I know. And yet—I deny it! I will best your Skill.”

Venaz ground his teeth together and winced; her punch had knocked something loose. Wil shook his head as he joined the party.

“Are you still trying to prove you can best her in some way, Venaz?”

The Minotaur had tried for eight days straight to beat the [Paragon]’s Skill. It had been throwing yesterday, a game of chance the day before…he harrumphed at Wil.

“You’re late. You should have seen the punch I threw so you could analyze it. I had my guard up—”

“She punched him silly. Nothing to see, just hilarity.”

Peki announced. The [Martial Artist] demonstrated.

“Straight punch. Venaz could have done better.”

“It was a classic punch.”

“I can throw a better one.”

The Garuda mocked the taller, heavier Minotaur. Venaz growled, but didn’t dare Peki to prove it; she was the best hand-to-hand fighter there, with the possible exception of Gireulashia.

“Until tomorrow, Venaz. Greetings, Wil Kallinad, Yerranola.”

She bowed slightly and strode away, as the Ekhtouch fell into a kind of procession around her. Gnolls turned to stare as the [Paragon] departed.

“I don’t know why she humors you, Venaz.”

Merrik grumbled. He massaged his neck from staring up at all the tall Gnolls. Venaz shrugged.

“She respects Feshi’s tribe. I have to prove I can beat her Skill. The implications of a Skill just…exceeding someone? Could she do it to the Professor?”

“Maybe. That’s why she’s the Ekhtouch’s pride. It’s a great Skill. No matter who appears—she can best them.”

“But can she best…something she’s never done? Maybe I should ask her to prove it with…magic? I don’t know magic, damn. How about an activity…”

Venaz broke off, scheming. He was fascinated by Gireulashia. Yerranola just laughed.

“Besotted by the first person taller, stronger, and better than you, Venaz?”

The others grinned too. Venaz’s head rose. He looked after Gireulashia, still visible in the distance.

“What? Do you think I fall for the first tall-legged person I meet? That athleticism equates to love? For shame, Yerranola. That’s shallow. She’s not my type. Too young as well. I prefer…strength of character.”

“Sure.”

The others laughed. But Wil remained silent. He cleared his throat.

“Venaz. Did you get the message from Perorn about…the Professor?”

Venaz stopped. He looked at Wil, and then gestured to his bare hand.

“I took my rings off for the contest. Let me put on some privacy artifacts. Then talk.”

Wil nodded. The others went sober at once.

 

—-

 

Something had to be done. Krshia met with Akrisa, Beilmark, and other senior Gnolls of the Silverfang tribe. Krshia was distraught, upset, frightened of the reports of the strange [Witch].

“We must send aid back, sister! Chieftain!”

She implored Akrisa. Her older sister held up a steadying paw.

“Of course we must, Krshia. However, it may be best to appoint Silverfangs from Liscor who…know…Mrsha. I am also not about to order Gnolls to race hundreds of miles north if there are better trackers on the job. You said acquaintances and her guardians are already on her trail.”

“Yes, but…”

It was hard for Krshia to explain just how bad of a group was going after Mrsha—even if Akrisa would have believed her.

“The problem is, this little Mrsha cannot be scried, and her trail is apparently hard to follow, even by scent. We are far from Pallass.”

Cetrule pointed out. Beilmark paced.

“I’m informed a [Tracker] from 4th Company has joined the rescue operation, but there must be something we can do. Is there no one in Silverfang who can quickly go north?”

“We are not a tribe known for speed. What I can do is ask other tribes to lend their aid. A tribe around Pallass…the issue is not that, Krshia. Sister?”

Krshia jerked upright from visions of Erin. Lyonette. She had told Lyonette that Mrsha would be safe here! The inn…little Mrsha…who had done it? She looked at Akrisa.

“What? Anyone who can help would be welcome.”

“Yes…”

Akrisa let the word linger. She looked at Cetrule.

“But Mrsha is the little white Gnoll, yes? The one you intend to plead before the Meeting of Tribes? That complicates things. It would—not be wise—for some Gnolls who might help to encounter her.”

Krshia’s fur rose slightly. She swung her head from Cetrule to Akrisa.

“They wouldn’t kill her out of turn, would they? Akrisa, when Brunkr came, he was violent, but not every Gnoll would be so…”

Murderous? Akrisa pointedly didn’t reply. She rested her paws on the table.

“I am concerned for the child’s safety. But sister. I am more concerned about the Gnolls who attacked the inn. Gnolls with no tribe’s markings. Yet Plains Gnolls. Which tribe is that?”

Krshia felt an uneasy sensation in her stomach. A tribe had sent…? She looked from Akrisa to Cetrule. The [Shaman] cleared his throat.

“I can inquire, Chieftain Akrisa. That may be more important. I fear for the child, Krshia. But if a tribe knew she was a white Gnoll and sent those Gnolls…the Meeting of Tribes might be more dangerous than wherever she is.”

Which tribe? Krshia could only nod as Beilmark swung her head from face to face.

 

—-

 

At the same time, Wil and his friends held conference. They faced a similar problem, albeit from a different angle. Wil had a map of Izril and it was dismayingly large.

“Here’s the High Passes where some adventurers claim to have run into the Professor. Here’s Invrisil, where he appeared. For reference, that’s a search area four hundred miles across.

Venaz snorted.

“You’re exaggerating, Wil. We know the Professor travelled via door to Liscor. Here. It stands to reason he’d stay near civilization.”

Wil glowered at Venaz. He was the best at logistics. He tapped the pin where Gold-rank teams had claimed to meet the Professor—and taken heavy casualties. Three Gold-ranks were dead, in the skirmishes, or the monster attacks afterwards.

“How did he get to the High Passes then, Venaz? Wayward teleportation spell? Fleeing the first group? He could be anywhere there.”

“And it’s literally like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Yerranola laughed. The others glared at her, and the Selphid raised her hands.

“What? Oh, come on. It’s hilarious. Right? He’s the hardest person in the world to find.”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny.”

Merrik rolled his eyes, but the others were glad to see Yerranola in high spirits. Feshi chewed on her lip.

“I don’t understand why the Professor came to Izril in the first place. Did Perorn say why?”

“The answer is obvious. His mysterious chess partner.

Venaz opined. Wil fell silent, but a surge of excitement rose in his chest.

“Yes, it has to be that. Or—he wanted to meet that Drake who published some of the games. Olesm. Liscor. It’s around Liscor we’d find him. Damn shame it’s so far. Even if we went to Pallass…are we going to go after him?”

Merrik folded his arms. He looked around at the students.

Feshi the Weatherfur Gnoll, Wil Kallinad of Pheislant, the [Lord]. Peki from Pomle, a [Martial Artist], standing next to Yerranola, a Selphid of Baleros who leaned on her shoulder.

Venaz from the House of Minos. All talented [Strategists]…but students still. They had already survived a perilous battle at sea.

“What can we do? If there are [Mercenaries] for hire—we’d still be looking for a needle in a grassland, no offense to the Professor. Especially if he doesn’t want to be found. We’ll also be up against the Great Companies—at the very least their agents! Professionals!”

“Professionals against [Strategists] with three Relic-class weapons, Wil. Or are you forgetting this?”

Venaz indicated the diamond greatsword on his back. Wil felt the sword at his side, and Feshi moved her paw to the dagger at her belt.

The Diamond Swords of Serept. Khelt’s treasure. Merrik stroked his beard.

“So what I’m hearing, Venaz, is that you’re an even bigger liability.”

“Yes. No. What?

The Minotaur turned on Merrik. The Dwarf [War Leader] gave Venaz a critical look.

“You have a Relic-class artifact, so that means every [Bounty Hunter] and [Thief] will go after us. Feshi’s tribe is a deterrent here—elsewhere?”

“I have a sword that casts [Haste] on me whenever I draw it!”

“Sure, sure. All I’m saying is—there are better candidates for that. You’re not exactly a Level 40 [Warrior]. You’re a [Strategist]. I’d do better with it, honestly.”

“You? You can’t even swing it properly! It’s longer than you are!”

“Don’t be heightist, Venaz.”

The arguing banter between the students reminded Wil of home, yet this was serious. Feshi realized it too, and knocked her paw on the table.

“You two, stop arguing. Focus. This isn’t a game. They must be desperate if they are reaching out to us, even as a contingency.”

Merrik and Venaz fell silent and both grudgingly nodded. Feshi was concerned, but Yerranola coughed and grinned.

“Yet—don’t you see, everyone? I see the greatest opportunity for us here.”

They all looked at the Selphid. She’d endured terrible poison, but somehow, despite still needing treatments from the faerie-flower painkillers and antidotes, she grinned. Wil…was relieved to see her smile.

“How so, Yerra?”

Peki tilted her head. She was the least strategic-minded of the lot, being in the officer-classes. Yerra elaborated.

“There are more high-level individuals here than you could find in any great city in the world regularly. Mercenaries? Entire tribes known for their battle prowess are sitting about with nothing to do. And if we did rescue the Professor—that’s definitely worth top marks, right? How much is the favor of a Great Company of Baleros worth, eh, Feshi?”

The Gnoll blinked. The others looked at each other, feeling the same call to adventure. Until Venaz muttered, sotto voce.

“Assuming the Professor isn’t more valuable as a hostage.”

The others glowered at him, but Feshi nodded.

“You’re right, Venaz. There is a chance. I just don’t know if Weatherfur will take it…but we can ask. Let me talk to my Chieftain. If we decided to go and search, we could take a small group. Max movement Skills, horses? How much could we pay?”

The others glanced at each other. Wil sighed.

“I can ask my family for an advance, but war in Pheislant…”

Venaz nodded.

“I’ll pull funds from my account at the Merchant’s Guild. All I can muster; nearly ten thousand gold. That’s all I was allocated.”

“I can throw in a few hundred gold too.”

Merrik’s hand rose. Feshi did some quick notations. Yerra grimaced.

“I can do uh, a hundred gold?”

They looked at Feshi, who had already added her income. Peki raised her wing-hand proudly.

“I am poor.”

Merrik patted her on the arm. Peki slapped his hand down.

“Don’t pat me.”

They nodded at each other and made to leave the private guest-tent. Feshi was jotting down notes.

“We could recompense some Weatherfur warriors. Not the best, but if I add in horses—are we moving fast or do we want a fighting force? Maybe we could purchase…”

They stopped in the middle of the Weatherfur Tribe’s camp. A bit of a commotion had occurred when they were planning out a possible rescue. A bunch of Gnolls had come to the Weatherfur Tribe. They had clearly been allowed in, but their very presence had quite a lot of Weatherfur’s colorful Gnolls with their dyed fur staring.

No less than the Chieftain of their tribe, Torishi, was greeting them, under a halo of light from the sky, the manifestation of her weather aura. Wil blinked.

He knew these Gnolls. Or one of them. Torishi called out to Feshi.

“Niece! You have guests. They claim to have an appointment with you. I hope you are not going to make them wait?”

She looked pointedly at one of the Gnolls, who was scarfing down refreshments. Feshi blinked.

“Chieftain. But I didn’t call for…”

She stared as the little Gnoll swung himself to his feet. He grinned, and motioned to the Gnolls—and three Humans. They fell into step as they approached Feshi, Wil, and the others.

Honored Berr’s grin was wide as could be.

“Feshi did not call us, Chieftain Torishi. But we are here, yes? Hello, children. I am Honored Berr. Do you remember me?”

He waved at Venaz. The Minotaur shuffled behind Peki. Of course they recognized him.

“Of course, Honored Berr. Can we help you?”

Feshi bowed slightly. She looked at him and the others—the Wild Wastes’ finest warriors. Honored Berr scratched at his belly. He stared at her. Then smiled.

“I am Berr. We know each other, yes?”

He…repeated himself? It was such an odd thing to say, all the [Strategists] looked at each other.

“Er—yes, Honored Berr. Can we help you? We did not call you.”

The Gnoll nodded. Then he tilted his head.

“I am Berr. These are [Berserkers], by the way.”

Was he going senile? Wil hesitated, feeling a bit uneasy by the odd way the Gnoll kept repeating his name, reintroducing himself. Then he heard an oath.

It came from Merrik. The Dwarf figured it out first and stroked his beard furiously. His eyebrows bobbed up and down. The others glanced at him.

“What, Merrik? Did you call him?”

“Not me. But we don’t need to. Honored Berr. Wild Wastes. I think we just ran into a high-level Skill. Used by [Mercenaries].

Yerranola’s brows shot all the way back up. Everyone whirled around. Torishi gave her niece a stare, but Feshi was flabbergasted.

“…We can’t hire Berr! Merrik, you’re joking. That’s not—”

She turned. Honored Berr grinned wide as could be. The Gnolls behind him perked up. One of them flexed an arm—the other slapped his shoulder. Berr peered from student to student, a happy smile on his face.

“Can’t hire me? Why not? How much gold do you have?”

His eyes twinkled with excitement as the students looked at each other.

 

—-

 

High-level Gnolls. Strange plans. Strange designs.

The first arguments over the Raskghar spilled into discussions about Pallass.

“Pallass wants a universal peace treaty with the Meeting of Tribes?”

The rumor was in among a lot of milling warriors from various tribes. Apparently, no less than Chaldion had asked for a mass-treaty since all the tribes were here. The Raskghar were a token of good-will.

Someone spoke, a Plain’s Eye [Warrior].

“Peace with a Walled City would be fine. My tribe is at peace and Pallass’ gold fills our pouches. If the Chieftains effect it, we could do away with other tribes causing trouble for us all.”

The remark was aimed at a Woven Bladegrass Gnoll. She pushed herself up with a growl.

“So says a tribe afraid of Pallass. Will you let them push us around, take our lands and tell us ‘this is Drake property’?”

She slapped her chest.

“Let them come! We all know what Lemol and these cities have done to Gnoll tribes! Do you not remember the Kedarune tribe’s fate? How Drake armies drove off Grovelind’s people from their vineyards they had tended for nearly eight decades over petty laws those cities made?”

“Ancient history!”

Another Gnoll barked back. Someone else slapped him on the shoulder, provoking a growl, but the third Gnoll was big enough to make the rest back down.

“I say the Woven Bladegrass’ Chieftain has the right of it. We bow to Drake law and their armies in every part of Izril. Will we bow to their armies here? At this time? Do you think Pallass sending their army here, even to ‘escort’ the Raskghar, isn’t suspicious? Eh?”

The warriors fell silent. They turned to the third Gnoll, who was impressive, a strong Gnoll. No visible tribe’s markings, but there were wanderers as well as every tribe.

It was one discussion of many, but now the question had been posed…the third Gnoll kept speaking.

“There are too many designs on the Meeting of Tribes this time for my liking. I have been to the last one, when I was a cub, yes? But the Walled Cities never dared interrupt us before. It feels like many foreign powers are attempting to influence us. Or have you not heard of the King of Destruction’s representative?”

The other Gnolls looked at each other. Many hadn’t heard about that. One laughed.

“Designs on the Meeting of Tribes from foreign powers? What could they want? And the King of Destruction’s representative? What is he representing, a burnt pinecone? I heard that’s all that’s left of him.”

There were laughs, but the big Gnoll gave the other a reproving look. The Woven Bladegrass [Warrior] gave the unknown speaker an approving look.

“You have good points, [Warrior]. What tribe are you from?”

“None. I am a [Sellsword]. Among other things.”

“Then join our tribe for the night. Our Chieftain admires any Gnoll who speaks with conviction. Perhaps she will meet you. She will not like hearing about other powers; she does not like this Pallass army any more than you. How are you called?”

The other Gnolls broke up, some thoughtful, others shaking their heads. The Gnoll clasped paws with the female Gnoll.

“Me? Keras…il. Kerasil.”

She laughed and gestured. The Gnoll walked with her. He thought he’d done that well, but he kept forgetting his name. Yet if he met the Woven Bladegrass’ Chieftain…or should he win one of the martial tournaments yet? Perhaps tomorrow.

Kerash scratched at his neck, wondering if his Master was watching. Then his head swiveled.

Someone was watching him.

Even here, Kerash had seen powerful living beings. It was almost like there were worthy foes among the living, unlike how Venitra and Ijvani talked about the ‘inferior flesh-things’. Kerash had been…impressed…by all the Gnolls who had confronted the Raskghar.

He rather liked it here. Something called to him. He didn’t know what. But he was wary, because his master had warned him about the potential for discovery.

Who was watching him? As he followed the Woven Bladegrass’ representative, Kerash spotted the watcher.

A metal Gnoll? He slowed, and stared. One of the Honored Warriors of the Steelfur Tribe. One of the names he had memorized.

Adetr Steelfur. Kerash felt the Gnoll’s Skill touching him. Trying to learn something.

It wouldn’t work. The undead Gnoll’s mind raced.

A probing Skill. Master warned me about them. I am warded against such things. Keep calm. Do not react. Bow?

He inclined his head slightly. Adetr snorted, nodded once, and turned away. Kerash kept walking.

Keep to my Master’s plan. All is well. Enjoy myself. Master, how am I supposed to do that?

“Do you use that axe well, Kerasil? Or is it for show? Perhaps you can show me after this.”

The Woven Bladegrass Gnoll teased. Kerash bared his teeth. He forgot his worries.

“I am among the best you will ever meet.”

“Oh? You’ll have to prove that!”

The undead walked forwards. This was a bit fun after all. Far better than being taught by that rude skeleton.

 

—-

 

Someone who was not enjoying the Meeting of Tribes sat cross-legged, in the middle of her tribe. Her small tribe—but not a weak tribe.

Ekhtouch, perfection made manifest, the tribe whose children were without flaw, who comingled and produced the finest of each species…were a boring tribe. They tended to be aloof when meeting other tribes.

They did not intermingle freely. They certainly did not comingle in any way that could lead to offspring without their Chieftain’s permission. In a sense, each Ekhtouch was like a work of art.

And works of art were boring. Like paintings hanging on walls. They ate regimented meals. They trained themselves to be the best at what they did. They aspired to have children who were even more superior.

But what happened if you were the pinnacle of all things? The allegedly superior Gnoll, who could not be matched? The answer was…you were bored. Especially if you were Gireulashia Ekhtouch.

She sat cross-legged in the camp, watched by the children and adults alike. If she was hungry, someone would instantly prepare her food. If she desired a sparring partner—well, they would line up to be punched, like that funny Minotaur.

To be honest, Gireulashia preferred Venaz to her kin. He was strident, always asking questions about her Skills, and perceptive. Ekhtouch? Superior.

Of course, in theory, Gireulashia was one of them, but Ekhtouch had done too well with her. She was an anomaly, even among them.

Nine feet tall. Akin to half-Giants. It wasn’t just size, though; her mind was as sharp as a razor. She thought faster. She reacted quicker. She could even do things that lesser Gnolls struggled with.

For instance—she had stared at the ball of string in the festival, and picked the string that led to a prize unerringly. Ekhtouch had made much of that; proof positive of her eyes and mind.

…That other Gnoll had gotten the Centaur doll first, though. So she’d turned down the dagger, much to the stall owner’s relief. Gireulashia sighed, and shifted, but did not open her eyes as she ‘meditated’, or else her people would flock around her, asking what she wanted.

What she wanted was for them to leave her alone. Intellectually, she knew that would never happen. She was too valuable. Too…important.

[Paragon]. She was a giant among Gnolls, a queen among her kind. Greatest of the Ekhtouch bar none, and thus—greatest across this wide world among all Gnolls. Only the best of Chieftains and Named Adventurers could match her, and only by dint of deed and level, not simple…superiority.

She did not think it was arrogance to believe any of this. Already, Gireulashia had defeated countless Gnolls in sparring matches. She had beaten them in every contest imaginable, from races to strength to even displays of mental acumen.

If anything, her status weighed heavily on her. She had to be a leader. To inspire! Gireulashia Ekhtouch would lead her tribe in the decades to come. She might be mother to the greatest [Chieftain] of this era.

…It was a heavy burden. Too heavy for a fifteen year old girl.

Sometimes, Gireulashia, who preferred ‘Gire’ rather than her portentous name, thought even her tribe forgot how young she was. She spoke like an adult and thought with their complexity, but that was just how she was.

Other Gnolls had no idea, obviously assuming you didn’t get to her height without being at least fully-grown. They thought she was half again as old as she was, if they wondered at all.

Being treated like an adult, especially an attractive one, was not fun either for Gire. So many requests, subtle and otherwise, made her very uncomfortable. Only Venaz had instantly figured it out. When she had asked how, he had snorted.

“I’ve seen noble children surrounded by [Nursemaids] before. There is a difference between that, and an honor guard.”

“Honored Gireulashia. The Chieftain wishes you to meet another tribe. Will you attend?”

The Gnoll [Paragon] opened her eyes. She rose in one movement and nodded.

“Of course.”

Boredom took many forms. It was uncomfortable to meet the Gnoll [Chieftain] of the tribe who tried to introduce her to his fine son who was far too old. Or she too young.

Gire tried to hide behind the tallest Gnoll there, nearly a foot shorter than she was. She spoke, demonstrated her perfect etiquette, made an incisive comment, and slunk away as soon as she could.

They thought she was aloof. Some superior Gnoll who looked down on the others. Gire went into her tent and put her head under pillows custom-made for her.

“Honored Gireulashia, are you hungry? There is food if you require it.”

Someone bothered her no less than thirty four minutes later. Gire already knew it was time to eat, and they worried about her growth.

“Mm. I am content.”

“We shall put aside meals for you, then.”

The Gnoll bowed and retreated. ‘Honored Gire’ sat up. They had made her an Honored Gnoll before she was even grown. That was expectation for you.

She sulked. She hated sitting and making pleasant-talk with all the other important Gnolls and her [Chieftain] and [Shaman]. It was okay now and then, when tribes met, but that was every day in the Meeting of Tribes.

And she couldn’t act her age. Gire listened to Ekhtouch’s children playing. They were allowed to be children, even for the superior tribe. She rummaged around her private possessions and pulled out a doll.

She had really wanted the Centaur doll, but it did not become Honored Gire to ask for one, or carry one around in the Meeting of Tribes. That dratted Gnoll with the spectacles had gotten it. She’d heard him muttering; he hadn’t seen the lines of thread, but he’d used a Skill. He’d watched twenty six Gnolls take turns, then made his move a fraction before Gire could.

Had he counted the Gnolls, observed which strings they pulled and somehow extrapolated the right answer? It was a function of his class, but which class?

Gire’s mind sorted through factoids. Let’s see. His scent, location, and markings all indicated Plain’s Eye, as had the Gnolls he joined, despite his flashy dress. Plain’s Eye Tribe had few Gnolls of such description, but they were rumored to have…

a [Mathematician] of all classes

Her mind connected the dialogue she’d once heard in regard to rumors about that tribe. She matched the Gnoll to the class in less than a second, putting the clues together.

That was easy. It was just how she thought, which other Gnolls took to be supreme calculation. It was just…how she was born. Did other people applaud Gnolls for breathing? Gire was not proud of her attributes because they were not earned. Ekhtouch was wrong to place excessive pride in that, to her mind. There was a word for that. Hubris.

Her ears could pick out a fly rubbing its legs together fifty feet away. Her eyes could see tiny bugs and things other Gnolls didn’t believe existed, like the munching bugs that ate plant leaves.

…Which was terrible, really, especially in crowded places like this. Thankfully, Gire had long learned how to ‘adjust’ all her senses down to a normal Gnoll’s level of perception to prevent being overwhelmed. Even so, she had taken precautions for this event.

She removed a bit of beeswax she’d stuck in her ears in the privacy of her tent. That she could hear as well as ‘regular’ Gnolls despite that was also a virtue.

A curious sound made its way into her ears in the brief moment when the overload of countless voices and sound filled Gire’s ears. She could hear conversations, could eavesdrop on any conversation not warded if she chose, and she did not choose to hear such things. Too often, she could sort through the layers of sound and hear a Gnoll having a really bad, just explosive time in an outhouse.

Smell it too. However, this sound called to Gire because she had never heard it before. She blinked.

“What’s that?”

She rose from her tent. Gnolls instantly approached her with food, but Gire waved it off.

“I…am going to walk about the Meeting of Tribes.”

“We shall accompany—”

“No. I shall simply observe.”

The Ekhtouch Gnolls wavered.

“The Chieftain would not want you to be hurt, Honored Gireulashia.”

She fixed them with an arch glance.

“What could harm me here? Raskghar? Other Gnolls?”

Faced with that, they couldn’t rightly object. So Gire strode off before they could find the Chieftain and stop her. She wound her way through the Meeting of Tribes as Gnolls stopped. Pointed. She heard them.

“What is that? Ekhtouch?”

“She’s magnificent. So tall.

“I don’t even know if we’re the same species…”

That hurt her. Gire affected not to notice, her chin raised, posture perfect. She walked forwards, slowed, turned her head. Following the sound.

 

—-

 

She had to traverse the Meeting of Tribes for a while to hone in on it. It turned out the sound was coming from the ‘exterior’ of the camps, and Gire’s ability to use her hearing wasn’t perfect yet. Still, she eventually tracked it down to a foreign Gnoll’s camp and sighed.

It was hard to just walk in, so she pretended to be looking at activities. She waved away Gnolls who approached her, asking to talk, flirting, or just curious. She paused as she circumnavigated the ring of tents.

“Hmm. Hmm.”

Gire paused, and watched Gnolls playing a curious game with lengths of wood where you hit a ball and then ran around a diamond. She angled herself.

“…There.”

She leaned against a post of wood that could support her weight. In theory, to those who looked at her, she was watching the game.

In truth, she was staring into the other Gnoll’s camp. At a tent where the sound was coming from. Gire stared at the tent.

She stared through the tent.

Her eyes sharpened, piercing through the weave of fabric. It was hard to ‘see’ unless it was poor-quality cloth, but Gire could still put together a picture of what was happening inside. Again—she usually didn’t want to, as there were only a few things Gnolls did inside tents.

This time, though, she slowly pieced together two figures. She listened, focusing on the voices from within. It was hard, very hard, to tune out everything, but she eventually put together a picture in her mind.

Two individuals. One Gnoll—fur brown. Male voice? Female non-Gnoll. Can see skin…Human? Stitchfolk? Dullahan? Half-Elf?

“…so strange. Is it alright for me to see this?”

The Gnoll was speaking. The female one had a laugh in her voice. They were sitting together.

You know about me, and your aunt says it is alright, Tkrn.

Tkrn. Gire realized she was staring at Silverfang’s camp. She knew his name from Ekhtouch, who had journeyed with Silverfang’s tribe. A ‘Tkrn’ had been part of a brawl…

And it doesn’t run out of mana—power?

Not with the spell, Rose said. I don’t know what Krshia did! Everything is different. Even the data is…let me see.

Can you play another song?

Song. That was what she’d heard. But it had been different than even the song-crystals of the Singer of Terandria. A sound she had never heard.

She couldn’t see whatever they were staring at. Her eyes could see through holes in the fabric…but not actually pierce it completely.

She’d have to get closer. Gire rose, glancing ahead. There were walls of cloth or actual material that allowed tribes their privacy. She rotated her head, checking the camp.

The two were in a secluded spot at the back; there were sentries on the outside, but it was clear they were in private, far from anyone but her hearing. It would be hard for Gire to find an excuse to walk into the camp.

So she didn’t. She pretended to walk out of the Meeting of Tribes, as if she was going hunting or for a run. She checked the landscape around her.

Gnolls roaming the plains, playing games. Games of tag—she didn’t care what they were doing, only the positions of their heads.

Cones of sight. She waited, forming a picture of the lines of sight. Waiting, waiting…until the sentry nearest her glanced down at a bug crawling up her fur. Until all eyes were off her. Then Gire jumped.

She jumped straight over the wall of the Silverfang encampment. The Gnolls inside the camp never saw her land; she’d jumped such that the top of a tent hid her. She landed in a squat.

In theory, a nine-foot tall Gnoll was the most obvious thing in the world and impossible to hide. In theory.

Gire had Skills as a [Paragon]. Her class was one of those rare ones that encompassed countless areas; in time she might consolidate it. Like [Paragon Warrior] or [Paragon Chieftain].

At her young age, she had more general Skills. One of them—[Superiority Made Manifest]—was terrible. All it did was let her beat whatever someone was doing. A superior punch, a superior action…it required something to exist first.

She liked her other Skill better.

“[Perfect Action: Stealth Roll].”

A giant Gnoll flashed so fast past one tent to another that a sneezing Gnoll never saw her. [Basic Perfect Action]. If you could name a low-level Skill and Gire had seen it, she could do it too.

[Paragon].

She padded over to the tent where the two were and sat down. Now, without anyone realizing, she was right behind Inkar and Tkrn. She listened.

There are games too?

Tkrn exclaimed as he played a curious game. Gire craned her neck. Now she could see the bright screen, but it was at an angle as the two kept fiddling with it. What was that strange…light? She caught a flash of tiny, pixelated dots, a strange substance…but if she unfocused her eyes, it became a picture. How clever!

“Yes! Your paw isn’t working well.”

“It won’t let me press!”

“It was made for Human fingers.”

“That’s speciesist.”

Gire listened to the two. Flirting. You could even hear it in the pitch of their tones. She didn’t care about that. She was fascinated by the device. She edged closer. Damn this fabric! She wanted to see this wonderful…toy.

 

—-

 

The new iPhone was the latest model from Earth. It was a model invented after Inkar had left, which made it all the more impressive that Krshia had somehow managed to ‘upgrade’ her old one into it.

There was just one problem. There was no headphone jack anymore, and so Inkar and Tkrn had to play it out loud—away from curious Silverfangs. Well, his tent was at the back of the Silverfang camp, so they had elected to mess with it there.

It was a magnificent device. Inkar admired it more now that she was away from Earth’s industry. Smooth, Plexiglas screen. Beautiful details. A camera with such accuracy that Tkrn had insisted on taking pictures of everything and marveling at how he could ‘save’ what his eyes had seen.

…A shame there was no internet, and many apps were functionally useless. A shame Inkar didn’t have many movies or bits of data that were useful. Rose had wanted to bring a computer to ‘load’ movies and other things onto Inkar’s phone, but she’d given up when she heard it was an iPhone. Kevin had a Windows.

None of that made any sense to Tkrn, of course. This was just magic. Fun magic! Accessible magic, despite the touchscreen not liking his paws.

“Ooh, what’s that? What’s that? Press that app.”

Tkrn was already learning the lingo, unlike Krshia. Inkar laughed, lying next to him on cushions. They were very close.

“It’s ‘Podcasts’. Um…stories people read out, or conversations.”

“Let’s listen to one!”

“I don’t have any.”

“Oh.”

Inkar patted Tkrn on the shoulder. The [Worldly Traveller] smiled and pointed.

“Don’t worry. Look, I have all these little games.”

All the game-apps she’d installed to pass the time on train rides and so on were on the iPhone. Here was the curious thing that was important and useless: Krshia’s Skill had changed the software of her iPhone too.

Somehow, all the free apps she’d downloaded now thought she had paid for the full versions. Inkar did not like wasting money on such things, so it was a pleasant discovery, especially because no one would ever buy apps on this iPhone again—unless she went back to Earth.

“Let’s play that one! That game! What’s that game?”

“Um…tossing birds at buildings.”

“What? That’s hilarious. Let’s play. Why is that a game? Wait—never mind. I answered my own question.”

Inkar giggled. She had set the iPhone to ‘English’ instead of her native language since everyone apparently spoke and read it to some degree or another. No Kazakhstan peoples…just her.

It made her lonely, but she had good friends. A tribe who protected her. Deskie, Eska…and now Tkrn and Rose. Rose was interesting, a bit excitable—different.

Tkrn? She trusted Tkrn.

The two were playing as Tkrn let Inkar show him how to play, then tried it himself. It was so addictive, so fun. Inkar had played it many times—the free version, of course—but she found the lure of the electronic device was magnified for its uniqueness.

And it was just a fun game. They bent over the iPhone, arguing about placement. They played for minutes…then an hour…going through levels.

The problem was, Tkrn was bad at the game. He didn’t know how to use the touchscreen, and the paw-pads of Gnolls weren’t what this highly-sensitive touchscreen was customized for.

Inkar helped him out, more patient and amused by Tkrn than the game itself. He was a bit frustrated as he tried to get the best score on a level.

“Stop tossing it so high! You want to crash everything and hit that piggy, see? Poor piggy.”

Inkar heard Tkrn growl, annoyed.

“Is this special bird better? I hate that piggy. I want to cook and eat him. Ooh. That’s cool.”

“Ooh.”

Inkar grinned—but her smile turned curious after a second. Had she just heard…two oohs? Her hearing was enhanced by her Skill, but even so, it had been the softest sound.

She frowned, but Tkrn was struggling on the next level. He had spotted a way to win the entire level in one go, but predictably, it was a perfect shot, and he hadn’t figured out the geometry of the arc.

“Maybe here? No. Damn. Let me restart…here? No? No…”

Frustrated, he tapped on the phone, trying to figure out the right angle. Inkar was amused, and exasperated because he wouldn’t let her help.

“It’s a bit up! No, it’s not—let me help.”

“I’ve got it! I want to do it!”

“But you’re not aiming right.”

“I’ve nearly got it—”

Tkrn frowned at the screen. A furry finger reached out and tapped the screen. He blinked. But then he saw the little bird fly and topple everything and the screen rewarded him with a cheering explosion of light and sound.

Tkrn focused on that, then turned to Inkar as something occurred to him. He stared at her hands. Her fingers, long and distinctly not paw-like. He saw her head turned, eyes wide, mouth wide open.

The [Guardsman] slowly turned his head. He saw a giant Gnoll, looming over both of them, sitting right behind Inkar and Tkrn. She had somehow snuck into the tent and was so close her fur nearly brushed their backs without either noticing.

It was she who had been watching for the last hour, and unconsciously, unable to help herself, touched the iPhone. She stared at Tkrn. At Inkar. Gire came to her senses. Her eyes went round and then—she panicked.

“I’m sorry. I was only looking!”

“What th—”

Tkrn went for his blade, or tried to. Inkar opened her mouth to scream. Gire saw it all, and—acted instinctively.

She reached out and tapped Tkrn’s jaw with her fist. His eyes rolled up. She did the same to Inkar so fast both were unconscious before their heads hit the pillows. Then Gire was out of the tent, over the wall, and running, so fast the sentries only saw a blur, fleeing back to her camp.

Gire stormed into her tent, hid under her blankets, ignoring the questions from her tribe. It was only after she’d stopped quaking that she realized she had only made all of it worse. A child, as Venaz would have said, was still a child. Worse—

This child had taken the iPhone. She hid under her blankets, a giant mound of terrified Gnoll, until someone began calling her name.

“Gire? Gire—some Gnolls from the Silverfang Tribe and a Human are looking for you.

 

—-

 

Another strange encounter in the Meeting of Tribes occurred at roughly the same time. Another iconic Gnoll walked through the crowd, focus of many eyes and speculation.

The difference was that he looked back. The metal Gnoll roamed the Meeting of Tribes, eyes locking on individuals, passing over many…stopping on the ones who mattered. Adetr was looking for powerful Gnolls, and he knew when he found them.

Adetr Steelfur, nephew of the famous Iraz Steelfur himself. Ironically, it was he, not Iraz’s offspring or even grandchildren who had taken most to their tribe’s heritage.

His body was metal. Tougher than steel. He weighed twice what a normal Gnoll did. He was tougher than a [Knight] in plate armor, one of the greatest warriors of the mighty Steelfur tribe. Some whispered he would be the next [Chieftain], regardless of bloodlines. Adetr wondered if that was so. There was more to leading than just physical might, or so Iraz told him.

He would be fine with just physical might, for now. If only he could be the best.

Unbreakable body, indestructible heart. That was all of what Steelfur believed you needed to win any battle. He passed by the strange Gnoll [Warrior] he couldn’t read.

He wondered what kind of item that Gnoll [Warrior] had—or Skill—that let them deflect his Skill. Even Honored Berr and heroes like Garsine Wallbreaker, or adventurers like Lehra Ruinstrider couldn’t prevent this Skill from working on them.

Many had Skills that analyzed their opponents’ strengths, even revealed Skills, levels, etc. There were even spells for that—none of which worked on most Gnolls here. Any [Chieftain] or famous Gnoll had protections against them. Yet Adetr had a Skill few possessed.

He was a [Battle Seeker] along with his primary class. That was how much he craved proving his worth. Some Gnolls loved and lived battle like Honored Berr.

Adetr dreamed after it, lusted for it more than anyone he had ever lain with. Thus, his Skill was this.

He came to a halt and spotted a towering Gnoll racing back through the Meeting of Tribes. A worthy enemy. He didn’t know why she was so upset, but the [Paragon] was in his sights. He stared at Gireulashia and used his Skill.

[Analysis: Vision of Greatest Battle].

Adetr died.

He died snarling, the Ekhtouch tribe surging around him. They were good! Yet he had killed nine already. The Steelfur warriors were trading less effectively. Ekhtouch were few, but they made up for it with strength, reach, even skill!

He was aiming for their Chieftain when she appeared. The giant, covered in wounds, swinging a sword that bit through the Steelfur warriors’ hides. Adetr roared a challenge and saw her turn. He charged, a [Bull’s Rush] through the others. She saw him and—tossed

The Gnoll blinked. Staggered. Gnolls passing by saw him stumble, clutch at his eye. Then recover. They looked at him, but he just growled and walked on. He tried to look at Gire again, but she had already left.

A pity. He would have liked a rematch. He had no idea she was that good. Adetr had died; she’d thrown a javelin straight through his eye. It was a weak point.

 

—-

 

Greatest battle. Adetr learned more about the Ekhtouch tribe from that moment—real knowledge.

Such as the fact that they could back up their claims to superiority—to a point. If Steelfur and their tribe fought, they would lose. Steelfur’s warriors were weaker than Ekhtouch’s, a rarity, but they had numbers and Ekhtouch wasn’t armored with that many relics.

Still, Adetr had died so he hadn’t seen the final tally of the battle. He might have understood, then, just how matched both tribes were.

Not that they would ever fight. Steelfur and Ekhtouch were too well-respected, the consequences too fierce. It would never happen, so Adetr’s longing had given him this Skill.

What a wondrous Skill. With it, he could see glorious war. Appraise his weaknesses, gauge how much he should truly respect his ‘betters’.

For instance—Garsine Wallbreaker. Adetr went to watch a wrestling match with some Gnolls for about twenty minutes, then hunted her down again. He saw her walking through the Meeting of Tribes, creating a passage as Gnolls looked up at the [Shapechanger] and backed away.

To his amazement, she was bending down and sniffing at flowers.

“This one.”

She was picking out flowers to plant when they returned home! An old woman, not the hero of old, to look at her like this. Garsine held a tiny little flower and paid the Gnoll for the seeds.

She tore off his head as her tribe fell around her. Wallbreaker’s tribe was not as strong as she, though they had shapechangers. But Garsine? An army apart! She turned into her true form and he roared as she lifted him up—

Death. Adetr bared his teeth. Now here was a true hero of Gnolls. He had to watch out for her reach; if she got him, he was dead.

Garsine twitched and glanced around, but Adetr was gone.

Reel in some fish! Biggest fish wins a prize!

Adetr went fishing. He failed to win, but it passed thirty minutes and then some. The pond that had been made for the competition let him recharge his Skills. Then he found her again.

This time, she went down, but only because Steelfur’s entire tribe went after her. He saw her bring down nearly a hundred alone—and that was because he’d taken her tribe down around him. He heard the howling of triumph—the Steelfur warriors were never ones he recognized. Just generic warriors, with the few strong ones of his tribe—those over Level 30. They never recognized their foes. It was a simulation. Adetr howled in victory.

He was back in the real world. The Gnoll grinned to himself. Well, heroes died and he was used to seeing that. Even his Chieftain fell when he used that Skill—sometimes. The third time he’d—

Garsine Wallbreaker walked towards him. The giant Gnoll broke away from her inspection of paintings. Adetr went still as Gnolls behind him backed up.

Her huge, snarling mouth opened. Her elongated form bent down, and he saw two eyes—yellow. Not brown! They glowed with power as the bear-cape swung around her. She breathed, one word.

Enough.

The Gnolls of her tribe stared at Garsine, then Adetr, confused. He saw some Steelfur Gnolls staring at him. Adetr met Garsine’s eyes. Somehow she’d sensed his Skill and what he was doing.

“Apologies, great Garsine.”

She stared at him, snorted hot breath, and turned away. Adetr bowed after her, abashed. Only a few people had recognized what he was doing.

He was more circumspect after that, but he spent his time thusly. Thirty eight minute increments, then—battle. It was a shame he couldn’t level, yet the Meeting of Tribes was what he’d dreamed of for the last six years; he hadn’t attended the last one, being far too young.

He tested himself on almost every Gnoll he could find. Lehra Ruinstrider was an interesting foe. She was weaker by herself than a Named Adventurer should be; compared to the others he had met. Her team was good, though. That damned Gazer could actually lock him down.

I should buy more anti-magic protections.

What was also useful was learning how each tribe fought. Generic warriors with a few powerful individuals they might be, but they still fought like…their people. Adetr used it on the Minotaur, Venaz, and was rewarded with a fight.

The King of Minotaurs herself wiped him out. He tried three times and she killed him before he even touched the Minotaur lines. It was actually a disappointment; he wanted to fight the House of Minos, not see a giant axe filling the world and feel his death. He supposed Venaz was fairly important in the House of Minos after all.

Then again, Adetr’s Skill gave him the greatest battle possible. Not solo-duels. Sometimes he regretted that—but it suited him. He always had Steelfur at his back. Always faced his foes at full power.

Well, should I try it on Plain’s Eye? If they sense it like Garsine and I offend their [Shaman] or Chieftain…

Adetr growled. He could use it on a lesser warrior, but less of the tribe showed up. Presumably because a lesser representative couldn’t get all of his or her tribe behind them. He cast around, but there was no ‘fun’ Gnoll to see at the moment.

Maybe that Garuda.

He looked up, hopefully. They made much of Pomle’s strength. Or—what about the Dwarf? Something had gone wrong that one time he’d used it on a Dwarf. He’d won eighty nine simulations against Dwarves…except for one. A weak Dwarf, but someone in the projection had slaughtered Adetr so fast he couldn’t see what it was.

That was why he lived, to know there were worthy foes like that. He’d level up, challenge them again. Who next?

Az’muzarre. Of course! He found one of their warriors and grinned.

Let’s see how the greatest warriors of the Great Plains fare.

He fought the entire tribe and died in seconds. Adetr grunted.

“Not bad. But cheap.”

Dragonbone weapons. That was how they cut through him and his warriors in moments. A weapon with unmatched attack power.

Surprisingly, Adetr didn’t respect that. They were bearers of relics, whose power was given to them by what they held. Take it away and…well, his Skill didn’t let him choose the parameters of the battle, but he could choose to do it himself.

Thirty eight minutes to reset.

This time he yanked a blade off one of the Gnolls before they killed him. Sure enough—the snarling Az’muzarre champion was less effective, just striking ineffectually with a mundane weapon while her companions ran him through.

So they relied too much on the weapons. Adetr lost interest at once. Maybe some were better—but that was annoying. It was half and half—the Gnolls who stood up to the stories, and those who turned out to be exaggerated.

Aimlessly, Adetr chased through the crowd. You know who was good? The Pallassian Drakes. He went hunting for one—or a City Gnoll. Where was one of them?

There. He found one after a few minutes, a group striding along, arguing.

“Are you sure it was her?”

“She was huge.

“I do not understand. Why would one of Ekhtouch, especially their [Paragon]…she knows. We must be careful, Chieftain Eska.”

“We have the right to be angry, Krshia! If she appeared in their tents—”

He aimed. Krshia Silverfang. Adetr whispered.

“[Vision of Greatest Battle].”

As always, he went still. Then he jerked. He snarled.

Antinium!?

Gnolls around him turned. Krshia didn’t hear, as she strode off. Adetr felt at his fur.

“What was—”

Liscor’s first defenses had folded up depressingly fast. Despite the city’s walls blasting them with decent wall spells, Steelfur was a powerful tribe and their Watch was…average. No high-level Drakes beyond one with a sword and a few [Senior Guards]. He’d heard there was a powerful duo, but he hadn’t seen one. They’d taken the walls, fought towards the Watch Captain…

Then the Antinium had come out of the ground. Thousands! Adetr had fallen into a pit, where it was dark, fighting shapes that came out of the darkness, the earth—he’d killed many, until they bore him down.

He had to do it again. See more. Instantly, Adetr followed after the group—then cursed as he remembered the recharge time.

“Hrm. This is excellent. I can fight them. Watch the ground. We have to lure them out? Stick to the walls…”

He was planning the battle, excitedly. He strode about, nearly hopping with impatience, then set out for the Silverfang camp.

To his great disappointment, Krshia Silverfang wasn’t there. Had they been talking about Ekhtouch? Adetr paced back and forth, then decided to go there. But before he could, he heard a voice.

“Oh my god. Where? Ekhtouch? What are we going to do?”

Something was—off. Adetr frowned. He saw a young woman hurrying with a group of Gnolls out of the camp. A Human woman.

“Hrm.”

Adetr had met many non-Gnolls at the Meeting of Tribes, so a guest didn’t surprise him like the Lizardman with one leg. He guessed this young woman was a friend to Silverfang.

Maybe she was from Liscor? It was worth a try. He pointed at her.

“[Vision of Greatest Battle].”

 

—-

 

Adetr awoke under a strange sky. It seemed smaller. He frowned, sniffing the air as his tribe howled their traditional call to war. Then he heard a strange sound. An explosion—louder than anything.

Gnolls vanished next to him. Adetr recoiled, knocked sideways by some powerful blast. Was that a [Fireball]? No—he stared ahead as they pointed at a strange object.

“What is that?”

He charged towards something. A…were those Humans standing over there? What were they holding? What was that giant metal thing?

He saw a strange metal tube swiveling to point a long ‘nose’ at h—

 

—-

 

Adetr died. He stopped, staring, as Rose ran past him. His head turned to follow her. The Gnoll’s jaw was open. He had died quickly before—always to high-level warriors who could close the distance. He had seen many battles. Many armies.

Never that.

“What was…”

They were heading somewhere. Adetr stared at Rose, then instantly followed after.

 

—-

 

Gireulashia Ekhtouch stood behind her Chieftain, head bowed, the iPhone on the ground in front of them. The tent where they talked was filled with commotion—albeit warded so no one could hear the intense discussion taking place. More Silverfang Gnolls and Ekhtouch stood tensely to one side.

Adetr didn’t care. He stared at one person, and one person alone.

Rose. He lurked, but couldn’t help but stare at her. Every forty minutes—the transit through the sprawling Meeting of Tribes had taken a while, and the discussion looked to be a long one—he blinked for about five seconds.

And his questions multiplied.

He survived the fourth time long enough to see more. It was a small force. He counted barely two hundred Humans, not counting the strange Golem-vehicles. He supposed that was all Rose was ‘worth’.

They still ravaged the Steelfur tribe. The second time he’d gone down to—something. A shard of metal that hit him, propelled through the air.

It didn’t kill him, not the first shot. Nor the second. Nor the hundredth. He was metal, and a stronger metal than this.

Yet he was hit by hundreds, thousands of rounds in moments. Each Human had some kind of weapon that flashed and—

Lesser Steelfur warriors went down before they even closed. Their fur resisted the deadly projectiles barely at all. One, two, four at most, and they died.

Worse was that one…thing. One, or two; it did vary…giant boxes that destroyed everything they aimed at.

Worse than [Fireballs]. Somehow, it tore him apart. So he didn’t let it hit him.

The fourth time he managed to survive. Adetr had control of his tribe’s assets. Chieftain Iraz was there, as were [Shamans].

Walls of earth! Barrier spells! Hide us under the earth!

That seemed like the best way to survive. Adetr followed the Silverfang tribe as they concluded negotiations. The other Human and a Gnoll were talking with the huge [Paragon]—he didn’t care.

He had to know what this Human’s army was. The thirty eight minute cool-down was killing Adetr.

Six times.

They couldn’t hide under the ground! The Humans just punched through with those damn explosions! Adetr snarled as he raised his head. His skull rang and he fell back as Steelfur warriors cried out and dragged him back.

Something had lodged in his head. More of the bits of metal—the only reason he was surviving was that his body was tougher. They’d still cracked his skull. He snarled.

“Through the earth! They die if we touch them!”

The fortifications were failing—he saw his Chieftain go down as another round blasted through a wall. Adetr knew the Humans had to come in, though. He refused to let his tribe charge. Then he heard a sound and saw something streaking down through the air at—

 

—-

 

Something had blown up their entire tribe—or just the ones around Adetr. He could have sworn he saw something in the sky. The Gnoll snarled.

Night fell. Gnolls ate. Adetr did not. He ran around camp, to burn off the adrenaline running through his veins.

Thirty. Eight. Damn. Minutes.

 

—-

 

Eleven tries. Seven hours, almost. Adetr was worried Rose would go to sleep.

He finally found their weak spot.

 

—-

 

“Blind them! Blind them!”

The Humans were in disarray. Adetr stood, shielding himself and watching the battle turn at last.

The [Shamans]. That was the key.

In his desperation he had tried everything. Skills? Even Iraz’s Skills didn’t overturn whatever the Humans had, but the [Shaman]’s magic had stymied the Humans—until that thing in the skies came and hit them.

So Adetr had tried other spells. The Humans—these ones had no magical guard. They went blind, fell asleep, unable to block even Tier 1 spells.

If the [Shamans] lived long enough to cast the magic. Adetr watched as the blinded Humans in the metal vehicle fired ahead. Killing Gnolls—but the Steelfur Tribe was on them, trying to rip open the metal armor. The Humans on the ground held their fire—until they realized it was fire or die, then they fired, but fell as Gnolls closed.

Adetr was striding towards the first vehicle, which had been disabled, the long ‘nose’ a smoking ruin after one of the Gnolls bent it out of shape and it exploded. The Humans were blind; they couldn’t detect the [Invisible] Gnolls who had assailed their ranks.

Eleven times. Such a strange battle. It had gone from annihilation to victory—and Adetr wondered what they were. Why did they not tell stories about this army, if it was so powerful? What weapons were they, that spat metal?

Where was he? Why did the sky…

He stared up. Another object streaked down and the Steelfur Tribe vanished. He stared up.

“What is that thing in the skies?”

Then he died.

 

—-

 

Rose went to bed. Adetr was so furious he considered storming into the camp and making a pretext to keep her awake.

Reluctantly, he went to sleep, though he had to literally go to a [Shaman] to beg a sleeping draught. The Gnoll gave him a concerned look.

“Are you using your Skill, Adetr? The Chieftain worries—”

“I am fine. I’m leveling!”

Adetr snapped, snatching the medicine. He consumed the foul elixir, felt himself tire…

 

[Battle Seeker Level 27!]

[Skill – Foreign Lands Training (Landscape) obtained!]

 

His eyes snapped open. Adetr shot out of his bed with an oath.

“How?”

He shouted so loudly the sentries shot to attention and half the tribe woke up. Adetr told them all was well, but Chieftain Iraz himself fixed him with a sleepy glare. The Gnoll bowed his head. He didn’t quite know how to tell Chieftain Iraz he had leveled in his non-primary class overnight.

Four times.

 

—-

 

“Adetr. Garsine Wallbreaker complained of your Skill. The [Shamans] tell me you have been erratic. I am concerned. Is there something you need tell me?”

Chieftain Iraz was a strong Gnoll, a Chieftain who had turned his tribe into one worthy of standing with the best of them in one generation. It was his Skill which turned his entire tribe’s fur to metal.

He did not pry, but let Adetr and his people act as they would. Normally. Adetr was a protégé, and one of the best warriors, so his uncle was concerned. Adetr sat in a private meal in the Chieftain’s tent. His head was bowed. He did not touch his breakfast.

“Adetr.”

Iraz prompted after a few minutes had passed. Adetr finally looked up.

“Obsessed, Chieftain?”

His eyes—the flesh parts that remained—were bloodshot. Iraz wondered if his nephew had slept.

“Must I prohibit you from using your Skill? What are you fixated on?”

“I…cannot say, Chieftain. Not yet. I do not know. Give me leave to find out.”

“Will this cause trouble with other tribes?”

“Possibly.”

Adetr admitted. Iraz frowned.

“Why does it consume you so, Adetr?”

The Gnoll warrior took a long time in replying. At last, he looked at the Steelfur Chieftain.

“If I cause trouble, if I am obsessed, Chieftain. Let me. Let me do what I must. I leveled four times last night. As a [Battle Seeker]. I have a new Skill.”

Iraz slipped in pouring himself tea. He splashed tea all over his fur and stared at his nephew.

“Four times? How many Skills?”

Adetr’s eyes glinted.

One. A good one. Chieftain. I climbed Mount Sernis this morning.”

The Chieftain went silent. Mount Sernis was well-known to him. It was a mountain where the Steelfur tribe was founded…eight hundred miles from here. Steelfur warriors honed their bodies and climbing skills there.

“I see. Can you take me there?”

Adetr shook his head.

“Not yet, Chieftain. May I go?”

Iraz stared at Adetr. The Gnoll was trembling.

“Go.”

 

—-

 

He was not actually there. But he could visit his home—and train. Even fight monsters and learn how to take advantage of the geography.

Adetr’s blood boiled. There were no people in his Skill. Not yet. He felt like the Skill was…incomplete.

Landscape. Did that mean if he grew more, if his other Skills combined, he could walk another nation, fight their people, all in his head? He had thought it was a class that might weaken him. Iraz felt so, sometimes. Now?

Adetr sought out Rose. His obsession made manifest.

The fifteenth time he won everything.

 

—-

 

Thirteen.

It was simple. Steelfur died en-masse. There was something in the skies. There were…things that shot across the air and destroyed everything in vast sections. The Humans even had a whirling thing that appeared twice out of the fifteen times and raked the Gnolls from above with some kind of weapon even more destructive than on the ground.

What was worse was that Adetr was sure, sure, by now that this was a skirmish. If you used his Skill on weaker members of a city or tribe, you got less of them. A [Chieftain] or leader? All their might.

Rose gave him a fraction of whatever army this was. Some kind of…patrol? Imagine tens of thousands of Humans like this.

They had no magic. That was how they died.

[Invisible], [Muffled]. Artifacts borrowed from his tribe’s armory. [Mage]’s artifacts. Adetr didn’t need to use them to ‘bring’ them into the simulation.

They weren’t idiots, these Humans. They knew he was there, but they let him study them. He let them win, and watched the rolling machines, listened, saw how their weapons worked.

Some kind of bow or crossbow. Not magic. It smells. Adetr stared at a Human, noting the odd helmet. Why not a face-guard? Why…cloth?

They knew he was here. They had some tools that were trying to pick him up. However, he had their weaknesses.

You can’t stop spells. You can’t detect magic. Adetr bared his teeth. He swung his axe, watched the Human’s head vanish. The other ones in the squad jerked, lifted their weapons, aimed at him. They fired. Adetr lifted the object in his other hand. He heard a tremendous sound of ringing, that tore at his ears. Yet when he lowered the shield, he saw they were dead. He checked the metal, and it was unblemished. The projectile had bounced.

“You can’t break artifacts.”

He laughed. Then saw the giant metal turret turn. Adetr dove, shield raised—

 

—-

 

His body couldn’t survive the impact, but he was almost positive the shield had survived—just lodged halfway through his spine.

Still, it was proof he needed to take lessons from Az’muzarre. Adetr tore through the Steelfur’s armory. The Steelfur warriors watched him with significant concern as he ‘went for a walk’ wearing armor, enchanted metal, the highest-grade he could find. Adetr was famous for relying only on his body’s toughness.

 

—-

 

Fourteen.

Adetr threw up. His body was ringing.

“Damn…armor…”

It didn’t break, but his body still rang with each impact. The giant vehicles tossed him around. He was almost there, though. Blind them. Something would come from the skies, but it detonated on a mage-barrier. If they used clouds to hide their location—they won! He could now save sixty-percent of the Steelfur—

 

—-

 

Adetr woke up. Something had hit him in the eye, past the visor of his helmet. A Human [Marksman]? He shook his head.

“One more time. Thirty eight minutes.”

He stared at the Human, determined to win.

 

—-

 

Rose felt like someone had been staring at her all day and yesterday. She eventually went up to Beilmark and whispered in her ear.

“Beilmark, who’s that Gnoll in armor who just stormed off?”

Beilmark had seen him too, especially after he’d begun showing up in armor. She frowned.

“Adetr Steelfur. A great Gnollish warrior, so I’m told. Young. Why?”

“Did…did you think he was staring at me?”

Beilmark hesitated.

“Perhaps, but I cannot imagine why. Did you offend him?”

“What? Me? No, I haven’t even spoken to him!”

“Hrm. That is odd.”

 

—-

 

Fifteen.

Adetr stood on the battlefield, howling victory. Less than a hundred Steelfur Gnolls lay dead. The Humans?

There was a way to beat their strange weapons. Blind them, paralyze. Adetr had survived a round from that—thing that spat metal, then torn it open. Ambush them! Defeat them!

Even whatever was in the skies had gone down to a [Shaman]’s hex. It hit the earth and exploded. He roared his triumph, and raced across the ground, leaving the Steelfur tribe to celebrate. The clone of Iraz lifted a paw in victory.

Adetr was racing towards the downed craft—what remained of it. He wanted to know how those vehicles worked. They didn’t look like Golem-devices, or even magical craft! The [Shaman] with no real face had shook her head when he demanded to know if it was magic.

Still, Adetr laughed. Victory! Victory! He wondered if he’d level. He knew this was a battle in a box, but if he went up against this army just so, his tribe would win.

Adetr slowed…even in the simulation and looked back. All of Steelfur. The entire tribe. His battle-rage, his frustration left him suddenly. He felt…a chill.

All of Steelfur beat this force of two hundred Humans after fifteen tries in which we all died. True, once they found out the weaknesses, they won with a strange reversal of strengths, but…

Chieftain Iraz has to know. But what is this army? Where is this?

Adetr didn’t know. He looked about. The sky was wrong. The…mountains…were wrong. Even the ground looked different. It smelled so strange. He looked up.

“Even the sky. They were different stars. One moon? Where am I?”

Then…he blinked. He thought he saw something.

Wait a second. High, up there. So far only his keen eyes could even make out something. A flicker past the clouds. Was there a second craft?

Of course! If he hadn’t ended the Skill—Adetr pointed up.

“[Shamans]! Barriers!

They broke off celebration, cast as Adetr looked up. He saw something drop out of the skies. Adetr braced, grimly raising his shield as he knew he would not reach his tribe before it fell. Which was it this time? The rain of explosions? The curving thing?

It was just one object. It dropped down, a bit off-target of his tribe. Adetr saw it break. He saw a flash and saw—

[Greatest Battle]. Adetr died. But he saw enough when he died. When he opened his eyes in the real world?

He was no longer smiling.

 

—-

 

Rose watched as the Gnoll jerked. He had stared at her, seemed to whisper something and…

“You’re right. He is staring at you.”

Beilmark sipped from her cup. They both watched as Adetr looked around. He had been smiling—then it drained away.

“Do you think he likes me?”

Rose tossed her hair in a show. Beilmark chortled.

“That would be funny. Almost as funny as that Gnoll—Gireulashia—learning the truth, eh? One problem at a time.”

“Mhm. Where’re Inkar and Tkrn?”

“Talking with her.”

Rose was a bit envious. Ekhtouch’s outrage over being accused as [Thieves] aside, and the ramifications of their tribe knowing, Gire was full of questions and in awe of Inkar. That was nice. Maybe—

She saw Adetr stride forwards, snarling, and blinked. Beilmark sat up a bit.

“Hold on. That’s diff—”

You!

Adetr roared. Silverfangs turned, and the Steelfur Gnolls who had been told to watch over him. They dropped what they were doing and bounded forwards.

“Uh—”

Rose froze. The Gnoll’s face was twisted in sudden fury. He stormed towards their camp.

What is it? Where are you from? What weapon—

Adetr! Stop!

Steelfur Gnolls grabbed his arms and shoulders, trying to slow him. He pulled eight behind him in his fury. Beilmark put out an arm.

“Rose, back in the camp. Rose?”

The young Human woman was frozen. Adetr roared.

“Everything was gone! What was it? Who are you? What weapon destroys mountain and land like that?”

“Weapon?”

He stormed towards her, picking up speed. Adetr reached for Rose, to tear the secrets out of her. If that army came here—he had seen it, before whatever it was reached him. It could destroy the Meeting of Tribes. It would change the landscape. Had they more? It was a skirmish. It could destroy the High Passes.

Tell me.

“I—I—”

Rose was trying to back up, but she was terrified by the Gnoll’s sudden, battle-raging fury. Adetr had lost himself, blending the Skill and reality. He lunged.

 

—-

 

Chieftain Iraz ran out of his tribe, to stop his nephew before an incident occurred. He did not know what Adetr had seen, but his warriors had come howling Adetr had lost his mind.

He skidded to a stop, having raced through lines of bewildered Gnolls. Five minutes too late, no matter how fast he’d run. He saw a commotion, pushed his way, breathless, through Gnolls gathered around…

Rose. She lay on the ground, face white. Pale. Unmoving.

…Not dead. She had fallen on her butt in terror. In front of her, paw still outstretched, lay Adetr. He had fallen while reaching for her. His face was a rictus of fury, but he was pinned by countless Gnolls.

But someone had knocked him down. How? Iraz panted.

“Who stopped Adetr?”

A Gnoll moved. He turned and saw Senior Guardswoman Beilmark. She flexed her paw and shook it out. There were great wars, and Skills, and battles you could dream of. Reality?

Adetr had never been arrested by the Watch.

“[Immobilizing Touch].”

She explained.

 

—-

 

Chieftain Iraz sat with Chieftain Akrisa, Eska, Orelighn, and the Chieftain of the Ekhtouch Tribe, Chieftain Firrelle.

Steelfur, Longstalker’s Fang, Silverfang, Ekhtouch…and Greenpaw.

Greenpaw definitely didn’t fit. You could sort of make the connection with the other tribes, given some variance in fortunes, specialties, and their great Gnolls, but not Greenpaw.

Yet here they were. Adetr was not present, but Gireulashia was. Iraz would have liked his nephew here as instigator of this mess, but Adetr was so worked up, Iraz had told his Steelfur warriors to sit on him until he calmed down, or pin him under a boulder or something.

At last, Iraz broke the silence.

“I must apologize again for Adetr’s behavior. It is…rude for him to use his Skill like he does. He is young, and it does not bother most if they even notice it. I am ashamed.”

“Young Gnolls do what they do out of youth, rudeness or not.”

Firrelle offered. She glanced at Gire, and the huge [Paragon] hung her head; she was so tall she threatened to touch the tip of Akrisa’s tent with her head.

“Nevertheless, it seems that while two tribes have given offense, both incidents were because of our Humans. Perhaps we have been careless. Do not apologize overmuch, Chieftain Iraz. You cannot control every Gnoll perfectly.”

Chieftain Akrisa lifted a paw, and Iraz was grateful. He nodded to her; they said Silverfang’s Chieftain had a silver tongue to match, and she had not been found wanting.

“I ah—don’t hold any ill will against the Steelfur tribe. Or Ekhtouch. But if the secrets are out…”

Chieftain Orelighn didn’t have Akrisa’s reserve or gift of gab. He was nervous at having two powerful tribes here. Technically they had offended the others, but offense could turn to retribution if not handled right.

Iraz was not that kind of Chieftain, but he bowed slightly to Orelighn.

“It is our mistake. Adetr’s mistake. He will be punished, but it seems we have…”

He trailed off. How did you even say it? We have stumbled upon a secret that may change this world forever?

We have learned of weapons Adetr claims could wipe my entire tribe out in a moment if used?

We have seen artifacts that run on no magic, that come from a land only Humans inhabit by the billions?

He had been told, of course, as had Firrelle. They had to be. Adetr had seen too much through his Skill. Gire? She was too intelligent. Inkar had let her touch the iPhone by mistake.

Gire had opened up the specifications, and been about to start inquiring about the Apple company, and locations listed in the details with the nearest Mage’s Guild before Tkrn tackled her and she helped pick him up and dust him off.

Firrelle looked disturbed, but she was trying to appear unfazed. Iraz hoped he was half as stoic.

“…learned of something that might influence your great gift to the Meeting of Tribes. That is no small matter.”

He finished, choosing the most understated way of saying it. The other Chieftains nodded. Firrelle sighed.

“Knowledge is power. So [Mages] claim. This? I would agree with. It is hard to believe.”

“It will change everything. Firrelle, Firrelle. They said you could make things move with harnessed electricity. If that is so, you could make a horse out of metal and wood! You could do what great enchantments do without needing levels!”

Gire piped up. She fell silent as her Chieftain looked at her warningly, but she saw what might be.

Iraz only knew what Adetr had insisted on telling him. Weapons that spat metal a hundred times faster than arrows. Great armored war-vehicles that could kill even Adetr in a single strike.

“It is not here yet. These are travellers from Earth, Chieftains. They are our gift. Soon, all the Chieftains will know this secret. We will decide as one people what will happen. But…it must be the right decision. That you know is concerning. I had hoped to have an accord before then.”

“On what will be done?”

“About the other world. About the children who appear across this world. Unity, Chieftain Iraz. Longstalker’s Fang, who has adopted Inkar, Silverfang, who knows of more such children, and Greenpaw, who have relics of their land, all stand together. We will gather them, protect them, and learn. Prepare, perhaps, to make ties with a world apart.”

Chieftain Akrisa looked at him. Iraz shifted. Firrelle glanced at him, and he kept his thoughts inside.

What if this world fights like Adetr saw? He fought two hundred to our tribe’s death fifteen times. He never won; he only saw them destroy him a different way at the end.

“I like them. If Ekhtouch does nothing, we refuse to act on a matter that will invariably force itself. Therefore, we should act or oppose and since they have done nothing wrong, Firrelle…”

“Gireulashia! Be silent!”

The [Paragon] sat up, flushing, as Ekhtouch’s Chieftain scolded her, scandalized. She almost shrank and the elegant speech broke off. She was a child then—until her spine stopped bending.

“I am Honored Gireulashia. Ekhtouch’s [Paragon]. I say it so, Chieftain, and this is my word.”

“You are still young. I said be silent while I think!”

The room fell silent as the two engaged in a battle of wills. Firrelle seemed surprised at Gire’s adamancy. Gire’s eyes slowly narrowed. The two traded looks—then, of all things, Gire reached out and poked her Chieftain in the side. The Ekhtouch Chieftain recoiled and swatted at her, but Gire poked her again, and again, her paw darting quickly.

The others in the tent stared at the odd display. Firrelle moved faster, trying to block Gire with both paws now, but she was too slow. Gire began poking her harder, until she was practically shoving Firrelle off the cushion, never changing her narrow-eyed expression.

Rose nearly snickered, but fell silent. Firrelle eventually snapped.

Alright! Alright! Stop poking me! If that is the wisdom of the greatest of Ekhtouch, so be it!

She turned to the others.

“My…Honored Gireulashia, who has the wisdom of her blood and nature in her, declares your tribe and mission worthwhile. Ekhtouch stands with you. We must learn more—”

Another poke. Firrelle twitched, and went on.

“But we will join our influence to yours.”

Iraz stared. He knew Gire was fifteen. Firrelle listened to her?

Then again—she was Ekhtouch, and Gire was the ‘greatest’ of them. It was an astounding display of another tribe’s politics and decision-making.

He…wished he hadn’t seen that. But then all eyes turned to him.

“And you, Chieftain Iraz?”

He hesitated.

“I will keep what I have learned secret, Chieftains. I cannot promise Steelfur will join your tribes. But I swear I will keep…”

He hesitated. The Gnoll wanted to talk to other Chieftains he respected this instant, after questioning Adetr. Akrisa saved him.

“They will know soon enough, Chieftain Iraz. Perhaps—consider this a gift in advance. We will consider no harm done, if Steelfur will agree to present this issue first among the Meeting of Tribes, along with the issue of Raskghar and perhaps one other.”

She locked eyes with Krshia. Iraz thought about that.

“That is…exceptionally kind, Chieftain Akrisa. I accept.”

It was. Steelfur had the power to press to ‘hear’ one of the myriad issues before all the tribes first, and if he threw his power behind Ekhtouch and the others, they had a chance of beating even Plain’s Eye. Given what he had learned, he agreed wholeheartedly. If they wanted to tack on a personal Silverfang matter—it was a cheap concession.

“I will keep the news private as I may, and I would like to speak to…Rose, and Inkar.”

“Of course. Will you take tea and discuss it? There is much to say.”

They were eager to make allies of him. Iraz hesitated, but demurred.

“I shall return tonight. First—I must calm down Adetr. Chieftain Akrisa, Eska, I have one last request.”

They gazed at him. Iraz would learn, talk to others, and decide what was best. But first…he looked at Rose.

“If I can ensure he is calm, would you consent to talk to Adetr? I could have all of my best [Warriors] ensuring he is restrained. Whatever works.”

“Me? He wants to talk to me?”

“Yes, I think. It would…calm him. I know I ask for much, Chieftains.”

Akrisa exchanged a glance with Eska and her sister.

“It is up to Rose.”

“I—if he doesn’t charge me, I guess? W-why? I didn’t do anything, he just saw…what he saw.”

Rose was still unclear on that. Iraz nodded.

“I am sure he has many questions, Miss Rose. I only ask that you talk to him, that you might reassure him.”

“About what…?”

“Your world. He saw war, Miss Rose. Greatest war. That is the flaw of his Skill, and his fault, of course, but still.”

Iraz turned.

“…I have never seen him that terrified.”

He walked off, as the secret of Earth spread. Iraz went to find Adetr. Then—as soon as he could, he would talk to Chieftain Xherw of the Plain’s Eye tribe. He was not sure he had the wisdom to know what should happen next.

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes:

It’s me! p-pirateaba. Did you remember me?

I’m off my break! It’s been a nice two weeks. Really, I realized how tired I was about halfway through it. Breaks are good. Breaks are important. But I am back!

I wrote a lot. Not all of the chapter I intended to, but I’m getting back into grove. I can tell you next chapter MIGHT be the edited chapter. I have the letter, I have the notes, and I’ll be working on it…

If I can’t get it done by Saturday, I’ll write a chapter and release it whenever the chapter is good. Either way, though, I have lots of energy so I’ll be writing all month and probably take my monthly break early August and go from there. So it’s chapters! Writing!

Relc? Well, we’ll see what the future holds. Hope you enjoyed the chapter and let’s get into it.

…I could still use a 3-year break. But that’s probably called ‘retirement’.

 

 

Nutball, Sariant Lambs, and Pirate (not me, Pirate), by Kalmia the [Threadweaver]!

 

Sun, Seborn the [Pirate], Pawn and Erin, and more by LeChat!

 

Yvlon, Let Me Inn, Snowball, and more by Chalyon!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – The Pets of Innworld

(The Wandering Inn is on break! The author (me), is also going on my first vacation in…two years? At least a year! We’ll be back on July 13th, 2024 for Patreons! See you then!)

 

So they left their homes, each one for a different reason.

Different species, united by a common cause.

To war, battle, perhaps certain death.

Because it mattered.

Because it was right.

They might die within the first hour, the first day, or month. They might eventually go back home; either way, their stories would only rarely be known, perhaps never told.

That glorious army—armies representing the world disembarked from their homes. When they arrived—they did so piecemeal, or in vast fleets. The brave, the reluctant—it mattered not.

They came to the Blighted Kingdom, the continent of Rhir, the most deadly land in the world to hold the Demons to justice.

Drakes, Gnolls, Dullahans, Lizardfolk, Humans, Stitchfolk, Centaurs, Selphids and more…every species you could imagine. They were bound by ancient pacts, and galvanized by the atrocities of the Demons’ ritual.

Every major power had sent far more [Soldiers] and materiel than normal. The desultory contributions that sometimes led to piecemeal armies had ended.

Here came entire navies. Escorting ships filled with troops. Hundreds of [Knights], sworn to avenge loved ones. Even minor nobility.

It was the first wave, the outraged response against the Demons. It could not have come sooner, for the Blighted Kingdom. After all—

The Deathless were coming back. As they always did. The greatest leaders of the Demon King’s armies.

The Death of Magic, Silvenia, had shown her face at last. She alone provoked nightmares among the top [Strategists] of the Blighted Kingdom. A [Mage] without equal, who had practically destroyed 5th Wall by herself. Holding her back if the Demons made incursions would be a task worthy of legends.

Archmage Zelkyr and the Necromancer of Terandria had both failed to defeat the Demon King’s Deathless. Here were real legends of centuries past, still threatening Rhir. Perhaps—responsible for the tragedy that had struck at the world.

It was also a concern, because for all the nations of the world were sending reinforcements—no one wanted to send their national treasure or greatest [General], especially if they were fighting wars at home.

Especially if the Deathless would tear them apart. It was a prescient thought in the normally stolid Drakes of the combined Walled Cities, a joint task-force sailing with Zeresian escort. They had put aside their differences to guarantee safe transit to Rhir.

The journey had been long, tiring; they couldn’t skip across powerful currents and they were mundane ships, not crewed by famous [Captains] with Skills or magic. The Drake [Soldiers], renowned for their quality training and formations, were restless. They were ready to take the fight to these damn Demons, but the Deathless…

“How can we fight something like that, [Charge Commander]?”

One of the Drakes asked the Gnoll [Commander] from Manus. The Gnoll grunted, casting eyes at the one [General]—a Fissival [Magic General]—sourly. He stood with his group; Manus. Not a lot of Gnolls, here. Oteslia of course, and a handful from Zeres; he hoped he’d find more of his people from the tribes to mingle with.

Some of the Drakes from the smaller cities who’d joined the ‘tithe’ to the Blighted Kingdom—which was referred to as ‘Defenders of the Blighted Kingdom’ for obvious symbolic reasons—had never fought side-by-side with Gnolls. There had been a few brisk fights onboard while the cooped-up reinforcements stewed.

He answered out of the corner of his mouth.

We don’t fight that, [Infantryman]. We hold the line.”

“With hell’s fire raining down on our heads?”

One of the others called out. The Gnoll snapped back.

“Drakes don’t run, soldier!”

“Nor do Gnolls from Manus!”

Someone from his command shouted back. There was mixed laughter. The [Charge Commander] grinned, but suppressed his nerves in his tail and kept his face calm.

“We’ve got [Mages] too. No one person can fight an army. We take out the Demons on the ground; leave the high-level targets to our best. I’d like to see the Death of Magic take on an army alone! And keep a lid on questions like that; we’re going to show these Blighted Kingdom [Soldiers] what real discipline looks like.”

The Drakes nodded, even the ones from other cities. That, they could get behind. It was something, but in this moment, even the Drakes and Gnolls felt a kinship towards the soldiers from the Five Families; they’d been sailing close by, and insult had turned to banter.

If Drakes or Gnolls, or one species couldn’t be the best, well, they’d damn well have some Izrilian pride, eh?

The [Charge Commander] smiled as he heard the other Drakes start talking about sloppy formations of other nations. He hoped no one would start singing national anthems; that always provoked jeers and a fight.

Privately, though, he rephrased his statement to the [Soldiers]. He’d said what he’d said to keep morale up, but…he’d heard that the Death of Magic could solo an army. After all, if she could cast area-of-attack spells from oh, ten miles straight up in the air, what was he supposed to do? An army? He couldn’t even shout at her and hurt her feelings!

Well, the [Charge Commander] had to have faith Rhir knew what it was doing. They were nearly there.

 

—-

 

The first sight of the Blighted Kingdom was not what most non-Rhirians expected. When you imagined embattled Rhir, the name of the Blighted Kingdom, you tended to expect a lot of grey, militarized zones, land torn by spells and damage. Perhaps dead bodies lying out to rot.

There was all that, of course, although the dead were properly-disposed of, or used by the [Necromancers], but the first sight of Rhir’s capital, Paranfer, and the coast, was, well…startling.

“Hey. That’s nicer than home!

One of the Drakes called out, staring at the terraformed farmland, the verdant greenery—and the rather impressive coastal defense fortresses scattered at regular intervals.

Paranfer itself was as impressive as any great city in the world; arguably richer and larger than even First Landing. It was a match for the Walled Cities.

Why not? The Blighted Kingdom received funds from almost every nation in the world along with [Soldiers]—sometimes in place of soldiers. It had magic, resources—and Paranfer lay behind 1st Wall.

Few Demons had ever seen past 1st Wall. Even the Antinium had not tried to storm it.

Paranfer was gorgeous, and the lands around it were given over to agriculture, which always looked pretty from afar. Rhir did not, actually, specialize in much mining, textiles—in a broad sense—or the varied national outputs of other countries.

It had amazing [Smiths], [Mages], and [Craftspeople], but it imported a wealth of goods. What Rhir did focus on was food; you could import swords and repurpose blades, even ones used by Demons. But a starving army died even if it was covered in adamantium.

As the ships came into harbor, they were also greeted by parades, magical lights off the coast, launched by the guard towers. They were by way of being both communications and greeting.

Never let it be said that Othius IV, the Blighted King, was a foolish ruler when it came to statecraft. He knew how to make his visitors feel honored. Within the next few days, as the transports were speedily unloaded, cargo efficiently catalogued and stored, there would be further celebrations, honoring each nation and species.

However, the key issue laying before General Vors of Fissival was this: he didn’t know how he was going to handle a Human ordering him about. Let alone his people serving with, well, non-Drakes.

Other Drakes were bad enough. There had been fights onboard. The [Magic General], recently graduated from Fissival’s small martial academy, knew all the long grudges between Walled Cities. There was a saying about Drakes fighting over dust at the end of the world—well, that was nothing compared to Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes in the same room.

He’d seen the Tribes had sent countless warriors of their own. They were occupying some of Zeres’ ships and Rhir’s sent to transport them. The Tribes didn’t even have a fleet of their own, by and large.

Vors didn’t think he was…prejudiced. He could certainly envision taking orders if they were the right ones, but would he get a commander who didn’t understand Drake tactics? Who didn’t value Fissival’s unique focus on magic and physical combat? He’d fought Gnolls of course, and other cities, and wondered if they’d hold a grudge or make assumptions.

The [Magic General] shifted. He’d been ushered off the ship with a tremendous amount of ceremony, which he appreciated. But while his [Soldiers] had been settled in with a kind of efficiency even the Manus-led ones admired, he’d been called here.

To a rather small, cramped room in some kind of military outpost, to talk to Rhir’s High Command.

“Amazing.”

Vors glanced around the room, noting how plain it was. Chipped walls? There was a bowl of nuts on the table and he swore he’d seen something moving in it.

“It just goes to show. All that glitter on the outside and they can’t even design a room large enough to swing your tail about in. Unless this is large for them?”

Dead gods, that would be a nightmare. What would his personal quarters look like? Also—was he expected to sit and smile with some Gnoll [Chieftain] or [Tribal Warrior]? Vors shuddered—then reminded himself he’d volunteered for this. His poor brother—and he was the commander of this Drake force!

He could work with a Gnoll. Hadn’t he thought it was a shame about them being butchered on Chandrar? Even if they were unpredictable and their tribes sometimes looted settlements?

Well. Vors had been waiting for nearly ten minutes, and he was losing his goodwill towards the hospitality of the Blighted King. None of the chairs were comfortable—or sized for people with tails!

“Damn Humans. I thought they got Drakes regularly.”

The floor was a bit dirty and if he had to wait another ten minutes, he was going to find the High Command and complain. Or complain to the Walled Cities about how their reinforcements were being treated. Was this what his predecessors from Fissival had had to face?

“Poor bastards.”

Vors murmured. He’d heard the [Charge Commander] talking and he knew they’d run straight into the Death of Magic on 5th Wall. He shuddered. Sat there, determined to make a first good impression.

Vors waited for twelve more minutes, and then lost his temper. He stood up.

“Excuse me! Has there been some kind of mistake?”

He opened the door, calling into the corridor for one of the aides who’d brought him here with no explanation. He found…no one.

The hallway was as shabby as this one. Vors stepped out into it.

“Hello?”

Where were the orderlies? The [Tacticians]? Someone to run messages? Was someone playing a prank on him? He walked out, wondering if this was, in fact, some kind of Demon-attack. No. Not in Paranfer. Still…he edged out a bit further, casting a cantrip to locate others.

To Vors’ surprise, he felt the spell bounce right back with a contact and then someone probe him. Vors whirled, and a door opened.

“Strange. Is this some kind of test?”

A door right next to Vors’ opened and—a Lamia slithered out. Vors instantly recoiled, and saw the Lamia, with decorated armor over her scales, do likewise, but in surprise.

She was wearing armor over orange-and-green scales, a very colorful mix, unlike that of Drakes, who were monochrome by and large. The Lamia had some kind of intricate paint insignia on her side, and her serpentine body ran down to a tail; no legs. She was a Lamia.

Lizardfolk. Vors’ jaw instantly clenched. He’d known he’d have to serve alongside them, but of all the coincidences—!

“Greetings, Miss. General Vors of Fissival. Are you in charge here? Do you know where the High Command is?”

She eyed Vors and lowered the object she’d been holding. A staff with shards of glass embedded at the top; clearly magical.

“Not at all. I am [Battlemage]-[Commander] Tusxe of the Roving Fireball company, contracted to fight for Rhir for the duration of the war. You’re…from Izril?”

“Fissival. The Walled City of Magic? Greetings.”

Vors crossed his arms, unwilling to shake the hand of one of the Drakes’ enemies. An old one, true, but the wars they’d fought…

To his surprise, the Lamia just nodded coolly.

“A pleasure. You’ve just arrived? I did as well. Do you know where the leadership is?”

“I was just asking. I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes. Well, do excuse me. I’m off to see why this place is so empty.”

Really.

Her tone made Vors draw up. He turned back to the Lamia and saw her raise both brows.

“Something the matter, Miss?”

“That’s Battlemage Commander, General. I’m just impressed you waited ‘twenty minutes’. That’s the famous Drake impatience for you, I suppose.”

The Drake’s brows crossed instantly.

“I suppose you’ve been waiting longer?”

“Nearly an hour.”

An hour? And you just stayed here?”

He was incredulous. Tusxe frowned at him.

“I hardly twiddled my thumb-claws, thank you. I was practicing magic until your spell bounced off my wards. You need to put yours up, incidentally. And why shouldn’t I wait?”

The [Magic General] blushed at the omission, but he was irritated and growing more so.

“I came here to fight for Rhir against the Demons and represent Izril. My time is not to be wasted lightly, Battlemage Commander.

She smiled thinly.

“And I suppose your time is far more valuable than Rhir’s High Command’s? We are outsiders, General Vors. If they have a reason to make us wait, I am willing to wait rather than disrupt their chain of command. It might be there’s a crisis.”

“All the more reason to know about it.”

“Why? So you can lead your army through an unfamiliar city and not know who’s fighting who, what they look like, and without communicating your intent? You’ve never fought in unfamiliar territory, have you?”

He had not, being familiar with most of the battlegrounds Fissival chose. The Drake turned red right under his scales. The two glared at each other; well, Tusxe had a slight smirk on her face.

Vors was just about to say—something—that he didn’t want to be lectured by a mere [Mercenary], that he didn’t have to stand for this coming from her, something about their peoples not getting along—when the door opened.

“I say, is it my turn to meet with the [General] of this place? I’ve been waiting for quite some time, you know. Not that it’s inconveniencing or anything…”

The Lamia and Drake both turned around and saw a man peering out of his room. He stared at the two non-Humans in clear alarm.

“Are you my, ah, liaisons?”

Vors looked at the [Lord] in his late thirties.

“Who…are you?”

“Lord Solvet. The Kingdom of Avel. How do you do? Er—sir?”

The man looked as bewildered as Vors felt—the difference was that he showed it. He was garbed in dress clothes of all things, not armor like Vors’ enchanted cloth, or Tusxe’s metal. He looked incredibly confused as he came out of his room.

“You wouldn’t happen to know when I’m meeting with General Idecan, do you? I was scheduled for a meeting two hours ago, but—”

Two hours?

The two commanders chorused in horror. Vors instantly turned to the man.

“Why didn’t you ask what the delay was?”

“Well…that would hardly be fitting. I am representing nearly six nations, and I am quite aware of Rhir’s status—it was also a long journey, so I confess to having nodded off.”

The [Lord] of Avel was embarrassed, but to Vors’ surprise, stuck out a hand as he bowed slightly.

“How do you do? I apologize, sir. I haven’t asked your name.”

“Er—General Vors of Fissival. Exceptionally pleased.”

Solvet blinked at Vors’ clawed hand and hesitated, nearly withdrawing his hand. He was wary of Vors’ claws. The [General] was amused and shook the man’s hand without scratching him. Tusxe did likewise.

“A pleasure. It looks like we’re all sitting around. Do you think they’ll mind if we talk out here?”

“It certainly beats my room. It’s—cramped.”

Vors glanced around, unsure how much to say if someone walked in on them. Solvet hesitated before nodding.

“It ah—lacked for certain refreshments. I suppose Rhir pours its budget into the defense of the nation—commendable! I might suggest to his Majesty—of Avel—that we add a bit more to our contributions, however. My room was, ah, slightly stuffy.”

Tusxe glanced from man to man, and snorted.

“My room was a craphole; I’ve had better stays in inns in a village in the middle of the jungle. I could swear there was something moving in my bowl.”

“You too?”

The two chorused before they could help themselves. Vors and Solvet exchanged glances.

“—Hang on. Would you mind if we looked inside your room?”

He turned to the Lamia. She shrugged.

“It’s not like I’ve got anything in there. Come on.”

She opened the door and the two followed her. Solvet and Vors found exact copies of their room, down to the bowl of nuts.

There it is again! What is—”

Solvet recoiled in horror as a beetle scurried out of the bowl. Tusxe made a noise of disgust—Vors lost his temper.

“That’s it. I’m finding whoever put us in here. If this is some kind of a joke—this is what they’re serving to the High Command of our nations? What are they feeding the soldiers?”

“Isn’t that uh—different—for your species? Could that be construed as a snack?”

Solvet suggested timidly. Vors stopped, halfway out the door. He turned back and Tusxe and he exchanged an incredulous look and stared at the Human. Tusxe spoke first.

“Excuse me, Lord Solvet. Do you happen to eat bugs?”

“Me? No, no. I just—”

“Well, I don’t either! Get a Selphid for that. Who eats bugs?”

Vors had to admit, he’d heard that Lizardfolk might eat bugs—from some rumor, but Tusxe and he being put into the ‘scaled people eat bugs’ category was offensive enough. Solvet raised his hands, trying to apologize.

“I’m sorry! I just assumed—I wouldn’t have dreamed Rhir would have an infested bowl of foodstuffs! And there are bug-eaters in Terandria. Half-Elves, you know.”

Half-Elves? Really?”

The Drake was agog, and actually had to stop again. Solvet nodded. Tusxe was just as surprised.

“Really? But you think of half-Elves as these…mystical…heirs to magic! Descendants of Elves! Fabulous cities of craft and marble and such!”

“In forests, you mean? Is that your image of half-Elves?”

The Drake and Lamia nodded. Solvet sighed.

“Well, they tend to be connected with the forests. Deeply. City-dwelling half-Elves are one thing, but I have seen them lick moss off boulders in the villages.”

“That’s…”

Vors couldn’t suppress the cough of amusement. Tusxe grinned. It was right then when he heard a curious sound.

Something was in the hallway. He turned, hearing the slight sound. Solvet glanced up; for all the [Lord] seemed oblivious, he’d heard it too, instead of Tusxe, who was asking about worms.

“What’s that?”

The three went to the door. Now, they all had a feeling something was up, so Vors relaxed the blade at his side. He saw Tusxe check her staff. Solvet? He had a belt knife and glanced at it, dismayed.

“You don’t suppose there is a crisis, do you? I ah, may have been eavesdropping—I’m without weapons.”

“You don’t have—what did you think you were coming here for, a dance?”

The Lamia cast scornful eyes at him. The man huffed a little; he had a slight wavy mustache, Vors realized. The Drake stared at it, having never seen that kind of facial hair around the mostly Gnoll and Drake peoples.

“I apologize, Commander Tusxe, but I use a longbow in battle. It’s considered slightly indecorous to walk around with a six-and-a-half foot bow when greeting dignitaries.”

“Really? You use a bow?”

“I do come from Avel.”

The Drake and Lamia had another blank look for the man. The [Lord] was dismayed.

“Avel? The Kingdom of Bows? Renowned for their archers?”

“Never heard of it. Hold on—I’m sensing something outside.”

Vors sent a spell. He saw Tusxe twist her claws and did the same thing. Both frowned—then glanced outside.

“That can’t be right. Is that a…”

Something went oink outside the door. All three leaders recoiled, then peered outside and found…a pig.

It was a small pig roaming the corridor! Well, ‘small’ for a pig, as Vors had seen some gigantic ones. It was probably four feet long, low to the ground, and had the oddest skin and coloration he’d ever seen.

Some of the pig was a rosy pink, even trending towards white on the underbelly—no dirt at all. The rest? It had some kind of…goldish…armor on it. Like scales or plate!

“What the hell is that?

Tusxe pointed at the pig. Solvet’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“My goodness! Is that a Goldflake Pig? What’s it doing here? And…just running about?”

“A what?”

Vors looked about the corridor, but he saw no one, nor where the pig had come from. Solvet explained as the pig sat on its haunches and looked up at the bemused three.

“It’s a rare breed of pig. It eats minerals of all kind. Well, the name gives away what it does. Goldflake. Nicknamed the Goldfake Pig.”

“Because that isn’t real? Does that hurt? Hey, hold still, you. Is anyone checking if it has an explosive spell embedded in it? Hostile artifact?”

Vors snatched his claw away from poking at the gold ‘scales’ growing out of the pig.

“Who would do that?

“Hello? Hostile Demons? We’re three high-value targets—you haven’t ever had to watch out for that?”

The two non-Baleros leaders looked aghast. Tusxe snorted. She scanned the pig, leaning back.

“…It’s clear. So that’s not gold on it?”

“Not at all. Come here, you.”

The pig was skittish, but Solvet made a clicking sound and it froze. It turned, trotted over, and sat down. Vors was doubly impressed.

“It must be trained.”

“Ye-es. For wardog commands. I really didn’t think that would work. Hm…it’s not shedding, and someone’s kept the fake gold trimmed. You see, they eat minerals and produce fake gold.”

“Pyrite. That’s actually useful in spells. I guess this must be the property of someone in Paranfer.”

The other two looked at Vors. The pig glanced up at Solvet, then got to its hooves again. Tusxe blew out her cheeks.

“Well, now we’ve got pigs roaming around and bugs. A fine welcome. Feels like home.”

“Agreed. Perhaps something is wrong?”

Solvet hesitated. Vors was about to suggest they all go searching, but Tusxe beat them to it.

“Let’s check. And stay on your guard, you two.”

They headed down a corridor, the three of them, leaving the pig behind. Vors sensed the Lamia tossing scouting spells—he just began casting his own battle-spells from a list. As an afterthought, he tapped Solvet. The man jumped.

“What? What are you—?”

He blinked as Vors’ [Mage Armor] spell appeared on his body. Tusxe eyed it. Solvet was surprised, but nodded at Vors.

“Um, thank you.”

“Just in case. Do you need a backup weapon? I can lend you my Wand of Fire Bolts.”

The [Lord] hesitated, eyed his belt-knife, and nodded.

“That—would be appreciated. I shall try not to waste the charge. I have aiming Skills.”

“Good. Don’t worry, though; it’s rechargeable.”

Tusxe glanced back as she came to the end of the corridor. Something was on the door; a bit of paper clumsily tacked to the cracked wood.

Really? Fancy. How do you do that? I’ve heard you can recharge wands, but mine just break when used.”

“Fissival-made. Rechargeable sidearms are standard.”

Vors smiled smugly. Right up until he saw the note on the door.

 

Apologies for the delay. General Idecan is unavoidably detained. Please help yourself to rfrshments.

 

‘Refreshments’ was misspelled. Vors stared at the note. He was tempted to crumple it up and stomp on it, but he held back, aware he was in company.

“No way. They just put that up there and…? Without telling us?

Tusxe stared at the note. Then at Vors. Then both she and Vors recoiled as Solvet raised the wand and blasted the note with a bolt of fire. Vors stepped back from the flash of heat, but Solvet just handed the wand back.

“Apologies. I lost my temper. I would appreciate it if you didn’t mention that to General Idecan.”

The three looked at each other, and then back down the miserable corridor. As they turned back, they saw a little roach scurry out of the corridor, heard a squeal, and then the Goldflake Pig caught the bug up in its mouth and crunched it down. It stared at the three, wagging its spiral tail as Vors, Tusxe, and Solvet stared at it.

They looked at each other, the pig, and then burst out laughing.

 

—-

 

Thirty minutes later, Vors found himself flipping peanuts at the pig as it stood on hind legs, opening its mouth to catch them. It even did a little hop, and fell on its back, all four legs flailing.

He started laughing, and so did Solvet, but Tusxe helped the pig get up.

“Don’t laugh! Alright, you’re okay, you stupid pig.”

It smiled up at her, or looked like it. The Lamia gave it a pat on the head.

“This pig is the best part of the wait, accident or not.”

Vors offered. Solvet nodded. He flipped a peanut high into the air, and the pig jumped and caught it in its mouth. He had a lot more dexterity with his ‘flat’ thumbs than the Drake and Lamia did with claws. Vors saw Tusxe admiringly shake her head.

“So handy.”

“Was that a pun?”

She grinned and Vors sighed, but all animosity was drained from him. They sat in his cramped room, the door open, hoping to hear from whoever was in charge. They’d debated leaving—right until they’d found the door was locked.

Solvet had kicked it so hard he’d sprained his foot. The man could be surprisingly hotheaded, Vors realized, for all he tried to be polite. He was massaging it now, but declined to use a potion.

“It would hardly do for a [Lord] from Terandria to need a potion after encountering a door. That would be the last thing our contingent needs and I am sure my fellows would not thank me.”

“No one would say that.”

Tusxe coughed into her arm as Solvet looked at her. The [Lord] glanced at Vors, who murmured something about ‘all being in it together’. He offered the pig another nut, sighing.

“We do have ears, you know. We know what other peoples—no, other continents think of us. Soft Terandrians with [Knights] and ineffectual leaders.”

“We don’t say it just about Terandrians. Drakes tend to direct that mostly at Izrilians in the north.”

“There’s a difference?”

Tusxe missed her own face with one of the nuts, which were actually palatable despite the bugs in each bowl, and laughed at the other two’s expressions.

“I’m joking. Of course I know there’s a difference. Something. Look at this goofy pig. They have pigs like this in Terandria and Izril? All of ours are Stelbore; covered in armor and mean as can be. Big.

The pig was lying on its side, begging for Vors to toss it a peanut. The Drake tried and missed; the Goldflake Pig stared at the peanut lying five inches in front of its snout.

How could you? Its eyes reproached the Drake. Do you do this just to make me suffer?

Highly amused, the Drake flicked a finger and the nut soared into the animal’s mouth. Solvet tossed a peanut unerringly into the pig’s jaw and the oink made them all smile.

“I must admit, you two were ready for battle more than I. Keeping my longbow on me would be the germane thing to do, wouldn’t it? Rhir’s highly martial…ah, General Vors, that wand of yours is quite nice.

Solvet was admiring Vors’ custom-designed wand. Wistram manufactured wands; so did Fissival and a lot of magical institutions. However, his was custom-contoured to his grip, and had a tiny addition; a magical lens built into it such that it showed what you’d hit.

“Thank you, Lord Solvet. I made it myself.”

Really?

That impressed the Lamia. [Battlemage] she might be, but Tusxe hadn’t his classical training. She was quite good with spells, though.

“I bought everything I have. Staff included. Glad I didn’t have to use it—or injure this pig. They shouldn’t let it roam about; I might have hurt it!”

She indicated the staff with glass embedded at the top. Vors eyed it. It was Solvet who asked.

“Is that a…viable weapon, Commander Tusxe? Forgive me for asking, but it isn’t what I’d expect a [Mercenary Captain] to use.”

The Lamia grinned at him.

“Solvet, have you ever seen someone hit by a bunch of glass bottle shards in the face? Or seen a bottle smashed into your scales?”

Solvet shook his head, fascinated and horrified. Vors raised a claw.

“I have. It doesn’t seem that much better than a sword, though. Even enchanted…a sword kills. Glass maims.”

The [Battlemage] winked at Vors.

“Yes, exactly. Which would you like to be hit by, though? A stab to the face or…?”

She flicked the staff, indicating a blow to head-height. Vors winced. Tusxe went on.

“The thing is, I’m a [Mercenary], as you said, Lord Solvet.”

She nodded at him. The man raised his hands.

“I didn’t mean to imply there was anything to do with rank…”

“Well, I did. And I wasn’t sure if I’d have to work with a [General] or whatnot…I’m leading a mixed-company, but mostly Lizardfolk. And I’d have hated to get some idiot who can’t figure out how to use a Lizardfolk in battle, no offense, Vors.”

The Lamia looked at the Drake. Vors hesitated, but then he ducked his head.

“You know, I had the exact same thought. I suppose that since we’re here and since no one’s coming…”

He glanced out the door at the hallway. The other two nodded. Vors leaned forwards.

“How does one use a Lizardfolk—er—[Infantryman]? I’ve studied other species’ tactics, but I focused mainly on tactics I’d see in Izril. Baleros is famous for its ambush-tactics in difficult terrain.”

Solvet edged a bit closer as the pig begged for another treat. Tusxe dropped a peanut onto its belly and they watched it squirm as she replied.

“That’s what everyone talks about, but if it’s a standup battle, Lizardfolk don’t melt. Well—okay. They don’t hold ground, but that’s because Naga-variants are better. You’re talking your basic Lizardfolk? They’re not…[Infantrymen]. They’re probably [Fighters].”

“Just [Fighters]? Not [Soldiers]?”

“Not [Militia]?”

The Lamia rolled her eyes. She looked at the other two.

“Your average Lizardfolk isn’t conscripted or wants a fight. If you get them in a company, they might just be…a kid who wants to earn money fast. They can use a sling, and they’ll have light armor. Good leather, maybe. And a spear and buckler? The trick is, you have them whirling that sling every moment they’re not fighting. They can do a lot of damage with stones and stones are cheap in Baleros.”

“Like a [Shepherd], or other village boy. A [Peasant] or [Villager].”

Solvet was nodding. Vors just shook his head.

“We don’t have the same traditions. Slings are Gnollish…most Drakes in a city might learn to use a bow or crossbow, but not slings.”

Tusxe gave him a toothy grin. Vors realized she was staring at Solvet. Not at him, or in awe of whatever physical attraction the Human man had; he was entirely too fleshy for both of them. Both she and Vors kept staring at his little wavy mustache in fascination.

“Well, I’ll see how good the Gnolls are. But all Lizardfolk can whirl a stone. Do you know if there are any Gnolls with us, Vors?”

“I have a [Charge Commander]—but he’s from Manus. As for the Tribes? No idea. Each one has a specialty.”

“Er—what is Manus? I thought the Drakes came from the Walled Cities…which are not alike, obviously.”

Vors didn’t take offense. He reached for the bowl of nuts, and Tusxe pushed the Goldflake Pig’s head away from the other bowl it was trying to drag off the table. She listened as he spoke with Solvet.

“Manus is the City of War. They do have a very martial tradition, but every Walled City has a standing army, you see…”

 

—-

 

One more hour had passed, and the three had just learned that the Goldflake Pig, who had been nicknamed ‘Nutball’, for its propensity to curl up with satisfaction after eating a nut it liked, could do tricks.

Like an actual backflip. And it could actually use the gold armor it grew. In response to being horribly endangered—Solvet taking one of the nut bowls so they could eat it—Nutball had dropped a gold scale, re-consumed it, and spat a cloud of powdered pyrite into the air.

The glitter-bomb was distressingly hard to get off your scales or armor, and it also got in the eyes. But Nutball redeemed himself with the trick and was oinking as the three clapped their hands to a song, ‘singing’ for them, when the door opened.

Vors rose to his feet as a Drake, a Human man, and a Lizardman walked in. They were all smiling, and all, he noted, wearing insignia that denoted high-ranks. The Drake stopped.

“Sir! Apologies for the wait, General Vors!”

He gave Vors a crisp salute. The [General] blinked as the Human man bowed to Lord Solvet, and the Lizardperson made a claw-sign with neck frills slightly opened that Tusxe clearly knew.

Captain Shellc looked at General Vors, with a slight smile on his face. The war veteran of Rhir looked at the confused [General] as Nutball ran over. The pig sat down and raised a hoof as if it were trying to salute.

“What’s going on here?”

General Vors demanded, but one look at the three who had come to meet them and Solvet groaned. Tusxe caught on, but the Drake had to be told.

Rhir had not put them up in this tiny hellhole as a way of punishing them, or because they had not enough money. In short order, Vors found himself sitting in a far nicer room, relaxing, drinking some wine and having snacks with the others, and laughing, a bit embarrassed.

After all—it was a test. The Blighted Kingdom had been observing—not spying exactly, but making sure they didn’t kill each other. The rest was easy.

“Everyone gets locked together, General Vors.”

Captain Shellc was explaining. The Drake had wounds from his battle, but he was being fitted with a prosthesis for his amputated limb, but he had refused to actually leave Rhir.

“Everyone in a position of command, you mean.”

The [Captain] nodded. He was up for promotion, but had been assigned as Vors’ liaison. Not least because it had been unclear Vors would be assuming command of the Drake division here.

“Not everyone passes so well, I take it?”

Lord Solvet looked for his Human subordinate for confirmation. She nodded.

“The test is to avoid them killing each other, sir. Groups of two or five at most. Cooperation is hoped for, and the test is designed to be as miserable as possible…”

Solidarity in misery. Hence the nuts with a bug, the cramped rooms and chairs designed to make you want to leave, and even locking the door to the area.

Nutball was also part of the test. The Blighted Kingdom was used to having mixed-species conflicts, and so this was all engineered to bring together foreign leaders and have them work together.

“Sometimes they ‘fail out’, and are sent home, or relegated to guard duty in the capital. And they really hate that!

The Lizardfolk chattered to Tusxe, who had an air of patience as she listened to her excitable junior member of the species. The little Lizardfolk [Tactician] gestured at the door.

“Other times the participants do weird things. They break down the door, sometimes! The area is warded, but one time, I heard a [Commander] thought there was a Demon attack and everyone was missing, so she told her [Queen] to sound the alarm!”

“Anyone ever get hurt?”

“Two deaths.”

Deaths?

The three foreign leaders were astonished, Vors especially. He could see himself coming to an altercation with Tusxe, but not to the death! Shellc grimaced.

“Duels. A pair of Humans—Izril and Terandria—dueled to the death one time. [Ladies], not [Lords], with enchanted daggers. The other time was…uh…allergies. A Dullahan didn’t take to the nuts well.”

“And you keep serving them?”

Well, allergies are a great conversation-starter, [General]. And if the Demons can kill you by leaving a bowl of nuts in the same room as you…it was a huge diplomatic incident. They do test for that, you know. Didn’t you notice the bowl of nuts on the pier? The one just sitting there by the people ushering you in?”

“I saw that! I just thought someone left it there—so they watch for people who run screaming? That’s…clever!”

That was how Vors came to know Rhir. He, Solvet, and Tusxe were already familiar after the test; it was likely they’d be asked to join forces in one of the mixed armies. Rhir had no intention of letting Drakes stick with only Drakes, and this had broken far more ground than Vors could have imagined with simply introductions.

“You can meet the other leaders tonight, all but two of whom passed the test, General Vors. For now? Welcome to Rhir. I hope I can serve under you. It was…an honor to serve with the last mixed-army before.”

Shellc shook Vors’ claw again. The [General] nodded solemnly and everyone lost a bit of their levity.

The pig oinking restored that. Vors glanced down and Tusxe laughed.

“So what do we do with this pig? I hope we don’t eat him; I liked him.”

“Oh, he’s going with you. The new army gets a mascot and that’s—did you call him Nutball?

The three commanders looked at each other. A mascot? Apparently, Rhir also included free pets. Vors’ last shock was the cunning look the Goldflake Pig gave him. Captain Shellc gave the pig a respectful, and even wary nod.

“Trained by Rhir’s [Beast Masters]. Normally they do Wyverns and other combat animals, but pigs like this and other animals for scouting, companionship—they have Waisrabbit scouting bunnies. Nutball is a decorated survivor of eight engagements and can actually fight, with the trick with the dust. Two Demon kills.”

Nutball stared up at the rookie. It saluted Vors again as the Drake stared at it.

Welcome to Rhir, soldier.

 

—-

 

When it came to the affairs of state, and the growing Unseen Empire, Laken Godart was prepared to deal with a lot of issues.

Monsters, altercations between the Goblin and non-Goblin populations, attacks from abroad, reprisals from the Circle of Thorns. Dead…somethings…

Even the possibility of intervention from another world, either in knowledge, or visitors like the fae. The dangers of war or the same things that had killed Erin Solstice, a creature like Belavierr.

Of all the things that he was told to fear and expect and prepare for…a plague of Sariant Lambs, the world’s cutest and most affectionate animal, was not the crisis he was expecting.

 

—-

 

It began as Laken was looking into the issue, of, well, running his empire better.

Of course, he had a number of worries he was juggling. The [Emperor] of Riverfarm did not exist in a bubble, although one certainly had been around the remote village, ignored by all. Now though, the bubble-empire was getting big enough to start pushing on other interests.

…Well, if Laken tallied up the problems, the first was some kind of border-war to the west, the first he’d heard of it. Local nobility in conflict.

Second? Ryoka Griffin and the case of the missing Mrsha, both related? Unrelated? He heard she was cursed, which pretty much summed up Ryoka’s charmed…cursed…life for him. He had asked some of his [Witches] to look into it.

As for Mrsha, Laken wasn’t sure if his Gold-rank team, Griffon Hunt, would be returning or not. He had been preparing to celebrate them and the Halfseekers on their return trip from the Village of Death, but if they went, they went. The [Emperor] had no clue what had gone down in the south—except that Belavierr had been involved.

So, he made his priority that day two-fold.

First? He summoned his advisors.

“Eloise, Hedag, Prost, Durene…let’s say Ram and Beycalt too. And Mister Hemlag.”

Laken named the people he wanted to speak to out of the number of officials. Ram, the [Head Farmer], and Beycalt, the [Construction Supervisor] weren’t as important as Prost was, but Laken liked their insights. Hemlag was Rie’s replacement.

She was still gone. On her trip that only Laken knew about. Hemlag was an [Accountant], and a good one, so he was part of Rie’s ‘faction’.

They all arrived, the [Accountant] being first, and nervous to be included in the group, but Laken’s order of business was simple.

“I plan on meeting with Wiskeria later, so we shall make this brief. I would like you all to consider and propose items, activities, even new buildings all for Riverfarm’s entertainment and wellbeing.”

The others reacted with interested murmurs. Hedag? She laughed, as Laken knew she would.

“Entertainment, your Majesty? Have you heard much complaint? I haven’t. Riverfarm works well, not that we would turn our noses up at a festival or [Bard].”

Laken nodded to Prost as the [Steward] queried him.

“I’m eternally impressed by Riverfarm’s work ethic, Prost. However, everyone needs leisure time and work has been nonstop. Since we became an empire, it feels.”

Prost and Durene had to nod at that, and Gamel, hovering by one of the windows with the small squad now under his control. Laken went on, glancing around to mimic meeting people’s eyes; it made them feel better than him speaking and never moving at all.

“You see, where I come from, we do have access to a number of books. Toys, games…not that Riverfarm is lacking. People can swim in the river—”

“Downstream of where we draw our water or there’s hell to pay.”

Ram muttered. Laken smiled as the man flushed.

“No, exactly, Mister Ram. A dedicated pool? A library? I would like these things, and whatever you suggest. Even song crystals. Something to reward Riverfarm’s hard-working folk in their time off. After all, children need to play, don’t they, Witch Hedag?”

“Of course, Emperor-lad. So you want us to propose items and such?”

Laken nodded.

“Festivals, objects. Mister Hemlag, that’s why you’re here. We’ll devise a budget…”

It was refreshingly simple these days. In the past, Laken would say something like ‘what if we did this?’ He would always get agreement, dissenting opinions if he chose the right people rather than sycophants, but what the [Emperor] had learned was to act. If he asked for someone to do something, they would come back to him to confirm it.

This time? He heard out suggestions, told them to make more proposals, and had the project in the works within the hour. It would be funded. It would be done.

Toys for Riverfarm. A library…what had surprised Laken the most was the unexpected suggestions. Paints and an arts room for anyone interested, of course! He didn’t think of that. Spellbooks for anyone who wanted to see if they had an aptitude?

He put it out of his mind as he went for his true objective for the day. It had become plain to Laken that there was a crisis named ‘Belavierr’. Riverfarm had endured it once, but the Stitch Witch was a walking calamity. He had no idea how you could oppose her—short of throwing every [Witch] in Riverfarm at her, and the odds were they’d just run away. The only trump card he had was Wiskeria.

And she…was interesting. The [Witch] was his [General] and also a ‘witch of law’, a new kind of [Witch]. She had sworn to stop her mother, even if it meant Belavierr’s death.

On the other hand, she had also convinced Belavierr not to attack Mrsha, at least physically, and Laken had heard she baked a cake and put it into her hat yesterday.

He hadn’t realized how—odd—Wiskeria was. Mainly because Wiskeria was good at hiding it. Laken had been clandestinely observing her in his mind, and now came to talk to the [Witch].

 

—-

 

This was how Wiskeria was a bit odd; she was normally her spectacled self, wearing blue robes and a pointed hat, the quintessential [Witch].

She was also a Silver-rank adventurer, responsible, even unremarkable if you’d met Revi or someone with a very strident personality. She was the kind of ‘second in command’ she’d been when Sacra, posing as Odveig, had led their team here.

A sensible organizer and leader. She remained that way until Laken had realized she was Belavierr’s daughter. And that posed a question to the [Emperor].

You’d think that the daughter of one of the greatest [Witches] of all time would be a bit weirder, wouldn’t you?

He’d run a ‘test’. The fruits of that test were apparent as Wiskeria raised her voice.

“No. He didn’t.

She was gossiping with some of Riverfarm’s women, from various positions in the village. It was just…relaxing, having some of Eloise’s famous tea. Wiskeria looked shocked.

“Cheating? Did you ask a [Witch] to sort it out? Miss Yesel? Or…?”

There were internal judiciary systems within Riverfarm. The young woman shook her head tearfully.

“No—and please don’t ask, Miss Wiskeria! I don’t want him to lose his head, if Hedag were to hear…”

“She wouldn’t do that. And something should be done.”

Beycalt was frowning. Wiskeria nodded, looking disturbed.

“He’s your fiancé, isn’t he? You have to do something, Elaiere! I could talk to Prost or even—”

“Not his Majesty! I’ll…he said he’d make things right, break it off. It was only once!

The others looked at each other. Laken, leaning against a windowsill, made a mental note not to intervene or pretend he’d heard about this. Some things an [Emperor] did not need to deal in, and this?

“It’s not once.”

“He said—

Wiskeria’s hat swiveled back and forth as Beycalt glowered and the poor Elaiere defended her unfaithful fiancé. Fascinating as this was, Laken only focused on Wiskeria. Because…she was genuinely disturbed.

Disturbed, upset on behalf of Elaiere, the [Seamstress], a talented young woman, whom Wiskeria had befriended. Given tips to—of course Wiskeria knew how to sew. And it made sense! You’d support a friend who realized she was being cheated on, wouldn’t you? Be upset?

“All checks out. That’s genuine emotion right there. Wouldn’t you think, Gamel?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The [Knight] hovered, palpably uneasy at eavesdropping, although his [Emperor] had insisted. Laken nodded to himself.

“So—how did Wiskeria react to the other tasks I asked her to oversee and help with?”

The [Knight] didn’t have to think.

“She helped cull a bunch of animals, and butchered them without a blink. Even some of the [Farmers] were surprised by how chatty she was. Then she went and helped the [Mortician] with…”

He gulped. Laken nodded.

“Preparing the dead bodies. And have you ever seen her look upset while fighting? What about when we were burning the Creler bodies? Anyone?”

The [Emperor] asked the other warriors who were on bodyguard duty. They shook their heads. Laken nodded.

That was Wiskeria’s secret. She never stopped being normal, even when she should be. Seasoned warriors could fight in a battle, but even they might blanch at culling and butchering animals. Wiskeria? Not a bat of the eyelid.

Crelers, dead bodies—spooky [Witch] apprentices. Laken remembered her chasing them off. Nothing fazed Wiskeria, except, apparently, infidelity.

Emotional, social matters. She raised her voice behind Laken, visibly upset.

“Elaiere, you can’t let him get away with this. This is more than just being unfaithful! He made a promise to you! An oath of love! You have to resolve this.”

“How?”

The [Witch] thought about it.

“For someone who breaks the vow of love? You could break his legs.”

“…What?”

Laken sat back up. Gamel, and the rest of the squad turned. Wiskeria was pacing back and forth in front of the women. Beycalt laughed, but Wiskeria shook her head.

“I’m serious! It’s a broken vow! Demand something of his—you can’t trust oathbreakers. The engagement’s off. Demand—I don’t know, I’ve never been engaged. What’s the penalty for breaking an engagement?”

“There’s not one, Wiskeria! It’s…love.

The [Witch] whirled on her friend, angrier—Laken realized, angrier than any of the other women for different reasons—and pointed at Elaiere.

“And love demands a price. He’s broken his word. You were going to get married! Demand fair recompense, Elaiere. Demand…I don’t know, one of his testicles.”

What?

The [Witch] looked around.

“She doesn’t need to cut it off herself! It’s just—that—that’s not what you’d normally do, is it?”

She hesitated, as she saw the other women looking at her. Wiskeria opened her mouth, then promptly shut it.

And that was the mystery of Wiskeria, partially solved. Laken strolled out of the home, and looked at Gamel.

“Ask Beycalt later if anything’s done. Otherwise—Prost can handle it. No testicles being removed.”

The [Knight] nodded, glancing back towards the circle of arguing women. Laken walked on.

The thing about Wiskeria was that she slipped. You had to catch her. He just bet that the talk about breaking promises was something she’d learned from her mother.

“Woe to anyone who ever broke a promise to Wiskeria as children.”

“Ah, well, we all have our complaints, Emperor Godart. But if you wanted to know Wiskeria’s differences, you might have asked us.”

All of Laken’s company jumped and half his bodyguards nearly drew their blades—but they saw Eloise standing there and relaxed. The [Witch] had snuck up on them all!

“Eloise, you caught my spying.”

“An [Emperor] does not hide well. Are you wondering what makes Wiskeria different?”

Laken ducked his head, a bit shamefaced.

“Wiskeria has always dodged questions about her past. I did not wish to push. Eloise, I don’t suppose you can elaborate?”

The [Tea Witch] considered the question and Laken knew she was weighing her ‘service’ to the Unseen Empire against the code of [Witches], whatever that was. She gestured.

“Shall we walk, your Majesty?”

They did, towards the river and the fields, as Eloise hummed, then spoke.

“You noticed Wiskeria doesn’t blink at most things; well, many [Witches] could say the same. If you want to truly see how Belavierr changed her, look no further than how she talks to her mother. Or—had you any [Murderers], [Bandits], or other unsavory folk in Riverfarm, you would have noticed it already.”

“I tend not to enjoy that kind of person, Witch Eloise.”

“Oh, I know. They would have been—instructive. You know Wiskeria has sworn to kill her mother? They both know it.”

“Yes. Her conversation was entirely polite, though.”

Eloise nodded.

That is Wiskeria. She can speak to a monster—a true monster, regardless of the face—and deal with them in a friendly way. Then kill them in the next hour. Both she and her mother know that one day, one of them might die. They can still be mother and daughter until then.”

Laken drew in his breath.

“So that’s it. And that…sounds entirely like Belavierr. Practical.”

“Able to differentiate. I can be your mortal enemy, Emperor Laken, but offer you tea. It is not a skill many Humans learn. Many species at all. Will that satisfy?”

It would, and Laken thanked Eloise. Of course, the [Witch] had sought him out today to propose more lessons in tea for anyone interested. Maybe a few tea sets?

“And while we discuss it—the new fields are doing well, and your ‘greenhouses’ would allow crops of all seasons. Perhaps I could petition you to grow some plants? Tea sells quite well.”

“Of course, Witch Eloise. Shall we visit Mister Ram?”

She smiled, and Laken pointed in the direction he sensed the [Head Farmer]. It wasn’t exactly payment for just Wiskeria’s background, but he reflected that the [Witches] certainly knew what they wanted. Eloise had an empire’s worth of customers, and it seemed, might have cheap access to all the tea leaves she could want.

It was at that point when the plague arrived. Laken slowed as he realized the [Farmers] had abandoned their stations.

“Hm. They might have found something. They’re all gathered in the field.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The [Emperor] realized Gamel could see what he had observed; his [Emperor]-sight didn’t trump regular eyes all the time. The [Emperor] began to walk that way, and noticed more people coming.

Durene, Prost, even Hedag and Wiskeria and a few others, noticing the lack of work. Beniar’s [Riders] too, calmly assembling.

“Is there danger, Emperor?”

Eloise was standing on her tip-toes to see, being shorter than the others. Laken frowned.

“No. They’re all clustered around…hm, it must be nearly six dozen…did one of the pens break loose? They look like baby sheep.

The company relaxed instantly. Unless they were carnivorous, or even if they were, that didn’t sound like monster-class threats, and the [Farmers] would have raised the alarm if they were.

However, it was Eloise who suddenly lost her smile. She looked ahead.

“Baby sheep? Lambs? You don’t mean those wretched—”

Laken glanced at her, interested, and then heard the cutest baah he had ever heard in his life. He arrived with the others just in time to find that the [Farmers] were petting, cuddling, and feeding scraps of vegetation to their unexpected guests.

“Your Majesty! It’s wonderful! I’ve never seen so many, and they just came up and started nibbling the corn over there! They’re beautiful and friendly as you want! They’re—”

Sariant Lambs.

Eloise hissed. Laken could not see, but he sensed the [Witch] recoil from the adorable, seventy-plus herd of lambs that had waddled over, mewling and baahing. Laken Godart raised his eyebrows.

Today was a weird day.

 

—-

 

Sariant Lambs were known the world over for one thing: they had obtained the record as the world’s cutest, most adorable and beloved pet.

No other animal beat them. You could object and say, ‘dog this’, or ‘cat that’, or ‘fluffy bunny whatever’. You would be wrong. It wasn’t that any other pet was less cute or adorable, but Sariant Lambs were better. Superior fluff! Superior cuteness!

One touch of their fur, ranging from white to black with some surprising shades in between, and you couldn’t help but feel like you were touching what a cloud should feel like. They would beg to be picked up, their little eyes and heads staring up, lick your cheek—they never got as big as regular sheep, being a dwarf breed.

All of Riverfarm that heard about the animals flocked over. The Sariant Lambs didn’t run; nor were they even skittish. Other animals needed to be trained, and even the best got nervous in large groups. Sariant Lambs loved the attention.

“It’s so cute! Mother—mother! Can I have it?”

A girl shrieked as the lamb nuzzled her, running up to her parents. The others had lambs in their arms—Durene was tentatively, tentatively scratching the stomach of a little lamb who’d rolled over winsomely.

Laken Godart heard similar sentiments—people were talking all around him. Prost turned to Ram.

“They just showed up, you said? They’re valuable! Each one’s worth a fortune.”

“Prost, you don’t want to sell them? This is a miracle! We could have them in a home, one to a family. They don’t need much to eat—this could solve his Majesty’s worries about entertainment! Who needs books when you have this cute thing?”

The lamb baahed and burped in his arms and both men laughed. Sariant Lambs were more than just cute—one was gamely playing tag as a toddler ran away. Another was hopping like a bunny, mimicking an actual bunny pet.

It was…the most memetic display Laken had ever ‘seen’ in his life. He had never seen cat videos, or dog videos. The blind man got absolutely nothing from that kind of thing when a friend was showing the video around. And someone saying ‘look at the dog as it takes a bath!’ was not actually fun.

In his head, the Sariant Lambs were doing all these things to the delight of the people watching or interacting with them. Laken was glad the lambs were bringing some levity and enjoyment to Riverfarm, but what he was really curious about was the reaction of the [Witches].

They had gathered at the news of the Sariant Lambs. Unlike the people of Riverfarm, they hadn’t flocked forwards to pet and touch the creatures.

The [Witches] were standing in a line, apart from the cooing people. They were not impressed. Rather, as Durene whispered, they were ‘giving the lambs a look like slugs in the wheat field.’ Which Laken was quite amused by.

“What’s the matter, [Witch] Hedag, Eloise?”

The two senior [Witches] were staring at the lambs. Hedag flipped her hat up.

“Looks like you’ve got parasites, your Majesty. Didn’t expect they’d show up, but I’m glad you’re not cooing over the little things. Happiness leeches is what they are. Affection slugs. Shoo.

She kicked at a Sariant Lamb as it waddled over and it made a distressed noise that immediately made Durene pick it up and hold it protectively away from Hedag with a glare. Laken got what Hedag meant. He smiled.

“Competitors in the same field?”

Eloise’s head slowly rotated around, but her rare look of extreme displeasure was lost on the blind [Emperor].

“I didn’t think you were that tactless, your Majesty. Hardly. Sariant Lambs are parasites—just not shaped like them. Parasites for people and culture, not animals. Is it a surprise [Witches] don’t care for such things, as lovely as their appearance might be?”

Parasites? Laken Godart glanced over. He heard a whuff, and then a caw. Instantly, he held out an arm—winced—

Frostwing landed on his shoulder, having taken off from her usual perch of Bismarck. The Mossbear and bird had both come over to investigate the noises. Instantly, one of the Sariant Lambs broke off from the crowd, and approached Bismarck. The bear sat back on its haunches, but then stared as the little Sariant Lamb made an approximation of a growl, like a bear. Only, cute.

It came over, inspected his paw, and to Laken’s amazement, found a little thorn that had been troubling the Mossbear and pulled it out with its teeth. Bismarck instantly perked up, bent to nuzzle the little lamb, and everyone was doubly impressed.

“It even got the bear. Let’s kill them when everyone’s asleep.”

Laken heard Witch Agratha mutter. He turned.

“Just what is the problem? That seemed like a wholesome interaction.”

A line of angry [Witches] turned to face the [Emperor], arms folded. It was Wiskeria who gave the explanation Laken needed.

“They seem nice now, Laken. But they’re buying your affection. In a week? They won’t be as ‘helpful’. They’ll demand feeding, petting at all hours, or they’ll start crying. In a month? Half of Riverfarm will be fighting to win their affections. They’ll turn households against each other, starve all your pets, and if the empire collapses, they’re on their way.”

The [Emperor]’s head turned. He could not see the Sariant Lambs, and perhaps that was a good thing. But suddenly—Laken Godart wondered if the ‘smiles’ the Sariant Lambs were apparently giving to the Humans were actually more like disguised smirks. He stepped back and looked at Wiskeria.

“Tell me more.”

 

—-

 

“There’s a rhyme for the little [Witches]. ‘A good [Witch] adds more than they take. Even the bad one takes, and uses it to create. A [Witch] who leaves naught at all is a mistake.’ Compared to us—yon lambs? Parasites, more like.”

Hedag laid out the fundamental difference between Sariant Lambs and [Witches] like that. [Witches] used emotions. So did the lambs.

The difference was that Sariant Lambs had zero qualities of their own. Their wool was fluffy and had market value, but like sheep, they were incapable of shearing it themselves and suffered if it grew too much.

Their tiny size meant that Sariant Lambs could neither run, nor actually obtain food that easily. Sheep, for all they were herbivores, had a number of survival mechanisms.

There were no rams among Sariant Lambs—they had both genders, but both were cute and cuddly despite age. The way they survived was by finding someone else to protect, house, and feed them.

If that seemed like a stupid self-defense mechanism, well, Laken saw all seventy lambs already being fought over as people wanted to have one in their homes—no, two! And it didn’t stop at people.

“Sariant Lambs can get anything to like them. You saw your bear? Well, they’ve done that kind of thing to no less than Wyverns.”

Laken turned to the [Witches].

“Ridiculous.”

Wiskeria just snorted.

“I wish. They’re not big enough to be even a mouthful. They’re exceptionally intelligent; they can understand what you say, and they can make themselves useful and beloved. For a while. There are cases of Wyverns protecting the stupid things, even fetching plants to feed the lambs.”

“Do they have any natural predators?”

“Sure. Crelers, undead…Eater Goats. Sariant Lambs fear them like the plague. Anything that can’t be bought by cuteness.”

Laken was beginning to understand, but still, this beggared his belief a bit. He gestured at the lambs. Cute they might be, but…

“Surely other predators would eat them. Like Bismarck if he was hungry.”

Eloise gave him a patient sigh. She walked over to one of the lambs.

“Your Majesty…watch.”

The [Tea Witch] bent down and seized a lamb by the scruff of the neck. She produced a belt knife, and the lamb freaked out. It opened its mouth and—began to wail.

It cried almost like a child, but—cutely. Instantly, every person looked at Eloise in horror.

“Witch Eloise! What are you doing to the poor creature?”

Even Bismarck came over to protectively shield the lamb. Eloise gave it up without much more of a fuss, and walked back to Laken.

“That sounded like a baby! A cute baby!”

Laken was rattled. His head tracked the lamb, but all he could ‘see’ was its outline. Eloise nodded, adjusting her hat and tucking her knife away.

“It’s just as well you can’t see them, your Majesty. Their charms aren’t working on you. Which is also why we came here, to warn you about the danger. Sariant Lambs are intelligent, and they know what they’re doing. They sought out Riverfarm, so don’t be fooled—they’ll be a pest worse than Vorepillars in the fields since you can kill one, not the other.”

The Unseen Emperor nodded slowly. He had to admit, that the [Witches]’ commentary and his own lack of insight was revealing the Sariant Lambs as little, cynical manipulators rather than the cute, helpless animals.

As if they suddenly sensed that the leader of this place wasn’t being won over, one of the lambs broke away from the crowd and trotted up to Laken. It stopped in front of him, on its bottom, all four hooves raised, and waved them.

“Baah, baaah.”

It was an adorable display. Laken Godart didn’t pick it up.

“It wants you to hold it, your Majesty!”

Miss Yesel called out. Laken bent down. The Sariant Lamb stared up at Laken’s face.

His face, with his closed eyes. The man frowned at the little lamb.

“Hm. It sounds cute.”

The Sariant Lamb backed up, clearly confused at this lack of pure adoration. The other lambs glanced at each other. Then one baahed, and came forwards. It moved past the first, and began nuzzling Laken’s leg.

It was so soft! Laken put out a hand and the second Sariant Lamb began to nuzzle it. He blinked, then smiled despite the [Witch]’s warnings.

“You clever little sh—”

Wiskeria actually kicked at the lamb, but Gamel blocked her. It ran away, crying piteously until it was scooped up. Laken stared at his hand.

“I’ve never felt something so soft!”

“Don’t let them fool you!”

“Witch Wiskeria! Please! I don’t know what you’re talking about, but this won’t lose us productivity or start fights! Your Majesty, we can’t leave these creatures to be eaten up. Won’t you let us take them in?”

The [Emperor] sensed more lambs crowding around as Prost made an appeal on behalf of Riverfarm. He hesitated—then stood and backed up. Behind the line of [Witches].

“Hedag, Eloise, Agratha, Wiskeria—senior [Witches]. Quick conference.”

 

—-

 

Laken had to shake off the soft touch of the Sariant Lamb. The [Witches] gathered around him.

“Alright, what’s the actual concern if we allow them to stay? They’ve already won over everyone here.”

The [Witches] glanced at each other. Laken was almost more wary of the lambs now than before, having experienced their charm. It was almost like magic. It might be magic.

“Well, they’ve come to Riverfarm, and fallen right into our trap, your Majesty. This flock’d run if it thought we were hungry or weren’t fat enough to feed them. They didn’t know there are [Witches] here, though. Give me five minutes with an axe and we can have fine eating for the next few days.”

Hedag grinned. Even Laken gave her a look of horror.

“Witch Hedag, those are thinking animals.”

The Hedag of swift justice scowled. Laken wondered if it was the Sariant Lambs already having twisted his mind—but murdering a bunch of animals wasn’t something many people from Earth were at home with.

“So’re leeches. Bah, I can see that’s not going to work. We can sell them, but [Beast Tamers] are wary of the devils. They like to breed and it’s hard enough to cull regular animals, let alone them.”

“Let’s say we let them stay. What will happen?”

Hedag growled, thinking.

“They steal other animals’ food, distract people from work, and the things’ll breed until they get so large a smaller herd splits off to infest somewhere else.”

“On the plus side, they will be helpful and motivate people for a while, your Majesty. They won’t show their true colors until a week or two when they’re ‘settled in’.”

The [Emperor] nodded. He glanced at the Sariant Lambs, and wasn’t oblivious to the mood of his people. He turned to the disgruntled [Witches].

“I don’t believe there’d actually be a revolt if I ordered them all killed, but I doubt we can drive them off without people disobeying. Let’s see what the lambs do first, [Witches]. We’ll make plans based on that.”

The [Witches] protested of course, but Laken could either give an order he knew wouldn’t be obeyed, or slaughter a bunch of lambs in front of the children and adults. He let them keep the lambs, refusing an offer of one and had Prost divvy them up between households.

The [Witches] hated it and glared daggers at the little lambs as they were carried off and everyone got, reluctantly, back to work, although some of the [Farmers] found the lambs following them around as they worked, to their delight. The women with hats stomped off. Laken distinctly heard Agratha muttering to the others.

“So ends Riverfarm.”

 

—-

 

The next few days passed by with the Sariant Lambs continuing to delight, and doing everything from ‘trying’ to make a bed, to proving to be perfectly house-trained, to enjoying baths and dancing together for fun.

They were a bomb of adorable, and it was a bomb, because Laken began seeing the fallout that the [Witches] had promised within three days.

He sensed it because the lambs were clever. But after twelve incidents, Laken summoned Eloise and a small group of [Witches] to his home.

“Witches, I believe you’re right.”

Now he listens?”

Laken had to admit, he’d been a bit dubious, but he explained what he’d observed.

“I just sensed twelve instances of a Sariant Lamb stealing food from a dog bowl. One of them was actually eating from a horse’s trough and the animals just—let them do it!”

“We told you they were parasites. They won over animals and folk alike.”

Hedag growled. The [Emperor] agreed at last, reluctantly. The [Witches] hadn’t exaggerated the Sariant Lamb’s true natures—much.

They were little bullies. When no one was watching, they took food from the other pets. They demonstrated that in increasingly needy ways; one even competed with a baby for attention, wailing more piteously and with much more cute rewards when the parents fed it. An infant was inherently stupid; Sariant Lambs were smart.

Too smart. They were stealing food from the other animals in Riverfarm. Mostly sheepdogs and ratters and such—but also horses’ food. Laken fixed it, of course, ensuring that the food was placed higher up and that the animals were fed.

In response? He actually had to walk into a barn as the lambs fled and touch the ladder they’d dragged over to a food trough to believe it.

The only benefit Laken had in this shadow-war was that the lambs clearly didn’t know he could sense what they were doing. In front of him, they pretended to be as cute and helpless as could be, and they clearly knew he was the [Emperor]; no less than six followed him around if he was outside, much to the envy of his subjects.

They were turning Riverfarm into admirers, that much was certain. Durene loved the wretched things and even though they’d been told, all of Laken’s counselors couldn’t quite bring themselves to even suggest getting rid of the lambs.

Not that the Sariants found Riverfarm as easy pickings as other places. The [Witches] were responsible for that. The Sariant Lambs couldn’t charm even the apprentices, and the [Witches] reminded people—loudly—of their worse qualities, like trying to steal literal food from babies. The lambs had to be helpful around the [Witches] to prove the hat-women wrong.

Nor did their food-stealing trick work on one type of animal. Even Frostwing would let a lamb sniff her bowl of meat—although Sariant Lambs were herbivores—but the Sariant Lambs tried their food-theft trick on the wrong group.

On the fifth day, one sidled up to the pile of meat scraps, and grain and other crops promised to Witch Mavika’s crows, who kept the fields clear. The birds cawed warningly, but the bold lamb just tried to cuddle one crow, charm the rest. They let it do it—right up until it began to eat one of the corn cobs.

The crows ate the lamb after they pecked it to death, much to the horror of Riverfarm’s folk. True to Eloise’s word, the lamb screamed loud enough to distress everyone in several thousand feet. But it was dead before anyone sprinted over.

Witch Mavika refused to comment on the dead lamb, when the people of the Unseen Empire wanted to take her to task over it.

A pact was sealed, and no one will break it. Not lamb or woman. Would you like me to show my displeasure on these little pests?

Thousands of crows cawed warningly and the lambs instantly ran into houses. The people backed away as the [Crow Witch] tilted her head.

The [Witches] played no games. Indeed, on the sixth day of the Sariant Lamb invasion, Wiskeria brought it up to Laken over breakfast. Durene wasn’t with him; she was off feeding her lamb scraps of corn mush she’d personally prepared with a bit of spice the lamb wanted, and Laken was beginning to get sick of the needy lambs—he had refused to have one with him.

“They’re certainly showing their true colors. Why do lambs want flavor in their food?”

“Why do you?”

Wiskeria retorted. Laken had to admit, he’d invited that one. Apparently, all the Sariant Lambs had refused to eat breakfast until they had properly prepared food, and some of his [Cooks] were whipping up gourmet lamb breakfasts.

“I can see I was wrong, Wiskeria. These lambs are getting worse and they’ll be even more annoying in a week. What do you propose?”

His [General] hesitated. She looked around, for a lamb, not Human eavesdroppers, and leaned over the table.

“Laken. If…say…all the lambs were to vanish overnight, with no one knowing how it happened, with no blood or traces ever found, how angry would you be? No one would ever know—well, be able to prove anything.”

The [Emperor] stopped eating and raised his head. Wiskeria sat back. Laken Godart swallowed, and then burst out.

“There has to be a resolution between keeping them here and murdering them all in the night, Wiskeria.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of one. Either sell them or figure out something, because the [Witches] can see what’s happening as well as you can.”

The [Witch] snapped back. She was genuinely worried.

“They’re just lambs. They’re not a threat beyond—disruption to work and stealing from other animals! Parasites, not like Crelers. Right?”

The [Witch] was silent. Laken faltered.

“…You must be joking.”

Wiskeria fiddled with her glasses, and looked around again. She leaned forwards.

“Let me put it like this, Laken. We, [Witches], that is, don’t think they’re actually an organized threat. They’re just manipulative little geniuses. However…Queen Geilouna of Desonis owns one. I know there’s a Sariant Lamb owned by the Queen of Ailendamus, the King of Avel…and that’s just Terandria. There are Sariant Lambs owned by the rich and powerful—because that’s what Sariant Lambs like, to be pampered—across the world. If they were subtly manipulating their owners, who could tell?”

This was the stupidest conspiracy theory that Laken had ever heard. Yet he couldn’t quite deny it; the lambs were intelligent.

Case in point; one had apparently unlocked the warehouse door with a key it had somehow ‘found’ and they’d gorged themselves on food. The fact that a lamb had figured out which key was in Prost’s house, gotten it to the door way over its head…

No. The lambs were a problem. What Laken wanted to know was, why Riverfarm?

“These cute things could have gone to Invrisil. They could have bothered Magnolia Reinhart or a [Merchant]. Why Riverfarm? We’re not rich!”

“You have everything they want.”

Eloise gave Laken a cynical smile. She was walking along as Prost hurried—with a lamb in a carrying sling—to chivvy some of Riverfarm’s people to get back to work. The lambs protested; they wanted their fur hand-combed and all dirt and specks taken out! And hoof-manicures!

The [Tea Witch] gestured around the village.

“Riverfarm might not be as rich as Invrisil, but Sariant Lambs value safety over luxury, Emperor Laken. Your empire is a byword in safety; no bandits, no monsters. Believe me, many people are coming just for that. Why not the Sariants? More than that, however…a big city is more dangerous than somewhere like Riverfarm. Sariant Lambs can be run over, and many would steal them to resell. They like to stay together; they are a herd.”

“Hence Riverfarm being their paradise. Wonderful.”

The problem to Laken wasn’t killing the lambs. He’d had enough of killing sentient species, thank you. It was more that the lambs were cute and cuddly. People liked having them about and they were keeping people smiling. If it wasn’t for the other things, they’d be fine.

“Do they ever stop infesting a place?”

Eloise nodded.

“It would take months. A settlement loses its prosperity, or quarrels too much. Or…the animals run them out.”

“Really. But the dogs and horses…”

“They can only starve so long, your Majesty. Cats, now. Intelligent cats, or animals owned by [Beast Tamers] would do it fastest. They won’t let the Sariants kill them off.”

Laken rubbed at his face.

“This is such a stupid problem.”

He stopped as something went baaah in front of him. A little lamb rubbed against his leg; they were still following him and kept trying to touch him.

It actually reminded him of how Rie had tried to manipulate him, so Laken wasn’t fooled. He squatted down, and turned his closed eyes to the little sheep.

“How smart are you?”

It backed up a step, and then tried to climb his leg innocently, begging to be picked up and held. Laken didn’t like that answer. He turned to Eloise, who was—aiming a wand at a lamb trying to come up to her. She put the wand away as the lamb fled.

“Could they perform some kind of duty like the dogs do? They are as smart—smarter—than any animals I’ve met. Smarter than monkeys back home.”

She glanced at him and Laken recalled he hadn’t told the [Witches] his big secret. He would—perhaps only to spite Tamaroth—and they knew it existed, but it was one of the things he was currently waiting on. He had no idea how they’d react.

Hedag strode up, aiming a kick that missed one of the lambs who hopped out of the way. The Hedag laughed, but even her laugh had an irritated edge to it.

“That’s the issue we put before you, Laken-boy. And you see it clearer than most, eyes or not! They might work, since they’re smart’re than most, but they have a weakness that makes them not worth spit.”

“Which is?”

Laken Godart sensed Hedag lean down. She whispered the Sariant Lamb’s fatal flaw into his ear.

They’re lazy.

 

—-

 

Two weeks had passed and the Sariants were driving Laken crazy. Riverfarm’s people still defended them, but they were taking up more time. They wanted special food, petting, affection—and they had begun to breed.

They’d spawn like rabbits, and by now, Laken was sure something had to be done. He had sat in…conversation…with one more advisor and received an amusing response.

Murder them.

Apparently, they got even on a certain bearded man’s nerves. But that just made Laken want to object. He came upon a good solution, and an obvious one, when he entertained a rare visitor to Riverfarm.

Lord Gralton Radivaek was closer than Yitton Byres, and sometimes dropped by.

“Heard you had a bunch of Sariants.”

He grunted, bringing his usual armada of dogs, who were usually instantly played with. This time? They came up to people fawning over lambs and barely got a scratch. The dogs sniffed the lambs, who wiggled their noses, cuddled—and promptly backed away.

The [Dog Lord]’s hounds weren’t fooled. Laken glanced at Radivaek, and couldn’t read the man’s face from his [Emperor]-senses, but got a rumbling chuckle.

“Hate the buggers. I came to ask if you had a bone in the Oswen fight.”

“The—? Oh, the border dispute with House Veltras’ people?”

It was one of the new political events Riverfarm was now big enough to weigh in, being close-ish to the group that was feuding with the swamp-region over some kind of hunting territory dispute. Radivaek nodded.

“I’m on Oswen’s side.”

“About the hunting lands and the legal territory…?”

The [Dog Lord] gave Laken a blank stare as he tore into some meat and tossed the bones to his dogs. Laken let one climb into his lap; he liked the hound a lot more than the lambs; the dogs were genuine. They got bored with you, they didn’t act. When they wanted to play, they asked.

“Who cares about who’s in the right? I’m on Oswen’s side because they do right by me. Was hoping you’d do something.”

“Militarily? Economically?”

“Nope. Just agree Oswen’s right. Might tip the scales; they’d thank you.”

“Hm. Well, how many repercussions might that invite?”

Laken wished he had Rie, or Yitton. He had learned that Gralton was far more complex than he indicated—but the man still liked to pick fights. Gralton, predictably, had no idea.

“Maybe they’ll get snotty. You have your totem-things. Listen, Oswen’s good people. They have great dogs. Ever seen them? Hold on—I think I brought some with me. Trotter! Find me Waterskip and Droplets!

One of the warhounds bounded off and came back with two more dogs. Laken had no idea what the dogs were—only that they were fairly large. His senses as an [Emperor] meant that features weren’t visible, so he reached out with his hands and found smooth, oily fur. He felt at the long dogs, their webbed feet, long ‘tails’, and laughed in astonishment.

“Gralton! What are these?”

“Otterdogs. Crossbreeds that pull Oswen’s water sleds. I knew you’d like ‘em.”

“You have Oswen’s breed?”

Gralton laughed in Laken’s face. He was Lord Gralton! He had every dog breed.

The otter dogs were affectionate, playful, and as fast in water as their cousins were on land. They had been bred with magic or something to be natural-born swamp hunters. They were delightful.

A bit smelly, but Laken didn’t object. He had to go down to the river and see them race through the water.

“Brilliant fellows. Not much use on land compared to a hound specialized for that, but Oswen’s got them hunting fish, pulling their water sleds—y’see, you shoot down game from their homes on stilts, and you send a dog out to fetch the kill. I’ve visited for fun; it’s a great place to relax. You should take that Durene and some of your folk and visit. They’ve got hot baths too. Unicorn horns embedded in the biggest one.”

“Er—willingly?”

“Think so. Some old pact back when you had the horned things wandering about.”

Laken scratched a wet otter-dog as the liquid ran off its fur. He smiled.

“You know, I like these Otterdogs a lot more than the Sariants already. I asked if you’d consider selling Riverfarm more dogs—how are the kennels?”

“Booming. Lots of puppies running about. Why, you want some dogs?”

“Maybe some Otterdogs? We could use some fun creatures about that don’t want you to trim their hooves every two seconds.”

Gralton folded his arms and thought about it.

“No.”

The Unseen Emperor straightened in surprise.

“No? Why not?”

Gralton glanced around Riverfarm and shook his head.

“Not enough wetland. Not enough water. Maybe if you expanded to the marshes to your east…then you can have some.”

“You…don’t want me to pay for your dogs?”

The [Dog Lord] fixed Laken with a look the [Emperor] felt. Like an aura of a beast, pressing on his. He realized Gralton was offended by the offer.

“My dogs are meant to work. They need a purpose. All animals do. I won’t sell them to grow fat and discontented. I’ll give you more terriers and sheepdogs and the Otterdogs if you have someone needing help in the marshes. And only if you get rid of those thieving sheep. I know they eat from the dog bowls and there’ll be hell to pay if I find a dog’s hungry.”

Chastened, Laken slowly nodded. That was why he respected Gralton.

“You’re right. I apologize.”

“Good. Now, if you want a dog that sees in the dark for your Darksky Riders—I’ve got a new breed in…”

The issue of the Sariant Lambs came into relief as Gralton extended his stay. The two Otterdogs did eventually come to live at Riverfarm, because Laken was planning on going into the marshes. So he asked for Waterskip and Droplets to try themselves out with one of the [Marsh Hunters] who’d fled the fires, but wanted to resettle his home. Ryoka had met him on one of her runs.

As for the Sariant Lambs? Gralton was the first person to agree with Laken.

“You can’t just kill all of them.”

Thank you. I’ve been told to either let them parade about or to murder all of them in cold blood. What would you do?”

“No idea. I just run them off if I find them.”

Laken covered his face. Gralton laughed.

“Cheer up! Maybe there’s a secret power you’ll get from having so many. Seventy? That’s a lot! Bound to be twice that in a few months with them breeding. Now…me? I like—changing with my hounds.”

He meant his secret ability, to turn into, well, a Werewolf. Laken had been astonished to learn he could do that, although it was more like a Weredog. Gralton grinned at the [Emperor].

“You could become half-sheep.”

“No thank you. I think…it’s time to make the Sariants an ultimatum. I won’t have them disrupting Riverfarm, and I won’t kill them. If I drive them off—they might just come back, or my people will hide them.”

“What, then?”

Laken Godart frowned. Then he realized he had another special guest, who’d come out of her domain to greet Griffon Hunt. They were inbound. Laken snapped his fingers.

“I know just who. Excuse me, Gamel? Please bring me…”

 

—-

 

Pebblesnatch. The Goblin [Cook] met with Gralton and Laken. She was an emissary of her people, one of the few who ever left the Goblin Lands. Usually to ‘borrow’ cooking supplies or visit Nanette.

She stared at Laken and the [Dog Lord], quite unimpressed by both. After all, she had beaten the [Emperor] with a ladle and neither forgot that.

“Pebblesnatch, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I was hoping you could take a look at Riverfarm’s newest…pets.”

Laken had Durene’s Sariant Lamb in the room, but he’d exiled his lover and all other busybodies except Gralton and the [Witches]. Pebblesnatch blinked at the lamb.

“What that?”

“A Sariant Lamb. It’s—”

The little sheep stared at Pebblesnatch and interrupted Laken as it came over, mewling cutely and staring up at her with huge eyes. It nuzzled the Cave Goblin, who retreated, then bent to stare at it.

Pebblesnatch had never seen a Sariant Lamb. The Sariant Lamb had never seen a Goblin.

The lamb did its best. It cuddled up, sniffed at Pebblesnatch, did a little flip on its hooves, and licked at the Goblin’s palm. All classics.

The Goblin felt at the soft, cuddly creature, and listened to it mewl and soothe her. She smiled. Then she sniffed the lamb. The Goblin experimentally opened her mouth and bit the lamb on the neck gently.

“Yum. Soft. Is good meat. I get?”

The lamb instantly freaked out. It began wailing, and Laken covered his ears, but grinned. So did the [Witches]. Hedag laughed.

“It doesn’t fool the Goblin’s stomach!”

Durene was summoned to rescue her lamb. Laken consulted with Pebblesnatch after the Sariant Lamb was gone.

“You didn’t think it was cute enough not to eat, Pebblesnatch?”

The [Cook] gave the [Emperor] a narrow-eyed look, as if trying to figure out if this was a test. She shook her head in the end. Yes, the Sariants were cute, but ‘cute’ didn’t fill her belly.

Laken clapped his hands together. At last! A species immune to the Sariant’s charms!

Goblins were in the unique position of being pragmatists; unlike monsters or animals, they’d be damned if some furballs would live if they starved. And unlike ‘civilized’ peoples, they didn’t like the idea of wasting resources on layabouts even if they were flush with food.

He grinned as he stood. It was not a nice grin, and both Durene and the Sariant she held looked apprehensive as Laken summoned them back in. He turned to Gralton and the [Witches], and smiled.

“I think I have a way to deal with the Sariants. Find them—all of them. No objections. We’re going to give them…shock therapy.”

Pebblesnatch glanced up. She began thinking of lamb recipes as Durene began protesting and the lamb squeaked in horror.

 

—-

 

“This is the issue. Sariants cannot breed out of control. They can’t demand to be pampered. A bit, yes, but they have to eat corn without wanting spices on it. I am willing to have them here! Just not at the expense of Riverfarm’s other animals. Lord Gralton has issued a complaint on how the dogs are being neglected.”

Riverfarm’s people listened with dismay as Laken laid out the issue. They stared at the nervous sheep, who were under [Silence] spells. Yet they could hear Laken. He sat on his throne, in front of the mass of supplicants and the lambs.

This was the weirdest throne room deliberation he’d made thus far, but Laken pretended nothing was untoward about it. He leaned over the armrest of his throne and turned his head to the Sariant Lamb’s ‘leader’.

“I am aware the Sariant Lambs are intelligent enough to be helpful—that they chose not to be is their choice.”

The lamb tried to baah at Laken, but he spoke over it.

“That they haven’t been so far is disappointing. The Sariants do seem to have a kind of charismatic power over Riverfarm’s people…so I’ve decided to give us a break.”

“Your Majesty, if the [Witches] convinced you to—”

Ram began hotly, but Laken spoke over the man.

No one is going to kill them. Be silent, Mister Ram. I am [Emperor] of Riverfarm. Not the Sariant Lambs. I do not intend to kill them. However, they will not be coddled—and they will be absent. For one week. In their place I have asked Gralton to lend me his dogs, to be affectionately cuddled and taken care of.”

The people of Riverfarm muttered, but more dogs didn’t offend most. Only the most strident dog-haters around would object to that.

“Where will the Sariants go?”

Laken smiled nastily. The little lambs looked like they were ready to head off to greener pastures, but Laken wasn’t letting them off that easily.

“Why, I have prevailed on our allies to take care of the lambs. Without eating or harming them. It should be a fun week.”

The Sariant Lambs looked left—then right—then realized who Laken meant. Pebblesnatch grinned. She smacked the ladle into her clawed hands and pointed to the object Gralton had given her with a laugh after she’d come up with it.

A little dog-sled. The Sariants stared in horror at the sled and Pebblesnatch.

“Mush.”

She pointed. They began to wail, but they were under [Silence] spells and the [Witches] herded them off. Laken ignored the objections and Gralton’s dogs bounded forwards, reminding the spellbound people of Riverfarm there were other things than lambs in life.

 

—-

 

In truth, Laken suspected the Goblins mostly left the Sariants alone, Pebblesnatch’s fun aside. They weren’t actually cruel.

They might be hungry, though. But the Sariants were charming enough and even if one or two vanished…well.

A week of shock therapy did the trick. A bunch of ragged lambs came back, with grass stains on their fur, no owners to comb them or feed them on pillows; they’d had to find food, slept under the rain and lightning that a few malicious [Witches] kept conjuring, and fought off bugs, ticks, and, apparently, a really hungry giant centipede.

Laken Godart met the herd of Sariants before they were allowed back into Riverfarm. The Emperor of the Unseen Empire knelt down as the lambs stopped, staring at him.

“Here is my deal, Sariant Lambs. I know you can understand me. I am happy to let you eat, reproduce—in safe numbers—and have people look after you all your lives. But not if you take up all their time. Everyone must work.”

Gralton had reminded Laken of that. The [Emperor] went on.

“You will want for nothing in my lands, but you will not bother the other pets. If you are helpful, you may stay. If you continue as you have the last few weeks? I will have to force you to leave.”

The Sariants glared at him. Laken smiled thinly.

“I’m sure you think you can persuade your owners to get you to stay, and I have no doubt they’d try to smuggle you in. Which is why if I have to exile you—I will declare open season on Sariant Lambs. Not among my people, you understand. I’ll simply let the [Witches] keep Riverfarm clean of pests as they see them.”

Witch Mavika, Hedag, Eloise, Agratha, Wiskeria, and the others stood behind Laken. They stared at the little lambs and the lambs…hesitated. Laken Godart got back up.

“Let’s get you to your owners. Think about what I’ve said, would you?”

He let them go, and turned back to Wiskeria. Laken Godart rubbed at his forehead.

“…This is so stupid.”

He walked off and went to sleep to put an end to this debacle once and for all. But—well.

The world had the last laugh.

 

[Natural Allies: Sariant Lamb obtained!]

[Pact: The Hard-Working Lamb (Sariant) obtained!]

 

—-

 

The next day, Laken Godart followed some lambs around in his head. They helped tidy up the houses, nuzzled their owners, then lay down to sleep. A few followed their owners to work, and in general, lazed about.

“I suppose that’s as hard-working as a Sariant Lamb gets. But they’re not demanding attention or pampering.”

“You actually struck a deal with Sariant Lambs?”

Wiskeria tried not to laugh over breakfast. The [Emperor] regarded her, in his mind’s eye. For the daughter of Belavierr, she clearly found this normal, if funny. He shook his head, resigned.

“I don’t know what I find more offensive. The fact that I can strike a pact with Sariant Lambs, the fact that they are Riverfarm’s natural ally—or that the Skill isn’t new. Someone’s done this before.”

Wiskeria just shrugged.

“As long as you have the deal, we’ll abide.”

Laken Godart nodded and sighed. More of Gralton’s dogs had gone to stay, but the Sariant Lamb…he sat up and cursed.

No! Absolutely not! Wiskeria, get Hedag and her axe!

He shot to his feet, but it was too late. The growing empire of Riverfarm had fought over the seventy lambs. The empire, already into the tens of thousands, would not have to anymore.

Over the next three days, six more Sariant Lamb herds converged on Riverfarm. Laken Godart, the [Emperor] of lambs, decided to spend more time with Bismarck and Frostwing. Mossbears. Now, why couldn’t it have been Mossbears?

 

[Emperor Level 25!]

[Empire: Will of the Beasts obtained!]

 

—-

 

Pets across the world. Useful and useless.

Pets, not Healing Slimes or skeletons. Pets—animals who had a unique relationship with their owners.

Like the Fortress Beavers of The Wandering Inn—they weren’t pets. Not exactly. They had been left behind, abandoned the [Garden of Sanctuary]. They were Defenders of the Cave, and the pond, however lovely a retreat, was simply too small for them.

Animals needed to work. The inn was abandoned by even the animals. Selys Shivertail did have a reason to appreciate the Fortress Beavers.

She stared at the groaning [Thief] who had been after the Heartflame Breastplate, still breathing heavily. It hadn’t even been in her apartments; it was always on lease, but idiot [Thieves] didn’t know that.

The Fortress Beavers sat on the Drake who had sixteen broken bones. Somehow, they had snuck into her apartment and then proceeded to rescue her. It turned out a knife might threaten a Drake—but not a Fortress Beaver whose fur was so powerful, Mrsha had a Skill based on it.

Fortress Beavers, the beavers who could build dams so impressive they stopped entire rivers. The same beavers who had once dammed up a river with a fortification so impressive that two hundred Drakes had failed to dislodge them and been beaten back by the den, hence the name.

Selys was going to buy a big house with a water feature for them. She watched as Beaver Gang slapped their tails, giving the bemused Watch a side-eye.

…But they weren’t pets. The Defenders of the Cave were separate from The Wandering Inn’s only true pet. She buzzed along, intelligent, but still someone’s beloved animal. Selys realized…she hadn’t seen Apista. Nor would she find the bee when she went to check the next day.

Not in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Not in the inn, tending to her hidden little honey nest. Nor about the inn, on the flower-hill. Apista was nowhere to be found, because she had left the inn.

They all had. The brave and foolish, leaving home to rescue that silly little Gnoll. The bee buzzed along, determinedly keeping up, avoiding the Gnoll [Sergeant] who kept swatting at her.

“Are you sure that thing’s part of the inn? It’s got a stinger longer than my finger!”

Sergeant Gna pointed at Apista. The bee did a barrel roll past her face. But she wasn’t high. There was no time for hedonism. Her little white creature was gone! Her pet, who fed her things. Apista had to get it back or Lyonette would be heartbroken.

The faithful bee buzzed ahead, ignored by most of the others. Octavia, fiddling with her supplies, ill-at-ease on the horse, Fierre with an umbrella, Fals and Garia, jogging along, Antinium, Goblins…

Only one of them glanced back at Apista and realized the bee meant business. Apista was angry. She was furious. She buzzed, a bee as large as your hand. Her dark stinger was poised and she was no ‘one sting bee’. She was a princess of bees!

She had been taking it too easy. Sitting complacent in the inn. That time was over. Someone had stolen Mrsha. That stupid hat-thing had hurt her.

It was time for the world to see Apista’s true form. Training wings off. She had to unleash her full potential.

The others mocked her, or tried to shoo her back to the inn. They didn’t understand. Apista wasn’t the weak one here. That was probably…uh…someone else!

It was Ulvama, the lone experienced spellcaster of the group who did a double-take and eyed Apista warily. She rode forwards and nudged Numbtongue, who was riding ahead, eyes set on the road.

“Hey. You see that? What that?

She pointed warily at Apista. Numbtongue glanced back, irritated—then frowned. Both Hobgoblins peered at the Ashfire Bee. Apista gave them a salute with one antennae.

That’s right. Fly wary, I’m packing real heat.

Ulvama leaned back as Apista buzzed past her face. She stared at the tip of the bee’s stinger. The glittering tip that caught the light. Her jaw dropped as she recognized what it was.

The Naq-Alrama needle glittered on the tip of Apista’s stinger. Apista had tried to ‘glue’ the fragment of needle with beeswax to her stinger until she’d accidentally jabbed it in frustration. It had lodged in the already-sharp queen-bee stinger, and the tip of it poked out. Apista had decided it was an upgrade. She buzzed angrily as she scouted for someone to poke.

Oh boy, she was going to sting someone in the eye with this.

The most dangerous, anti-[Mage] bee in the world buzzed ahead.

After her beloved little friend.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I am done! And I’m on break for two weeks.

I’m about to fly off, so this might be up tonight…or I have to figure out how to send it on-the-go. You see, I’m taking a longer break, which I feel bad about…but I’ll be on vacation!

Also, I’m dying. Of exhaustion, nothing else. I could really use a longer break, so I’ll take it in order to write better. I’ll be back in two weeks—not three!

Someday, I will take a three-week break. When I visit London or something, next year. Hint: I’m not from London. I know I fool you with my amazing accents and characterization of Trey and Teres…

I’m rambling, I’m tired, and this was a short chapter for once! Still…still 16,000 words. I’ll see you after some rest, and try to get that revised chapter out by the time I’m back. But it really is good to have a travelling vacation. I think. We’ll see how recharged I am later! Thanks for reading and remember—don’t leave your pets behind. They’ll rise up.

See you later!

 

Maid Erin by Sedeto!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Sedeto

 

A Frying Pan received by Andrea Parsneau, narrator of The Wandering Inn!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mouthymaven

Discord Server: https://discord.gg/sqKzd5N

 

Horns of Hammerad Sketches by pencilpine!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/pencilpineart

 


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8.29

Like a great natural disaster, or powerful spell—or simply the clash of armies, the aftereffects, the fallout took far longer than the event itself. Processing that might take days, weeks…years…

If you could even piece together the full story. That was the challenge here, for all those aware of the event, even those tangentially related to the main players of the story. If you saw her from afar, that was not knowing what she was.

Belavierr the Spider. Belavierr, the Stitch Witch. Yet she had many more names. There were many titles that had been lost to time, stories in the depths of the secret libraries about her. Before you could process the impact she had made, how close Liscor had come to calamity—for all it had seen enough—you had to know her.

Which was impossible. So you didn’t know quite who had attacked, or what she’d done. Or why she’d done it.

The consequences were obvious. A child was kidnapped, an army had been beaten back, the dungeon’s threat resurfaced…there were wounds, recriminations, and it all spiraled around the inn, again. There were dead Gnolls that no one could identify, Goblins riding Wyverns, and so many dead monsters that the Adventurer’s Guild had hired every [Alchemist] in the city to help catalogue important parts before they went to rot.

That was…easy to deal with. The hard part was asking what had happened. Would it happen again? Was there any way to prevent it, make safeguards? And…where was little Mrsha? Was she in direct danger? Had a [Slavetaker] gotten her, or something darker?

Many people asked those kinds of questions. What had Belavierr wanted? What was that spell Xrn had cast? How had that single Antinium beaten her back? Would Hectval try again?

The question betrayed the goals of the individual involved, and their personality. Some—some asked no questions.

Lyonette du Marquin just screamed. Screamed, and ran for the gates, the walls, as if to run to Pallass, before they caught her. Numbtongue? He sat amid guilt and a second horror of failure—but not for long. Not this time.

Some were not able to process at all; the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings simply collected their dead. One of them tipped his hat to Ishkr as the Gnoll gestured at the four men, lying prone after the fighting had ended.

“Terrible business, sir. Happens to the best of us, though.”

“I—I—I don’t know how to thank you. I can’t. Someone should speak to you. To…they saved us all.”

Ishkr looked for someone else in authority to give the Brothers their due, but there was no one. Everyone else was busy or mourning or trying to find Mrsha, or—

The man had a tall cap and he looked as old as the Brother he was helping carry away. In…a bag of holding. He’d just bent down and the body had vanished. It seemed disrespectful, to Ishkr. Practical, yes, but for the dead?

“Don’t you worry, sir. We’re used to it. We’ll get these fellows in the right place. Among their kind. If I may say so—it was their choice. It was all volunteers and we appreciate the sentiments, but there’s little to say. We had a debt. A debt was paid. More’n paid, maybe.”

Two of the other three Brothers who had come by gave the third a significant look and he passed a finger over his mouth.

“Apologies. Not my place.”

“Are—what will happen now?”

The man looked at him as he bent over another body, inspecting the face, identifying him and writing it down, then collecting the body. He glanced up at Ishkr.

“Frankly, sir. We won’t be back. I’d like to say otherwise, but…a debt’s a debt and a man pays it in full, and adds whatever honor has him put over the top. This debt’s been squared, and the ones who called it’re gone. We’re not even Invrisil’s lot.”

He gestured to the other two. The other two men nodded, a grizzled, scarred man, and a young one.

“The Brothers of Invrisil are half gone. Reinforcements. The ones who thought we had business with the inn made their choice. But we can’t keep tallying up numbers. Thought we should break it, impolite as it is.”

“No…you’ve done more than enough.”

They had paid with their lives. Because the [Innkeeper] had died…Ishkr looked down. The Brother identified the last man. Ishkr hadn’t even seen where he’d died. He should have gone out in a blaze of glory. Instead, he had gone down in the shadows, holding the line with Numbtongue.

Crimshaw stared up at the ceiling. The Brother touched his eyes, closed them, and moved the bag of holding. Then he was gone.

 

—-

 

The dead and the living. Normen lived; he and another Brother were being treated for poison.

Along with Pawn. The [Priest] had survived the poisoned arrow, mainly because…it had happened before. This time, the inn and [Healers] were armed with broad-spectrum antidotes.

Antinium were resistant to poisons to begin with, and he’d taken a single arrow to the gut. He wasn’t able to move, though, and could only speak, lying on his back.

“Find Mrsha. I promised Lyonette. Do the Listeners have anything?”

Chaos in the Hive, though you would not know it. Antinium didn’t run around in a panic or raise their voices. They were just…aimless.

Xrn was wounded. She had retreated, and no one would breach the chambers where the Free Queen was working with Xrn’s magic and potions and her knowledge to mend the Centenium. In the gap of the Revalantor and Prognugator…

It was Tersk who eventually went to the Listeners and came back with an answer.

“South.”

“That’s all you know?”

Belgrade turned to Tersk. The Armored Prognugator opened and closed his mandibles at the brusque, even interrogatory question to a Prognugator, but he nodded.

“Yes. Half the Listeners are damaged beyond repair. They could only identify sounds, not pitch, tenor, or any other qualities. Something moving at intervals, southwards. At speed.”

“Damaged? Damaged from wh—”

Belgrade realized they must have felt the battle from Belavierr. He clicked his mandibles.

“What do we do? Go after Mrsha? For how far?”

He looked around but—Pawn had passed out again. There was no Klbkch, no Free Queen, no Xrn…the other Hives’ Prognugators were uncertain too.

 

—-

 

Uncertainty in power. Too much to do, too few resources. Here were the facts, as Drassi, one of Liscor’s most famous and esteemed individuals liked to say.

Drassi. That loudmouthed [Gossip] who’d been fired from her last four jobs in a row for talking too much when she’d been working?

Now a city-heroine, the kind you had on a shortlist. Famous; a name known around the world, who gave the city prestige, negotiating power at many tables. Who would have guessed?

Well, the former [Shopkeeper] on Market Street, the most generic street name in any city, supposed it was the same thing that had happened to him. Lism Swifttail, [Councilmember] and one of the few officials who could process this—this attack—thought about what he could do.

“Nothing.”

He struck the table. Jeiss and Alonna looked at him. Tismel, Zalaiss, and Elirr, the other Councilmembers present during the Meeting of Tribes, all looked up.

“Nothing? We have to rescue her!”

Elirr shot to his feet; his fur was practically falling out from horror. Lism corrected his words.

“I mean, Councilm—damn it, Elirr. What are we going to do? Send the Watch? Send a [Tracker]? How large a force? We are at war. Hectval just attacked us!”

“We can’t ignore that. But we can’t ignore Mrsha. Or the fact that this—this [Witch], Belavierr—nearly conjured something that might have caused untold devastation!”

Alonna snapped back at Lism’s perceived apathy. The [Shopkeeper] fixed her with an eye.

“Oh yes, Alonna? And let’s say we form a taskforce. Are we sending all of 4th Company? They took nearly a sixth of their number in casualties from one clash with her! All of the Watch? Could, if they even found her, and caught up, all of the Watch even scratch that—that thing? Olesm? Zevara?”

The two Drakes looked at each other. Zevara shook her head at the same time at Olesm.

“Not a chance.”

“She can’t just get away with this, Watch Captain!”

Jeiss rose to his feet, outraged. Lism snapped back.

“Oh yes she can, Councilmember Jeiss!”

Jeiss was astonished. The [Swordsman] looked at Lism.

“You want to let her go? And Mrsha?”

Lism was shaking. He stood up to pace and his tail struck the chairs, it was lashing so hard.

“Absolutely. Do you think I’m happy about it? But I just read the reports our [Librarian] dug up—Belavierr. Full power unknown. The kind of [Witch] who can raise the dead and apparently fight Xrn, Grimalkin, and three damn armies without being hurt! She’s the kind of thing that passes by a city, causes chaos, and they let her go. Maybe even Pallass. Do you know why? Because that is why.

He pointed out the window. At the smoke still rising from the pyres outside the inn. The other Councilmembers looked out the window. Lism sat down. He couldn’t control his voice. It was shaking with fury.

“We let her go because if we make her an enemy, we vanish off the map. Hectval? Damn Hectval! I want Hectval torn stone from stone and their Council in chains! Belavierr?”

He shook his head. The Councilmembers looked at him, some shocked, but he was glad to see Tismel and Zalaiss nodding fervently. Their usual cowardice? It suited him just fine. He wanted all the Council on this page. They didn’t touch Belavierr. Lism would never forget.

“What about Mrsha?”

Elirr stared at Lism. The Drake managed a grimace, not a smile.

“Not the same, Elirr. A citizen of Liscor was kidnapped.”

“And you want to do nothing?”

For answer, the purple-scaled Drake leaned on the table. He looked at Elirr, not unsympathetically. He didn’t like the troublemaking little Gnoll, who made rude gestures at him whenever she saw him. But she was a child. Still—his objections there weren’t the same at all.

“I’d throw whatever we could at finding her—and identifying that Gnoll, Councilmember Elirr. I’m willing to entertain whatever suggestions the Watch Captain and Strategist Olesm have to locating and rescuing her. However. Do you really think we’ll be helpful compared to who’s going after her?”

The Councilmembers hesitated. They eyed the window, where a Wyvern was already taking off; and two more had already flown south. Wyverns, and multiple Gold-rank teams who had heard about the beloved child’s disappearance.

“So we do nothing. Just like you said.”

Alonna looked like she was eating grain mixed with rat feces. Lism already had a plateful, but he nodded.

“We focus on where we can make a difference. I know an impossible sale when I see it, Alonna. What can we make sure never happens again?”

He stabbed a map, and a list of troop details, battle plans. The others looked at him. Lism stabbed the table until he chipped the tip of his pointing claw.

Hectval. Hectval. Hect. Val.”

 

—-

 

It was a strange day, the day that Thronebearers of Calanfer stared at a tribe of Wyvern-riding Goblins, Antinium, and a pile of dead monsters and decided they had more important things to do.

It was a dead-split between them. Lormel and Ushar wanted to go after Mrsha. It was Sest and, strangely, the wounded Dalimont, face white as a sheet, who wanted to find Princess Lyonette.

“Ser Dalimont, Ser Sest—if we were not fellow [Knights] sworn to brotherhood and cooperation, I would use language unbefitting of the lowest bar!”

Lormel shouted, face purpling; his armor was still battered and bloodstained. Dalimont answered, coughing.

“We are one of a number hunting for the girl, Lormel. We are not trackers. The [Princess] is alone in a city under siege. More importantly—she may know how best to find her. We do not know where one is—the other? We stand to lose both, so we find the [Princess] first. So we are charged. Only the throne can countermand our quest. Or…a [Princess].”

Lormel and Ushar considered that. Lormel paced back and forth, but there was no time to waste. They were just one of a number of groups that set out. Dalimont, barely able to stay in his saddle, looked at the other bands flowing mostly south.

They were all leaving the inn.

 

—-

 

The immediate concern of those on the ground was to go after Mrsha. To secure the area, or tell the others what had happened. Word spread, as it did, with some people learning of the event far too late.

Others had seen it live, albeit not broadcast via Wistram News Network. That was a good thing. No one needed to grow Belavierr’s dark legend. Besides—the sight of this kind of thing was destabilizing.

Most importantly, though, knowledge of the strange Skills used by Pawn should remain secret. Perhaps even the fact that those Gnolls had failed to kill Mrsha.

There were a lot of things to process here, and Chaldion began with reports of who was leaving the inn, individuals seen together, and of course, damage reports. He had people marking any number of valuable targets.

“Pawn, though.”

He eyed the pawn on the chessboard he’d fetched out. The symbolism didn’t escape him—but of course he knew Erin’s story of how she’d met Pawn. A Worker who befriended an [Innkeeper]—or the other way around.

“Strategist?”

Chaldion looked up. He was having his signature drink, the Chaldion’s Eye, and the sour had just entered the alcohol. It dulled his mind—but anyone could use a drink after what he’d just seen. Besides, this was aftermath. He nodded at his guests.

General Duln of 1st Army, General Shirka of 3rd Army, the newly appointed female Drake, youngest of all of them, and [Stormline Strategist] Esor Ventail were his guests in his private abode. Not including the personal [Caretaker] he now had to keep around.

The [Grand Strategist] grunted irritably at the thought of the annoying…helpful…considerate…Gnoll [Caretaker] who made living easier but somehow infringed on dignity. His three guests had all been served by her, and they were a carefully cultivated group.

Duln—you needed Duln on your side. Duln was always on Chaldion’s side; he had to be, or the commander of 1st Army and Pallass’ overall forces aside from Chaldion would be an obstacle. Chaldion didn’t need that kind of obstacle. Yes, Duln seldom left the city, but he had earned his rank and his forces went to all the other armies. Clout, a solid head, and loyalty; Chaldion had helped him get his position.

Shirka was new, but she was occupying Thrissiam’s old position. Chaldion needed a [General] who could take to the field and know extracurricular details. With the other armies abroad, she was a suitable candidate.

Of course, 4th Army and Edellein were here, but the older Blackwing was not Thrissiam, for all Edellein was Thrissiam’s uncle.

As for Esor? The Garuda was a ‘younger’ [Strategist]. In his forties, in other words. Sharp. He was being groomed as Chaldion’s replacement. The Assembly didn’t like him because he was a Garuda and Duln was a Dullahan. As if the two would form a coup and turn Pallass into Chandrar.

Chaldion snorted. He took another light sip.

“Esor. Pawn. Bump him up another ranking for the Eyes.”

The Eyes of Pallass. Their agents, some of whom were on the ground now, casting [Appraisal] spells for all they were worth. Esor consulted his list.

“That would place the Antinium Worker known as Pawn at…Galadz-threat, Grand Strategist.”

Shirka’s eyebrows rose. Chaldion gestured; he had one of Saliss’ cigars in his claw, another vice, which he was partaking of now because his nosy [Caretaker] couldn’t object in such company.

“Internal references, [General].”

He saw Esor duck his feathered head with brown running to red and orange as Duln took another serving of ssarish, the sliced meats. As if Chaldion hadn’t told him to accidentally use the phrase.

Shirka’s eyes brightened up. She was a [General], but Pallass’ Eyes were another division, and they liked to guard their secrets. Chaldion, of course, was in control of everything.

“Code?”

He shook his head, coughing slightly as he took another drag on the cigar. Interestingly, his head cleared. Saliss made some cigars to sharpen your cognition, and Chaldion liked those.

“A good guess. Each one refers to an incident, historically speaking. Known events or individuals. We don’t do a numbered system, but references. It’s a complicated chart; I’ll send you a copy.”

She nodded appreciatively, sitting straight, eyes on him. She was honored to be here, and she was an admirer of Saliss, who she regarded as a true hero from their past meetings. There were far worse candidates to be a [General] of Pallass.

In fact…all the worse candidates had not gotten to her position. Because Chaldion had picked Shirka. Or rather, he’d given her the same tests he gave a wide pool of hopefuls, and she passed.

Neat, orderly, and efficient. Chaldion had watched her career. He watched Liscor through the scrying spell. There was a reason they called him the Cyclops of Pallass. One eye he might have, but under him, Pallass had organization, competent leadership, and intelligence that didn’t fight with the military for seniority.

If I die, what will happen? Pallass had lived through poorer commanders than Chaldion, times when the Assembly was in charge, and times where the military ruled all. Chaldion wanted an heir; Esor would only be a fine [Strategist]. And his only heir was…Saliss.

Saliss, who bought Chaldion two more years. The Drake closed his eye. Something, he supposed. More than something. He wondered if the decade Saliss had bought was literally the decade he’d used up. He spoke, as much to keep his mind from wandering as anything. And it did wander far too much sometimes…

“Galadz, Esor. Right below Xrn and the other two Centenium. I am convinced there is something there worth more than the Grand Queen and all the other Queens’ plans.”

“A Worker has more effect on the Hives than a Queen?”

Duln murmured politely. Chaldion’s good eye turned towards him and his ruby one flashed.

“…Could one of the Queens make Belavierr retreat, Duln? Could you?”

Could I? The dinner party fell silent. Chaldion coughed again.

“The fact remains. Pawn is without an obvious class that could do that. Yet he uses Skills—also unknown.”

“Prime target for the Eyes to pluck. We don’t need that kind of variable in the Third Incursion War.”

Esor murmured. He glanced at Pawn uneasily. Chaldion made a slashing gesture with his claws.

“Knock some sense into your head—and anyone in the Eyes who thinks that. The instant one of them dies, the Free Antinium are hostile. More importantly? We don’t know what he does or how he got that class. What benefits Pallass in the long run is not another dead Antinium, but knowledge.”

The Garuda ducked his head. Chaldion eyed him, sucked on the cigar, and spat a cloud of shimmering yellow out.

“Stop thinking only in terms of war, Esor. Stop thinking a year in advance. Think of Pallass’ future. That’s why…well. You owe me a lunch at Tails and Scales, Duln. I’ll collect when they reopen, and that’s a silver lining at least.”

Duln nodded. Chaldion saw Esor focus on the scrying orb.

“The Titan of Baleros is at Liscor. Confirmed.”

“He could have been watching…”

Shirka ventured. Chaldion grinned.

“The Titan, watching from afar? I’ll bet he was somewhere unseen.”

“So we’re not reporting him to the Iron Vanguard.”

Duln looked at Chaldion for confirmation. He had no ties to the Dullahan company, but, well, a species was a species, even for a Dullahan born and raised in Pallass, Chaldion supposed. The Grand Strategist shook his head.

“The value is low. I’m entertaining keeping it secret—and calling in the favor of keeping it secret by putting a birdsong in the Forgotten Wing Company’s ear. Perhaps not. We’ll let it ride.”

“And not collect on the favor? That is to say, Grand Strategist, if the favor is not logged even in that small way, how will the Forgotten Wing company know they have one?”

Esor was struggling to keep up; he had just been attached to Shirka’s command, and was still in ‘combat-thinking’. Narrow, immediate…useful, but this kind of political strategy was new to him. Chaldion eyed him, amused.

“Why, because Niers Astoragon will go about his business—whatever it might be—and not have Pallass interfere. He’ll remember it and consider it a debt. A minor one, perhaps.”

“Pallass doesn’t interfere and that’s the debt…?”

Shirka, Duln, and Esor glanced at each other. Chaldion sighed.

“He knows I can tell he’s there. He knows that I know. If he asks for something, that’s different. The Titan’s not worth much to us here, and his company is infinitely preferable as an ally in Baleros. Tell the Eyes not to look for him.”

Look at how they stared at him. Learning, admiring, appraising…Chaldion felt old. It was like he and Niers spoke the same language that Esor was fumbling over. Why would Chaldion hunt Niers down, or make an enemy of the Titan—risky as it was to try to capture him—for little gain?

Focus on what mattered. Chaldion spoke around the cigar.

“Belavierr. In my city. I didn’t even detect her, with all my Skills. That’s the Witch of Webs, for you.”

The others nodded, uneasily. Chaldion looked at the scrying orb. The thing was…even Pallass would suffer the Witch of Webs’ designs, retaliate, drive her off—but even Pallass had trouble bringing her low. She was harder to defeat than an army. Better at running away than even a top-class [Rogue]. And her wrath when roused? He shook his head.

“Belavierr…I’ll think about what to do about Belavierr. She’s destroyed the inn. If the Brothers are pulling out—”

“The Goblins are on the move. Leaving the inn.”

“Mhm. No location on their base?”

“We haven’t been able to scry the location, even from Captain Bevussa’s descriptions, sir.”

“Well. Investigate. Magic only. I want someone monitoring their flight paths. The Brothers are gone, the inn’s in ruins. The Antinium are in chaos…”

Chaldion sighed.

“It’s time. Have Magus Grimalkin meet me at his convenience—but don’t let him leave the city. Make sure he recovers. It’s time. General Shirka? Duln?”

The two [Generals] looked at Chaldion. The Grand Strategist sat back, and blew another cloud of undirected smoke up, wishing he knew how the hell Saliss had once managed to create a dancing Drake. They all waited on his words, and he weighed them, trying to know if they were right.

He thought they were. They didn’t make him happy—but he spoke them anyways. Erin was dead, and after this?

“Shirka, Duln. Put together some of your best. Ones you can do without—combat leave. A little vacation with little work unless they actually have to fight…maybe a bonus? Volunteers, even. I want a rotation of sixty, all hours. Esor, offer them to Liscor, to secure the inn and watch for Belavierr.”

It was the kind of thing that made sense. The two [Generals] agreed instantly. Duln tapped his fingers together.

“Persuading Liscor might be important. They can…patrol the Floodplains?”

“After Belavierr, I don’t think it will be hard. Offer some of our [Sappers] or [Engineers] for that damn hole they have in the ground; even repairs for the inn. More fortifications? Don’t drop gold on it, and let the Antinium do what they want.”

“Yes, Grand Strategist.”

Chaldion nodded. He stared up at the ceiling and the smoke, beginning to disperse.

“…I want one of our best [Negotiators]. Not a [Diplomat]. No overt charm Skills. Someone who’s actually likable, not who can force a deal. Put them on Troy, Joseph. Extend an offer to Imani and Palt. Find them housing—get them into the city by nightfall. The inn’s in ruins anyways.”

Esor inhaled slightly. Shirka sat forwards, and Duln refastened his head.

“It’s time?”

Chaldion nodded.

“It’s time. The inn’s no longer safe. It’s proven that. Get me Kevin. Damn, I keep forgetting how many there are. No Rose…it’s time.”

He took another long sip of his drink. If Erin were here—it would be different. But she wasn’t, and this was the umpteenth time the inn had been attacked. It was time. The Cyclops moved. Because what he saw was what would come next.

“Esor, I want you to make them welcome. No questions. No prodding—genuinely get them settled in and make sure they’re happy. Questions can come later. I changed my mind. Get me Grimalkin, unless he’s too wounded to meet with me. Now.”

 

—-

 

She wanted to know what spells Belavierr had used. Exactly what the [Witch] had been trying to summon. How Xrn had used her spells—the nature of the Antinium’s ability to deflect a known Relic-class weapon.

All they wanted to talk about was politics. The woman chewed her lip, thoughts spiraling, going in tangents, running together.

“We simply must insist on it, I think. Go through the Scriptels. It’s a shame du Valeross is not part of your faction, Naili. An offer to recall her if…?”

No.

The silky, dangerous tone came from the Star Lamia. The woman glanced at her. Dangerous. Extraordinarily tight enchanting-work; little magical leakage. She was hard to get to share notes, however. Too flighty.

Viltach nodded. He was too focused on economics. Which…mattered, but he kept talking about politics. Too much; he was leading this discussion.

“They should all come to Wistram, preferably. I know there is an—agreement—but this proves even the Spider is aware of them. Why else would she assault the inn? Can you imagine what she would do if…? Do any of you know one of the Tricksters?”

Tricksters? A fragment of Valeterisa’s mind spun away and returned with the common slang used to refer to the Ullsinoi faction. List of members…exactly 2 confirmed, 31 unconfirmed or suspected duplicates, 8 [Mages] who were confirmed not to be part of their faction—

“Valeterisa, Valeterisa?”

The Archmage of Izril focused again.

“Hm? What, Feor?”

The half-Elf gave her a pained smile that they all assumed she ignored. Verdan Blackwood, the other Archmage, cleared his throat. The Archmage of Dullahans looked at her, wearing his ‘mage armor’.

“We are asking if you will intercede with Grand Magus Eldavin. We are aware of his—desires—regarding the inn, but this is clearly an exceptional event. I am sure he is aware of the incident…”

By now, the Terras faction led by Eldavin and Valeterisa was a wave within Wistram. It went without saying that Eldavin would know. Valeterisa’s mind hesitated.

 

[Minor thought // amusement, calculation // conversation possibilities, personal interest] Odds of Eldavin being aware? Strange.

[Introspective thought // self-analysis // logical loop]Query: why strange?

[Major thought diverted // apprehension, analysis // take it seriously, wider diffusion] – Until today, I would have given it…

            [Minor thought // calculation // guesswork] – 89%

Likelihood that Eldavin was aware of this. Today?

            [Minor thought // calculation // guesswork, sadness?] – 62%

 

Strange indeed. Valeterisa’s thoughts were not all in one place. In fact, she had learned to sort them. Some thoughts, like her questioning herself, were tasked to do that. Constantly question her assumptions. Others fulfilled conversation topics; she felt her mouth move in response.

“I will inquire with him, Archmage Blackwood.”

…And thus required less intellect than others. She could ‘divert’ more thoughts to a task as necessary. This was just one level of her racing mind; another was figuring out what she wanted to eat, working on a spell, cataloging and sorting valuable memories and obliterating useless things, and so on.

She had nearly been trapped in her head, once. Ryoka had saved her from this, but Valeterisa would never go without her Skill of [Parallel Thinking]. It was too valuable.

The Archmage of Izril thought her peers could have used that Skill; they were too focused on the inn, acquiring other ‘Earthers’ at the expense of looking into the Antinium and Belavierr. She vouchsafed this, and Feor hastened to assure her the opposite was true.

“I am hardly unaware of the implications of all of the battle, Valeterisa. A [Thaumaturge]. A creator of spells, and one of the Antinium?”

“What will be done about Belavierr? A monster like that on the loose? We should inform the Walled Cities, even if Pallass is aware.”

Viltach licked his lips. Valeterisa searched for all the information she could on Belavierr, and it was precious little. Naili frowned.

“When there’s a Hydra in the swamps and you’re carrying a bucket of gold, you don’t go after the Hydra. Earth matters more, is what I’m saying.”

“If she’s aware of Earth…”

“Then we’re in a race with her. I’d rather not send [Mages] after her; you saw how well Montressa’s Shock Orb did. It was like spitting into a tidal wave. No thanks.”

Valeterisa looked around. She tapped the table hard. No one was listening. She tilted her head, and came to a logical solution. She slapped the table so hard all four Archmages jumped.

Ow. I regret that.

Valeterisa stared at her stinging palm, and dismissed the pain—although she filed a note not to do that again. Attention gained, she looked around.

“You have misunderstood my point, Archmages. I did not suggest merely interdicting Belavierr or countering her agenda in regards to securing Earthers. What I meant was…why are we not attempting to make contact with her to negotiate for her knowledge?

All four Archmages stared at Valeterisa. The woman stood up, unable to hold in her excitement.

“She demonstrated a superior knowledge of magecraft! To have such an experienced individual who predates Cognita and even Zelkyr many times over…regardless of the risk, and her divergent class, what we could learn is—”

She turned, eyes shining with the only desire of her life. Magic, and magic alone. Not politics or power. Oh, her fellow Archmages all wanted that.

Naili was ambitious and young. She wanted to be the greatest of Archmages.

Viltach wanted to be beloved among Terandria, a peer of royalty.

Verdan was too old. He…feared death and coveted ways to extend his legacy, and did not seek conflict with his position.

Feor? He was closest to her. He wanted magic—but he conflated it with respect, his faction.

Yet they all wanted magic. Just…she looked at their faces and hers fell. They gave her the same, disturbed look she had seen all her life.

“Belavierr is…not to be trusted, Valeterisa. You have read all the accounts of her deals, I am sure. They favor her to an extreme.”

“Yet if we could unlock spells and theories of old, Viltach. What would you not do to further magic itself?”

They looked at her, and Valeterisa saw it in their eyes. She opened her mouth and—

[Major thought // priority, regret, socialization // do not say it].

She closed her mouth. Yet what was stifled on her tongue was simply a question.

Would you not die for magic? Would you not dive into the heart of it, even if it meant your end? To see the truth?

They would not. So she sat back down, and stared longingly at the only other spellcaster who had leapt, like Valeterisa, into the very center of what she loved.

Magic alone. She had thought Grand Magus Eldavin understood.

He had, Valeterisa believed. Yet somehow, suddenly, practically overnight—

He had changed.

 

—-

 

Grand Magus Eldavin—well, why call him that? Already, some [Mages] were whispering he was the 6th Archmage of Wistram.

Nailihuaile, Verdan, Valeterisa, Feor, and Viltach—not including the last Archmage or the mysteriously absent Amerys that no one talked about—who could match Eldavin in magic?

They told stories to the newcomers about his battle on the first night with every Archmage where he’d held his own against half of Wistram. To hear his admirers tell it, Eldavin had spanked the Council of Mages and the Archmages with one hand while writing poetry and forgotten spells with the other for the [Mages] to catch up on.

The truth was obviously more complex, but the reason for all the adoration of Eldavin was that where many failed to produce the cake, and only provided the aroma, the Grand Magus was capable of producing the cake, the cutlery, and having both dance about on two legs. He knew old magic. His methods? They worked.

Not ‘hey, this is another type of spellcasting or magical practice’, but ‘this is superior to what we do.’ His students in his classes were showing exceptional magical growth. Leveling—oh, the leveling.

From his most advanced group, complaints had come in about screaming [Mages] breaking bones from jumping into the water. Over forty three broken bones in the first month. Torn sinew, even someone nearly losing an eye due to a wand hitting it from a fellow student mid-flight…

However, said injuries had also produced countless levels, and there were no less than three new [Aeromancers], graduated from the [Elementalist] class. Similarly, the students in Eldavin’s mana-intensities classes were rapidly expanding their mana reserves beyond what Wistram would have expected of them. Eldavin was literally increasing their potential as [Mages] beyond what they might have hoped for.

And that was only his fundamental classes. It had seemed, until recently, that Eldavin would refuse to do more than teach history and fundamental spellcasting. Valeterisa walked up, to his private quarters now at one of the highest points of accessible Wistram. He had one of the grand suites, which used to be reserved for visiting royalty—now, the most influential [Mages] fought for them.

Eldavin had been standoffish, despite his heavy involvement with Wistram’s politics. He took no direct apprentices; his classes were open to all, and he taught no actual spells, except to Valeterisa, as a kind of payment for her help. That had been, oh…three weeks ago.

Then something had happened. Eldavin had been—wounded. During a failed experiment, he claimed. Troy Atlas had been involved, and neither had said more than that. Yet when Valeterisa catalogued Eldavin’s behavior, there was a split in his actions after that day. There were a number of factors that had suddenly changed—

  1. Him taking Troy Atlas and a few [Mages], students and older ones, as apprentices.
  2. Eldavin informing Valeterisa they lacked authority, him changing his stance on Wistram’s involvement worldwide.
  3. The Grand Magus passing out improved versions of spells to [Mages] in his faction—and his faction alone—bolstering the already high recruitment.
  4. The half-Elf seeking to forge connections with [Merchants] and other historical donors—and new ones—to Wistram’s factions…

Valeterisa cut off her numbering system. She could have accepted most of that. She had even appreciated his willingness to talk actual magical theorems. But the last part—that had made her question him. And it was this. She knocked on Eldavin’s door.

“Grand Magus Eldavin. I would like to speak with you urgently.”

She opened the door without waiting for a response. She had found that saved time, despite people objecting to the ‘invasion of privacy’.

Valeterisa looked up and met Eldavin’s gaze. The half-Elf was lying in his bed, having guarded his privacy with a magical, floating cloud that obstructed vision. Nevertheless, she noticed the other half-Elf, Teura, duck under the cloud. The lack of clothing was apparent. Valeterisa saw Eldavin raise a brow.

“Yes, Archmagus?”

 

—-

 

Eldavin supposed it was Valeterisa’s way. Perhaps a power play, to keep walking in on him when he was—indisposed? The woman just didn’t perceive the rudeness.

There was something to admire there, actually. Eldavin certainly didn’t recoil in shame. There was nothing to be ashamed of, so he threw on a robe and dismissed the cloud illusion.

“Apologies, I should lock the door, Archmage. What’s this about an emergency? My dear, it seems Wistram’s ‘duty’ calls.”

He smiled at the half-Elf, who nodded to Valeterisa. The Archmage of Izril glanced at Teura, cataloguing her, Eldavin was sure, along with the other people she’d observed.

It didn’t matter. She was an ally, and it struck Eldavin that Valeterisa would not betray an alliance she’d made unless it ceased to become beneficial. She was a logical creature, unlike most Humans. So he bore her small interruptions well.

“What new calamity has Wistram uncovered? Has the King of Destruction healed himself? Is Ailendamus attacking another nation?”

He guessed; he genuinely didn’t know. Of course, Eldavin had his sources, but he had been—indisposed—more often than not some nights. Valeterisa turned as they entered into a more sociable sitting room; she had strode right into his personal bedchambers.

“So you do not know. The other Archmages believe you have permanent scrying spells or superior observation enchantments in place.”

“A reputation does that for you. Almost as dangerous to overestimate your opponents as underestimate.”

Eldavin waved a hand, sitting, and keeping his face composed. The half-Elf was in phenomenal shape, thanks to basic physical conditioning magic. He felt wonderful, and as he had once observed to Magus Grimalkin, there was no reason why a [Mage] should not have…everything.

He saw Teura hesitate at the bedchamber door, glancing at him. Eldavin made a little sign; this was a personal discussion. He’d catch her up later, perhaps hear what Feor had to say. Valeterisa’s eyes were locked on him.

“So you do not have observation spells superior to [Scrying]?”

“Ah, well.”

Eldavin just smiled. Of course he did. Wistram had forgotten more than he knew, and the school of physical combat magics was just one area. Divination—of course, yes.

Still, he wasn’t some omnipotent being. So Eldavin listened, and half-shot out of his chair.

An attack on the inn?

He remembered The Wandering Inn! The Grand Magus accepted Valeterisa’s copy of the battle, inscribed into a spell crystal, and watched it on fast-forward. He sank into his seat, slowly.

“Who is that [Witch]! That’s—she’s using a ritual summoning spell. I have no idea what that thing is—”

“You don’t?”

Valeterisa was eager; she leaned forwards like a schoolgirl. Eldavin glanced at her.

“It’s not a failing; there are any number of such things you could summon. But the scope! The scale! Did you see that? Grimalkin tried [Greater Dispel] on one of the cardinal links and it barely flickered. If that thing had come out, it might have leveled…all of Liscor. I can’t imagine it would stop after getting past the walls. Trees and Treants, that spell! That’s a [Thaumaturge]!”

He spotted Xrn. But his attention was all on Belavierr. Eldavin watched the rest of the battle, frowning mightily. He had a number of thoughts. But his priority after all was said and done was not for Mrsha, or the inn, but the [Witch].

“Who was that?”

Valeterisa paused. Her grey eyes, shot with what looked like jagged purple thunder—the first uncontrolled manifestations of magical alteration to her eyes from the sheer magical power in her body—focused on Eldavin, quizzically.

“You—don’t know who that is? Belavierr the Stitch Witch? Is this some kind of humorous pun or jest, Grand Magus?”

The half-Elf shook his head.

“I don’t care to waste time any more than you do, Valeterisa. Who? She was using a Naq-Alrama needle. Nothing else has that kind of piercing capability. We just saw—those fools. They were striking at a dimensional-protection enchantment. The sword, half those attacks that got through her [Spellguard] enchantment on the dress? They went into a pocket dimension. Like punching air.”

He could follow most of her spellcasting with ease, which made the lack of this powerful [Witch]’s identity all the more troubling. Valeterisa nibbled at a fingernail.

“Perhaps you know her by another name? The Spider of Terandria? The Witch of Webs? She is an infamous figure; most would recall her name. She is alive, unlike the famous [Mages] of old, or those whose works exist.”

Eldavin’s brows creased. He searched his mind and came up with…nothing. A disconcerting nothing, so profound he realized it was tied into the gaps in his memory.

“Nothing.”

“Intriguing. Do you know other recent [Mages] of old? Archmage Doorsa? Valmira—of the recent spell? Shoko, the Warlord-Magus? Warmage Thresk…?”

She named a number of influential figures, living and dead, whose works had endured. Centuries to decades to millennia. Eldavin’s look of blank incomprehension continued.

“Perhaps it’s a gap in my memory. I’ve—no, let’s put that aside.”

He rose, as much to hide the disconcerting effect the absence of any memory had had on him as to focus on the real issue at hand. The truth was, Eldavin didn’t want Valeterisa to know that he’d…lost…something after the near-death experience at Cognita’s hands.

That damned Golem. That ungrateful—he still remembered it. Eldavin had been going to free her, and then she’d resisted his spell! They’d fought, and he’d taken serious wounds.

Troy, that brave lad, had saved him. Eldavin had been wounded for four days. Cognita? No one had seen her, and the idiots didn’t think to worry when she vanished.

Well, Eldavin would offer her no more mercies. In a way, he was grateful to her. She’d woken him up. He’d had a good think while he lay, convalescing of his wounds, and he couldn’t understand what had gotten over him.

Senility. The half-Elf could recall more recent memories easier. Longer-term ones, like Belavierr’s name and anything about her? Gone. He worried about that and had been looking into memory spells—all the ones he’d cast and had turned up nothing. Perhaps the Truestone Golem had damaged him with an ability unknown.

Well, he’d live. He was living. Eldavin whirled.

“Witch of Webs and old legend or not, that inn is under our protection. A poor showing by those three [Mages]! What do the Archmages want to do?”

“Put the Earthers into our care. They were wary of your injunction, however.”

The half-Elf frowned. Grand Magus Eldavin poured himself a drink, then telekinetically whisked one to Valeterisa. She sniffed at the wine, and refused it.

“Water is satisfactory for my health and hydration.”

“Your choice. As for the Archmages…I don’t see why not.”

The Archmage of Izril eyed Eldavin, stopping in sipping from some purified water.

“You do not? You had been most strident on the issue of Ryoka Griffin and the inn before now.”

“Ye-es.”

Eldavin drew the word out as he sat back down. He glanced around the rather spartan living room; he’d have to get more decorations in. All of what he had were gifts right now. A rather lovely tapestry he’d accepted from Viltach with some Dragons casting fire down on a city—he didn’t know why he’d taken to it. A mage-window that reflected the air over a rather lovely Terandrian city from Feor, and so on.

“I don’t know why I thought that, Valeterisa. I was quite content to let Miss Griffin—a Runner who has impressed me now and then—race about. In light of recent events? I reconsider. Let’s pull them over to Wistram if they can’t be safeguarded. And that inn is not safe.”

Eldavin recalled the inn. Of course, he recalled Ryoka too. He remembered her reaching his cave, him dismissing her, messing with her memories—ah, the tricks one got up to! And him putting a [Geas] spell on her to deliver…well wishes…to Az’kerash?

For a birthday? Eldavin frowned. Yes, he recalled that. The half-Elf recalled…

 

He looked down at the dying Runner, mildly shocked at the blood. [Restoration]. There was only that spell first—he began casting it.

The Dragon spread his wings slightly and his forked tongue flicked out—

The half-Elf spread his arms slightly and pointed his wand—

 

And then of course, he’d gotten to know her more. That impudent, yet charming young woman who made acquaintances of the Frost Faeries. A brave girl…

Eldavin couldn’t understand some of the choices he’d made. Sending a birthday’s greeting to Az’kerash for his two hundredth? The [Necromancer] had shown just how honorable he was by going after Ryoka. No—Eldavin should have left well enough alone and supported Magnolia. Another brave girl.

Brave, and entirely right all those times she’d urged him to leave his cave—no, his laboratory to take a more active role in the world. He’d make it up to her. Eldavin was making up for lost time.

What he didn’t understand was why he’d left The Wandering Inn well enough alone. He recalled how much he’d admired that [Innkeeper] who’d died, mourned her, even. Erin Solstice.

Why? Because she’d bested him in a chess game? That no longer seemed—significant—as before. Eldavin shook his head.

“No objections, but let’s phrase this as the Terras faction agreeing to work together, Valeterisa.”

She nodded; she was a savvy expert in Wistram politics, for all her love of scholarly magic. That was why Eldavin had chosen her of all the Archmages to put his might behind. Plus, she was new to Wistram, another returning [Mage] with no true faction, like him. He rubbed his hands together.

“As for Belavierr? You don’t tackle someone like that without preparations. We’ll monitor her; I’ll look for improved spells on locating her. But let’s leave the Walled Cities to deal with her; there’s always favor to be curried among the Drakes. The Meeting of the Tribes is going on—damn. A shame Wistram can’t send an envoy over, but we’re at odds with them, aren’t we? I don’t understand where this idiocy around ‘Gnolls can’t be [Mages]’ is coming from.”

“It began when I was a student, I believe.”

“Hmm. Well, in that case—if you want to take the Archmages and this inn business—we’ll grab any of them who return, and one is already coming this way—I’ll scribe some more spells down.”

Valeterisa paid attention to that.

“Any ones I am unfamiliar with?”

Eldavin gave her an apologetic smile.

“None. Basic spells, Valeterisa. Well—I say basic, but no one knows how to summon elementals as familiars. Let alone form pacts! Not a single young student walking around with a Waisrabbit under their hat. The benefits—we’ll ‘leak’ it to our people later. I’ll copy over the advanced theorems to you…later this week.”

She nodded, disappointed, but Eldavin was feeding her spells slowly. She was brilliant, but give her everything and her investment in the Terras faction was limited. And Valeterisa had given him practically everything he’d asked for. All her lists of connections, all her secrets, everything for magic.

Well, he’d repay her. Eldavin stroked his beard. The Archmage of Izril bade him farewell, giving him another of her owlish looks. He glanced to the side when she was gone.

“Ah, you were here too?”

“I just came in. Reporting, Grand Magus.”

“Excellent. Then—shall we discuss matters over wine?”

The shy [Bard] ducked her head, but Eldavin ushered one of his apprentices in. Of course, it was a mix between individuals like Teura who had sought him out, throwing her old faction aside, and other [Mages] whose company was simply—beyond palatable. He taught them, advancing their spellcraft, and the half-Elf thought they genuinely enjoyed his company. If not, he wouldn’t have been as interested. And after all—one should prize mutually beneficial relationships.

He smiled, reclining. Fair company, influence over worldwide events, and a growing collection of small, useful artifacts…far better than that damned gloomy cave. He couldn’t remember if anything was in it. He remembered cataloging…what, air? Eldavin led the young, and quite charming lady, to a more personal, private setting, and remembered to lock the door this time.

He stopped only once, frowning, before following after the giggling young woman. The half-Elf touched his chest. He was fit, with a clean bill of health from all [Healers]. He’d looked into it, but he was without flaw. So why…?

Why did his heart hurt so?

Then he shook it off and got back to living.

 

—-

 

Valeterisa stopped outside of Eldavin’s door. She had not missed the [Bard] who’d remained. Nor Eldavin’s proclivities of late.

 

[Major thought // introspective, analysis // troubled, not exactly hurt] – But not me. I must not be attractive enough.

 

Troubled, yes. Not offended; Valeterisa was glad. She would have done whatever was necessary for magic and she was familiar with this kind of relationship. It might have entangled things had they split up, and that was needless work.

However. She felt—Valeterisa’s thoughts ran through over a hundred words and settled on the easiest.

Disappointed.

Yes, simply disappointed. In Eldavin. She had thought he was different. She looked back and uttered the words even she had known would be socially unacceptable.

“What happened to you, Grand Magus?”

He was the same. Still insightful, still genius, possessing knowledge long-lost, but something was gone. His values had changed. She did not know why. But it changed Valeterisa’s attitude towards Wistram.

The Terras faction was valuable. Eldavin? She would have followed him to Rhir to learn more. He was giving it to her, piece by piece, though. So…Valeterisa wondered if she was needed here.

Grand Magus Eldavin wanted an Archmage’s power behind him. Valeterisa didn’t need to be here to grant him that. If he continued to provide her with new magical theorems approximately every week and a half, her involvement here corresponded mostly to Wistram politic gains, information on Earth, and personal relationships.

Not magic. Valeterisa was reasonably sure the Terras faction would double or triple in value, so now she walked away from Eldavin’s quarters, routing a [Memo] spell at Viltach with the details about the inn.

She decided she would consider leaving the academy. Because she was…disappointed?

Disillusioned?

All information sourced from Wistram regarding Earth could be analyzed in any location. Spells, likewise. Valeterisa’s actual body could be put to use in more advantageous locations than here.

Especially since Eldavin had confessed he’d given her a sabotaged long-range teleport spell and helped her realize the true spell behind his tricky, flawed version.

Valeterisa stopped in the banquet hall. She looked around as [Mages] and students gazed at her.

 

[Information request // urgent, priority // anything I am forgetting?] – What did Valeterisa have to do in Wistram?

 

Short-term goals: Look into Troy Atlas’ golem. Research possible wind-magic regarding Ryoka Griffin.

Long-term goals: Learn magic from Eldavin. Acquire more funding and support for magical research. Continue researching Earth technology with links to magic.

 

Well, she’d crossed out a lot of things from that list. Valeterisa appended one more item to that list as she felt one of her thoughts ping her.

 

Eat food.

 

The Archmage of Izril was nothing if not direct. She reached out, and snatched the nearest object from a Golem walking towards the buffet line. She stared at a pizza slice.

“Possibly nutritious.”

She scarfed it down. Students watched in a kind of awe, and even Telim, the famous snatcher of entire turkeys and dishes, looked a bit impressed or appalled as Valeterisa gobbled down ‘sufficient nutrition’ with her bare hands. From the buffet table. Without a plate.

Then she grabbed the most convenient-looking foods, dumped them into her bag of holding so she wouldn’t have to do this later, and walked off.

Sa’la, the Selphid [Mage], leaned over to Telim.

“And here I thought you were bold. Think we should tell her about the Earther idea—that drink that contains all you need to eat in a day?”

Telim harrumphed.

“She might be blatant, but she’s no Archmage of Food. As for that drink—bah! I’ll see it dead before anyone produces it here. Takes all the joy out of life! It offends me to my core. So as I was saying, Sa’la—consider joining the Terras faction. I know, you’re independent and you’ve heard it all before, but here’s my rebuttal. Eldavin…”

Valeterisa walked off. She had made up her mind, and when she did…she acted. Many people wasted time with overthinking things. Valeterisa overthought everything, but she seldom wasted actual time on actions that could be simplified.

For instance—she rattled the doorknob as she came to a halt at her next destination. The door was locked. Valeterisa stopped stuffing the books she’d pulled out of the library into her bag of holding; all the books she hadn’t had copies of, that was. She pointed at the door.

“[Unlock].”

It unlocked. The Archmage walked in. She saw Troy Atlas and…someone she didn’t care about whirl.

 

—-

 

Trey Atwood had just been conferring with Calac Crusland about Amerys. The situation in Chandrar was looking bad, but they weren’t able to find her—yet!

“I’m Eldavin’s apprentice, Calac! Give me a bit more time!”

“We were told to move as fast as possible. The King of Destruction is wounded and you want to learn spells?”

“That’s why we’re here. Just—”

The doorknob rattled and both young men turned from their fierce argument. Trey saw Calac instinctively go for his sword.

Who is it? I’m a bit busy!

He heard no response as he called out. There was a muffled voice—and then Valeterisa opened the door.

“Archmage! What—?”

Both young men lurched to their feet, with the instinctive fear that she’d overheard. But Valeterisa didn’t look accusatory. She just looked, well, vaguely lost-in-thought as always. Her eyes focused on Trey.

“Ah, you are here. Good.”

“Archmage, can I help you?”

“Mm. No. Where is it? [Appraisal]. There.”

Valeterisa walked over. Trey saw her bend down—and a waist-sized Golem jerked upright. Minizi reached for her rather-more-dangerous claymore. She was being repaired after venturing into Wistram’s uncharted area, but she’d come back victorious after killing some kind of monster.

“Archmage, that’s—”

Valeterisa plucked a bit of Lifesand from Minizi’s miniature dreadlocks. She put it in her bag of holding and looked up. Trey stared at her. Minizi flailed, outraged.

“Oops. That was…accidental…”

The Archmage of Izril’s eyes flickered as she tried to come up with an excuse. Then she shrugged and gave up.

“Here you are.”

She put a handful of gold coins on the bed, turned, and walked out of the room. Trey and Calac stared at the Lifesand stealer as Minizi tried to totter after her, waving her sword. Calac turned to Trey.

“What was that?

 

—-

 

Valeterisa had found that if you took what you wanted, you could get away with it in a statistically high number of scenarios. She walked through Wistram’s corridors, ignoring the looks, the muttering when she ate, or acted rudely…

She didn’t care. In a way, it didn’t matter. If she needed someone to like her, Valeterisa would make an effort.

I gave everything for magic. My youth, my health, friendships…I left Wistram because few [Mages] believed in that. I thought Eldavin—

Well. She was leaving. The Archmage’s thoughts kept drifting back to Eldavin. It was a curious flaw; she was actually a bit emotional about it.

“[Calm].”

She produced a wand, stuck it against her temple, and lowered her own defenses against the spell. A [Mage] passing by stared at her. Valeterisa nodded as her mind loosened its grip on the disappointment Eldavin had caused.

That was better. Time to pursue the most optimally advantageous activities. Not in Wistram. Ironically, despite Earth being present, every [Mage] was devoting their time and attention to researching and collecting more information about Earth.

Valeterisa could recognize when a research team was overstaffed. She would collect salient data after they had organized it for her. She had a simple formula she employed.

To further the understanding and depths of magic, one needed a number of factors.

Time. Funding. Knowledge.

No more than that. Of course, you broke down all three areas into subcategories; time meant safety, a research spot, like the island she had labored to secure and fortify. Also—a way to prevent oneself from dying of old age. She was working on that, and kept hoping someone would start selling Potions of Immortality or Reverse Aging. She’d worry more in ten years.

Funding meant influence as well as money. After all, to acquire knowledge, spellbooks, or resources like mana crystals, you needed support. Financial and political.

She was heading out of Wistram because they had nothing more to offer her. Izril did. Or Terandria. Baleros?

“Hm…I should set up teleport waypoints to travel easily between the island and Wistram first.”

Valeterisa left Wistram through the front doors. She nodded to some students going out to try fishing with magic, walked past some Golems unloading cargo from the docks, and down, to the pier.

[Sailors] and a [Captain] stared as the Archmage walked towards them; she hadn’t chartered a ship. Then Valeterisa stopped, mid-step as the [Captain] hurried down the gangplank.

“Archmage, can we help you?”

She stared at the Human man blankly, then snapped her fingers.

“Izril is that way. Of course. I’m not taking a ship. I should cancel my ship-boarding routine…”

She pointed. The [Captain] stared as the woman turned, reversed direction, and began walking around the isle, to Izril’s geographical location.

Valeterisa had been going on auto-pilot, but she remembered a ship would take…weeks, possibly. Unacceptable.

So she walked across the rocky terrain on the other side of the academy, around the citadel, the home of [Mages], past rocks, a camouflaged battle golem…Cognita…

Valeterisa slowed. She looked back. There was Cognita, sitting with her head in her arms halfway submerged in the surf. She’d barely noticed the Truestone Golem.

“Cognita?”

The Golem looked up. She’d been…making a strange sound. Muffled amid the crash of waves. Valeterisa would have called it crying. The Truestone Golem raised her head and Cognita saw her face was also distorted from normal.

“Archmage Valeterisa?”

The two stared at each other. Valeterisa’s thoughts jumbled together, and an automatic-reply one took over.

“Hello, Cognita. We are having wonderful weather today, aren’t we? So pleasant to meet you!”

Her mouth smiled. Cognita stared at the Archmage. Valeterisa decided that was good enough.

“Goodbye.”

The woman walked onto the surf, more heartless than the Golem she left kneeling in misery. Valeterisa began to walk…then stopped the pointless leg motions.

She began to fly. Cognita watched the Archmage of Izril cast [Levitation] and simply…fly off, towards Izril. Valeterisa began to rise higher. She was muttering automatic reminders to herself.

“Avoid low-flying over the sea; attracts Reefeyes and Sea Serpents. Cast [Haste]. Casting [Haste]…make sure you have magical barriers up…”

She levitated higher, speeding up. Cognita stared at Valeterisa’s back. Slowly, she reached for the sand and water flowing around her.

The mudball hit the back of Valeterisa’s barrier and she turned back. She stared at Cognita. Once again proving that barriers were essential to flight-travel. She waved and sped off.

 

—-

 

Valeterisa spent the time in flight doing a few things. Her body was actually relatively easy to leave with only a few thoughts running. A few to manage the [Levitation] spell, watch out for threats, eat, manage her basic functions—she’d heard you could teleport urine and feces out of your body, but Valeterisa had weighed the risks of such a spell and decided not to try it—and so on.

She only had to focus every hundred miles, which was thankfully rare, to create the ‘pylons’ she’d use to teleport-jump back and forth from Wistram to other locations from. Of course, there were actual teleportation spells long in existence in Wistram, but a personal network was far easier than a [Greater Teleport] spell, which even Eldavin claimed not to know.

She could efficiently move from continent to continent, depending on the mana costs! Valeterisa spent some time analyzing how this might change travel, concluded it would still mean only those with exceptional mana and spellcasting abilities would be able to use it—or the rich and powerful—and added a few magical locations to her immediate ‘to-visit’ list.

Like Khelt. Wasn’t that under attack? Drat.

Anyways, the point was that most of Valeterisa’s mind was free to be used on other tasks, so she happily devoted over half to understanding the magical theorems Eldavin had given her. Some might actually help her with the new magic she was working on.

…He had reacted to her project. Did he know the spell? If so, and if that meant she had spent over a decade of research trying to re-discover what he knew, Valeterisa would be genuinely upset.

Either way, she’d pursue it when she could devote 80% of her mind to the task. Never 99%. Never again.

It was to Izril that Valeterisa’s thoughts went. As she had observed, Wistram had little she needed to be there to pursue. She communicated that to Eldavin.

 

Valeterisa to Eldavin: Am in transit to Issrysil, setting up teleportation network for easy return. Please communicate any needs via [Message] spell with the following encryption—thank you for encryption theory. I will provide any necessary resources or communication for Terras faction remotely.

Eldavin to Valeterisa: Transit to Izril? WHAT.

 

She didn’t respond. If he messaged her again, she would elaborate. Valeterisa put all that aside; her work in Wistram was done unless she was contacted. She felt relieved about that; she had so much work piling up after her ten-year absence.

Let’s see. Communicate imminent arrival to priority list. Her lips moved as she cast [Message]; she found it helped her self-check the communiques, and misunderstandings caused so much trouble.

“Valeterisa to Ieka: Hello, Ieka. I am returning. I hope you are not hexed. I see from your reply all is well? Talk to me about quote urgent business unquote later, and Ryoka Griffin. My first destination is my research base.”

She nodded to herself. Ieka was one of her rare contacts that was neither business nor magically-related alone. Both, of course; she was aware Ieka was very helpful as their family, Imarris, provided her with resources, but Ieka was listed under ‘affection’.

It was a list of four—no, wait. Valeterisa discarded one name she’d forgotten to remove.

Three.

Next…let’s see.

“Valeterisa to Lord Deilan El…wait. Reroute through standard [Mage]…”

She sighed. She had to not only contact the House of El through the proper channels, but be more polite. Her lips moved and then, a surprisingly charming smile appeared on her face. No one could see, but she’d activated her ‘polite and social’ routine to compose the [Message].

Lord Deilan El, I apologize for the delay. I am currently returning to Izril, and will of course communicate with you on further projects for the House of El at my soonest convenience. I regret to say that I am pressed for time at the moment, but delighted by the Kaalblade’s success. Please—

 

[Major thought // self-introspection, calculation // banking, merchant’s guild] – Wait. What is the return on Kaalblade sales? Pertains to further work with House of El.

 

Valeterisa paused and checked her balance at the Merchant’s Guild. It was tiresomely slow since she had to ask the Merchant’s Guild to look up the information…her thoughts actually stopped on the figure.

That was a lot of gold. Valeterisa had money, but even she could appreciate a sum like that. And—she was going over Lord Deilan’s correspondence.

A Kaalblade wielded by Ryoka Griffin? Valeterisa erased her last [Message] instantly.

Lord Deilan El, apologies for the late response! I am returning from Wistram and was unavoidably delayed. I am delighted by the Kaalblades’ sales! I will communicate with you at my earliest convenience once I reach land, and would appreciate any further details on this mysterious Kaalblade. Sincerely…fill in salutations.”

The Archmage of Izril auto-tasked one of her thoughts to send and wait for a response. In the meantime, she sorted through the rest of her ‘inbox’.

She was delighted that Earth’s children had known some of the internal systems she was using, and the lexicon of words they’d provided had helped her immensely. She’d even optimized some of her own methods of thought based on their descriptions and these ‘computers’.

For instance, a ‘recycling bin’ that you used to double-check what you were erasing before consigning something like ‘what your niece sent you for your birthday’ to the void? Genius. And said long-term archival for useless data like that?

She read through her mail as she flew. Would you like a shipment of goods? No. Invitation to—deleted. Your relative has died—check the name, delete and omit further [Messages].

Of all the dross, only one recent [Message] stood out to Valeterisa not already on her list of contacts. She checked the sender identification, and saw it had come from a rarely-used area of contacts.

Southern Izril. That was to say, via Drake channels. Most of her clients were Human, and she had stronger ties in the north. Strange, since she had grown up in Fissival, but they had never liked her as much—until after she became an Archmage. And then of course, they hadn’t appreciated her statement of non-interference in the affairs of the Walled Cities…

This was interesting because the client could be important. The contents were interesting, however. Her thoughts skimmed out the superfluous details and presented her with the content. She began to respond.

“Archmage Valeterisa requesting [Message] spell to…fill in name…Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar. To Wall Lord Ilvriss, salutations to the City of Gems, I am Archmage Valeterisa, and whilst my schedule is busy, I am intrigued by any personal spellcasting employment you would like to offer, with sufficient remuneration. May I inquire about specific details, or is the content quote secretive, unquote…?

It was so hard to get [Lords] and [Ladies] of any species to just tell you what they wanted. Ieka was so simple because Valeterisa had taught her niece how to be efficient.

True to form, Ilvriss’ letter had been frustratingly vague, but Valeterisa found he had a [Mage] close by, because he responded almost instantly after getting her [Message].

 

Ilvriss to Valeterisa: Archmage, I am honored to receive your correspondence. I realize you do not often visit southern Izril and you have been indisposed of late.

Valeterisa to Ilvriss: For ten years, yes. I would like to qualify, however, that I am Archmage of Izril, and my connections to the Drake cities are no less strong than to the north. My business is seldom as pressing in the south however, hence my residence and the rarity of contacts. However, I am delighted to speak with you! How may I help a Wall Lord of Salazsar?

 

Her sociable-side was working overtime, trying to pull salient details. Ilvriss…seen in company of Zel Shivertail, net worth…very appreciable for a possible job offer, one sister, father named Zail, etc. etc.

 

 

Ilvriss to Valeterisa: There is a matter of some delicacy which I would like to employ your services for. In person, if you would be willing. I am prepared to hire you at sufficient price.

Valeterisa to Ilvriss: …May I know the contents of this matter, or are the details sufficiently secretive that you would prefer a face-to-face visit? Travelling all the way to the south of Izril is something of an imposition—

 

Although she could probably set up more teleportation pylons. Valeterisa chewed her lip.

 

Valeterisa to Ilvriss: —so long as we understand that my time is limited. I do avail my services for hire as a spellcaster, but I should warn you the price may be extreme.

Ilvriss to Valeterisa: I am sure I can provide sufficient funding, Archmage, and would be willing to reimburse you for your time. However, I am currently indisposed at Oteslia, which makes travel somewhat impossible.

 

Why? Valeterisa consulted the news. Another siege? She sighed.

 

Valeterisa to Ilvriss: Delightful, Wall Lord Ilvriss! I accept, although I understand travel is limited. Perhaps we could coordinate a further time?

Ilvriss to Valeterisa: That would be most welcome. Could you travel to Salazsar, or would you prefer a more northern meeting spot? One closer to Zeres?

Valeterisa to Ilvriss: As I have indicated, my schedule does not allow for excessive gaps in my itinerary, but—this is taking too much time and effort. Sociability ended. I will visit you immediately if you wish, Oteslia or other locations. I can arrive within two weeks.

Ilvriss to Valeterisa: At your earliest convenience would do, Archmage.

Valeterisa to Ilvriss: Good. I will indicate travel time. Please quote remuneration.

 

The Archmage checked the figure after it came in a few minutes later. Ten thousand gold to set up teleportation pylons south and maybe investigate the inn and Ryoka along the way? She sent an acceptance and wrote him into her plans.

She sighed. Being sociable took so much work. Valeterisa flew on. Ieka, Ryoka, Ilvriss…and then she’d get back to the important work of magic. All the rest was just to further her ends.

It never really occurred to her that the people she was going to visit had hopes and dreams and goals of their own. Or that they seldom liked to sit still.

Or stay out of trouble.

 

—-

 

No emotion. The best answer was a calm, logical, rational one at all times. That was how Valeterisa lived. Even she couldn’t divorce emotion entirely, though.

Everyone else? The [Princess] screamed. She struggled, screaming for her daughter. Stolen away! Hunted by a [Witch].

All her fault.

“Let me go. I promised to keep her safe! I left her there to—

Mivifa held Lyonette with Wilovan, and refused to let the [Princess] rush out into the siege encampment. She felt wretched for doing it, though. If she had doubted it when Lyonette claimed to be a mother—

They were dead. Ratici and Wilovan looked at each other. They thought of Mrsha—and Crimshaw, the other Brothers. They said nothing, focusing on Lyonette. If anything, the Gentlemen Callers surely rethought their presence in Oteslia. They kept doing it.

Thinking the inn was safe, just to see it destroyed again.

Mrsha was gone. Kidnapped. It was not the first time, but it hurt no less. It was no less dire. Lyonette, when she calmed down, rushed to the Mage’s Guild. To speak to the people in the inn. And…Mrsha’s other self-appointed protectors.

The Halfseekers, who were already returning to Invrisil. How did it hit them? Moore? Jelaqua? Griffon Hunt and Briganda, who was a mother herself?

There was nothing they could have done to prevent it. Unless they had never left, unless they had remained. That was the guilt. Intellectually, logically, you could know that it wasn’t your fault.

But people, real people didn’t look at it that way. You…you promised to protect Mrsha. You took her little paw, knowing all the horrible things that had happened to her, that might happen.

You swore you would keep her safe. And while you wasted time in the north, on vanity, on less-important things, the most important, dreadful event of all occurred.

And you. Weren’t. There.

 

—-

 

“Jericha! Jericha, help!

The assistant jerked into action so fast her wand cleared its holster and was charging with a spell before she knew what she was firing at.

Hethon Veltras was shouting. In other times, that wouldn’t have provoked Jericha to charge out of her rooms where she’d been napping. She saw some of the other guards appear just as fast.

Who had gotten the ones on duty? Jericha stormed around a corner, ready to kill something. Anything. What she saw was…Hethon. Desperately trying to stop a crawling woman who’d gotten half way down the keep.

Ryoka Griffin.

She was leaving a trail behind her. Tangled bed sheets, bandages stained red—she was crawling. Jericha wouldn’t have believed she could leave the bed, but she had made it this far, despite Hethon trying to block her.

Sammial was holding onto the Wind Runner’s legs. Her face was twisted up with pain, but the wind was blowing like thunder outside.

“Let go of me. Where’s my glider. I have to—”

She was panting. Sweating—Jericha saw red liquid running down her cheeks.

[Healer]!

She snapped at the bodyguards. Hethon and Sammial’s escort hadn’t been taken out after all; they’d just been hovering, watching for enemies rather than interfering in the scuffle between the [Lords] and Lord Tyrion’s…lover?

That was the unclear part, but either way, Ryoka Griffin was an honored guest and dragging her back to her bed was a dubious task for one of House Veltras’ [Soldiers]. Even if she needed it.

Ryoka Griffin’s arms trembled as she tried to pull herself another foot. She was bloody. Jericha bent down.

“Miss Griffin, you’re in no condition to move.”

“Out of my way!”

The air in the keep moved and Jericha felt a push at her chest. She held her ground, despite the [Dangersense] beginning to go off. Ryoka’s eyes were crazed.

“Belavierr—Mrsha—I have to go to Liscor! I should have been there! I’ll kill her. I’ll—”

The words cut off because, even mad with worry and guilt, Ryoka couldn’t properly visualize killing Belavierr. However—Hethon’s look of terrified worry wasn’t misplaced, nor was Sammial’s attempts to stop Ryoka.

You’re bleeding! Stop! I order you!

The [Lord] shouted at Ryoka. He backed up as a [Healer] came running. The [Lord] looked down at his front and blanched.

It was covered with blood.

No—not exactly blood. Jericha knelt, a potion in her hand. She saw Ryoka was…sweating blood. But it wasn’t quite blood. Sweat and blood. She had been leaking the liquid for the last three days.

The red lightning had done more than just strike her. The Wind Runner couldn’t move. To Jericha’s understanding of magic, it was an advanced curse mixed with lightning.

“I have to go to Liscor.”

“You won’t fly. I will inform Lord Veltras at once, Miss Ryoka. However, you are in no condition to move.”

Ryoka panted up at Jericha. The woman had the Wind Runner confined to her bed. Sammial hovered there with Hethon. Ryoka was muttering.

“Belavierr. Belavierr. Ivolethe will freeze you! Stay away from Mrsha. I invoke your name Belavierr! I’ll summon the Faerie King on your head! Oberon!

She was raving, plagued by the curse as well as the news from Liscor. Hethon felt his skin prickling, and not just from the tone of Ryoka’s voice.

“Who’s Mrsha? What happened?

Sammial earned a smack on the arm. He’d told Ryoka about the attack when Jericha and Ullim had both said ‘let’s tell your father first’. Ryoka’s eyes opened wide.

“She’s—I’m supposed to protect her. She’s just a kid. Sammial, Hethon. Are you there? I can barely see—”

Her head oozed a bit of that red liquid. Sammial anxiously looked for the [Healer], who had gone to get more healing potion. Hethon offered Ryoka some of the approved stamina-restorative. She gulped.

“We’re here, Miss Ryoka. Can we—do you need something?”

“Yes. Tell Jericha—get a [Mage]. Send something to Laken Godart. Riverfarm. Tell them about Belavierr. Tell them to find Mrsha.

Ryoka’s eyes rolled. Hethon nodded and hurried off. Sammial stayed there.

“What is Belavierr?”

A coward. Do you hear me, Belavierr? I’ll call on Teriarch! I’ll—

Ryoka gagged on something, choked. She spluttered, and then rasped. If her threats were doing anything—choking on phlegm didn’t seem like a Belavierr move. Being strangled by your pillow? Yes. It might have been that she was too far—or that her threats were so pitiful that Belavierr just ignored them.

“Wiskeria. That’s it.

Her eyes opened wide. Ryoka jerked up. Sammial screamed.

It had been four minutes and she’d passed out, then she’d screamed the name. She fixed him with a desperate look.

Sammial, where’s Hethon?

“Going to find Jericha.”

“Well, go find him. Tell them I want to talk to Wiskeria.

“Um. Okay?”

The two boys found the woman and listened as Jericha bent over Ryoka. The young woman was rasping up to the [Mage], and all three of them found themselves listening. Ryoka’s condition was terrible, and Tyrion had put off his romantic pursuits to investigate another curse on someone close to him. He was actually coming back from First Landing, where he’d been petitioning House Terland for aid.

Yet as terribly as she was suffering, she was dropping names and secrets she normally kept guarded.

“Tell Laken he owes me. Mrsha—tell him I’m calling in—Wiskeria. Her mother did this. Call her off.

“Call the Witch of Webs off?”

Jericha’s skin prickled. Ryoka was muttering.

“Her daughter. Tell Wiskeria to contact Belavierr and have her forswear…I know she can. Somehow. Tell them.

“I am. I’m…”

Jericha was [Messaging] Riverfarm live. She spoke.

Laken to Ryoka. We are now aware of the situation. Wiskeria has sworn to petition Belavierr regarding Mrsha. We will attempt to divine Mrsha’s location. What is her last name?

“Stone Spears. Mrsha of the Stone Spears tribe? No, wait…Mrsha du Marquin?”

Ryoka didn’t even seem to be aware of how hard Jericha was locked onto her. Sammial and Hethon exchanged glances. They wanted to know about Ryoka too, but they were sort of on the Wind Runner’s side.

“How can a Gnoll have two names, Miss Ryoka?”

Jericha bent over Ryoka, urgently. Hethon danced on his feet.

“Um—um, Jericha. Maybe—maybe—”

He didn’t know what to say that was sufficiently distracting, but Sammial burst out.

Maybe Ryoka should talk to Wiskeria! Do a communication spell like you did for father!”

Jericha glanced at him, annoyed, but Ryoka nodded feverishly.

In short order, Jericha had a scrying orb linked and Ryoka was muttering to a woman with a dark blue hat on the other end.

“Can you call her off? Tell her I’ll bring down the wrath of the fae on her. Tell her—”

“I can’t summon her, but she made my clothing…she doesn’t talk the same way you can to me, Ryoka. Let me—don’t threaten her.”

“I’m not afraid of her. I’ll—I’ll—grab Excalibur. I’ll get Arthur to get it and—”

Jericha was leaning in, through the doorway. Hethon bit his lip. He reached for the door.

“Lord Hethon! Please!”

Jericha reached to stop him. Sammial kicked her in the back of the knee and she fell down. The boys slammed the door shut and missed the rest as they were told off soundly.

 

—-

 

By the time they got the door open, Ryoka was passed out. Wiskeria, however, seemed to be in communication with Belavierr herself. Jericha froze as the [Witch] fiddled with her spectacles.

“Mother. Mother, what’s this about? Calm down. I’ve never heard you actually raise your voice like this. Are you attacking little girls, mother?”

Her eyes flicked up as Jericha paused. Wiskeria listened to…something. Was her hat whispering to her? It had a sibilant tone, like the voice a spider might make, if only a spider could speak. Just hearing it made Hethon clap his hands over his ears and Sammial screw his face up. It was…

Don’t use your voice on me, mother. I’m not a child! And this isn’t a girl who pushed me—”

To their amazement, Wiskeria held her aggrieved, arguing tone. Reply to the hiss of immortal wrath on the other end. She paced back and forth.

Three relics? More? Your eye? Okay. Okay. No, I will not join you in vengeance. It sounds like your fault. I want you to call off vengeance on Mrsha. Forswear.”

The argument went back and forth. Wiskeria shot an aside to Jericha.

“She doesn’t like getting hurt. Someone—hurt her? What’s this about her eye? She’s angrier than I’ve ever heard her—hold on.”

She went back to speaking to her hat, staring up at the tip and sky.

“I’m asking you as your daughter. Yes. Yes, through Ryoka, who’s made threats…don’t you dare. Forswear vengeance! What do you mean, a ‘pact’? We’re family. Can’t you do one thing without—fine!”

Wiskeria threw her hat down and stomped on it. Then she picked it back up, set it on a stump, and glared at it.

“Forswear all harm to Mrsha, her friends, family, and no ill will for the rest of her life.”

The hat didn’t like that. It actually opened up a mouth full of stitched thread—a horrific sight—and spoke.

I will not. More than one has offended me greatly.”

Wiskeria was folding her arms.

“Then—all physical, mental, and magical harm to just Mrsha.

She turned to Jericha.

“Best I can do.”

Again, the hat didn’t like that, but the whisper became inaudible to the others. It seemed to Hethon like the…strings were whispering. He shuddered, but Wiskeria just rolled her eyes.

“Mother—mother—be quiet, mother. Your daughter is asking. So don’t say ‘vengeance without end or relief’, because we both know it’s about cost. I’ve heard you say that to that [Lord], remember? What’s the price?”

Sulkily, the hat responded. Wiskeria raised her brows.

“Absolutely not. At least…ten years. No, make it thirty. Thirty years.”

Thirty years? Jericha whispered incredulously, but Wiskeria flicked her a glance and shook her head. She walked over and whispered to the orb.

“That’s not a good thing. That means she’s going to hold a grudge forever. If she goes after Mrsha when she’s a hundred…I’ll get her to forswear thirty years and renegotiate when twenty have passed and add another thirty. She’ll forget Mrsha’s a Gnoll, not a half-Elf.”

“Does that…work?”

The woman eyed Wiskeria, who didn’t look more than twenty something herself. The [Witch] flipped her hat up.

“It’s worked for six people so far—and I learned the trick from an older [Witch] who knew Belavierr. It’s the best we can ask for. Alright mother, thirty years. Mrsha only. No harm. You can’t touch her, cast a spell, or even speak to her.”

The hat grumped. Wiskeria poked it.

“I know you, mother. Do we have a deal? What are your terms?”

She sat down, sighing. Ryoka began to come to. She stared, blearily, at Wiskeria talking to her hat. The [Witch] of law rubbed at her face, clearly annoyed.

“Fine. I’ll write you a letter. Two letters every four months, at least. That’s my offer. At least two hundred words each. Deal?”

Ryoka blinked a few times. She turned her head with effort to Sammial.

“Is Wiskeria talking to her hat?”

“Yes.”

Sammial could have elaborated, but the Wind Runner just nodded.

“Checks out.”

Her eyes rolled up in her head and she passed out for a while longer. Wiskeria was sighing.

“Okay. Okay. I’ll bake you something too. With love. Yes, mine. I’ll add a drop. Do we have a deal?”

She seemed to conclude whatever deal with the [Witch] by placing the hat on her head. Then it became silent—normal. Jericha stared in a kind of awe as Wiskeria turned, adjusting her spectacles.

“You…persuaded the Spider to leave this girl alone?”

The [Witch] shrugged.

“I did. On that note—oh. Ryoka’s asleep. We’ll try to help with that curse, but we’d need to be closer to her. Alevica could go if she’s in the area, but she’s hard to track down. Tell Ryoka that I’ll try to visit her. Right after I bake something.”

She sighed again. Jericha looked at Wiskeria. She had all kinds of notes and questions and this conversation had given her much to research.

Somehow, though, even Jericha didn’t quite dare to ask Wiskeria about her relationship with her mother. She nodded, and closed the spell, then hurried off to write down…everything.

 

—-

 

“Ter—him. Him. If I could just ask him…”

Ryoka was muttering when Sammial and Hethon came back. Jericha had gone off to put in an order for more researching with House Veltras’ contacts. She opened her eyes wide.

“Jericha. Did I say anything to her? I didn’t say…anything?”

“N-no…”

It was a sign of how sick Ryoka was that Hethon’s reply actually fooled her. She relaxed.

“I’ll tell him. And…someone else has to find Mrsha. Who?”

“Father will help. Unless she went south. He says sending soldiers past Liscor is an act of war.”

Hethon had heard Jericha sending [Messages] to Tyrion. Ryoka muttered a curse.

“Someone. Who? Klbkch is gone. Hawk? Where’s…she can do it.

Her eyes opened again.

“I need to send another [Message].”

“I’ll get Jericha.”

Hethon looked for the door. Sammial stopped him.

“She’s just going to tell!”

“Don’t tell. Can’t. She’s important.”

The two boys looked at each other. Sammial scratched his head.

“Maybe Ullim?”

“I’ve got it!”

Hethon came to an idea. He darted from the room. Sammial stared after his older brother and saw Hethon race back in, furtively.

“What’s that?”

Ullim’s [Message] book.”

“You can’t use that! You’ll get into trouble!”

Hethon knew that, but he wrote down what Ryoka told him to—then tore out one of the pages of the book of [Message] spells for those who used many such spells.

The message was short, and sweet, and Jericha didn’t know Ryoka had sent it. Hethon saw the Wind Runner smile before she lapsed into labored breathing, and that was worth getting in trouble.

He wondered who Fierre was, though. And why Ryoka had told her she needed Fierre to unleash…

Everything.

Sammial Veltras watched as Hethon helped Ryoka. Then as the [Healer] came back to help Ryoka. He waited for Ryoka to say something, ask for more help, but the female [Healer] ushered the boys out as she changed the red bedding.

Not blood, but still horrible. The Wind Runner was cursed. Hethon looked away, faint from the sight of the curse. Sammial looked back, not seeing the point of tasteful nudity yet and thus having nothing to be ashamed of aside from the grossness of it all.

Thus, it was he who opened the door right back up.

Lord Sammial Veltras!

The [Healer] shrieked, scandalized. Sammial marched up to Ryoka, who was nude. He stared at her as Hethon raised his fist to hit his brother.

“What’s that? I’ve never seen that before and I’ve seen her naked!”

He pointed. The [Healer] hesitated. So did Hethon. Then he turned beet red.

“What?”

That!

Sammial pointed just below Ryoka’s right breast. The [Healer] stared at it, and then Hethon. Both looked accusatorially at Sammial.

“There’s nothing there!”

Sammial gave his brother and the [Healer] a dubious look. No one could see it, not even Jericha. But Sammial did. It was a glowing red mark. And it looked like a familiar sigil. It was…pulsing. Of course, Jericha grew worried when Sammial told her about it and tried another [Dispel Magic], although she’d already cast it a few times since Ryoka had been hit.

She was aware of the power of auras, which were a natural counter to the most magical beings like Djinni; the reason the King of Destruction could fight them. Royalty was a counter unto great magic and even Skills. If Sammial saw something by virtue of his innate talent, it might be a manifestation of the curse. However, the odds were just as likely it was…

A beacon.

 

—-

 

Fierre val Lischelle-Drakle had never received a [Message] like this from Ryoka. It was short, simple, and to the point.

Please find Mrsha. Keep her safe. Bring her back. I need you to use everything. Everything. No matter what it takes. I will pay you back somehow.

It was the kind of favor only people like Ryoka asked. Ryoka, who was an all-or-nothing friend. Who’d go risk her life for a friend. Of course, that she asked it of Fierre was different than fulfilling that kind of thing herself, but as Ryoka had observed, she and Fierre were a bit alike.

And this was the kind of thing the Vampire girl had been waiting all her life for. Especially after she’d been cured. It was almost an excuse.

Just this once…because she had to…because she’d been asked…Fierre the Vampire would reluctantly use the full might of her heritage.

By the time Fierre got to the inn, it was emptying. She stepped around the monster parts still being dragged out, smelling the blood—

The inn was destroyed. And it was being abandoned, even as she watched. Oh, those were loaded terms. Fierre hadn’t seen the inn when it was blown up by a skeleton—or destroyed in the Creler fights. It was actually a lot more intact than you could hope for.

Sure, every window had been smashed in by monsters and [Soldiers] coming in. Okay, the top floor and roof were shredded by the arrow barrage, but the hallway was only filled with gore. The walls were intact. That was something! The…uh…blood would come off.

It was the fact that this was the eighth time or something that did it. The fact that Belavierr had gone into the garden. She hadn’t succeeded, but…she had gone in, in a sense.

Fierre saw the Earthers, the guests, milling about. Some had been on the way out, like Hexel. He was going to stay with Elirr, for purely business reasons since the Councilmember was kind enough to offer his shop to the [Architect].

Montressa and Bezale were both going to Invrisil. And they were taking Joseph with them. Already, the vultures were circling.

The vultures. A Pallassian official tried to cozy up to Joseph in the hubbub.

“Excuse me, Coach Joseph, we have your home ready as agre—”

She was practically kicked out of the way by a [Mage] who’d hurried through from Invrisil. She was checked by Bezale’s arm, but the Pallassian [Negotiator] wasn’t going to be stopped that easily. She strode forwards, and a whistling [Maid] swept her legs.

Fierre counted Wistram, Reinhart, Pallass, and that was just the groups with multiple agents on the ground. They were all trying to tug the Earthers this way, or that.

Why? Why now? Because…this was the first attack after Erin had died. Somehow, many had assumed they’d stop now that the [Innkeeper] was dead.

They had not. And some of the Brothers were dead. An army had broken on the inn, and they had been pushed back, yes. But the thought remained.

Who would be next? Imani and Palt were arguing.

“I’m not moving to Pallass. I could—work at Tails and Scales, if Rufelt and Lasica need a hand. Timbor’s promised us rooms, Palt.”

“He has steps. What about Invrisil?”

“I want to stay in Liscor. I told Erin I’d cook for her. I’m…I’m not going far.”

The two would leave the inn, though. Simply because Pallass’ [Soldiers] might have promised to help secure it, but that meant the Brothers were gone. Maybe they’d be next when Belavierr came back for round two with Facestealer and…and the Greater Frost Wyvern and two Adult Creler groupies just to fill out the set.

Perhaps they would have all stayed. If the inn were going to still have the regulars.

But they were leaving too. Not just Rags, who was standing apart with her Wyverns, far back from the Drakes casually eying her tribe, not just the [Mages].

Everyone.

Mrsha was gone. Rags stood, talking with those who would go after. Numbtongue was sitting down, broken twice by her loss. Empty-eyed—until someone grabbed his shoulder.

“Get up.”

He looked into crimson eyes. Badarrow hauled Numbtongue up.

“Stop sitting around. Why are you sitting? We—going after.”

He struck Numbtongue’s shoulder, then his chest, and pointed to the south. It was the most talkative Badarrow had ever really been. Numbtongue half-shook his head. He pointed at the inn.

“I have to stay. Erin…”

Erin is ice.

Numbtongue whirled. The [Bard] nearly struck Badarrow, but the [Sniper] caught the blow. The other Redfang snapped.

“Little Mrsha gone! You leave? Nothing gets in garden. Not even that—thing.”

He gestured, making a triangle over his head, the closest he could come in Goblin sign to ‘witch’. Numbtongue wavered, but Badarrow looked at him.

“You leave her?”

Mrsha? Mrsha, who loved Numbtongue, and called him a big brother even when they fought? The [Bard] looked at the garden.

Nothing had ever gotten in. Not even Belavierr. Only…the thing that he had never seen, and he had no proof it had ever existed after the statues had gone back to normal. Yet even it had never touched Erin.

His head bowed. Yet if Erin came back this moment, and he saw her wake up, what would he tell her about Mrsha?

They were all going. That was why the inn was truly broken. You could rebuild it a hundred times. It was just wood and stone and copper nails, for goodness’ sake. But if there was no one in it…

The [Soulbard] flexed his hand. Did he have the strength to bring Mrsha back? He had failed to harm Belavierr. And this—Wanderer—had her.

He didn’t know. The cruel irony was, though, that he was more qualified to protect Mrsha now than he had been yesterday.

He had leveled up. The [Soulbard] felt the new Skill burning in his claws, ready to be used.

 

[Goblin Soulbard Level 35!]

[Song – The Brave Fall First obtained!]

 

A song for men with hats. His first true song of war. Paid for in blood and loss. Numbtongue embraced the Skill and new level. It was a [Bard]’s duty to remember Crimshaw’s name.

He would use it to bring Mrsha back.

The Goblin had leveled. Numbtongue was not the only one. Everyone who had survived the battle, practically everyone had leveled.

Mrsha, being carried away by Wanderer, Wanderer himself, Rags, all the [Mages]—it was easier to name who didn’t level.

Like Niers. And…Niers.

And Belavierr.

 

—-

 

Not everyone got Skills, it was true, but everyone leveled. Sometimes multiple times. It depended on what they had done. For those who had flung themselves at Belavierr—they had leveled almost by surviving, not doing damage.

Xrn had done damage. The Centenium was in no mood to appreciate her levels, however. Her arm was gone, and Facestealer had stolen it. The Free Queen looked down at the Centenium.

“There is no way to recreate your arm, Xrn. Even in Rhir—it would have been a task.”

I know.

The ‘voice’ wasn’t Xrn’s actual voice; her neck had been torn half-off. So it was a thought translated to speech via magic. She was unable to even move; suspended in a converted Birther sac to heal as best she could.

She was incapacitated, she knew. If she could make use of the new Skill and level—it would not be now.

 

—-

 

By contrast, Pawn was similarly incapacitated. However, he would live as indicated. And while he hadn’t gotten a miracle to cure poison…sadly…he had leveled the most of any one person on that battlefield.

For turning away the Witch of Webs, for defeating her with faith alone, the [Doomspeaker Priest] lay in his bed and heard the voice.

 

[Conditions Met: Doomspeaker Priest → Priest of Wrath and Sky Class!]

[Priest of Wrath and Sky Level 30!]

 

An odd class. He felt it should be unique, but it wasn’t. Yet what was…and what confirmed he had been redeemed came after.

 

[Miracle – Summon Workers (Holy) obtained!]

 

Somehow, still the same. Somehow, it still fit no matter that Workers had not come before. Yet Pawn did hear something. Like blood pooling in his mind, it came to him. He did not want it, but it was in him.

Great power to protect.

The wrath to doom a city.

 

[Miracle – Bane of Luck obtained.]

 

A Skill to take something away. To hurt. Pawn waited. Yet for his new class, and his battle with one of the things that would never walk in his Heaven while he existed—he was given three Skills.

The last was simply like a sigh. Like fresh air. The green of spring. Of reawakening.

Something new.

 

[Skill – I Walked Under Heaven’s Sky obtained!]

 

The [Priest] sighed and lay back. If he could have smiled, he would. Yet Mrsha was gone. For her, he would have traded it all. He prayed for her.

Pawn leveled up the most. Mrsha was third. The person who leveled up second-most was a [Blacksmith’s Apprentice] in Liscor, who had no idea why he had jumped so many levels.

He only made the connection with selling the Worker a club and shield he’d made when he checked his Skills.

 

—-

 

Rags had not slept since the battle. She had no time to investigate her Skills. Her Goblins were getting ready to leave.

Like the others. She growled at the watching Drakes and Gnolls and other non-Goblins. Her skin prickled.

Some of them looked ready to kill her. 4th Company and Embria were the nice-looking ones. She turned briskly to Badarrow.

I will give you Snapjaw and her Wyvern. No more.

Not more, Chieftain? Might need.

Badarrow and Rags kept their backs turned, and they spoke in Goblin tongue, with Goblin gestures. Let the others try to eavesdrop on that.

Rags made an apologetic gesture.

“If could, would. Needed. Also—lightning-rain-death city. Not good Wyverns. Fly-die.”

She meant Pallass. More than a single Wyvern would attract attention. One was more than enough, and she would miss Snapjaw…but she and Badarrow were a pair and Rags knew better than to forbid it.

Come to Goblinhome first. Supplies.

He nodded. Rags glanced around as Badarrow went over to join Snapjaw. Numbtongue would stay. Calescent? He was coming back. The Hob had made up his mind, and reluctant as he might be—he was a [Chef]. A battle-chef, but not suited to finding little Mrshas.

“Chieftain, can’t send more Goblins?”

She shrugged at him as he came over.

Little Mrsha danger. But Gnoll fight for her. Less danger than us.

He grinned ruefully at that. Rags had a different opinion of Mrsha’s kidnapping. It might be safer than here, frankly, and she couldn’t help. Mrsha had Goblin-spirit, which was the biggest compliment Rags could give. She would be fine, Rags hoped, and that was all.

Calescent knew Rags’ reasoning, and he was going with his Chieftain. Badarrow had disagreed. He would stay and join Numbtongue. And…Rags glanced sideways.

“Coming?”

The female Hobgoblin sat on the ground, arms and legs crossed. Ulvama didn’t look up. She had bent her head down, and sat there, ever since she’d heard about the Goblins arguing whether to help or go.

“Ulvama.”

The female Hob didn’t respond. She was blasted by Belavierr’s magics; most of her magical paint was gone. She muttered as Rags nudged her with a foot.

“Go away, stupid Chieftain. Always leaving good Goblins behind. Petty Rags, not bringing me along. Stupid name, too. Not real Goblin name.”

Rags raised her brows. So that was how it was. She shrugged.

“That’s right. Stupid Rags, leaves Ulvama behind. See you later…[Shaman].

The Flooded Water Tribe’s [Shaman] glanced up. Rags looked down at her.

“Badarrow follows later. We fly!

The Goblins flew, back towards the High Passes and Goblinhome. Leaving those who would head south, after Mrsha behind. As Rags flew, she looked back just once.

If she had any regrets—aside from all the stuff around the attack—it was that she hadn’t found that little man. He might be dead. Or hiding. She had looked quite hard, but he had vanished.

She wondered where he was.

 

—-

 

The Goblins weren’t the only group trying to figure out how to rescue Mrsha.

Selys Shivertail had missed all of it. So had Drassi and Olesm, although his excuse was he’d been fighting an army, so it was a good one.

She felt wretched. Worthless. Mrsha was gone. Kidnapped! And she couldn’t even go after her.

“Absolutely not. You’re not a fighter. Neither am I.”

Drassi had her arms under Selys’ shoulders and was holding her friend back. Selys whirled around.

“Then what do I do, Drassi?”

The [Heiress] whirled, shrieking at her friend. Drassi screamed back.

“I don’t know! Put up fliers! Ask around in the cities! Just don’t go off tracking! You know what I’m doing? I’m going to put out an announcement on Wistram News Network! Gnoll girl kidnapped!”

She blinked, catching herself. The [Reporter] looked around.

“I am going to do that.”

Selys blinked too, at Drassi.

“That’s…a good idea. A really good one.”

“Right. So what are you going to do?”

The Drake looked around. What was she going to do? She was—was—

She spotted Fierre, speaking with some of the others. The Human girl was standing in the shade of the inn.

“I’m going too. Ryoka asked me to come.”

“She’s not coming? Ryoka? I thought she’d be here! The Halfseekers are going to come and search as soon as they can! Griffon Hunt went the wrong way to Riverfarm—they’re trying to figure out if they can make it! Listen. I don’t uh—know you well. But how well is this thought out? Do you have a plan? You can’t go south. Not you.”

Snapjaw stared at Olesm. She had come back, panting, and her Frost Wyvern was lying on the ground. She’d found no tracks. But there was a scent-trail.

“You need a Gnoll to track them. It’s faint, Wing Commander, but it’s there.”

Captain Wikir reported, glancing sideways at the Goblins. Snapjaw glanced at him. Olesm turned back to 4th Company.

“Yet you didn’t pursue, Captain Wikir?”

“Sorry, Strategist. It passed the Bloodfields and that’s enemy territory. Hectval could’ve taken a shot. If you want scouts…”

That was the issue. Olesm turned back to arguing with Snapjaw.

“You don’t have tracking, and you’re Goblins. If you go south, every Drake city and Gnoll tribe will take a shot at you.”

The Goblin [Eater] bared her teeth.

“So? What’s new? Who are you, anyway?”

Fierre had no idea, but she thought Snapjaw had amazing teeth. The Goblin gave her a sidelong grin. The Vampire covered her own canines reflexively—then nodded at her.

“Snapjaw, right? Fierre. We met…I’m going after Mrsha too. I’m not sure if we’re going together or apart, but I’m going.”

“You? Miss…Fierre?”

Olesm turned just as skeptical eyes on the, what, eighteen-year-old girl who looked half as big as Wikir? She had no muscle, and up till recently she’d looked fairly sick. Very pale; she seemed a bit…taller…to him.

“Don’t you have a job?”

She gave him a closed-lip smile.

“Yup. But I’m not entrenched and Mrsha is missing. Do you think we’ll just leave her to be kidnapped?”

“No, but—! You have no funds, Miss Fierre. You might have to hire experts, provide for yourself.”

“I have enough money for quite a bit.”

And I’ll cover all expenses. I’m putting a bounty on Mrsha! Her safe return, I mean! Anything you need for travelling—a carriage, food—it’s yours.”

Selys stalked into the conversation. Fierre glanced up. The Drake was agitated, near tears.

“Whoever’s going to find Mrsha—I’ll help!”

Olesm threw up his claws, but in the next breath, he turned.

“Alright. If you’re going south—at least let me get you a map. You do have a map, don’t you?”

Snapjaw glanced up at him.

“…Yes? No. Give map, blue Drake. Thank you.”

 

—-

 

Joseph Ortega watched Olesm argue with Fierre, Snapjaw, and Numbtongue. Well…Numbtongue just sat there. He had drying blood on his armor. He had cut down countless numbers of the monsters and soldiers in the hallway.

Joseph wondered what level he was. The [Bard] looked bleak, though. Yet he wasn’t a statue in the garden; he was going with the others.

To find Mrsha. Joseph on the other hand was aware of how Montressa and Bezale were fending off the others trying to get to him. The [Mage] was arguing, red-eyed and bleary with a Pallassian [Negotiator]. She was winning—mainly because the fumes of alcohol were half-choking the Drake.

“So—are you going with them? I’m…thinking about it, you know? Otherwise, we’re like, going with one of them, aren’t we?”

Joseph turned. Troydel walked over, hands in his pockets. Joseph, who had stabbed someone with a spear for the first time today, stared at the other Earther.

“Where the fuck have you been?”

“Pallass.”

The young man avoided Joseph’s look. He spoke, a bit too rapidly.

“Sorry I missed it. I mean—not sorry. This is all crazy. Did you hear? Everyone’s leaving the inn. They want me to go to Pallass. Where…where’re you going? Unless you’re joining the hunt?”

Joseph opened and closed his mouth. Troy stared at Numbtongue and the Wyvern.

“They’re going to jump on that thing and fly off? Like the Goblins? I didn’t even get to speak to the Goblins!”

He meant Rags and the others, especially the amazingly-cool wolf-riding Goblin with the twin swords. That was the kind of thing Troy and Leon had wanted to see. Joseph? He just stared at Troy.

“You want to go with them?”

“Why not? Hey, if you don’t want to go to Pallass, we can fight it! They can’t drag us off!”

Troydel made a fist and threw a jab, which told everyone who saw it, ‘watch out, this kid doesn’t know how to fight’. Joseph just looked at his hands.

He knew that he wasn’t a fighter when he tried to be an adventurer. Today had just confirmed it. Kicking footballs around was a lot more fun than holding a bloody spear as someone slashed at you with a sword.

“Are you really going to go with them after Mrsha?”

Troydel lowered his hands. He looked at Joseph, at the blood and corpses. He blanched at the sight of an adventurer disemboweling one of the dead monsters and comparing the organ with a sketch.

“No. I’m not. And I’m not staying here. I mean…look.”

He stared at the inn. Joseph saw the holes in the roof, the battlefield…Troy shook his head.

“We were safer with Magnolia.”

“We didn’t do anything.

“Yeah. But we were safer. Right up until the [Assassin] attack, I guess. Well. Erin helped us and I’ve got my thing…”

Joseph eyed him, but Troy didn’t elaborate. The young man turned to Joseph.

“…But Galina was right when she went with the Players. Here isn’t where I want to be. I’m going to Pallass. You coming with?”

The [Football Coach] debated using [Power Kick] to boot Troy into a pile of corpses, but the fact was, he agreed with Troy. He shrugged.

“I’m going somewhere. Maybe Invrisil?”

He rose to say goodbye to Numbtongue and the others. To wish them well. None of them seemed surprised as the young man from Spain hung his head.

“I’d like to come with, but…I’m not a fighter.”

“No.”

Numbtongue raised his head. He looked at Joseph and said it clearly. But he did rise and offer Joseph something.

It was a hand. Joseph shook it. The [Bard] stood, looking exhausted, bloody, but he did meet Joseph’s eyes.

“Go. We will come back. With Mrsha.”

“If there’s anything I can do…money? I have money. I can help Selys. Just say it.”

The others nodded. Joseph stepped back—and all the agents clustering around the field surged forwards. Fierre herself broke off investigating one of the downed Gnolls who had gone after Mrsha.

“Wistram, Pallass…oh, hey. That’s someone from Roshal. Um…Terandrian?”

She was counting the people vying for Joseph’s attention. The young man backed up.

Coach Joseph, Coach Joseph! Hear me out! Before you decide on a place—

“—A home, fine accommodations—”

You don’t want Pallass! Invrisil is full of your people!

Most of them had no chance. Even if they were agents hired from abroad to keep tabs on the inn, you weren’t going to get Joseph to sail to Lailight Scintillation. They tried, though. Right up until Bezale blocked them with a [Wall of Stone].

“That’s enough! Joseph, you’re heading to Invrisil with us, right?”

The [Football Coach] nodded dubiously. Instantly, Pallass’ agents protested, but one of them was already hurrying after Troydel, as the young man tried to see if he could get a better offer—with few results.

The fact was that all that attention, the ‘circling vultures’ as Valeterisa, Chaldion, or Fierre might describe them, were various powers realizing the inn’s clients were up for grabs. Imani and Palt had already vanished under an [Invisibility] spell and were heading to Liscor.

Joseph on the other hand? They wanted Joseph. Some of the agents might not have even known the value of an Earther, hence Troydel being ignored.

Joseph was worth a lot no matter what you knew, and it looked like a showdown between Invrisil and Pallass over the [Coach]’s place of residence, for all he was contracted to teach both. Especially because Invrisil had beaten Pallass in their first matchup, much to the horror of the Walled City.

That was sports for you. Chaldion had told his people to get Joseph if possible.

But the real Human that the agents were looking for, saving their best offers for, charm Skills, was Kevin.

Kevin, who made bikes. You could take football or leave it, but bikes, skateboards, and Solar Cycles was transportation and anyone with eyes wanted Kevin. Fierre even saw a delegation from Esthelm—a bunch of [Miners]—fight through the crowd.

“Where’s Kevin? We’re just going to get him—”

“Excuse me, I represent—”

The [Negotiator] from Pallass, and a hired [Contractor] who was representing Khelt both lost to Esthelm. Not because the small city had better [Negotiators], but because they knew how to throw elbows. As Ilvriss’ uncle, Nerul, would have observed, that was why you had an anti-combat Skill—or a [Bodyguard].

They fought through the crowd, although Esthelm would have been mostly happy to let Kevin stay in Invrisil where Hedault was. However, the [Miners], despite their tremendous ability to shove people aside, didn’t get to Kevin first. They did a circle through the crowd, and Fierre looked up from where she was conferring with the hunting group.

This was all a sideshow to Olesm’s discussion with Snapjaw. They had to organize a route, supplies, and a team.

“Listen. If it’s Numbtongue, me, Badarrow, Snapjaw, um, your Wyvern—”

“Icecube.”

Snapjaw patted the Frost Wyvern affectionately. Fierre stared at it.

“…Yes. Well, I’m sure you’re all high-level. But those Gnolls were good. We need more than just four.”

“Badarrow will see. Otherwise…we go. You don’t need to come. Bloodbiters too much work. Scream under sun, scream when cooking with garlic, scream when someone sneezes in silver dust…”

Ulvama poked Fierre in the side and the Vampire girl went white with terror. Olesm just gave Ulvama a blank look.

“I don’t know what that means, but I’ll see what I can do.”

He walked off and Fierre stared at Ulvama. The [Shaman] just gave her a self-satisfied look.

“What? I wrong?”

“I—I—”

Before Fierre could shout or scream or run away, someone walked over.

“Excuse me, Sirs, Misses…heard you were heading after the young girl. Mrsha, as it were. Mind if we tag along?”

The group looked up. And there were two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Numbtongue’s eyes widened.

“You lived.”

Normen, the younger Brother, tipped his hat. He had a nasty scar down one cheek; a product of an enchanted blade. The other Brother had come from Liscor, having been arrested during the altercation with Wanderer. Those two alone had come over; the other Brothers had left.

“You want to come with?”

Snapjaw glanced at them, surprised. She had seen the dead hat-men. Normen and the older Brother tipped their hats.

“If we could be of use, Miss. The little Gnoll’s gone, and we were supposed to look after her. Doesn’t feel right, leaving her.”

Numbtongue looked at Normen and thought of Crimshaw and the others. The [Bard] spoke, slowly.

“You do not have to. All debts…you paid them.”

The younger Brother nodded. He reached for his side and produced something.

Crimshaw’s dagger. He’d collected it from his mentor. The one thing he would keep. Normen flicked it up, caught it. Then looked at Numbtongue.

“So you say, sir, and it’s appreciated. I just feel that Crimshaw would be going. Since he’s resting, I’ll come. If you need me.”

He held out his gloved hand. Numbtongue looked at it. Then he slowly took it. Fierre watched, eyes flicking to Ulvama.

The expedition grew. In the background, the susurration and arguments had grown quiet. The Vampire girl looked over, and someone raised their voice.

“Hey. Hold on. Stop elbowing me! Just—truce, alright?”

The factions ceased fighting, Montressa and Bezale with Joseph behind a barrier, Troydel shielded by Pallass’ [Soldiers]. The others looked around. One of the battered [Negotiators] stared about.

“Where is Kevin?”

The others looked, but they began to realize—in all the confusion, the person they were fighting over was…missing.

Kevin was gone.

 

—-

 

Below the city of Liscor, the Antinium were making plans of their own. The Painted Antinium gathered around Pawn, who lay, convalescing, but turned as a new Antinium walked their halls.

Bird stopped in front of Pawn. He looked down.

“You cannot travel, Pawn.”

“That…is probably true, Bird. Are you going? You?

The [Bird Hunter] looked at Pawn.

“Of course. I am here to see who else will come. I know I am banned, but Klbkch is not here. So I poo on him.”

Belgrade hesitated. The [Tactician] tapped Bird on the shoulder as the others drew around.

“You mean, you poo-poo him.”

“Possibly I would do both if he were here.”

 

—-

 

In Goblinhome, as soon as she returned, Rags called the Goblins of her tribe to her as Badarrow stood before them. The [Sniper] leaned on his bow as Rags explained to the Goblins an abbreviated version of what had happened.

Most knew already, the Goblin social network being infinitely faster than most modes of communication. What they were curious about was…why their Chieftain had summoned them.

Also, who that was. Rags noticed the stares and turned her head. She jumped.

“What are you doing here?”

Kevin stared around. The [Engineer] scratched at his head.

“I uh…wanted to meet the Goblins that Erin was always talking about. He said it was okay. We’re all splitting up anyways, so…”

The young man gestured at the best [Negotiator], who had gotten him before anyone else. Rags turned to face Calescent. The [Spice Chef] looked smug as he waggled his eyebrows. In Goblin body-language, he was expressing immense satisfaction and hilarity at her reaction, and a slight shift of his head indicated the crossbows. And Kevin.

Eh, Chieftain? Seems like I did good, huh? Want to buy me that spice rack after all?

“How?”

Rags eyed Kevin, ignoring the smug [Chef]. Kevin scratched at his head.

“Well…I was looking at the Wyverns, and Calescent was like, ‘want to fly? Come with.’ So I did. Am I in trouble?”

Master-class negotiation. Rags looked at Kevin, and then turned back to Badarrow. That was not what mattered right now. It was simply this. She took a deep breath and began to speak.

 

—-

 

“Mrsha is gone. The inn is being abandoned. Erin is dead. For now. So, I am leaving.”

Bird spoke. The Antinium listened. The inn was…their heads swung back to Pawn. Yet the [Priest] just listened. His gaze was fixed on Bird.

The [Hunter] stood in the center of the Antinium, the Free Antinium, the Antinium from other Hives, looking around.

“Hello. I forgot to say this—I am Bird. You do not know me, I do not know you. Especially you.”

He pointed at Xeu. The Silent Antinium’s Prognugator clacked her mandibles. The others looked at Bird as he turned around.

“That is not important; I do not care. Mrsha is gone. I am going after her.”

Someone spoke.

“You will not survive.”

Pivr. Pawn had nearly forgotten the Flying Antinium’s Prognugator was here. Pivr stared at Bird.

“Are you suggesting leaving Liscor? That is not a sensible decision. To the south lies the lands of the Drakes. Gnolls. We are bound by our Hive’s pact with them. If any Antinium is found outside of Liscor or the Hivelands, they will be killed.”

“Thank you for telling me, not-bird Antinium. I like your wings.”

Bird looked at Pivr and turned away. He happily ignored Pivr.

“I have never been to the south. Yet some Gnoll has taken Mrsha. She is missing, and she is part of the inn. If Erin wakes up tomorrow—she will be sad. Lyonette will be sad, if Mrsha never comes back. I will be…sad.”

The Antinium listened. Bird looked around.

“So. I am going. I do not know where I am going, exactly. But I came here to ask if anyone is coming with me.”

They looked at each other, Belgrade, Garry, Pawn, Yellow Splatters, as the Antinium made his request.

 

—-

 

Badarrow is leaving. So is Snapjaw. They go to find this Gnoll.

Rags spoke. The Goblins susurrated, expressing their feelings in gestures more than words. Rags looked at Badarrow. He should say something.

Am going.

The taciturn [Sniper] glanced along the lines of faces. Towards the Redfangs.

At Redscar, the last leader of the tribe. Redscar folded his arms.

Chieftain has battles to fight. You leaving tribe?

“I give him permission. He comes back if not dead.”

Rags snapped back. Redscar shrugged. Badarrow looked around, and a sea of glowing crimson eyes met his. Kevin watched, fascinated, as a Wyvern sniffed him and drooled.

This is what they said.

 

—-

 

Bird looked at Pawn. Badarrow glanced at Rags as he leaned against the Wyvern ready to take him back to Liscor. And…further beyond.

“Will you stop me?”

Bird tilted his head, curiously, gazing at Pawn. The [Priest] looked up at him.

“Stop you? I would go with you if I could. But Bird—Pivr is right. We are Antinium. I cannot ask others to die. The Antinium are going to war. Is that not so, Belgrade?”

The [Tactician] walked forwards. He nodded slowly, looking at Bird, at the floor.

“We are to battle Hectval. I was asked by Olesm to take command—Bird, I promised.”

The [Hunter] just smiled.

“If you promised, Belgrade, you must fulfill your promise. Unless you lied. I am not stupid, Pawn. Just silly. I will tell them, properly, what will happen.”

The [Priest] nodded and sat back. It was up to Pawn. The Workers and Soldiers listened as Bird stepped forwards. He faced them, the Free Antinium of the Hive, and Xrn and the Free Queen both listened and watched through their eyes.

Bird looked around, at the room full of painted signs, Fortresses of Fluff, books and toys and things to make living…better. He looked at his kin, and then back up towards the ceiling. When he spoke, his voice was not as playful, not as relaxed as it normally was.

It was still both things. Yet Bird’s voice was…serious. Intent. Conversational, matter-of-fact, and determined. Even the first Workers, Garry, Belgrade, and Pawn, who had known him from the beginning, with the [Innkeeper], had never heard him speak like that.

“I have been to Pallass, you know. Someone once said Antinium would never take Pallass’ walls and I walked on them. It was okay. There were lots of bird-Wyverns, and I got into trouble. I nearly died. But that is normal.”

The Antinium listened. Pivr’s mandibles opened and closed. Bird had done that. The [Hunter] shook his head, his antennae waving.

“They say these things. Antinium are not allowed here, or there. We are on Izril, and Liscor and the Hivelands, but we never go anywhere else. Maybe because there is nothing to see. Sometimes, though, I think there must be countless birds I’ve never seen, if I walked north, or south, until I left Liscor behind. I never did, because I did not need to. Liscor is nice. The inn is nice. But now, it seems the inn has run away. A silly little Gnoll has gone missing again, and I must find her.”

He looked around. The [Sniper] spoke.

Her name is Mrsha. She is part of the inn. That inn. I am going after. That is why I go. If I come back…I will rejoin tribe. But I am going. To find her. Or die. Numbtongue is alive. He goes too. And Snapjaw, Ulvama.

The Goblins stirred. They knew all those names. Rags looked at Badarrow. She nodded to him.

It is a thing Badarrow must do. So he does. If any Goblin wants to go with—they can. They will be part of the tribe. But. They will die.

She did not lie to them. She did not promise them illusions. You should not, between Goblins. Goblinhome focused on Badarrow. Now, they knew what he wanted.

“I cannot promise we will come back. No…I promise the other thing.”

Bird stood in front of them. His head rose, and he looked upwards. To the sky he could not see, but had stayed so many days and nights under. This place? This hive was…cramped.

Pawn felt like he could…sense Bird’s thoughts. For a second. The [Hunter] spoke then, and looked at the Antinium.

“I am asking if you wish to come. But I will tell you this: if you leave, you will never come back. That is the truth.”

The Antinium stirred. Bird walked forwards.

“We are Antinium. All these things Pawn and the not-bird over there said are true. We go to rescue Mrsha, but we are Antinium. If you leave, you will die far from the Hive. With no one to write your paint on the walls. No one will make a statue for you. It may be painful. No…I am sure it will be.”

Rags bellowed to the listening Goblins.

This is not for the tribe! It is not for the good of Goblins!

Bird nodded.

“We are not meant to leave Liscor.”

Redscar spoke to Badarrow.

They will hunt you across Izril! If you go with them, they will watch you and try to slaughter you with every step you take. So why do you ask?

He bared his teeth. A challenge, a question. Badarrow met the older Goblin’s gaze, unflinching. He thought, and Bird replied. He looked around, having prefaced the journey with the truth. The odds against them. Certain death.

“I tell you this because it is true. And I am asking because I am going, not because I want more Antinium to die with me. That is not my goal. If you were wondering.”

“Didn’t say I wanted Goblins to come.”

Badarrow addressed Redscar. The Goblin raised his brows.

“Then what?”

Bird looked around, spreading his four arms to his Antinium audience.

“I am asking if you want to come with me. Because I am going. I must. So if you must—come. If you know you must go, even if you die, that is why you go.”

He lowered his arms. Looking at Garry, Belgrade, Pawn, all of whom knew what called him. Garry was opening and closing his mandibles, but Bird laid a hand on his arm.

“Pawn is hurt. Belgrade has a promise. And you are bad at fighting, Garry. I am going. Erin is here—you can protect her. Mrsha is different.”

“You cannot leave it to anyone else, Bird?”

Garry whispered. Bird just smiled. He shook his head.

“Mrsha is my big sister. She said that and I have no idea what it means, but it means something. I am the younger brother! Although she is sillier than even me. I must go.”

The Goblin nodded.

“A debt for the inn. It is still here. For the Redfangs who were there. Headscratcher. Shorthilt. They would go. So I am going.”

Badarrow looked around. There were not Goblin words for the specific meaning of ‘debt’. Not like this.

“How many times will you pay it?”

Redscar. He didn’t scoff, but the Goblins were curious. Badarrow just gave him a pointy grin.

“You never finish, until you die.”

The other Goblin thought about this. Then he laughed and nodded.

 

—-

 

They stood there, in a single rank of bodies.

Antinium.

Goblins.

Hobgoblins and regular Goblins.

Workers and Soldiers.

Painted and unpainted, [Shamans], [Warriors], Cave Goblins and Mountain City Goblins, Redfangs, Prognugators of foreign Hives, Individuals and not.

“If you would join Bird, and leave us…”

Pawn raised his voice. Rags shouted.

Goblins who will follow Badarrow—

“Step forwards.”

The line of Goblins and Antinium moved. Thousands of Goblins and Antinium, as one, did nothing.

They did not volunteer. They had heard what lay ahead and decided not to. Bird smiled and Badarrow grinned.

Good. Because they didn’t want all of them. If all of them had volunteered to die, that was a problem.

Their eyes fixed on the ones who had moved.

They stepped forwards, in perfect synchronization with no one else, and looked around, hesitated, and began to step back.

Then stopped. Goblins and Antinium looked at each other. For reasons only they knew, they had left the others. Stepped out of line.

Fifteen Antinium. Twelve Goblins.

Badarrow nodded. The Goblins of Goblinhome were tired of dying. Even for the best of reasons. Yet twelve had come. Twelve, who thought they had a debt yet to pay. He saw only three Redfangs. The rest of the Goblins were all of one kind.

Cave Goblins. He nodded at them and they bared their teeth in reply.

Bird glanced at the Workers and Soldiers. The ones who had known Mrsha. Who had gone to the inn. He made to walk towards them and two of the Antinium who had moved blocked Bird’s path.

Xeu, the Silent Antinium, and Pivr, the Flying Antinium, Prognugators both. Pivr clacked his mandibles, looking around in agitation. He gestured at Bird, as Xeu rubbed her scythe-arms, just as perturbed.

“…We have orders not to let an asset to the Hive die. You should restrain him.”

Yellow Splatters had not moved. He leaned against one of the walls and spoke as he looked at Bird.

“You could try. We will watch.”

“We have authority. Over you. You will obey.”

Xeu whispered to Bird, one of the few time she had ever spoken. Bird blinked at her.

“No.”

The Silent Antinium stared at him. Bird peered at her.

“How about that?”

He began to walk past them, and the two Prognugators blocked his way.

“We have authority.”

Pivr looked confused. Xeu raised a scythe, hesitantly, as if wondering how to stop Bird without hurting him. It was one of the Workers who spoke.

“No, you do not.”

The voice was female. It spoke through the Worker. The Antinium fell silent. Bird looked up.

“Oh, hello.”

The Free Queen of the Antinium looked at Pawn. The Prognugators of other Hives knelt. It was the Free Queen who spoke. Just this.

“Bird. I name you Revalantor of the Free Antinium. Go. If you would protect him, Xeu, Pivr, you will bow to his will.”

The two Prognugators looked up. Bird smiled.

“Thank you.”

Then he walked out of the Hive. The Antinium followed.

 

—-

 

The Goblins came down from the mountains the next day. The Antinium left their Hives.

By that time, Selys had bought as many supplies as she could. Bags of holding, horses.

There was only one Frost Wyvern. Fierre had been fretting over sunproof cloaks, their route. And…the gathering.

“Antinium? I’ve never seen an Antinium ride a horse. Goblins too? This is suicide.

Palt was trying to talk them out of it. Bird pressed a finger against his mandibles.

“Be shush, silly horse-man. Do you think we don’t know that?”

The two Brothers leaned against their horses, looking at their travelling companions as the Goblins stared at the Antinium. Bird? He just made a fist and bumped Badarrow and Numbtongue and Snapjaw’s fists all at the same time. Ulvama ignored his fist-bump.

“Who else is coming? Who’s that?

Ulvama frowned, standing straighter and hefting her staff warily. More people were coming from the inn. Fierre turned. She blinked.

She had expected one, not the other two. They slowed as they came down the hill. Palt looked up and scowled.

“Absolutely not! You’re not fighters!”

“Yeah, but we’re Runners. And if you’re chasing someone—there’s no one better. Fierre, I heard you wanted Garia. Not me?”

Fals and Garia Strongheart trotted down the hill. The City Runner and [Martial Artist] gave Fierre grins. The Vampire blinked at Garia.

“He wanted to come.”

“What about you? You’re not a warrior either!”

Palt trotted over. Octavia bit her fingernails.

“But it’s Mrsha. Look—it’s Mrsha, Palt.”

“Are you sure?”

“Someone has to come who can go into the cities and such, right, Fierre? I mean, besides you.”

The one actual non-monster beamed around as she clapped Fierre on the shoulder. Fals looked at Numbtongue and Badarrow. The [Bard] and [Sniper] duo glanced at him.

“You coming for Mrsha?”

“Yeah. If it wasn’t her—but that’s a kid. Right? Ryoka’s always going on adventures. I figured…I might as well.”

The two Goblins eyed the unfamiliar City Runner, but they didn’t turn him away. Fierre stared at the eclectic group, as Garia looked at Pivr and recoiled.

“What are you?

The Flying Antinium just tilted its head, looking at Ulvama.

“What are you? A Painted Goblin?”

They didn’t know each other, some of them. The Cave Goblins nudged each other as they pointed at Garia’s abs. Bird was introducing Fierre to Xeu.

“This is Fierre, Xeu. She is Ryoka’s friend. I have no more information about her.”

“What is…a Ryoka?”

Fals was eying the rescue party. He frowned, peering around at faces.

“Antinium. Goblins. Humans. The three most-hated species are going into Izril’s south. Are you telling me we don’t have one Drake or Gnoll?”

The others looked at each other. Numbtongue shrugged.

“Drassi can’t fight. Selys can’t fight. Olesm is going to fight Hectval. Relc?”

He glanced at Badarrow and the [Sniper] made a face.

“Mm. Maybe. He gone though, right?”

“Yup. Gnolls gone too. Krshia gone. Elirr old…Halfseekers? Too far.”

The Goblins halted in listing all the people who couldn’t join in. Because someone was trotting towards them. No—two people.

The token Gnoll and Drake came to a halt, regarding the group. The Gnoll woman just snorted.

“Uh—hi. Can we come?”

Fierre blinked at the Gnoll…she had never seen before in her life. Numbtongue frowned. He eyed the Gnoll’s armor and weaponry.

“Who are you? Why do you want to find Mrsha?”

For answer, one of the two just grinned, but the Gnoll strode forwards. She stopped, and snapped a military salute as she not-quite looked past Numbtongue.

“Sergeant Gna, at your service. Sir. Heard you needed someone who could actually smell the quarry.”

4th Company’s Gnoll looked at the company. Fierre had lost her eyebrows in her hair.

You want to come with us? Why?”

The Gnoll hesitated. She chose her words carefully.

“Wing Commander Embria got an or…request from Liscor’s Council and the Strategist. Said it was looking for volunteers from 4th Company. I volunteered.”

The others exchanged glances. Snapjaw bared her teeth in an unfriendly way as she eyed Gna.

“Really. Why do you want to come?”

The Gnoll scowled at the ground and kicked at some grass.

“Because I…really want to go with you. Look, do you want me to help? I can go if you don’t.”

She looked hopeful, but after some silent thought, Bird and Numbtongue nodded. Gna sighed.

“Creler eggs.”

The last of the volunteers was the most confusing, although she at least, was recognizable. The onyx-scaled Drake had a pack on her shoulders and a horse. She kept glancing behind her.

“I’d like to come too! My name’s Salkis. Uh—are we moving fast?”

Numbtongue blinked at Salkis. The Drake shot him a grin and looked around, sizing up the others. Fierre frowned.

“Why do you want to join us?”

The Drake took a shuddering breath. She was practically dancing on her feet—not least because someone was going to notice her body-double soon. She’d run away from home. As to why? She looked at Numbtongue.

“Because this is the most fun thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I can help. I know how to fight. There will be fighting, right?”

He just shrugged, backing up warily. Salkis fell into place. Fierre opened her mouth, but she didn’t have the heart to say no.

…No. Rather, she looked at the group and felt like this was madness. Over six different species, with various levels of gear, experience, backgrounds—not all friends—

“This isn’t an army. We’re all going to die.”

“If that’s your speech, I hate it. Thanks.”

Sergeant Gna called back. The Antinium just hefted their packs, silently determined. The Goblins started laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“Good joke.”

Snapjaw nudged Fierre, then looked confused when no one else started laughing. Snapjaw swung herself into the Frost Wyvern’s saddle as Badarrow joined her.

“Tracks go past Bloodfields. We go that way. Uh. We marching? You all slow.”

The others looked at each other. The craziness of this dawned on them—well, some of them—at last. Fierre glanced up at Snapjaw.

“You’re going to fly?

“You want Icecube to walk?”

The Goblin looked offended. Fierre shook her head, trying to explain. She pointed at Liscor’s walls, and the inn, where the army of the City of Inventions was clearly watching their group. One of them was calling back towards another, unseen.

“They’ve marked us. Instantly. We might not get past Pallass alive; we’ll have to walk. They’ll be [Scrying] us everywhere we go. Maybe even sending people to kill us.”

Snapjaw glanced at the Pallassian Drakes. Ulvama just snorted.

“They will try to scry us. I am a [Shaman].”

She poked her chest importantly. Fierre gave her a dubious look, but they had few [Mages] and her artifacts didn’t pertain to a group. Salkis opened her mouth, hesitated, and closed it.

No one said anything. Snapjaw was looking around, ready to give an order. Numbtongue hesitated himself, and Sergeant Gna looked like she wanted to go back, throw the short straw she’d drawn in Embria’s face, and have a drink.

It was the Worker who walked forwards. He turned and faced the group.

“Yes. We will go and live or die. And it is time to go, I think. Follow me.”

Bird raised his voice, and the band of Goblins, Antinium, Humans, Stitch-Person, Drake, Gnoll, and Vampire, all looked at him.

The Antinium was looking ahead. He pointed to Snapjaw.

“You will fly and scout. Ulvama will cover you from scrying. We will all march together, those not riding.”

“Slow.”

Snapjaw objected, gesturing at the Antinium on foot. She didn’t care how long they could march; even Redfangs would fall behind the Brothers and others on horses. Bird shook his head.

“They will not be.”

The Goblin narrowed her eyes. She had served under Reiss, and she was as experienced as any Goblin Chieftain. Heck, she had been one until being subsumed into his army. Rags was one person to take orders from, but this Antinium? She leaned over Icecube’s neck.

“Oh yeah? Prove it.”

Bird tilted his head. He met Snapjaw’s gaze without flinching, and then raised his hand. He spoke.

[On the March: Vigilance and Speed]!

Fierre felt the Skill activate. She felt her body grow lighter, and she was suddenly aware of a Drake marking her from the inn.

The others felt it too. Snapjaw’s mouth opened wide, Ulvama started, and Sergeant Gna snapped to attention. They stared at Bird, even the other Prognugators and Antinium. Numbtongue looked at his friend.

“How did you…?”

Bird calmly looked about.

“You silly people. Did you think I did not have Skills? I learned chess from Erin. I beat Erin. I am Bird the Hunter. As Ksmvr would say—”

His mandibles paused. He opened and closed them. He tilted his head and waved his antennae.

“…I have no idea. I do not like Ksmvr. Here is what I will say: I am better than all of you. Follow my orders! Authority!

They began to march. Fast, faster than anyone expected. Ulvama began casting magic as she rode, and Bird strode ahead of the Antinium, ignoring Pivr’s panicked questions.

Someone was laughing as they headed south, this war band of insanity. Insanity—bravery—it called to him.

Niers Astoragon had wondered if Bird could sell his Skills well. It turned out the Antinium was a natural. The Titan propped himself up, from the hiding place on Bird’s body.

He had been found. Not by Rags, or anyone else. Not the Eyes of Pallass, but by the Antinium, who’d stopped, following Apista.

 

—-

 

He’d reached down and pulled the needle out. Then crouched beside Niers.

“How did you find me?”

Bird glanced at Apista, who was buzzing around worriedly, looking for Mrsha.

I am Bird. I stare at small things and you are very small. What are you?

 

—-

 

So they rode. Bird tilted his head to the sky. He hummed as he left the inn behind.

[Revalantor Level 3!]

[Skill – Antinium Telepathy (Weak) obtained!]

 

[Liar Level 1!]

[Skill – Convincing Lies obtained!]

 

—-

 

Ishkr watched them go. First Mrsha—then them.

They were all gone.

The Earthers, the guests, the family who had lived there. Erin remained, but she was gone too. The Gnoll walked through the empty inn, ignoring the Pallassian Drakes securing it.

They were not the inn. Now…he ran his hand across the counter. Walked through the kitchen.

Into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. The Gnoll walked up the hill, stopped at the frozen bier.

“They’ve all gone, Erin. What should I do?”

Without her, the inn was…drifting apart. The Gnoll sat down for a while.

“Until they come back.”

He rose, and walked down the hill. Until they came back…Ishkr realized this was the truth. He went to every shutter, and closed them. Boarded up the windows smashed in. He locked all the doors, and went to the front door.

They would move the portal door to Liscor. Unless Pallass decided to operate it here. But the inn itself?

It took him time to find a piece of wood suitable. And paint, a brush.

He found it in the basement, where an [Innkeeper] had abandoned it long ago. Ishkr wrote carefully, making the words larger. He put the sign up, over the door, and prepared to nail it in.

 

The Wandering Inn is closed. Please come back later.

 

He hesitated, as he took a few nails and a hammer. It was such a bleak message. It was—wrong.

The [Head Server] looked at the message. He thought of what Erin would write. Then he quickly reversed the piece of wood, and dipped the brush into the paint. He wrote again, and this time stood back. Satisfied, Ishkr put it up, nailed it into the door, and looked at it.

This was what the sign said:

 

The Wandering Inn is closed, sorry. Please return later. We’ll be back one day.

 

He read it again, and nodded.

“Yes. That will do.”

It was a promise. The Gnoll looked at it, and then turned his head. But they were already gone.

So he walked back into the inn, to serve the Pallassian [Soldiers]. To clean up.

But before it all, Ishkr paused by the bar. He looked around the empty inn, and found a good glass. He poured some liquid into it, went for the little lantern under the bar.

There was still a glow. He lit the alcohol, reminding himself to add fuel to the lantern later. To it he added a tiny yellow flower, watching as the flames ate it. One of a handful. They too would return and grow again.

The pink flame glowed on top of the mouthful of liquid. Ishkr raised it in a silent toast.

Minotaur’s Punch.

He drank, and the inn came back to life around him. The Gnoll smiled as he saw an [Innkeeper] standing there.

We’ll be back.

Then he closed The Wandering Inn until they returned. And waited.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Well, this is the chapter after the chapter. I have one more chapter left in me—a short one—and then I will take my monthly break. Perhaps a bit longer; I’ll be going on a vacation with actual travel.

I do need it; I think you can see the signs of exhaustion. Lack of description, weaker scenes in parts…well, I hope you like it either way.

The revised chapter is still being worked on and I don’t know if I’ll get it done until after my break. Which is fine; I should edit when I’m at the top of my form. You can’t rush good storytelling, so it’ll be out when it’s out.

One more chapter. Thanks for reading! It’s not the end. It’s just something different.

 

Collaborative picture by Brack, ArtsyNada, Gridcube, AuspiciousOctopi, QtheBird, Chalyon, Mencret, Blueboyv1, Pontastic, Anito, LeChatDemon, Pythraithia, and mg!

 

Wiskeria, Ryoka, the Griffin Prince, and more by Tomeo!

 

Erin and the Umbrella of Sunlight by Miguel!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/cmarguel

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cmarguel

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.28

Two words. The inn had waited for them for so long. Two words; a Skill, it had waited for its owner to return and bring magic and time to a standstill.

[Immortal Moment].

Yet it was the wrong voice who spoke. The wrong woman stood in the common room of the inn. Her eyes were not hazel. If there was kindness in those depths, it was merely the remnants of the emotion, trapped within the layers of undeath by someone who had forgotten what the word truly meant.

The inn warped around her. The air itself seemed to flee her presence. Here was an old [Witch]. The Stitch Witch, some called her.

Belavierr.

She was angry. Her eyes flashed with ire, not dispassionate observation. She stood at the door leading to the bright sunlit [Garden of Sanctuary] and could not get in. The inn’s defenders charged at her.

Belavierr spoke the two words and the world went dark. The inn itself?

Vanished.

Mrsha saw it happen. The girl looked past the [Witch], who was so tall that the tip of her hat seemed in danger of brushing the lowest beams in the common room, Moore-tall, at Numbtongue behind her. He was frozen in the act of slicing for her neck, having failed his first killing blow.

He disappeared as shadows blew forwards like clouds, covering him, his sword, his glowing crimson eyes. Mrsha made a sound in the back of her throat. A cry of fear. She looked at the [Witch], and saw the rest of the inn consumed.

Dragged into darkness. Mrsha, horrified, backed away. Was—was the entire inn gone? Had Belavierr eaten them?

There the [Witch] stood. She looked down at Mrsha, awkwardly, amid the darkness. Amid oblivion?

No—Mrsha realized. The [Immortal Moment]. It had swallowed everything, trapping her, Rufelt, and Lasica in this little space where the sun still shone down, unmoving, from the dome in the center of the garden. Past Belavierr and the doorway—there was nothing.

She had eaten the world with her Skill. Mrsha’s heart thundered in her chest, because—because—she knew that Skill, of course.

It was Erin’s Skill. One of her best ones, no matter how early she’d earned it. Her beautiful, even scary Skill, that made precious moments, important ones, last.

But Erin could not do this. Belavierr was stronger.

That terrified Mrsha. The [Witch] terrified her. Mrsha had felt it the instant Belavierr set foot in the inn. Her fur had stood right up on end. As if charged. She had felt something in her tummy.

Something dark. Clawing to get out. The [Witch] stood there, not pressed up against the door. Mrsha had seen—something—when she had tried to get in.

A thing that was not Human at all. Belavierr didn’t look like that—but she was still bad at pretending to be…

“Hello, little girl. Won’t you let me in?”

Mrsha stared as the [Witch] bent slightly. Belavierr’s lips parted. She smiled at Mrsha. Like…someone who had been told what that looked like but never done it. Even Antinium smiled better than she did.

The Gnoll girl backed up slowly, on all fours. Her eyes were wide. Belavierr tilted her head left and right.

“What should be said…? Little girl, I am very friendly. My name is Belavierr. Won’t you let me inside? You see, it is hard to enter without an invitation. I promise, I will not hurt you. You see?”

She reached up and removed the dark blue hat. Belavierr gestured at it.

“I promise on my hat. I promise on my craft. Please let me in. I will reward you.”

Mrsha stared at her. Then both heard a choked sound from behind the Gnoll.

“B-Belavierr. What have you done?”

The [Witch]’s eyes flickered past Mrsha, and a look of—sinister satisfaction—passed over her face. She smiled, but it was not a nice smile. She looked quite a bit more experienced at that.

“Rufelt Owelt. Lasica Feltail. I told you. I wished to speak to you. You have changed your minds so quickly. Let us talk.”

Rufelt and Lasica were standing behind Mrsha. They had gone still with horror as the inn vanished. They held each other, both shaking slightly. Rufelt’s voice was stuttery.

“W-we told you we denied you, Belavierr. You do not offer us fair deals. We were tormented by you.”

Lasica nodded as well, the [Cook]’s scales grey with fear.

“That’s right. I’ve spoken to Rufelt, Witch Belavierr. We…we’ve changed our minds. I want to live with him. So we decline your offer, politely. We cannot make a deal without the consent of all. You—cannot.”

She said that last bit hopefully. Mrsha was still standing in front of the door, trying to see out. Numbtongue! Was he hurt? How had Belavierr survived being stabbed?

Who was she?

Mrsha had no grounding for who or what Belavierr was. She did not know the stories that had made Bezale shudder. She did not even know how Ryoka had met Belavierr; some stories the Wind Runner told only to the grownups.

A vague memory nudged Mrsha’s head. Ryoka hadn’t told her details about her run in Riverfarm, only that Drakes had done bad things and the fire and…she had said, hadn’t she? She had run into a scary [Witch].

Mrsha had never heard Belavierr’s name come up, but it seemed to her there were no coincidences. Which of course—there were not.

The couple stood before Belavierr as the [Witch] regarded them. Belavierr was odd. She could not hide her emotions well, Mrsha realized. It seemed like she could, as her face would go blank, or remain disquietingly still when talking or moving. Yet when she was annoyed, like now, she showed it. She was not good at hiding her emotions. She just had—less.

Right now, she looked annoyed. She looked annoyed—then gave that fake-smile she had given to Mrsha. A [Saleswoman] with two stubborn clients.

“I understand you have changed your mind, Lasica, Rufelt. But you have had…interference. Allow me an hour to change it back. I am sure I am able to.”

She reached out, and her fingers pressed flat against the air. Rufelt shuddered as Belavierr felt at the barrier in the doorway, invisible, inviolate.

“I am sure you can as well. We—our minds are made up. We refuse. Please leave.”

It was a poor injunction. Mrsha felt sure it wouldn’t work. Even Olesm, conscientious Olesm, wouldn’t leave if you said it like that.

Sure enough, Belavierr didn’t so much as blink. Had she blinked yet?

“That is unacceptable, Rufelt. I will have my say. Come out. Time will not resume until we have time to talk. This is my Skill. To ensure we come to a fair decision.”

“Fair?”

Rufelt looked at the [Witch] incredulously. She just smiled.

“Let me in, Rufelt. I promise I won’t harm you. Invite me in.

The Gnoll wavered. Then barked a response.

No! Begone! We do not want you here!”

The shout made Belavierr’s brows cross. And again—no one here could know why she reacted the way she did. Slowly, the [Witch] drew herself up. Eyes narrowed.

I am tired of being told that word. I will have my say. Let me in, Rufelt. Let me in, Lasica. Quickly. Before I begin to become—angry.

The last word was charged with intent, such that the husband and wife quailed. It was Lasica’s turn to stutter.

“N-no. Belavierr, didn’t you promise it was my choice? Leave, please.”

“You did not come to your choice alone. Someone interfered. This place interferes. Do you care nothing for your dead daughter? I can bring her back. You are not seeing clearly. Let. Me. In.

Now there was a trembling. Did it come from the garden or the inn? The two backed away slowly.

“No. No—you can’t. Leave us! Please?”

Belavierr fixed Rufelt and Lasica with a stare that stopped their hearts for a beat. But—they were both as strong as Erin. They were both the best [Bartender] and [Chef] in Pallass; that was why she wanted them. They resisted her, speaking defiance. So Belavierr’s gaze became more vivid, more hostile, but she looked around.

“Little girl. Little girl? Where did you go?”

She pressed closer, hands pushing—then caught herself. Almost guiltily. With a shake of her head, Belavierr straightened. She frowned, and then put two long forefingers to her face.

“So tricky. So difficult. How did it go? Ah, yes. Little girl?”

She made a smiley face with her fingers. As if her lips had gotten tired of the gesture and needed help. Belavierr peered right and left and found Mrsha.

The little Gnoll froze, creeping left, to stare around Belavierr’s dark dress; she had been trying to see anything in the darkness. Now—

Belavierr squatted down so fast Mrsha tumbled backwards. Yet the [Witch] just hovered there, squatting. She kept her lips smiling with help from her fingers.

“I am a [Witch], little girl. Do not mind the silly adults. Have you ever met a [Witch] before? We are creatures of our word. Won’t you invite me in? All you need do is say yes. I will not harm you. In fact…I will reward you, see?”

Then, Belavierr reached into her robes. Mrsha wanted to back up, but the ringed stare had rooted her. Like she stood before a serpent ready to strike, or…Mrsha’s eyes fixed on something Belavierr drew from a pocket.

“Look at this. Isn’t it beautiful? See?”

The [Witch] drew a dancing marionette on strings. It was…a little Gnoll. A carved Gnoll figure, with golden brown fur, who danced with amazing articulation as Belavierr held up a little cross, controlling it.

“See how it dances and bobs? It is a toy I am sure you have never seen. I make such things. I will give it to you if you let me in. Where did this garden come from, little girl? It should not be here. Oh well. Let me in and you may have this. It is a gift fit for a [Prince]! It is not cursed, see? It is just a lovely toy. It will play with you. Defend you, even. It is a gift worth far more than letting me through a door, but it is yours.”

As she spoke, trying to convince Mrsha, Belavierr made the figure dance and spin, kicking its legs up, waving at Mrsha, beckoning, pointing—and then at the end, she let go and the figure danced by itself, despite no one holding the strings.

It was no doubt a gift worthy of an artifact, as advanced magically as the Box of Wonders owned by Briganda’s son, Cade. Probably more so. However, the [Witch] hadn’t caught up with the times.

At the sight of the dancing marionette, Mrsha’s natural horror made her back up until she was nearly behind Lasica and Rufelt. She gave the dancing figure a look of such deep mistrust that even Belavierr recognized it. She frowned.

“No? Do children not love such toys, anymore? What about this?”

She pulled out a something that was like a dreidel, for those from Earth, a spinning top—only, instead of having four sides like the Earth version—this one somehow had sixteen, and yet each seemed large enough…if you stared at it.

“It will spin and spin without you needing to touch it! But when you do—it will predict the future, see? Don’t you want it?”

Mrsha hesitated. That sounded more interesting. In a vacuum, she might have accepted one. Coming from Belavierr? She shook her head.

“Mrsha, don’t—”

Rufelt’s words were cut off. Mrsha looked up in alarm. The Gnoll clutched at his throat.

“Ah. I am making a deal with the child.”

Belavierr looked up, almost wagging her finger. Rufelt and Lasica were helpless, even to gesture at Mrsha. The [Witch] frowned.

“Little girl, are you that afraid of me? Come closer, come closer. I promise not to hurt you if you let me in. I bear you no will at all. If you let me in—just reach out and let me take your paw. I will give you…this. Children love f—”

She pulled out a handful of what might have been treats. Centuries, millennia ago. Mrsha stared at the petrified worm halfway protruding out from what had been some kind of snack. The worm had turned to stone. Belavierr stared at it, and slowly discarded the ‘snack’.

“Hm. It has been a while. What about…this? This is worth more than both gifts together, child. See?”

She held out a crystal flute, delicate glass blown without seams or flaw. It was beautiful, colored light blue. It even had bits of light that danced as you blew it! Mrsha thought it was wonderful. Belavierr blew it and it sounded like a raven calling.

“It can sound like any song in the world if you play it right. Is it not delightful? Come, take it.”

She held it out, just before the door. Rufelt and Lasica tried to shake their heads. Mrsha didn’t move.

Mainly because it was still Belavierr. The little Gnoll was impressed, but—she was a bit hurt. How stupid did the [Witch] think she was? Not even Ekirra would fall for this!

He might have fallen for the next part. Belavierr drew out a little bag. And then she placed sixteen fat gold coins down.

“How about coin, child?”

They were not gold coins as Mrsha knew them. Each one was nearly twice the size, stamped with foreign faces. And they looked like…actual gold. They smelled like it too.

“This is gold from [Pirates]. A fortune for you and your family. You would be a fool not to take it.”

Belavierr coaxed. She saw Mrsha cross her arms. The [Witch] frowned. She had no way of knowing that ‘Aunt Selys’ had changed Mrsha’s views on gold. The girl had also been raised by a [Princess]; she had standards on bribes.

Come to that, Mrsha had a Goblin big brother who routinely chucked raw gemstones at her. So when Belavierr produced a sapphire as big as Mrsha’s paw, the Gnoll shook her head.

It was funny, but Belavierr took longer than most to be exasperated. She just looked confused—but then clearly, slowly began to get…cross. She offered Mrsha more items.

Jewels, gold, toys! A wand fit for a child, with a glowing tip that would never go dark. A little sword forged from the broken blade of a hero. A treasure map so faded with age it turned to dust when Belavierr put it down, a pet bird—she stared at what she half-pulled out and put it back before offering that.

Nothing worked. And what confused Belavierr, plainly, was the lack of a response she got from the little Gnoll. Only a shake of the head, a frown—no words.

“Little girl, what holds your tongue?”

At last, Belavierr frowned. Only then did she look at Mrsha. Oh, her eyes had been in the right places. But it seemed she had never focused on Mrsha before. She did so now and Mrsha’s fur stood right back up. The Gnoll girl, who had been growing amused by Belavierr’s frustration, suddenly stopped smiling.

She stood in front of two spotlights for eyes. The orange and black rings drew her in. Deeper, deeper—Mrsha felt herself flying forwards. Belavierr drew higher, until she towered above Mrsha like a true giant.

The [Witch] looked down, and suddenly Mrsha stood amid orange light. The color of her eyes. There, above her, impossibly distant, impossibly vast, was Belavierr.

Mrsha heard the thundering of her heart. She saw the [Witch] behold her, and she saw everything Mrsha was. Mrsha?

She saw part of what Belavierr was and would have screamed. For what she saw was in that distant giant, a hundred million twisting threads. They made her up, each one thinner than the hairs of Mrsha’s fur. Somehow, Mrsha saw it all in terrible detail and realized that ‘Belavierr’ was part that.

But part of her lay still deeper, behind that layer. Mrsha saw the eyes blink—

And fell deeper. The orange light carried her down another level of infinity. She floated in a sea without luminescence save for the beam of fulvous mixed with amber. Gold blended with rust mixed with dying embers.

Something was in this sea. Something swam or floated without water. Mrsha looked down and Belavierr looked up. Only—it wasn’t the [Witch]. It had her shape. But she was made up of something.

Little hearts. Each one pierced with a needle, joined together by a single thread. The [Witch] floated there and looked up at Mrsha. There were gaps where she should have been. Some hearts were burned, black, barely beating.

Someone had hurt her. Yet still, Belavierr looked up. Her eyes met Mrsha’s and Mrsha felt herself fall through another ring in the eyes. Deeper—

 

—-

 

“Curious.”

Belavierr blinked. Mrsha stopped falling. She lay on the ground, panting, flailing wildly, before she recovered. What—what was—

That was why Rufelt and Lasica were frozen in horror. That was what Ryoka had once seen. When Belavierr looked at you, you looked back and wished you had not.

“A white Gnoll child? Curious. Your name is Mrsha. You wear a little charm, girl. Not enough.”

Mrsha stared down at the pendant supposed to keep [Appraisal] and [Scrying] spells off her. She looked up. Belavierr glanced at her.

“And you do not speak. I see. But will you not take my hand? See? I will give you all the presents I showed you. Let me in.”

She knelt once more, offering a hand. Mrsha looked at Belavierr. At last, after seeing Belavierr and being seen, Mrsha was moved to speak.

“Heck no! You scary thing! Go away!”

Well, she didn’t say that. She signed it with her paws, having left all the writing materials outside. It was only for Mrsha, not Belavierr’s benefit, but she felt better.

And then the [Witch] got scarier, if that were possible. Belavierr tilted her head sideways at Mrsha’s flashing paws. Her head twisted right, twisted left, and then it went nearly 90°sideways.

Mrsha heard the click-click-click of the [Witch]’s neck, but Belavierr didn’t bat an eyelid.

That was horrifying. But the [Witch] whispered.

“[True Translation]. Me? Scary, little one? How rude.”

Mrsha froze, paws raised. She stared at Belavierr. The [Witch] regarded her, frowning. Then looked up.

Lasica and Rufelt had been paralyzed this entire time, unable to break into the negotiations. It seemed though, that Mrsha’s final, and only comment had meant it failed.

“Mrsha, back away from the door. Belavierr, you are not allowed in here! We know your Skill! You—you can’t harm us! That would violate your craft; you said it yourself! You aren’t allowed in here, either! So, begone!”

Lasica gathered Mrsha into her arms as the three moved back from the door. Belavierr frowned.

“This is displeasing. I only wish to negotiate on equal terms, Lasica. Mrsha, let me in. The [Garden of Sanctuary] allows no harm. What could I…do? Let me in. I am beginning to become displeased by this waste of time and effort. You would not like to see that.”

Mrsha traded glances with Rufelt. He whispered to Lasica, drawing back another step.

“She isn’t leaving! Lasica, I told you she wasn’t into fair bargains!”

“Do you have to rub it in now? I don’t know what else we can say!”

They were squabbling, but to Mrsha, it was a reassuring sound, because they were talking. Arguing like, well, a married couple, not sad Rufelt alone or the two shouting, biting at each other with words.

Belavierr saw it too, and it did not please her. She frowned deeper.

“I do not bow to this old Skill. I will not be refused. Let me in. I will not ask again so politely. You, child.

She pointed at Mrsha. Lasica whirled, Mrsha in her arms, and Rufelt put himself between them and Belavierr, protectively, arms outstretched.

Even so, Mrsha felt the finger point at her.

“You will let me in or suffer my ire.”

This time it was not a suggestion or request. It was a threat. Lasica looked down at Mrsha, unsure of what to do. Afraid. Mrsha looked up at her, Rufelt—and slowly pushed Lasica’s arms away.

“Mrsha, no, don’t—!”

Lasica froze again, as whatever Skill that Belavierr was using to enact her deals came into play. She smiled, straightening, as Mrsha padded slowly towards her. The Gnoll looked up as Belavierr bent.

“Yes. I shall give you all the gifts I promised. Wise little girl. Take my hand if you cannot invite me in with words. Just so.”

Mrsha slowed. She tentatively stood on two legs, and toddled forwards. She reached out with her right hand and Rufelt groaned through his teeth; the only sound he could make. Belavierr smiled. She reached for Mrsha’s paw as the Gnoll hesitated, knowing the weight of Belavierr’s threats.

Then Mrsha proved she had learned too much from her guardians of Erin, Lyonette, Ryoka, and more. She held out her paw as Belavierr bent, stuck it through the doorway—and jerked it back at the last second.

Sike.

Belavierr’s face went slack as her fingers missed Mrsha’s paw. Mrsha held it out—the [Stitch Witch] reached for it. Mrsha jerked it away.

The Stitch Witch stared at Mrsha. Mrsha stared back, eyes wide. But the tiniest, gleeful smile trembling to get out. She held out the paw a third time. Belavierr stared at it. She stared at Mrsha.

Mrsha poked it through the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s barrier. The air felt no colder, nor did the ‘void’ around Belavierr seem painful. She was glad. It was just the Skill. Belavierr saw Mrsha jiggle the paw.

This time I’m serious, okay?

The [Witch] knew. She had to know, but she reached down anyways, quicker this time—but still like a mountain moving, ponderous with eternity. She reached down—and Mrsha jerked the paw back.

Got you again, stupid.

It may be that Belavierr even heard Mrsha’s inner thoughts, because she looked at Mrsha. And her eyes narrowed. Mrsha felt the full force of her gaze, and something else.

Ire. Belavierr’s voice was low.

“Little girl. You have made a mist—”

Mrsha slammed the door in her face. Rufelt and Lasica jumped. They stared at the wall—then the blank wall as the door vanished. Mrsha waited, a juddering heartbeat, then two, and turned. She wiped sweat from her fur, and grinned.

Hah, I won!

She signed triumphantly. Rufelt and Lasica didn’t know what Mrsha meant, but the meaning was obvious. They rushed forwards.

“You brave little—I thought you were going to let her in!”

“That was amazing! Stupid, but amazing!”

Rufelt agreed. The two hugged Mrsha, and she hugged back with pure relief. She beamed, still shaky. Take that! Belavierr couldn’t get in!

“Do you think she’ll leave? That was Erin’s Skill, wasn’t it? [Immortal Moment]? How does she have that?”

“Skills are Skills. We have to tell Chaldion. The Watch! Um—someone! Is there anyone who could chase her off?”

As they finished celebrating, the two adults turned back to worry; Belavierr was gone, but the Skill might still be working, and if she was in the inn?

Mrsha led them away from the mushroom and dirt biome, towards the center of the garden. She stared at the grass, the Sage’s Grass growing on top of the hill, the dead faerie flowers save for the little patch Ulvama had revived…and then up towards the hole in the overgrown, wooden dome covered in ivy.

The sky was visible through the hole there; even part of Bird’s tower, but never Bird himself, or anyone on the inn. There were clouds, the sun…it was reassuringly normal.

Only, the clouds didn’t move in the sky. Mrsha pointed up. The [Immortal Moment] was in effect; ergo, Belavierr was still outside.

Rufelt and Lasica…didn’t notice. They were conversing, anxiously.

“She can’t take all of Pallass on. We just have to send word. If she’s out there, she’ll get bored.”

“Maybe we run for it? Go for Pallass if she’s waiting in the common room?”

“Rufelt, I love you, but you can be an idiot. Unless—we can open the door right to the portal room? If we were just a foot away and she had no clue.”

“Aha! Who’s stupid now? Er, I love you. It’s good to argue again!”

The Gnoll was beaming. Mrsha kicked him in the shins, or tried to. She couldn’t harm him, so she just sort of nudged him with a foot. She pointed up as he looked down. Rufelt followed her finger.

“Oh! We can climb out of the hole in the roof! Is that right, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll girl looked up at Rufelt. The clouds, you idiot! Ipso facto!

Lasica caught on.

“She’s still out there, Rufelt.”

“Well, let’s try the portal room idea. Mrsha, you know the [Garden of Sanctuary]. There aren’t any secrets we don’t know about, is there? You can help us, right?”

Mrsha nodded as the adults turned to the real leader in this situation. Who had shut the door on Belavierr’s stupid, stinky face? Who had placed the garden’s door behind them so they walked in and saved them? That’s right.

She looked around the [Garden of Sanctuary]. It was, as always, a central hill surrounded by multiple ‘biomes’ of different climates. The arid area with the sand and a few annoying cacti-things. The jungle that had provided the invaluable cacao tree and Niers’ hiding spot—no Niers, unfortunately.

The pond area, next to the mushroom and rock-garden area, the grassy grassland that was lovely to run about in, and finally, a frozen, cold, snowy place in the far side, against the hill.

The hill, where the only other person was. Mrsha stared up at it gravely. The misty hill above the normal one, which you had to climb to, which had the statues and was beautiful and terrible.

That was the garden. Big enough to have lots of people in, a sanctuary where no violence was allowed. Unfortunately—uninhabited. No Niers; the beavers had fled their usual dam in the pond, and Apista was out.

The beavers had fled the pond? Mrsha’s head turned back slowly. That was…strange. The adult Fortress Beavers, the Defenders of the Cave, and their little kits almost never left the garden. They knew how safe it was. If they had left, did that mean they thought something was wrong? Had they known, once Rufelt and Lasica were in that…?

She felt a sense of unease creep over her, but reassured herself that Belavierr couldn’t get in. Mrsha had tricked her, and a [Witch] who had been tricked lost all her power! Or did you have to steal her hat? Throw water on her?

“No secret entrances, huh?”

Lasica sighed as Mrsha gestured around the garden. Rufelt sat down on the hilltop.

“Almost all the Faerie Flowers are dead. That’s a shame. I liked them. Sage’s Grass…are those the beginnings of a garden over there?”

Mrsha nodded importantly at some of the vegetables and growing Blue Fruit trees and such that Lyonette and Erin had added.

“Not very useful unless you want me to make a salad.”

Lasica sighed. Rufelt nodded.

“I could make a magical drink with some Sage’s Grass and…alcohol…but that’s about it. I think we have to leave, dear.”

Mrsha sighed. She was a low-level [Druid] and [Survivor] and somehow she felt like she had the most applicable Skills to this situation. She pointed across the dome.

“The door? Can you make it appear there?”

The two adults hurried after her. Mrsha nodded importantly. She didn’t have to actually walk over to that side; she could make the door appear right where it had been, only with a different exit point—but all of them instinctively wanted to get as far away from Belavierr as possible. She led them to a bare patch of wall.

“Just open it right in front of the portal door, Mrsha. Belavierr’s in the common room and I bet she’s standing where she is or trying to get in. Even if she senses us—we can lure her away, and jump through to Pallass. Even she would have trouble if all the Watch arrived. I think. I’ll go; Lasica, you’ll stay with Mrsha.”

“Don’t be stupid, Rufelt! What if she catches you?”

The Gnoll hunched his shoulders.

“She said she can’t harm us. I just have to run through and call the alarm.”

“What if we’re caught in her [Immortal Moment] Skill even there?”

Rufelt shook his head.

“Pallass is 400 miles south of here. There’s no way her Skill reaches that far, through the door, surely. It’s not that powerful. She’s not that powerful. Right?”

Mrsha and Lasica hesitated. In theory, Mrsha thought that was right. You could probably escape an [Immortal Moment] if you weren’t a willing participant by getting out of its ‘range’. On the other paw…

“We can only try. Open the door, Mrsha. No one make a sound. If it looks safe, we’ll maybe try opening really fast.”

The little Gnoll nodded. She turned to the ivy-covered wall, took a deep breath, and motioned for silence. Rufelt and Lasica nodded, and the door opened.

It revealed the portal room, now set up to take in visitors who might be hostile via the truth-archways and semi-fortified. Mrsha leapt back—and nearly ran into Rufelt.

Ow! What’s wrong?”

He whispered. Mrsha glanced at him, and the empty room.

She’d just thought Belavierr would be standing there or something. It seemed like a classic ‘evil [Witch]’ move. She shook her head.

“I thought she’d be there. The door’s close! Damn—I’d have to go through the archway to get to it.”

Lasica eyed the door. Unfortunately, in its new setting, it was actually harder to reach than it had ever been; Hexel had set it into the wall, and there was no easy ‘access point’ to it. She turned to Mrsha. The Gnoll nodded, closed the door softly, and adjusted its position so it wasn’t facing the door, but directly adjacent to it. That way, when she opened it, they could just reach out and adjust the dial.

Perfect.

The three saw the door right next to them. And no Belavierr down the entire portal room hallway! Rufelt gave Mrsha a thumbs-up and she nodded.

“We’ll look for her. Just adjust the dial.”

Rufelt whispered. Lasica nodded. She reached out to change the dial. It was on the unused red stone that Ulvama had come through. Mrsha tilted her head.

Strange. She’d thought Belavierr came through the Pallass door from what Rufelt and Lasica had said. Had she teleported here instead? Or had someone changed it? Why—

Lasica’s claw closed on the dial as she put her arm through the door.

Belavierr grabbed it. The Stitch Witch appeared, shedding her invisibility spell. She had been standing right there.

Hello, Lasica. Come with me.

“Lasica!”

Rufelt shouted. He and Mrsha grabbed Lasica and tried to drag her back. The [Chef] screamed in terror as Belavierr dragged at her. The Drake screamed and screamed and the [Witch] was whispering.

“You will not deny me. Come with me.

Lasica, don’t let go! Don’t—

Rufelt was straining with all his might. He couldn’t drag Lasica back, even with Mrsha’s strength! However—neither could Belavierr pull Lasica out.

Mrsha realized they were stalemated at the same time Lasica did. The Drake’s eyes were wide.

“She can’t get me out! Don’t let go, pull me in, Rufelt!”

The Gnoll’s arms bulged. Lasica cried out; he took a risk and grabbed her under the armpits. Even then—

“I can’t! She’s too strong!”

“We will stand like this forever. I have you. I will not let go. Come out. Or lose your arm.”

Belavierr hissed. She held Lasica’s claw lightly, but it was enough to overcome both adults and Mrsha. The Gnoll let go of Lasica’s foot and was displeased to see it affected the stalemate not at all.

“Belavierr—let go. Let go!”

Lasica wanted to claw at the Human, but her claws didn’t even pierce Belavierr’s skin. The Stitch Witch was eye-to-eye with the terrified Drake.

“You have offended me. I am beginning to become upset, Lasica. I will relent if you come out, now. I will even forgive the child. Do not make me—angrier.

“Begone, foul [Witch]! You have no power here!”

Rufelt roared. Lasica and Belavierr turned their heads to both glower at him. The [Bartender] hesitated. He’d thought it might do something.

Stalemate. Only, this time even worse. The three strained in an invisible game of tug-the-Lasica. Mrsha had run off and Rufelt was holding Lasica as hard as he could, despite Belavierr ‘seeming’ to not be able to pull her out. He couldn’t see the girl; maybe she’d fled.

And now Belavierr was whispering.

“Your daughter will never be born, never draw breath, Lasica, unless you take my deal. Do you want her to die? Look. Don’t you see her? This is her, Lasica. Look.”

She had the picture. She thrust it at Lasica and the Drake tried to look away, but Belavierr held her and her eyes were drawn to the picture.

“I—I want to live and raise more children! I promised Rufelt!”

“You will let your child die. You will not save her, as you can? You have a chance other parents would give all for and you turn away. What will your daughter say? Do you want…to hear her voice?

Rufelt felt Lasica shuddering. He shouted.

“Monster! Leave us alone! Stop haunting us!”

He saw the ringed gaze swing his way. Belavierr regarded him, and then spoke.

“Rufelt. Do you want to speak with your daughter?”

His heart stopped. The Gnoll [Bartender] nearly let go of Lasica. He saw Belavierr smile, like the face of evil, and reach for something under her robes.

“I can let you do that.”

“No. Please. No.”

Lasica and Rufelt stood there in horror. Trapped, transfixed. Belavierr had them and now the Spider smiled horribly wide. She stood in the darkness as it reclaimed the portal room; that was how they should have known it was a trap! Darkness covering the inn, her oblivion of an [Immortal Moment].

They had no Skills designed to stand against her, those two. They were a [Bartender] and [Chef]! What were they supposed to do? What kind of class save for [Hero] could fight that? What kind of [Innkeeper]…

Mrsha charged down the hill. Her racing paws made Rufelt’s head turn. His grip slackened. Lasica screamed.

Rufelt! Don’t let go!

But then her head turned. The only one who didn’t notice was Belavierr, so intent and gloating was she on her quarry. The [Witch] only glanced up when she saw the light.

The light? The [Witch] hesitated. It danced, moving shadows. It was a living thing. Not like the frozen light from the [Immortal Moment]. What was that? She looked up.

What was it that the Gnoll girl held in her paws? She had stolen it from above! Stolen it from where it burned in a little cup and brazier next to the frozen bier! Ulvama had found that too.

Fire, burning on those she had touched. Her last will.

[Like Fire, Memory]. The [Witch] saw the Gnoll holding it, and it was bright, a combination of countless colors. She saw Mrsha lift it up, and offer it to Lasica. The Drake hesitated.

“How does it still burn? Was she here? This is not her place? Girl—where did you get that fire?”

The Stitch Witch demanded. She backed away, shielding her face with her good arm from the flames. She raised her voice as Lasica reached down for it.

Take it away! Take it—

Erin’s last flame touched Lasica’s claws. The Drake gasped—and the fire raced up her entire body.

Hope. Kindness. Despair. Mercy. All the flames Erin had known and more, encapsulated in this last fire. The fire that burned even now. It was not one flame. It was…Mrsha felt it burn across her and Rufelt too, feeding off their living souls. She realized what it was, at last.

The fire of life. It could be so cruel, and Mrsha had borne it without knowing until Ulvama rescued her. Yet now, she let it burn across her.

It raced up Lasica’s scales as if they were tinder. Over her body as she cried out in relief and a different kind of agony, for she felt alive. Cruelly alive to mourn and weep and love and lose! Yet she let it burn.

And it raced onto Belavierr’s hand. The [Witch] screamed. Screamed, as if it burned her worse than any mortal flame.

For five seconds, then ten, she tried to hold on. But the flames were reaching up her arm and it was like the flame knew her. For the other owner of this Skill, the origin of this fire, had called Belavierr her enemy.

Even now, Maviola El burned. Mrsha felt tears rise in her eyes. Even now, Erin’s will lived on.

Belavierr screamed and let go. She flung her arm up and Lasica fell into Rufelt’s arms. The fire on them went dim as all three stumbled back, not blazing as brightly as it had when it seemed like they were wrestling for their very lives.

Against her. The [Witch] screamed and the fire licked up her arm, burning her cloth, her skin. Mrsha saw the Stitch Witch burning and didn’t understand why. Wasn’t she alive too?

Yet she was so old. Perhaps memory hurt her. Perhaps living hurt her. And she was thread and needles. This was her antithesis.

Leave, Belavierr! This is Erin’s inn! This is her Skill! This is her fire! You cannot trespass in her garden! Begone!

Mrsha shouted with her paws, with her unheard voice. It was a far more powerful statement than Rufelt’s. Belavierr was flailing, still slowly, as if she couldn’t move fast, in the same time and quick reality as the others. She cried out, a kind of wail, but so—Mrsha’s hair rose.

The fire was inherited. You burn me. You burn me!

She called to Mrsha, as the flames began to eat at her hair. Her hat. Belavierr swiped at it again, and then stopped. As if realizing there was no way she could simply remove the fire with force. She stopped, and Mrsha, Lasica, Rufelt’s grinning triumph slackened on their faces.

The [Witch] stood there, like a statue, burning as more of her was covered in that multicolored fire. She looked down at it, suddenly back to her normal state.

“Life. A last memory. A last, flickering flame.”

Mrsha looked up at her. Uncertain, now. Belavierr stood tall. She gazed at her burning side. Then—started laughing.

“You tried to burn me with this? With a dead woman’s fire? You tell me this is not my place? That I cannot get in?

She ignored the fire. Belavierr pointed at Mrsha with a burning finger.

“Twice now, you have insulted me, girl. You think I can burn like little [Witches] of old? You think you can best me in this game? You think you have seen all of my power?

Mrsha backed up. N-no. She didn’t really think that. Why didn’t they all calm down now? People had said and done things they might regret. Belavierr leaned forwards. Now the flames were covering half her face, but she didn’t even flinch.

For you, Mrsha. I will use my power.

The little Gnoll froze. Rufelt and Lasica made a sound. And they realized, all of them, together, that Mrsha had done what not even Ryoka, Califor and the coven, and all of Belavierr’s opponents had accomplished. Not even Ser Raim.

They’d made her well and truly furious.

The Spider stood tall, then. The Stitch Witch looked up. But those were only the names they gave her in this age. Spider? Stitch Witch? Temptress?

Paltry little names. They had forgotten the real ones. The names even Djinni had remembered. The names Dragons passed about. She had walked among species now dead to this world.

Belavierr raised her burning arm to her face. It burned with Erin’s last fire. Life, for her friends she left behind. Happiness and anger and loss and guilt and every emotion…Belavierr regarded it, face impassive as it tried to burn her.

“Petty little flame. Your master is already dead. Begone.

She took a breath—and blew it out.

Mrsha saw the flames racing across Belavierr’s clothing vanish. The Stitch Witch stood, not even smoking. Mrsha backed up. Now, only those in the garden were on fire. And—the flames seemed dimmer.

“Belavierr. Enough. Can’t you see we will not relent?”

Rufelt and Lasica blocked the [Witch] as she turned to Mrsha. Belavierr glanced at them. Then blinked.

“Ah. Rufelt and Lasica. I have changed my mind. You two may leave the garden. I renounce my claim on your bargain. When I leave, I shall set the last hope of your daughter’s life free. You have chosen. Now—my deal is between myself and this child.”

She bent down. Mrsha stared as Belavierr fixed her ringed gaze on her.

“Mrsha. Let me in. Let me in. That is what I desire.”

Belavierr’s mouth opened wide in a grin. Mrsha stared at her. Why? For what reason? Rufelt and Lasica looked at each other. The Spider only laughed. Why? It was so obvious.

To hurt you.

Mrsha saw the two block Belavierr, linking arms. They stood defiant, the Gnoll and Drake. Belavierr looked at them and shook her head. She spoke past them.

“Mrsha, I will offer you a deal. Let me in. Let me in, and we will strike a bargain. You will offer me what I wish. In exchange for what I will give you.”

“Don’t listen to her, Mrsha. You’ve seen what—”

Rufelt kept speaking but his voice went silent. He and Lasica moved aside, helplessly shocked. Belavierr stood there, demanding Mrsha’s attention. The Gnoll stood slowly straight. Erin’s fire still burned on her fur, lightly, but it was like Erin was with her. She looked Belavierr in the eye and raised a furry little finger.

Belavierr glanced at it. Mrsha added another and waved both for emphasis. The bit of defiance made her feel better, but the [Witch] didn’t even twitch.

“We are past petty insults, you and I, girl. You will let me in. I offer you what you most desire.”

Mrsha scoffed, knowing Belavierr could understand. She braced herself, ready for the [Witch]’s petty bargain. Belavierr looked at her with her endless gaze and Mrsha grew uncertain. The [Witch] looked into her. Searching…then she smiled.

“Mrsha. You stand in a dead woman’s inn. You proudly bear her fire. Give me half your life. Half your years. And I swear to you—I will bring your [Innkeeper] back. I will return her to life.”

The little Gnoll’s confident expression flickered out. She half-looked at Lasica’s quivering lips, her unspoken words, and shook her head. Belavierr just smiled.

Because…that was her opening offer. She leaned forwards, nearly pressing her face against the invisible barrier.

“No? Then I look at you, Mrsha, and know you. I know what the tribes call you in this era. Doombringer. You are marked with the death of your tribe.”

Mrsha froze. The eyes drew her in. Belavierr whispered.

I could bring them back. I could bring your tribe back. What did you do to slaughter them? Was it your fault? I could take away your cursed fate, girl. Your pale fur. I could give you a new tribe, one who never knew whence you came and never asked. I can bring back your friend. What do you want, Mrsha? Give me five years. Give me your left paw. What would you do to save all those who have died because of you?

Mrsha backed away, eyes wide. Belavierr didn’t let her go. She didn’t move, but her glowing eyes followed Mrsha. The darkness around her…was growing. Her whisper grew louder, and Rufelt and Lasica tried to shield Mrsha—then fell away from the intensity at the doorway.

I could do it all. I only want what you offer. Five years? Bargain. Are you so petty you would let her lie, rotting, for only five years? Open the door, Mrsha. Strike a deal. I will use all my power. You will never have it ever again should you live a thousand years.”

The girl ran. She turned and ran from the door, not even running to close it, if it could be closed. She ran in terror because this was what Belavierr had seen. Her fear. Five years? Five—

She raced over the hill, to the other side of the domed garden. So far she couldn’t see the [Witch], breaking her line of s—

“Mrsha. Open. The. Door.

Belavierr stood in the open doorway. Facing Mrsha. She had appeared around the other side of the dome. Mrsha froze. She—she couldn’t do that.

She turned and ran for the jungle. And the door followed her in. The [Witch] stood, whispering through the vines and brush.

“You will bring ill luck to all those who love you. You have already. Do you think it coincidence? Doombringer. I can remove it.”

Mrsha turned and fled back the way she’d come. Belavierr whispered from past the water as Rufelt went to grab Mrsha, but she was running in terror now, fleeing every time she met that gaze.

How many died already? You bear the mark of terrible fate to come. Your friends will die trying to protect you and it will be your fault. Don’t you want me to twist destiny for you? Offer you safety for the future? Which will it be?

“Mrsha, run. Don’t listen.”

Lasica whispered. She seized Mrsha as the Gnoll girl found herself running around the base of the hill. Mrsha looked into the Drake’s panic-stricken eyes.

Safety! She had to—Mrsha looked around. Then she looked up to the only natural place. Oh, of course.

The top of the hill of mists. She turned and ran. Belavierr saw the white shape dart up the hill, racing higher. The [Witch] did not curse or bemoan failing to catch Mrsha. She just sighed.

Foolish child. Do you think I have no power, even here? For you? I will use it.

A long hand snaked down. Belavierr looked at her own hand as Mrsha ran up towards the hill where Erin lay. She regarded her fingers, as if she had never seen them before. Then her smile widened, stretching across her face.

She snapped her fingers.

Overhead, the sun turned off.

 

—-

 

Mrsha stopped in darkness. She looked up.

The sky was gone. The clouds, the frozen blue sky and sun—had all gone dark. There were no stars. It had been eaten, like the rest of the inn.

Belavierr had turned off the light! Mrsha backed up—then nearly tumbled down the hill as she lost her footing. It was so dark!

The only light left in the whole garden came from the Sage’s Grass below. Maybe a glimmer from above, on the hilltop, but…Mrsha stumbled down towards the Sage’s Grass.

“Mrsha! Dead gods, Mrsha! Where are you? Lasica!

“I’m here! Ow! Ancestors, what was—”

Lasica kicked something hard. Mrsha heard a crash; it was the laptop, abandoned. She found herself running into an empty picnic basket, a soccer ball…

The grass here was wet underfoot from a shower not quite dried away, or the roving watering cloud of mists. The three stood amid the glowing Sage’s Grass. Mrsha looked around.

“It’s so damned dark. How did she do that?”

“The same way she did everything! We need light! Hold on. Let me just…[Light]! Aha!”

Lasica pulled, of all things, a little wand out of her bag of holding. She used the emergency wand to shine the light around. Mrsha and Rufelt were very close. It was…

Scary in the [Garden of Sanctuary] without any lights.

“Dead gods. Let’s—she’s angry at you, Mrsha. Lasica, we have to do something.”

“What? Run for it? I think that’s the stupidest thing we can do, Rufelt. Not that there’s anything smart. Let’s—let’s get up to the hill with the mists. We’ll be safest there, if anywhere. At least if we go up there, she can’t use the door to find us around the edges of the garden.”

All that made sense. The other two nodded. Mrsha felt every hair pricking up. This was—wrong. No light? Even at night, the stars were so beautiful—this seemed wrong. Like the [Garden of Sanctuary] was losing against Belavierr. It couldn’t. She couldn’t get in.

The three advanced up the slope. Mrsha was looking around for the glowing eyes against a far wall. She was looking so hard, she nearly missed the first whisper.

“Let me in.”

It came from an unfamiliar angle. Mrsha heard the whisper, louder.

Let me in. Let me in, Mrsha. Let me in.

She stopped dead in her tracks. Lasica had heard it too. She shined the wand around.

“There’s no way…where is she?”

Rufelt whirled, paws raised as if he wanted to fist-fight Belavierr. He looked right, left. The whispers seemed to come from everywhere.

“She’s not in here! It’s a trick! But where…?”

All three began to look around. They had to know where Belavierr was; not knowing was terrifying. The whispers grew louder.

Let me in, Mrsha. Let me in. Letmein. lEt mE IN. LeT Me In. Let me IN—letmeinletmeinletmeinletmeinletmein—

Where was she? Mrsha looked right, left, down…and then, because she had exhausted all other options, she looked up at last. And saw her.

Belavierr was craning through the opening in the dome above the garden. Her orange eyes shone down as she leaned down, whispering. Mrsha pointed up and Lasica screamed as she saw Belavierr there.

How was she there? There was no way! Mrsha ran up the hill, screaming now, making the only sound she could in her throat. This had gone from scary to true horror. She ran up the hill. Erin! Save me! Save—

“There you are. I knew I would find my way in.”

Belavierr turned. Her orange eyes glowed as she stared down at Mrsha. The Gnoll girl froze.

Belavierr was standing at the top of the hill. She stood there, as if she had always been there. Rufelt, Lasica, and Mrsha froze.

“She—she got in.”

Rufelt stared up at the hole in the roof where Belavierr no longer was. She’d gotten in. Mrsha’s eyes were wide.

“I take back my deal, Mrsha. Now? I will be angry. Come here.”

Belavierr began walking down the hill. Mrsha backed up.

“Mrsha, run! Run for the portal door!”

Lasica ran at Belavierr, swinging her wand. Rufelt charged after her. Belavierr saw both adults coming and pivoted. She moved unnaturally fast and Rufelt missed, tripping into the darkness. Lasica slashed, but Belavierr whirled past her. Then walked towards Mrsha.

The little Gnoll ran down the hill, screaming, for the door.

“Come here.”

Belavierr dodged with unnatural speed again, as Rufelt and Lasica charged her. She moved slow—then with blinding speed. She was following Mrsha, with an inexorable pace that somehow seemed like it was catching up. But Mrsha was running for the wall. Pallass! Celum? Invrisil? Liscor? She was sobbing as she ran past the lake.

Mrsha, get out of here!

Again, Lasica missed as Belavierr casually dodged her. For all she seemed so static, she was moving too fast now! She saw Mrsha run to the wall and the door appeared. Then—Mrsha froze.

Mrsha!”

Rufelt roared. He was hitting only air. He saw Belavierr’s pace quicken. She came at Mrsha as husband and wife turned. They saw the child slowly rotate, eyes wide. Belavierr reached down with clawing hand—

And her arm passed through Mrsha. The two adults stopped. Mrsha flinched. Yet Belavierr’s gaze was only…disappointed. She glanced past Mrsha at the open doorway, which led into the inviting portal room again.

Another trap. How had Mrsha known, though? She looked down. At the pond where the Fortress Beavers’ dam was.

There, reflected in the still water, was the dome overhead. And in it—

Belavierr stared down at Mrsha. She reappeared as the shadow image of her vanished. She stopped moving her hands, stopped playing with the light.

Shadow puppets. Only, as she could make them. She stared down at Mrsha. The little Gnoll looked up at her. A third time she had bested Belavierr, by luck as much as anything. But she didn’t gloat anymore.

For Belavierr scared her more than almost anything Mrsha had known. Almost as much as Facestealer and Nokha. She ran back up the hill and sheltered among the statues, next to Erin’s frozen bier.

Lasica and Rufelt joined her. All three drew back as the shadow of Belavierr walked up the hill. She stopped before the statues and mist, as if she could go no further. She looked…perplexed.

“Three times. Four, to count how Rufelt and Lasica denied me. Four times I was defeated. So strange. Yet you are still overconfident, girl.”

Mrsha bared her teeth in a shaky snarl. She looked at Erin, to give her some kind of hope and guidance. Belavierr just shook her head. She gestured around the [Garden of Sanctuary]. At the flames of life still clinging to Mrsha’s fur, giving her some small strength and support.

“You trust to fire, girl. But fire is a kind of magic, and memory fades. You are in my domain, here. My time. You trust to this garden to hold me back. Yet it is not your Skill. The owner lies dead, and the true owner died long ago. You don’t have the full power of this place.”

She gestured around the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Then Belavierr smiled cruelly.

You don’t even have the right door.

Mrsha looked at her. The Stitch Witch met her gaze. Older, more terrible, and still so petty. What would she do next? What could she do? She had tricked and offered. What now?

For answer, Belavierr just stood there. She stood there, and looked down at Mrsha. Almost contemptuously. As if to say, ‘see? All your victories ring hollow in time.’

See? And Mrsha did see. She looked around the garden, in darkness, and despair. At Belavierr. A look of horror stole across Rufelt’s face. Lasica realized it last.

“No.”

She looked down as the magic of her nearly-depleted wand of [Light] ran out. After all—it was magic. Light, air, all mundane things froze here. But the [Immortal Moment] didn’t allow for forever magic. That would be cheating.

It was dark. Mrsha was panting. She looked at the fire dimly burning on her fur. At Belavierr. And she knew.

“It shall last until we make a pact, you and I. How long can you wait? How long can your soul survive eternity? Longer than mine? As we wait, let me tell you how you will let your loved ones die. Let me recite your pain, girl. We will wait together.”

Belavierr stood in the darkness. She began to whisper. Mrsha put her paws over her ears. Belavierr kept whispering, uncaring. After all—she had an immortal moment.

Forever. And they were trapped with her.

Mrsha finally began to cry. In despair, in fear.

Erin’s fire was beginning to go out.

 

—-

 

And then it was over.

Mrsha had met the [Witch]. She had been scared by the witch, but the witch was old. She had made mistakes, even as ancient as she was. She fooled Mrsha by letting the little Gnoll think there was a way you could win.

It wasn’t like that. Now the Gnoll knew, as she sat in a moment of forever—it wasn’t possible. Fighting Belavierr? It wasn’t bringing down the giant. She wasn’t a fire you could put out, like Maviola, so intense until it…extinguished.

She was like the tide. Like a storm. There was no beating her, not unless you could kill the dark sea itself. All Mrsha had done was make the [Witch] angry.

Belavierr’s true wrath, though, was not in dark nightmares. Not in tricks or games. It was just this.

Time. Mrsha felt it grinding against her skull. Time.

She was trapped in this [Immortal Moment]. The moment was immortal. She was not. Things could happen in this time. You could make peace, change, find courage.

Suffer. Oh, the [Witch] was clever. She whispered dark promises to Mrsha. Let me in. But then?

Then she showed Mrsha terrible things.

“Mrsha? Where are you? Stop hiding. You will help the [Gatherers] pluck the Needleplums. Stop running away! We have gloves! Then we will eat. You want to eat, yes?”

Someone spoke to Mrsha. He wandered over the grass hill. She smelled familiar cooking scents as she crouched low in the grass, her brown fur mixing well with a patch of dry grass. She was younger, smaller, and didn’t want to work! She wanted to catch little grasshoppers; they were food. But no…

Urksh came over the hill, calling. Mrsha’s ears perked up as he made his way to her. She hid lower, giggling despite herself. And part of her wailed. Part of her didn’t want to see his exasperated, smiling face, as her guardian, the Chieftain of the Stone Spears tribe, her tribe, came scolding and teasing.

Part of Mrsha wanted to see him again, to be here. But then she saw him and her heart broke at his kind face. He bent down, scolding, and she went to run—

Then she saw him amid the dark night, fighting with his tribe. As Goblins poured down the side of the mountain. Ryoka held her, pleading with the Winter Sprites for Mrsha’s life. Mrsha howled, and howled as she saw the Stone Spears tribe fighting and dying. Sacrificing everything that a few might live.

Zel Shivertail was there, Ilvriss, the Goblin Lord. Mrsha saw the [General] as she had first seen him, leading a charge forwards to try and save the Gnolls, to no avail.

“Stop.”

If she could have said it, she would. Belavierr knew what she meant. The [Witch] just looked at her.

“Just what are you doing?”

Zel Shivertail caught Mrsha’s paw as she snatched for a little bit of his breakfast. He looked amused, but Lyonette instantly wanted to scold Mrsha.

Instead, the [General] sat Mrsha on the table. She eyed him, a bit apprehensively. The [General] indicated his plate.

“Are you that hungry? Take what you want.”

The Gnoll girl shyly looked at him, and then ducked her head. She wasn’t hungry—the Drake smiled, a scar stretching.

“That’s what I thought. If you want to play games, be my guest. I was just checking.”

He let Mrsha hop off the table. The Gnoll girl saw Lyonette hesitate, frown at her, but Zel went back to eating. She eyed him, circling around his chair. Then she slyly crept up, reached for his poached egg—

He blocked her paw with one finger. Mrsha’s eyes widened. She tried again, darting, and Zel—

Flicker. Belavierr was smiling. Mrsha tried to hide her eyes. Stop.

Was lying in the coffin. They were going to burn him. How had he died? The Goblin Lord? Mrsha was crying. Crying and crying.

It wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have died. Not him! Not the Tidebreaker.

Everyone else was weeping. Mrsha saw them light the flames and howled for them to stop. Stop! Don’t…don’t…

“Don’t do this.”

The cruelty of it was that it was the past. The past and the future. Rufelt and Lasica held each other, whispering in their own world of pain. They stared at what had been…what might be. The evil power Belavierr had was that she showed Mrsha what the Gnoll had loved and laughed at.

And then what Mrsha had lost. There could be no darkness without light. Even here…

The fire burned. Erin’s fire flickered on Mrsha’s fur. Belavierr let it burn, defiantly. Yet…Mrsha no longer wanted the fire.

It was too dark. The light just made it worse. She curled up. She didn’t know how long it had been.

“This will continue forever. Strike a deal, child. I will take your pain. Your memory. I will restore one you love to life. Give me something of yours.”

The little girl looked up, tears leaking from her eyes. Forever? The [Witch] stood there, and pitted her might against…a child. It was silly. It was petty. Yet of all Mrsha’s foes, imaginary and real, Belavierr alone tried to crush her without regard for her age or size.

I suffer no insults. I suffer no challenges. How long will you wait? Until your soul tears itself apart?

The Witch whispered and Mrsha knew she would keep her here until the Gnoll was older than Lyonette and Erin combined. Would she grow older, or just remain, her soul withering with pain?

“Mrsha. Mrsha…”

Rufelt was searching for her, but he was blind. He was choking, looking at something…Mrsha had so many sad memories. How many did he have, as old as he was? Lasica was holding onto him, but curled up, weeping.

Mrsha looked at something on her paws. It was the fire of life.

It was fading away. She tried to call more fury, more energy into it, to burn Belavierr—but only an illusion stood before her. And what good was fire?

The fire was only able to burn on fuel. The three mortals were nearly extinguished themselves by the moment they were trapped in.

Some nights, the abyss could scream so loudly that even the brightest flame went out. Mrsha saw the flame on her paws flicker.

Then die.

 

—-

 

Time stopped. Mrsha saw the past. She heard Belavierr’s whispers.

I can bring her back.

Erin had failed. No—she wasn’t here. Mrsha lay next to her frozen bed. The fire in the cup next to the frozen young woman flickered. Mrsha could have kindled it on her fur, but it would just die again. She lay there, in the only light left, aside from Belavierr’s eyes, and knew Erin had failed.

No, if the [Innkeeper] were here…she could have done something more. All Mrsha had left were sparks, and she was too small. Too sad.

Erin. Erin, please wake up.

The Gnoll spoke. She spoke, not with any words, or her paws, in the flickering of memories, Belavierr, using memories like weapons, in a dark copy of Erin’s Skill, but with her thoughts.

As if Erin was there. She had to be.

“I’m afraid. Please do something. Please?”

The young woman lay there, lips slightly parted, a slight smile on her face. Mrsha grew angry. She shouted.

“Stop sleeping! I need you. We need you.”

No response. Mrsha buried her face in the frozen grass.

Please? I’ll be good.

No help came. Even when she begged.

A dark dress swished across the ground, but left no sound. Feet walked the hill, but left no trace on the grass.

Belavierr. She bent down, and inspected Erin’s grave. She looked at Mrsha, and spoke.

Truth. That was what made Belavierr scary. She used truth, not lies, to hurt you. She used love to create pain. And the worst part? She didn’t care. She only wanted to hurt Mrsha for offending her.

“Ah. So this is the [Innkeeper]? She will never come back alone. The world beyond grows emptier. Unless…someone catches what remains.”

Belavierr tilted her head. She stepped around Erin’s bier, carefully, as if even her shadow did not want to disturb it.

“Not alive. Not dead. I see.”

Mrsha’s tearstained face rose in hope. Belavierr saw it, too? Then—

“However. She may still be lost. You have her body. You don’t know where her soul lies, do you?

The [Witch] turned. She smiled wider, gleefully.

“She can still die, girl. Don’t you know what haunts the lands of death? There have always been shadows. There are other things that ghosts fear. Don’t you want her back? You cannot bring her back without her essence. And you have no idea where it is, or if it remains.

Mrsha stared up at Belavierr and realized the [Witch] was giving her the last clue. Poison. Frozen body. Wounds.

They were missing her soul? She listened as Belavierr bent, whispering.

“She will never come back alone. The world beyond grows emptier. Unless…someone catches what remains. Protects it. Before it is destroyed.”

W-what did that mean? Mrsha stared up as Belavierr reached for something in her dress. The witch drew something out. Something made of string and beads and woven like a…a…

Net. A perfect prison of so many threads, it was a pale skein that was both transparent with the glittering cloth, and so thin as to never let anything escape. Mrsha’s eyes went round. She saw something…flutter there for a second.

Somethings. Belavierr showed it to Mrsha and the Gnoll girl backed away, terrified. The [Witch] laughed.

“Don’t you see? I wove it out of dreams and souls. I caught it before it could die in the place beyond, the last true death. I never lied. Can’t you see? Their daughter.

She pointed into the darkness. Somewhere, two parents cried out in horror. Mrsha cowered away from the soulcatcher. The [Witch] bent down further. She pointed at Erin.

“I can bring her back if she remains. Just give me…everything. You do not have enough. But give me everything and I will do it. For it will mean your end. Do you love her? Then trade. A life for a life.”

Mrsha was quivering. No, no—she knew Erin would never want that. Yet Belavierr’s whispers invaded her head.

“You will never create anything, Doombringer. With your one act, redeem all you have wrought. Is she not beloved, this child? Look at all her gifts. Look at all who wait for her to come back. Who matters more? Her? Or you?

She gestured to the frozen presents. Mrsha saw Ekirra’s little ball, flowers, letters. She looked at Erin, desperately trying to hear Erin’s voice. She’d say, ‘you stupid Witch! Don’t you talk to Mrsha like that!’

Or…

Mrsha couldn’t hear Erin. This was her place! She stood next to Erin’s body, and Belavierr was louder. The [Witch] laughed again.

“You think she could best me?

She regarded Erin Solstice. Then turned to Mrsha.

“Or you think to best me with the scraps she left? What arrogance, child. You still don’t see me. You still underestimate me. I am offended. So—look.

Her eyes caught Mrsha’s again. The Gnoll fell into that orange light. She saw the layers of Belavierr’s immortality, protections wrought over countless aeons of existence. Dark magic. The [Witch] turned to her, a thing of thread, a giant of her craft, an amalgamation of hearts—and spoke.

“I am the Witch of Webs. The spider in every story. There have been those like me before. My legend pales next to some. Yet not even I remember them. I am one of many legends that have come before—perhaps none will come again.”

She touched her chest. For a moment, her face was almost sad. Mrsha looked up, eyes wide. Belavierr gestured.

“Do you see me? Once, I stood among equals. There was more than I. Slowly—they died. And none came after. It is a terrible thing, to be alone. But I remain. I am that old world they tell stories about. And you think this one can best me?

Belavierr pointed at Erin. She looked down at Mrsha and shook her head. Contemptuously. Sadly.

“Place against me your hope of this fragile, small world. I will crush it. I am one of the last stories. That is why I raise my daughters. Perhaps? Is that why? Do I sense my end?”

The [Witch] frowned. She walked back a step, murmuring.

“I came close to true death. What changed in this world? What do I sense?”

She was uncertain, introspective for a moment, and that was scariest of all. Then Belavierr collected herself. She shook her head and returned to the present. Mrsha. She gestured at the adults, one frozen, two quailing in the darkness.

“The [Innkeeper]’s story cannot stand against me alone. The love of those two cannot withstand me. Your story will die here. Take my offer, girl. You have no more tales.

Mrsha knew it was true. The [Immortal Moment] dragged at her. If she refused—Belavierr would make her live her entire life in its tragedy and happiness, until she wearied. She had nothing left. Erin’s fire was too weak. Erin was gone.

She had no more tricks.

Mrsha looked for the statues. She thought of the Sage’s Grass, the faerie flowers…but Belavierr would laugh at that. They were stories and magic. And she was stronger than all these things. Erin had done wonders with such things before, but this was someone who played Erin’s game. And who had played it long before Erin ever stepped foot on this world.

If the two met, what battles might they have had? Mrsha didn’t know. But she was little Mrsha. And she had no more fight.

She curled up, but Belavierr was waiting. Mrsha had no more stories. She had to let Belavierr in and end this torture. Had it been a day? A month?

Had she been dreaming of the past for a year? Longer?

She was weary. She could not sleep. She could not send herself into oblivion. This moment lasted. So…she was out of stories.

“Take my hand, girl. We will make a pact, here.”

Belavierr extended it. Mrsha’s paw quivered as it rose. Rufelt and Lasica tried to say something, but they were crushed too. They would bring back the quivering soul in the cage. They would all make a pact and…at least Erin would live, right?

Mrsha tried to fight it, but her paw reached out. One more story. One more bit of Erin? There was nothing. If only she had one more flame! One more bit of hope! Yet Belavierr would extinguish that. She fought with such things. Wonder was her game. Wonder and horror, despair and beauty, used like coins to buy what she wanted.

Belavierr waited. She saw Mrsha’s paw quiver, reach for her. And then…stop.

The [Witch] frowned, but waited. She had Mrsha trapped. She was confident. The [Witch] watched Mrsha step back, eyes frowning, suddenly…flickering with thought.

There…was…another story, wasn’t there? A little, silly story. But one that—Mrsha began to move. She’d had an idea. One last idea.

The [Witch]’s confident look wavered. She followed Mrsha, a specter without end so long as her power endured. There was no way Mrsha could break it. She had seen the flowers, the Sage’s Grass, and she even knew this garden. None of it fazed her. The child would expend all hope. There were no stories here to equal her, at least, that the girl could use right now.

Yet Mrsha was going down the hill, leaving Erin behind. Searching for something in the darkness.

She found it at last. Something odd in the garden. Belavierr frowned as Mrsha inspected it, picking it up, opening it. She saw a strange glow.

Harsh. Bright. Too bright. Not like a [Light] spell. The little Gnoll tapped at something. A foreign material. Belavierr tilted her head. She actually lifted the brim of her hat to inspect it. And at last, she had to admit it.

“What is…that?”

She had no idea what it was. The little Gnoll stared up at her, paws shaking. It was the last thing Mrsha could think of. Belavierr spoke, circling around Mrsha. Her true form watched from the hole in the dome, puzzled, but confident…

Ish.

“My magic eats everything else in this moment. You cannot break my Skill or craft.”

This was true. Mrsha’s paws were trembling as she typed in Kevin’s password. Belavierr was superior to all magic. The [Immortal Moment] meant that even a faerie flower might fail against forever.

…But this wasn’t magic. It looked like it, but it was made of oil and metal. Electricity hummed, and Mrsha saw light. The light of another world. Less beautiful, but still—light in the darkness.

“Rufelt. Rufelt. What is that?”

Lasica raised her tear-stained face and stared down the hill. The Gnoll looked up too. Belavierr frowned.

“Who made that? Not Gnomes. They are all long dead. What is that thing? It is not magic. It glows. It will not avail you, child. I am the Witch of Webs. I am—”

Bam. Rufelt and Lasica jumped. Mrsha felt her heart leap. Belavierr—recoiled. She stared down. For the bright glow of the foreign screen had changed. She stared down as a strange, green…thing…kicked open the door to an outhouse.

And then there was music. It played from the speakers, a tinny sound in the garden. Completely…at odds with the pervading darkness. Mrsha’s ears perked up.

“Child. What is—”

Belavierr spoke, but her voice was drowned out. Her eyes turned wrathful…but the laptop had no soul to quail. She raised her voice. Mrsha looked up and saw the [Witch]. Disconcerted.

The little Gnoll and Stitch Witch locked gazes. Slowly, deliberately…

Mrsha turned the volume up.

The stupid song began to play louder. Lasica and Rufelt stumbled forwards. They had no idea what this was. But Mrsha let the movie play. She focused on it, not the memories. Not the darkness or Belavierr’s whispers.

The [Witch] tried. She conjured Mrsha’s friends, images from Mrsha’s past. She whispered, raised her voice. Mrsha just pressed her face closer to the screen. She noticed something, as the movie was running.

The clock in the corner of Kevin’s laptop hadn’t moved. The movie played, but time didn’t move for the laptop. And accordingly…

The battery wasn’t running out.

The mundane device hummed, happily contained within the [Immortal Moment]. It didn’t fit. It shouldn’t have run—but nothing in this world had ever existed like it. Pure technology, no sorcery.

It took a mere hour and a bit for the movie to end. When it was done, Belavierr looked down at Mrsha. That was no time at all compared to forever.

Yet it had…irked her. She narrowed her eyes at Mrsha.

“A clever trick. You are still trapped in here, girl…”

She stopped again. Belavierr heard a second sound began to play. She actually bent down, incredulously. It couldn’t be. But it was.

Mrsha was playing the second movie Kevin had stolen and copied to his laptop. The second movie, which was very long, but very nice, that Eldavin had found so offensive. About Dragons and Dwarves and little Hobbits. Or just one.

Lasica and Rufelt sat there, staring at the laptop, Mrsha. Behind them stood the Witch of Calamity, the Witch of Webs, filling the world with her nightmares and dark temptations. And what did Mrsha pit against her?

A laptop? Well—yes. Mrsha stared at the bright, colorful stories being played out from another world.

Movies. Fun stories for children, pastimes for entertainment. They weren’t stronger than Belavierr was.

They weren’t as grand as Erin or the [Witch]. Not as heartfelt as Numbtongue’s story, or as inspiring as Maviola’s.

But—they could be louder than a book. Brighter than fire. They told her a story like the Players of Celum. With pictures and music, such that every moment shouted, too loud to let anything else in. Someone—many people had worked hard to make them wonderful. More than anything else, though?

They were distracting. If you looked at the bright screen, played Numbtongue’s game, it was hard to focus on even Belavierr. It was a way out. So Mrsha sat there and…binged on movies. She played the video games, and let Lasica and Rufelt touch the laptop.

Behind them, the [Witch] stood there. Incredulous. Furious. Confused. She was the old world. This device? She had never seen its like. She tried to turn it off—but she had no power over it. It wasn’t magic.

She tried to fill the air with nightmares. Mrsha, Rufelt, and Lasica just leaned closer to the screen. Belavierr raised her voice, shouting in thunderous tones—then realized she was competing for their attention with the laptop speakers.

And the laptop wouldn’t run out of power. Belavierr looked down at it. She looked up at the little Gnoll’s defiant gaze. The [Witch] stepped back. She gazed upon the device from another world.

Then the Temptress, the last great [Witch], the Stitch Witch, Belavierr of Calamity…gave up.

Not because she had been bested by a greater story.

Not because Mrsha had outwitted her with guile that would fool even Dragons.

Not because she had been outmatched in any way.

Simply in sheer disgust. Disgust at this strange device, this loud, shouting object she had no control over. Harbinger of a changing world.

“A world where my power will wane further. Will my daughter’s craft endure?”

Belavierr walked down the hill. Her shadow vanished. Mrsha’s head rose. Her eyes went round.

The sun was back! It reappeared in the opening of the dome. She looked up and Belavierr was gone!

The door to the inn was lying against the wall. The three, Rufelt, Lasica, and Mrsha got up. Unsteadily, they came down the hill and saw it open to the common room, where Belavierr had first called the [Immortal Moment]. She was standing there, arms folded.

Everyone was frozen where they had been. No darkness. Just halted in mid-motion. Numbtongue, buzzing Apista, Montressa, Palt, and Bezale, frozen mid-spell.

The Stitch Witch looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll stopped there, laptop in her paws.

I won.

Belavierr’s lips were a flat line. Mrsha tilted her head, copying Belavierr.

I won, and you lost. Stupid.

She knew Belavierr understood her. The [Witch] refused to acknowledge the fact. She stared at Mrsha, and the laptop.

“Is this what the future holds? Do you feel proud, girl? In creating, possessing a device that wastes time on lesser stories? Tales you can retell at the single press of your finger? There is no [Bard] to sing each tale differently, each time. It cheapens myth. Fable will be dragged down by such petty instruments. Do you relish that? Making Dragons mundane?

Mrsha stared down at the laptop. She looked up and shrugged. She didn’t know about all that, but the laptop was pretty nice.

Belavierr stared up. She looked so—annoyed, disgusted, that she seemed less immortal and rather more like an Eldavin. Exasperated at this. She looked at Mrsha. And then—the [Stitch Witch] nodded.

“I have lost. You win, Mrsha. With petty lights and the cheapening of wonder itself.”

Mrsha felt like this was an insult, but she wasn’t sure. Belavierr sighed. She looked at Mrsha.

“I will not forget this. You, Mrsha. Mrsha du Marquin, Mrsha of the Stone Spears tribe. Mrsha of The Wandering Inn. I see you. I remember your name. This I shall not forgive.”

Mrsha’s triumphant little smile vanished. She backed up a step. Hold on. We don’t need to be enemies. There was the ancient [Witch]. Mrsha was a cute Mrsha! She didn’t need an eternal oath of vengeance.

Too late.

The [Witch] hissed. She declared her wrath and vengeance for the first time on…a little Gnoll girl. She stood at the entrance to the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“I cannot enter. You have bested me, Mrsha. Well done. There will be no pacts. None for you, nor Rufelt or Lasica.”

She drew the soulcatcher. Rufelt made a sound.

“No—don’t—”

Belavierr tore it apart. Lasica screamed, lurching forwards. She stumbled out of the door and Mrsha cried out. Belavierr ignored her. Something sighed as it vanished. She could have snatched Lasica. Torn at Rufelt as he ran forwards to protect his wife.

She didn’t care. She pointed at Mrsha.

“I cannot enter to strike my bargain, but you shall not remain unblemished, girl. So.”

The [Witch] turned. Mrsha saw Lasica weeping, calling out a name amid the shreds of the delicate prison, lying torn on the ground. Rufelt was staring at Belavierr, fists clenched. But the [Witch] was walking back. And…

Her [Immortal Moment] was ending.

Mrsha saw it. It had begun with the tearing of the soulcatcher. Her declaration. Numbtongue’s sword was moving. Slightly, slightly—despite the speed at which it was surely swinging.

Yet time was returning. Belavierr walked around the inn. Mrsha saw Niers’ eyes move slightly as he swung himself down from the beam. What did they see? Belavierr moved around the inn, inspecting the other faces, searching for something and eying Mrsha. In the last moments of her Skill, she found what she was looking for. She reached out as the inn began to resume its connection with reality.

She grabbed Apista. The little bee jerked, drawn into the slowed time. She buzzed—and then Belavierr was squeezing her. Tight. She turned as Mrsha dropped the laptop in horror.

“Yes. Come out, girl. Or this child dies.”

Belavierr squeezed and Apista buzzed frantically. The [Witch] looked at Mrsha. Did you think I had no other means to draw you out? She had just wanted to win this game of wills.

Now—Apista was buzzing, unable to scream, but Mrsha heard her. The little [Druid] stared at her friend. Numbtongue was pivoting, incredulous, but the world was slow.

“I will count to five. Then I will crush her. One. Two. Three…”

Belavierr watched the doorway. She saw Mrsha back up. The door vanished. The [Witch] counted, unperturbed.

“Four. F—”

She turned as the door to the garden opened behind her. Apista buzzed, feeling the pain of the [Witch]’s hand. Don’t come out, Mrsha! Don’t! Lasica and Rufelt said it too.

Of course she came out.

Mrsha leapt through the door of the [Garden of Sanctuary] in a flying head-butt, blazing with Erin’s fire.

She knew it would mean her death.

But she wouldn’t let her family die.

Mrsha crashed into Belavierr’s stomach. The [Witch] took the impact. Mrsha landed on the ground, dizzy. She looked up as Belavierr let go of Apista. The [Witch] laughed. She pointed down.

 

—-

 

Reality resumed. What had seemed a moment for the others snapped back to focus. Suddenly, Rufelt and Lasica were out of the door! Mrsha was lying in front of Belavierr.

They felt the [Immortal Moment] pass in one single second of disorientation, a sense of eternity, time compressed. Then it all came flooding back. Belavierr, face twisted with wrath for some reason, standing over Mrsha, not the couple. She pointed down.

“[Deathbolt].”

No!

Numbtongue slashed the air where Belavierr had been before she blurred past him. He whirled. Niers bellowed, pointing, but he was mid-dive. The bolt of death magic shot at Mrsha’s chest. She looked up, eyes wide.

Wanderer blocked the bolt with his staff. The Gnoll appeared, leaping through the chaos almost as fast as Belavierr. He let the magic splash across his staff and it flickered out. Belavierr blinked. She eyed the Gnoll.

Then Rags shot her through the chest. Belavierr staggered as a fiery crossbow bolt appeared in her body. She was hit by a flash of lightning—Montressa’s Shock Orb. Numbtongue slashed across her back and a cup bounced off her head.

That last one came from Ishkr. Everyone saw the [Witch] stumble—then walk back. Smoking, yanking the crossbow bolt out—she didn’t even care. She pointed at Mrsha.

Die, child.

A flickering rain of a thousand needles burst from the air, shooting at Mrsha like arrows. Again, she flinched, but Wanderer swung his cloak up and blocked the rain of needles.

Get to the garden!

Palt shouted, forcing Imani towards the open door. They were still reacting, as he launched several arrows of light at Belavierr’s back. Kevin was still rising to his feet, Joseph nearly colliding with a table. It was moving too fast for the non-warriors. Bezale bellowed.

“No, not her! Not her! It’s the Witch of Calamity! Don’t—

Her warning came far too late. Belavierr jerked as a flaming ball of fire burst over her dress, but she ignored Ulvama’s fire like she ignored the chair that hit her and splintered; Calescent had tossed his seat. She still aimed at Mrsha. This time? Niers’ blood chilled as he heard a spell of a tier only he was familiar with.

“[Vortex of the Abyssal King].”

Belavierr cast the spell and a hole opened up. A hole to engulf the world. Niers whirled, finger raised. It would eat the inn, not just the little Gnoll it had opened under. It would eat part of Liscor if someone didn’t—

Mrsha felt a terrible pull. She saw a tiny little hole open up, so small, but trying to pull all of her through it. It opened—and vanished with a pop just as fast.

Niers blinked. Belavierr blinked. She frowned at the ground, then looked up and met Wanderer’s gaze.

The Gnoll was panting. Yet he brandished the staff as the cloak shed the needles. He growled.

“[Never Again, Nevermore]. I don’t know who you are, but you won’t kill her.”

The [Witch] eyed Wanderer. Mrsha stared up at the white Gnoll with fur like hers. Wait. This was her mysterious stalker! Was he a nice guy after all?

Numbtongue ran Belavierr through from behind. She stared at the sword’s tip that emerged from her stomach. Again, the inn slowed.

The bloodless blade gleamed. Belavierr put a finger on the tip and forced it back out of her. She glanced over her shoulder. Numbtongue backed up. Everyone stopped, spells, weapons ready.

You had to. When you saw someone eat a [Lightning Bolt], three other spells, a crossbow bolt, and survive two stabbings…

Numbtongue gave it one last try. The [Soulbard] slashed, and bisected Belavierr’s head from her shoulders. His sword cut her head off and he whirled back from the slash.

Just in time to see the thin line close. Belavierr glanced at him. Numbtongue looked at the seamless place he had sliced her. Then he stopped too.

Now, the [Witch] stood in the center of the inn, peering around. Confused. Her eyes flashed venom at Mrsha, who was hiding behind Wanderer. Did they go back for the door? She was looking at Apista, who was buzzing weakly on a table, one wing injured. Belavierr would hurt her!

“What is she? Not hired by them?”

Wanderer’s eyes were flickering around, uncertain of all those in the inn. The Brothers were frozen, aiming crossbows at Belavierr, the other guests looking at the dark legend and beginning to realize what Mrsha had seen.

Belavierr? Her eyes rolled as her head and body slowly rotated. She looked at Wanderer first.

“A guardian of outcasts.”

Her eyes rolled about, unnaturally mobile, moving independently of one another.

“A small warlord.”

She was not looking at Rags. Then she did and the Goblin Chieftain got a glimpse of that terrible immortality. She felt a flash—

Let us make a deal, Goblin Lord.

Belavierr looked into her eyes. No—one of Rags’ ancestors! She shuddered, then and now. Belavierr passed over her.

“A Goblin Chieftain.”

“A [Shaman].”

“A warrior of ghosts.”

Rags, Ulvama, Numbtongue. She identified each in a moment. Then she slowed and fixed on something…interesting.

“A new class.”

Joseph. She fixed him with a look, then moved on. She ignored Kevin and Imani. Calescent too, much to the Hobgoblin’s hurt.

“A child of the House of Minos. Trickster’s get. Blood of Terandria.”

The three Wistram [Mages]. Ishkr and Liska could have been the air. Belavierr’s head turned.

Strange. How did all gather here?”

Niers was swearing. Wanderer bent, tensed. Montressa was pointing as Bezale unrolled her scrolls. Rags made hand-signs to Calescent and Ulvama as she touched a claw to her temples. Violence was about to begin, but it held off another shivering second as the [Witch] remained perplexed. Then someone answered her.

“This is an inn. This is where people come by. Did you not know that?”

Belavierr’s head turned. She stared at the Antinium who had come down the stairs, bow in hand. She eyed him.

“What are you, thing?”

He raised his bow.

“A silly Bird.”

Bird shot an arrow straight at Belavierr’s left eye. It snapped in midair. So did his bowstring. Time resumed.

“[Fivefold Arcane Barrier]!”

Montressa threw up a shield over half the inn. Bezale activated her scroll.

“[Haste]! [Stoneskin]! [Lion’s Strength]—”

She lunged forwards in a punch, through Montressa’s barrier. Rags tossed a [Fireball], swearing as she saw the Minotaur charging straight at Belavierr.

The [Witch]’s hands blurred. She plucked a strand from the woven fireball, and lashed it into Numbtongue’s chest as he went for a leg-cut. The air exploded and he was flung backwards. She ignored the dozen arrows Palt sent into her back; they evaporated on her robes.

She caught Bezale’s fist, stared into the Minotauress’ eyes, and tossed her into a wall. She turned back to Mrsha again.

“[Lance of Fire—]”

Her aim was thrown off as Wanderer leapt, Mrsha in his arms, trying to dodge and rolling. Belavierr tracked him.

Calescent knocked her arm down. The huge Hobgoblin [Chef] saw Belavierr look at him, annoyed. He lifted his other claw, and blew his special death-spice into her face and eyes. Belavierr didn’t blink. Calescent’s confident expression turned to unease.

“Fly away, Goblin.”

The Goblin [Chef]’s clothes picked him up and tossed him like Bezale. Calescent hit a wall and Rags heard a terrible crunch as his arm caught the blow. He landed, grunting. The Hob looked at the yellow bone poking out of torn flesh.

“Ow.”

Belavierr turned. She saw another burst of light and over two hundred magical arrows unleashed, striking her across her body. Palt nearly galloped into a wall; he stared at his wand, dumbfounded.

Niers Astoragon watched the arrows strike Belavierr head-to-toe. Even magnified, the spells just…vanished. He grunted.

Clothing resists low-tiered magic. Great.

He was keeping back, monitoring and analyzing her now, crouched out of the way of the fighting. Belavierr frowned at Palt. She pointed and a stream of needles shot towards his body. He screamed as they peppered his flanks, but he was halfway within Montressa’s barrier and the rest of the needles glanced off the barrier.

“Kevin! Get in here!”

Joseph and Imani were shouting. Ishkr, Liska—the non-combatants were in the garden, but Mrsha was still pinned, protected by the white Gnoll. Belavierr turned to cast another spell as Mrsha crawled for the door.

“I will kill your friend, Mrsha.”

She aimed a finger at Apista, glowing with fire. The Gnoll stopped. Belavierr took aim at her again. This time Numbtongue leapt forwards. Only—it wasn’t Numbtongue.

“[Power Strike].”

Pyrite punched Belavierr in the face, on the basis that all the sword slashes hadn’t worked. He felt his fist meet the [Witch]’s nose—but it was strange. He felt it should have broken, but it seemed like he was hitting a sack. Her head barely jerked and when he drew his fist back—nothing.

Belavierr swung an arm and a glittering pair of scissors cut the place where Pyrite had been. He ducked it with Numbtongue’s body, stamped on her foot, and shoulder-charged her. Again—he bounced off. She was like a pillar! The Hob threw himself left just in time; a jet of midnight flame engulfed the floor where he had been standing. He crashed into a table, rolled over the side, and saw Rags stand up.

She loosed another crossbow bolt and it snapped midair. The Chieftain dropped her crossbow, swearing, a second before the crossbow itself exploded, the steel ‘string’ breaking. Pyrite’s head rose. He looked around.

The plate crashed into the back of Belavierr’s head. She turned slightly, and needles demolished Pyrite’s cover. He rolled behind another table, and Numbtongue felt Pyrite’s time run out. The [Bard] swore as he got to his feet, but Pyrite’s last words were still on his lips.

Strange.

The Goldstone Chieftain was certain they should be dead. A dozen times over. He might not know Belavierr, but he knew a Greydath-level threat when he saw one.

That no one was…was odd. Pyrite was clear enough to realize it at the same time as Niers. It was as Belavierr tried to aim at Mrsha again and was thrown off—this time by Montressa’s third bolt of lightning—that it became obvious to both. Rags too.

Belavierr was bad at fighting. Either that, or she wasn’t really trying. She was giving it a good try; Wanderer leapt with Mrsha again, avoiding scythes of air that cut apart everything in their path and sliced even into the walls of the inn. But Belavierr herself?

She just let Shorthilt charge at her and slash her body. Her dress blocked spells, and she just…ignored the rest. Because she wasn’t in danger.

They couldn’t hurt her. Niers grunted.

“Level difference.”

Like damned cats—evil as they could be, but still cats—trying to eat a Fraerling in enchanted plate. Belavierr was taking her time, expending little energy and magic. In fact, she actually grabbed Shorthilt and tossed him a third time, with tremendous, if poorly-directed strength.

Rags didn’t run in with her shortsword. She had a claw to her temples. This wasn’t going to be solved with her blades. Bird charged past her.

I am a distraction! Oh—

He dove behind Montressa’s barrier as a needle twice as long as his arm nearly went through his head. Rags swore and went for cover too; half-hearted or not, she could kill them easily. She looked around. Where were the hat-men?

The answer was that they were fighting too.

 

—-

 

The Plain’s Eye Doomhunters had seen Okrha enter the inn and then heard nothing from her. They did not think she was alive.

“The Antinium’s gone. Do we go in? She could be alive—”

They were arguing. Their [Hunt Leader] snarled.

“They know we’re here. Seceik, Nisha, Redl, inside! Cover Redl—in and out.”

The three Gnolls rose from the grass. Two covered the inn as the rest advanced, wary of a trap. Redl rose and activated his shaman-markings; his fur was like the Steelfur Tribe’s for a moment. He burst through the doorway. There was a shout.

Okhra’s dead. Someone’s slain her! I hear—fighting? There’s—”

A snarl. He threw himself back out of the inn, a crossbow bolt buried in one shoulder.

Ambush! Someone shot me from the walls!”

He howled in pain as the other two Gnolls took aim at the attackers and—hesitated.

“I didn’t see where the arrow came from!”

“It’s poisoned. No—no, it burns.

“Fall back.”

The three ran back. Redl realized what it was as his fur smoked and burned. He poured a potion on it desperately.

Acid! They dipped the bolt in acid—

“They are waiting for us. How did they know we would arrive? Are there more?”

The Gnolls of the Plain’s Eye tribe growled at each other. The [Hunt Leader] looked at the inn. He wanted to howl his hatred. Doom lay within. It had claimed one of theirs already because they were careless. He looked at Liscor, made up his mind.

“No tricks. No trying that ambush again. We destroy the inn. Nisha. Blow it apart.”

The Gnoll [Ranger] looked at their leader uncertainly, then nodded. She pulled out objects from her bag of holding, one after another, in rapid succession.

They were bundles of arrows, each one in groups of twenty; a single glowing arrowhead in the center of each. Standard for Plain’s Eye warriors of their rank. She placed four on the ground and then raised her enchanted bow. She growled.

“[Piercing Shots]. [Rain of Arrows]!

Her bow began to sing. All eighty arrows began to loose into the air with the ones she manually fired. A rain flying up and arching down—

 

—-

 

Ancestors!

One of the [Guards] on the wall saw the first arrows land. The enchanted arrows blew apart in grey blasts of light; the rest shredded wood, mundane or not. The [Guard] sprinted down the wall to the Senior Guard on duty.

The inn! It’s under attack again!

“Sound the alarm!”

The Watch on the eastern and southern walls came alive, trying to pinpoint the sudden attack. They watched as the Level 30 Skill shredded the inn! The…

 

—-

 

They took out the tower and part of the roof. The Gnolls stared incredulously at the inn. If it rained, there would be flooding on the third floor. That was it.

“Reinforced walls. What level is that Skill?”

“[Hunt Leader], we’ve been spotted.”

Horns were blaring from Liscor’s walls. The [Hunt Leader] cursed.

“Then we go in. Eight.”

He called for a full third of their group. The Gnolls grimly armored up; they had the magic of their tribe and they were all high-level. The rest moved closer. The [Hunt Leader] watched as the first eight Gnolls went into the inn. Fighting began in seconds.

Ambush! They’re in the walls!

“There’s no cover! [Wall of Earth]!”

“We can’t break the walls—argh!

A scream. A [Rogue] had come out of one of the hidden passageways. The Gnolls whirled, but before they could turn on him, another shrieked. Acid was pouring from the ceiling! And they were in the center of a cross-fire from the walls.

Eight went in. Five came out, one with the fur on her arms burning from the acid. The Gnolls stared. They had seen Drake forts with less heavy resistance! That was an inn?

“What do we do? That’s a kill zone. We’re running out of time. The city is going to send soldiers. We can hold them for a few minutes. From the top? Try again later? They knew we were coming.”

The [Hunt Leader] was growling, thinking. He narrowed his eyes.

“Fall back. We’ll wait for another chance. Tell the [Shaman]—”

The Gnolls were racing back to the grass where they could vanish. Then they heard a sound from within the inn, along with the muffled sounds of an altercation within. They heard a whining sound, high-pitched. One of the Doomslayers looked up.

“What is that s—”

A bright, orange-red light flashed from the side of the inn. Just a finger’s width in diameter. It went through the walls, missing its intended target, straight through Montressa’s barrier.

It went straight through one of the Gnolls. She fell without a word. The Doomslayers dove for cover. The [Hunt Leader] stared at the hole in his comrade’s chest.

“Nisha?”

They stared at the inn. Then they heard the drums and turned their heads.

 

—-

 

“[Ray of Disintegration].”

Belavierr missed. Wanderer whirled Mrsha out of the way again. [Perfect Dodge]! She looked around, raised one hand.

“[Chain Light—]”

The electricity unfolded and spooled into her hand. Belavierr stared at it, and tossed it straight back. The Shock Orb exploded and Montressa screamed.

“No!”

“A single type of spell is worthless.”

All the lightning bolts had been about as effective as spitting on Belavierr. She frowned at Mrsha.

“[Wall of Blood Thorns].”

Two walls appeared, boxing in Wanderer who had Mrsha under one arm. He growled. Belavierr smiled—

He jumped through the door to the garden, landed in it, and whirled around. Belavierr instantly shifted aim towards Apista. Wanderer leapt back through after Mrsha as she leapt for her friend. Belavierr turned to track Mrsha—and stopped.

She would have missed anyways. Numbtongue tackled her from behind and went for a leg-sweep. He failed the leg-sweep; Belavierr’s legs didn’t budge, but she glanced at him in annoyance.

“This is not working.”

Numbtongue eyed her.

“Yeah.”

She flicked a finger. He hit something and fell; the shockwave of air left his ears ringing. Belavierr stepped back. She ignored the spells pelting her from the left side; Bezale howled at Palt.

Stop casting spells! Nothing below Tier 4 even touches her!

Maybe it’s annoying her!

Belavierr grasped at Mrsha. She was muttering.

“I am not direct. This is not my craft. Interference. The little warlord…”

She glanced around, but she’d lost him. Strange. He should be wearing thread and she sensed the other threads, even magical ones. She’d felt his Skills throwing her off, empowering the others this entire time. Fraerlings on Izril? Curious. She’d thought they had all fled.

So Belavierr plucked at something in the air no one could see but her. Montressa narrowed her eyes. She thought she saw something. Some kind of intense current of mana…?

“She’s doing something to Mrsha! Stop her!”

Palt blew a cloud of smoke around Belavierr. It didn’t do a thing; the hallucinogen was as effective as Calescent’s spice. The Hob had given up on that; he’d realized nothing made of string could hurt Belavierr. So he was lighting the most flammable alcohols on fire and chucking them at her. Rufelt was helping.

That one! Throw that one! That one won’t light! Not that one! It’s expensive!

Belavierr was looking at Mrsha. The Gnoll felt the [Witch] pulling at her. She cried out soundlessly, and felt Belavierr twist—the [Witch] grinned.

“Ah, yes. White fur. Let me show you the doom following you, Mrsha.”

She drew a glittering needle in one hand, and pierced the air. She ignored all else and whispered. Mrsha felt her hair standing up. She felt a tug, and then the [Witch] whispered.

[Thread of Fate].

Her craft exceeded the petty little spells by far. Mrsha felt the [Witch] pull something, threading something coming out of her with the needle. It tugged tight. And then—

Drums. Mrsha’s head turned, and she heard a distant chorus of angry trumpets. Bezale, next to a window, pouring a potion on a cracked rib, chanced a glance outside. Her eyes widened.

“House of Minos. No way—”

 

—-

 

The Watch was already on full alert. The inn-response team was halfway out the gates when they heard the drums and trumpets.

They came out of nowhere. Jeiss was already on the battlements. He turned and swore.

“How did they get there? We have sentries—

An army was coming up the road. An army with banners he recognized. Hectval.

They seemed as confused as Liscor. The sentry alarms began coming in.

“—Just appeared out of nowhere! Like a blur!”

Hectval! They have catapults—

 

—-

 

“How…how did we get here?”

The [Siegemaster] of Hectval raised a claw to his head. He looked around, confused. They should have been two days away! But they’d been marching and…no, they’d come here as planned.

Two days early? He looked up.

“We’re nearly in range of the city! Siegemaster, orders?”

“Be—begin the assault!”

Confusion was replaced by certainty. They had always meant to come here. The [Siegemaster] shook his head.

Target the new portion of the city! Catapults to fire as soon as they are within range. And take that inn! Flashfire Riders, go!

A stream of Drakes on horseback detached outwards. They knew their targets. The new, weak part of the city not protected by walls. And the inn, where the damned perpetrator of the attack on Hectval was. They’d torch both and pull back.

Surprise attack! To…everybody.

 

—-

 

Belavierr had just pulled an army out of thin air. Rags turned her head back to the [Witch], eyes wide.

“My craft is far stronger than little spells. See, child? Now, what other threads have you to pull and tear?

The [Witch] reached for Mrsha. Wanderer blocked her way again, but this time she had his measure. She flicked a finger.

“The hangman’s noose calls you, guardian.”

He froze, and grabbed at his cloak. Too late—it twined around his neck, twisting up—trying to hang him! And again, she ignored the blows raining on her back, spells and arrows both. Bird’s bowstring snapped again and he tossed it down.

This is cheating!

Cheating? This was a Level…Rags didn’t know, but it was far beyond her. This was Greydath levels. Beyond Greydath levels?

More articles of clothing tried to strangle their owners. Belavierr seemed amused that such a trick was working on all those present. Nothing made of string could stand against her. Nor…could any of those in the inn hurt her.

“Show me your tricks, child. Your little stories. Show me how they can hurt me.

She called to Mrsha, advancing at a slow walk. Mrsha backed up. The door opened behind her, but a wall of red thorns grew, blocking off the walls. Belavierr smiled and reached down, hand like a claw.

No one to stop her. Except her peers. She pointed and whispered a spell.

“[Swarm of Pestilence].”

Numbtongue howled. He struggled against his armor, pinning him against the ground. He saw Mrsha cover her face. And the spell…

Didn’t appear. Belavierr blinked at her finger. Then her orange, ringed eyes flicked up. She heard a buzzing sound.

“You—”

“Niers Astoragon.”

The Titan soared up. On Apista’s back. He was sitting there…buck naked. All he held was his sword. Apista did an aileron roll, as Belavierr jerked back. Too slowly. As if she didn’t understand the danger.

[Battlefield: Even Ground – No Magic, No Luck, No Skills, Only Strategy]. She tried to cast a spell.

Niers stabbed her in the eye as he flew past. He twisted the sword, yanked

And tore out her right eye.

Mrsha covered her own face in horror, and then saw Belavierr reel back. She cried out. And then felt at the bloody hole in her eye. She whirled—

Calescent slammed into her. He stabbed her twice with a dagger; she hurled him aside. He went flying like before, but now? There was blood on her dress. She gazed at the wounds on her chest.

My—eye?

The Titan and Apista were fleeing across the inn as fast as possible. Niers felt the Skill fighting against Belavierr; it wasn’t going to last five minutes! Yet they’d wounded her! Belavierr turned, as Numbtongue roared and charged with his sword. She looked at him—and screamed.

MY EYE.

Her body unfolded as he tried to plant it in her chest. Niers saw her come apart. A million strings, unraveling—and in the center, someone was shrieking at him.

A younger woman, clutching at her eye, standing amid an ancient circle frozen beyond time. She was screaming at him—

And then the threads folded and the image vanished. Belavierr was gone. Numbtongue whirled, slashing.

“How—?”

“She’s all magic.”

Niers was shaken. He’d seen his Skill fail once before when he tried it on a being of pure magic. You couldn’t ‘take’ a Dragon’s magic away, only make it vulnerable. Same with Djinni. He looked around.

“She can’t have gone far. She’s—”

His head turned. He saw Belavierr, felt her reform and reappear.

Outside the inn. She was striding away, quickly, even stumbling, without her Seven League Boots. Niers roared.

After her! Before my Skill ends!

She was running away! But she’d be back as soon as the Skill ran out. And she was looking back at Niers, clutching at the hole in her head. Belavierr strode forwards—

Right into the fight between the Doomslayers and Hectval’s cavalry.

 

—-

 

The Plain’s Eye Hunters had no idea how the Drakes appeared. Hectval’s army had no idea who they were until they nearly ran over the Gnolls.

The first indication they got was an arrow punching the leading [Lieutenant] out of the saddle. They looked down.

Gnolls!

Hectval had some Gnolls in their front ranks, but these were clearly Liscor’s elites! They broke off, shouting.

There’s an ambush team lying in wait! Gnolls with bows!

Who are these Drakes?

The [Hunt Leader] roared. He drew an object from his pack, tossed it down. The customized bear trap took down a horse and rider and he speared the Drake. This was an army!

“They trapped us! Fight!

Hectval’s riders ran straight into the Gnolls on the ground. The Gnoll Doomslayers were outnumbered, but they had levels. Arrows slashed through the riders’ ranks; one of the Gnolls grew, and began tearing Drakes from saddles. The [Shamanic Warriors] weren’t invincible, though, and the Drakes on horseback cut down two in the first minute of fighting.

That was when the Witch ran straight into them. She was striding along, clutching at her eye, stumbling. A Drake on horseback turned to her.

“You damned Humans!”

He slashed down. Belavierr saw the blow coming from the sabre. She had no magic spells, no Skills.

She drew, of all things, a pair of huge scissors, like you might use to cut cloth. They gleamed with a foreign metal. She parried the sword-stroke, and snipped once across the Drake’s throat.

It gleamed faintly with a weak magic. Barely able to function with Niers’ Skill on it. It still worked. The Drake jerked, fell off the horse, as some of the fighters noticed her. Belavierr saw one of the Plain’s Eye Gnolls whirl about, axe raised to throw. She drove the scissors down and left them buried in his brain.

The fallen Gnoll and Drake began to jerk. They rose from the ground, and shambled upright. The two weak zombies lurched forwards to protect Belavierr as she backed away from the fighting.

“I ran into the thread. Both of them. They’re tangled. Inconvenient. My eye. He took my eye. No one has ever taken my eye.

She was muttering. The two zombies blocked the Drakes and Gnolls, who attacked her back, appalled. The [Hunt Leader] shouted.

Kill that Human! [Necromancer]!

One of his Gnolls aimed an arrow at Belavierr’s back. The Witch tried to block the arrow—it curved slightly as she twisted her fingers, but her Skill was gone. And when the second hit her in the breast…she stared down at the blood.

“It hurts.”

Thunk. Thunk. Two more arrows hit her and she staggered. Blood ran down her dress. Belavierr saw a Drake riding down at her and tossed something in her face.

A black vial. The Drake [Soldier] screamed and crashed from the saddle, clawing at—and then going still as a dark substance ate it away, consuming her. Belavierr moved back; the others hesitated to get close. But the arrows pelted her.

six, nine—

The [Hunt Leader] saw more standing out in her chest. Belavierr was staggering, now. She tried to speak, coughed up blood.

“My eye. He took my eye.”

She murmured. The [Hunt Leader] charged with a howl, spear raised. He saw a Goblin, a Minotaur, and three men in hats pour out of the inn, looking towards Belavierr, shouting.

Too late.

The spear ran through Belavierr’s heart. The Gnoll drew it out to stab again and hesitated.

There was no blood this time. He looked up.

Belavierr’s good eye shone. The ringed gaze…something was appearing in the bloody socket of the other.

A ball of string. It stitched itself into a copy of her eye in seconds. Yet it did not please her. The [Stitch Witch] bent down.

“He stole my eye.

The Gnoll [Hunt Leader] dropped his spear. He backed up—and saw his fallen comrade and the Drake Belavierr had killed whirl.

Sinew like string connected the severed body parts. They moved with insane strength and speed. One leapt on him and ripped—

Belavierr turned away as her two new minions regained their full power. She looked around. If that warlord had possessed an army…? Her eyes focused on the inn.

Numbtongue, Bezale, and the Brothers looked at the [Witch], standing there, arrows snapping and blood ceasing to flow. Her wounds closed. Her eye was back.

They hurried back inside the inn and closed the door. Inside, Niers Astoragon saw the eye still embedded on his sword swivel around to face him.

“Ah. Damn.”

Outside, the witch began to chant.

Buried deep. Left apart. Come together. Vengeance be your heart. Rise from the dark and slaughter until you have had your fill. Vile behemoth, I name you: Rogghiedroth, come. Share my will…

Lines of force moved around, tracing a vast circle in the ground. Kevin peeked out the window, took one look at the hundred-foot-wide summoning circle, and turned.

“Uh, guys? If the inn disappears…what happens to the garden?”

 

—-

 

No one could believe the mana signature appearing outside the inn. The [Mage] on Liscor’s walls just started throwing up; that told Jeiss everything he needed to know.

Focus the wall spells on whatever’s coming up from there!

“But Senior Guardsman—Hectval’s nearly about to unleash their catapults!”

Jeiss knew that. The army was intending to bombard his city. But whatever was coming out of that hole? He had a feeling no one could stop that.

“You heard me! Fire! Fire!

A bolt of lightning shot down, a Tier 5 spell at least in force. It might as well have been another bit of string. The [Witch] didn’t even blink as it touched the tip of her hat—and turned into a thousand little bits of disconnected lines of electricity that earthed themselves around her.

“That’s…not right.”

Jeiss was used to inn-level threats and disasters. But he was also used to Tier 5 spells doing something to them. He swallowed hard.

 

—-

 

Siegemaster! That’s a summoning spell! I have no idea what it is!

“Then bombard the caster!”

The [Siegemaster] was sweating. His [Dangersense] was going off the charts and the Drake cavalry division he’d sent out had been slaughtered. He saw one of the catapults turn and loose. An enchanted boulder shot forwards, not as powerful as the trebuchets those Humans had stolen from somewhere, but enchanted to shatter into a hundred burning fragments. It went for the [Witch]—and bounced off her. It landed on the ground, detonated.

The shards fell from her dress. The [Siegemaster] lowered his spyglass.

“What?”

 

—-

 

Belavierr ignored the attacks from both sides like she had in the inn. She was nearly finished chanting, summoning…something. It came up from the ground, an actual being. With a name. It had heard her call and awoken from wherever it was buried. It was clawing upwards, larger than the inn.

It was nearly out of the gateway. It was a spell beyond any reasonable cost. Belavierr no longer cared. Two, now. She had two grudges. One had offended her beyond belief. The other? The other had taken her eye.

She had lived for all this time without ever losing her eyes. And one was gone now, after the [Knight] had burned away so many protections, in an unguarded moment, victim to a Skill with nearly as much power behind it as hers.

So…she was going to kill everything. Belavierr beckoned to the figure crawling out from below.

“Slaughter the child and the Fraerling. Destroy them. Come. The warlord lacks an army. You have nothing to fear. Nothing I have seen can threaten you nor I.”

The eye didn’t count. Belavierr ignored every petty mortal around her as she spread her arms wide, calling the beast upwards. Until…someone interrupted her.

“I was already in an appalling mood. Excellent.”

The [Witch] glanced dismissively to one side. Then she did a minor double-take. She looked back into Grimalkin’s fist.

[Earthquake].

For the first time, the [Witch] moved. The bound spell unleashed itself, a contained earthquake in his fist. She stumbled back, and the summoning circle flickered. She felt at her jaw. Then looked at the huge, muscle-bound Drake.

Grimalkin of Pallass. Both looked as disappointed as the other. Grimalkin grunted.

“Superlative physical resistance. That’s…disappointing. A Greater Frost Wyvern felt that. I’ll add it to my notes. Now—[Greater Dispel].

He bent down and focused the second spell down. At one of the points in the hole opened below. Belavierr hissed. But a point of light broke away.

Below, something howled. Grimalkin glanced down in satisfaction as he saw the projected opening waver. Belavierr lifted her hands to stabilize the spell.

[Haste]. [Flash Step]. [Body of Flames]. [Bound Spell: Fireball].

Grimalkin struck her again. A mage-killing blow that should have incinerated her broken body. Instead, he saw Belavierr stumble again.

“Stop that.”

The Sinew Magus saw her glance at him, irritated. She went back to focusing on the spell. But a hail of needles flickered out of her robes and pelted him.

The Sinew Magus shielded his face, feeling the enchanted needles scoring his scales and failing to break in. He stepped back.

“[Stone Spire]. Fracture spell—[Accelerated Movement]. [Lion’s Strength]—”

His second trick manifested itself in a shard of stone half the size of his torso. He drew a quick rune of acceleration on it, and heaved it at her. Another trick to kill Wistram’s [Mages] if he faced them in combat.

The impromptu spell hit Belavierr with all the force of a ballista bolt. The stone powdered on impact. And she was still standing there.

The Sinew Magus grunted. His day was going from bad to worse. Lasica and Rufelt had raised the alarm and he’d already been responding to the claims the checkpoint had been attacked.

Belavierr did feel both blows, because one eye swiveled at him.

“I have no time to deal with you, [Mage]. Begone.”

For answer, Grimalkin just began layering spells into his fist for a second blow. She had some kind of magical barrier he wasn’t seeing. He did not like whatever was about to come out of the ground and only his magic had even slowed it. He charged Belavierr, dodging with [Flash Step] to avoid counter-spells…

Belavierr looked up. She pointed, and Grimalkin’s fist stopped a moment before it hit her. Black threads had shot out of the ground, wrapping themselves around his arm with amazing speed. He struggled, began to tear free.

“I said. Begone.

The threads twisted. Grimalkin tried to cut fr—

He felt the snap, the impact that hurled his entire body through the air like a ragdoll. A normal Drake might have broken bones and muscle from the impact alone; Grimalkin only felt a few sinews tear. He was disoriented, but the [Haste] spell let him understand.

She’d thrown him like a child snapped a stone with a bit of cloth! He was falling

 

—-

 

Jeiss looked up. He didn’t want to believe it. But—had he just seen Grimalkin flying over the walls? The Drake hit the street like one of the catapult projectiles.

Could nothing stop Belavierr? Or—Hectval? Now, the wall spells were engaging the one target they could hit. Hectval’s army was returning fire, but it had split up. Two third of its force were guarding the catapults. They just wanted to shell Liscor and retreat. The other third? Heading for Belavierr and the inn.

Prepare for combat! We need those catapults down!”

Jeiss was bellowing, but his stomach was in a knot. The army wasn’t ready! Hectval wanted to defend themselves; they were digging in. And that thing coming up…

Nightmarish, nightmarish. Watch Captain Zevara was mustering all the [Guards] she could, but it would be Watch versus whatever that [Witch] called out and Hectval’s soldiers. He got a missive from her. A panting Street Runner shouted up at Jeiss.

“Watch Captain reports—she is going to counterattack Hectval with Embria’s 4th Company and Liscor’s army! Strategist Olesm will coordinate the attack! Hold the walls!

“That’s suicide! I’ll join—”

Jeiss whirled, about to argue. Then he looked back.

“Oh, Ancestors. Tell the Watch Captain—we might not have time for either.”

The first claw reached out of the hole in the ground. Every [Dangersense] in the city, already ringing, screamed three times as loud. Then Jeiss’s gaze swept up.

“Wait.”

 

—-

 

Belavierr was laughing. Evil, gloating laughter didn’t really become her. She was out of practice. She had not fought directly like this for a long time.

However, she could still appreciate it. The first claw broke into the air, heralding damnation. Slaughter.

Belavierr ignored Grimalkin, charging back towards her, Niers Astoragon, swearing and shouting, trying to figure out how to leverage his useless Skills. She paid no attention to the spells and munitions from Liscor and Hectval.

Of all the things in the battlefield across the Floodplains. It was a little ‘pop’ of displaced air that made Belavierr turn around. She lowered her arms. The portal wavered and something bellowed its annoyance below. The [Witch] couldn’t help it.

She turned all the way around and looked up at something which had appeared in the air behind her. Bird, who had been energetically tossing rocks at the thing coming out of the hole, looked up.

“Ah, at last. Reinforcements. Let us run away.”

He turned to Bezale. She looked up and froze.

Belavierr peered up at the figure hovering in the air slightly above her. It was a blue…Antinium. She had only two arms, and she did not look like the other one. Her eyes shone with myriad colors, flashing between them. And she…radiated power. Enough so that the [Stitch Witch] turned around. Belavierr tilted her head left slowly.

“What…are you?”

The Small Queen of the Antinium, Xrn, aimed her staff down. Her mandibles opened.

“[Lava Wave].”

Molten rock, so hot it burned the soil and grass itself, cascaded from a small opening in the air. It covered Belavierr and the thing below.

The [Witch] raised a hand and the lava split around her. She looked behind—something was doused by the magma, but it kept climbing. Belavierr looked up at Xrn.

“I do not wish to quarrel with you, stranger—”

She looked around. Xrn had teleported behind her. The Small Queen touched Belavierr’s arm.

“[Alter Velocity].”

An unseen force flung Belavierr upwards, as if a catapult had hurled her up. Grimalkin, charging forwards, slowed as he saw the Stitch Witch go flying up, tossed like he had been.

Xrn leapt up and regarded what was coming out of the pit.

“We cannot have you. One army and that creature is enough. Begone, thing. [Bolt of the Lightning Giant].”

The largest flash of electricity so far struck downwards. Montressa’s [Chain Lightning], the other bolts of magic—looked like static electricity to the discharge that thundered downwards.

The impact made Xrn float a bit higher. She peered downwards. Something was still climbing up. She clicked her mandibles in annoyance.

[A Thousand Shooting Stars].

Miniature comets formed around her and began shooting downwards. Not as large as [Valmira’s Comet] but—Palt’s cigar dropped out of his mouth. It was like his [Light Arrow] spell, only on Xrn’s level! He felt a hand drag him back.

“Stop staring! There’s a damned army coming at us! Help fortify the inn!”

Bezale roared at him. Hectval’s army was streaming past the blaze of magic, wisely staying clear of the Small Queen.

 

—-

 

The bombardment was enough. Whatever climbed up from dark depths had had enough already, Belavierr’s urgings or not. It let go and fell. Xrn watched the portal close with satisfaction.

Then she looked up. Belavierr had just slowed in her ascent. The Stitch Witch was falling out of the air. She saw Xrn shooting up at her, a blue arrow.

The Stitch Witch landed on the air. She slowly got up, and stood on an invisible platform, brushing at her dress. She peered down at Xrn as the Antinium halted in the sky next to her. Belavierr was…confused.

“Have I done something to off—”

This time she raised her hands. Both spellcasters unleashed magic at the same time.

“[Ray of Disintegration].”

[Flight of the Phoenix King].

Two spells flashed across the sky. Belavierr saw Xrn dodge the ray of light, casually. She tried to dodge in turn—and failed.

A burning, winged spell slammed Belavierr into the ground, and kept burning. The [Witch] rose, swiping at the flames. She strode forwards—

“[Ray of Disintegration].”

Xrn struck her from behind. Belavierr froze, and her body flickered around where the blue ray from Xrn’s finger struck her. She replied with a jet of black magic, a rising cloud. In response, Xrn clapped her hands together.

“[Mana Burst].”

The cloud exploded. The impact knocked Belavierr flat. She blinked.

“How troubles—”

A pillar of earth punched her upwards. Then Grimalkin struck her. Belavierr struck the ground twice in as many seconds. The Sinew Magus eyed Xrn. She and he exchanged a glance.

“I was in Pallass. What’s your excuse?”

“I am always late. No one invites me to the inn.”

They turned back to the Stitch Witch. She got up, dusting herself off. She didn’t look hurt…on the other hand, she had lost her smile. She eyed Xrn.

“…Ah. The things of Rhir. I thought you stayed below. When did you leave? What do they call you? Archmage of Wistram?”

Xrn’s response was to freeze Belavierr solid. The air was a match for the Frost Wyvern’s breath and Grimalkin threw up a claw, grimacing at the memory. The frozen [Witch] began to crack before the spell even ended.

“Elemental magic doesn’t work. Physical damage doesn’t work. She’s more theoretical than present. Either that, or her magical shielding is capable of amazing diffusion.”

That was his analysis so far. Xrn turned to him.

“I have no idea what that means. My spells haven’t worked. But they will. Give me a minute.”

He nodded. Belavierr was moving.

“—seek no quarrel, Antinium. It is a personal matter—”

Grimalkin stomped and Belavierr went flying, shot away by another pillar of stone. He knew it did no good, but he conjured a pair of fireballs and tossed them at her.

She blocked both, sending back a needle twice as long as he was. It could have skewered him—Grimalkin punched it and shattered the metal projectile. He cursed; that hurt.

Belavierr was trying to stop Xrn; both she and Grimalkin could see the Antinium gathering magic. Xrn’s eyes began shining like a lighthouse’s light. And the Stitch Witch…looked a bit worried.

I would like you to desist. [Deathlance]—

The spell shot towards Xrn’s chest. Grimalkin would have blocked it, but Xrn just dodged left. He seized Belavierr and threw her. She struck him once and he staggered, but physical combat was his specialty. Locking her down in a fistfight was advantageous even if he didn’t hurt her. She landed a few blows on him as he tackled her.

 

—-

 

“Identified! Grimalkin of Pallass and the Small Queen of the Antinium are fighting whatever that Human is!”

The [Siegemaster] of Hectval felt his stomach heave. Grimalkin? Pallass? This was going too far. And the Antinium’s nightmare? Hectval had not come for that.

“We’re just here for Liscor. Issue a statement to Pallass that if the Sinew Magus gets in our way—this is an inter-city dispute! Volley the new section of the city again!”

More spells blasted the earth, but most were blocked by Hectval’s [Mages]. By now, the [Siegemaster] wanted nothing more than to do what he’d been ordered to do and retreat. However, the Council would have his tail unless he did at least some damage.

The first volleys had been intercepted, but the catapults had the range now and they were prepared to demolish the residential districts and new area of Liscor. The inn-destruction detachment had nearly reached their target.

If Liscor lost both its new expansion and the inn, morale would plummet. The [Siegemaster] knew Liscor’s army wasn’t finished yet. He saw them mustering at the gates, but his forces were dug in and he’d switch the catapults to them and wipe them out. It was an ideal battle in short—

Except for whatever the hell that [Witch], Grimalkin, and the Small Queen were doing. The [Siegemaster] prayed they’d all be distracted for ten minutes. Ten minutes, and he could unload enough ordnance to wipe out multiple blocks.

Liscor’s army is advancing!

“Idiots. Prepare to volley on them as they come into range.”

The [Siegemaster] turned. The Watch Captain and [Strategist] were leading the assault. Hadn’t they ever fought a proper Drake army? Hah! They’d been too far gone from the south. He raised his claw.

“Hold, hold…”

Siegemaster, incoming from the left!

The Drake [General] swung around. He saw…nothing. But one of his [Tacticians] was pointing. The Drake squinted for the enemy attack and saw a single figure.

“You idiot. That’s a civilian.”

“No, it’s a soldier! It’s coming our way!”

The [Siegemaster] stared. Sending a single warrior out to fight was incredibly stupid. Unless—was this Klbkch the Slayer? He’d heard the Antinium was weakened. He focused on the figure.

…Unless Klbkch the Slayer was a Minotaur, he doubted it. The [Siegemaster] frowned.

“A one-armed Minotaur? Maybe an adventurer. It must be suicidal. Take it down.”

He turned back to the approaching army, half-listening to the order.

Bows! Archer Squad Three, target the Minotaur. [Homing Arrows]. Loose!

Bowstrings snapped. There was a pause and the [Siegemaster] shook his head. Although something nagged at him. Why a lone minotaur? Maybe he was an adventurer or a fool.

…But hadn’t he seen something on the scrying orb a while back? When had it been?

Oh yes. When the Minotaurs had forced the King of Destruction back. They’d sent Minotaurs forwards, too, hadn’t they?

Their criminals. He glanced up.

Minotaur is still coming. Archer Squads Four to Seven, take aim! Loose!”

Arrows snapped through the air. The [Siegemaster] waited. Liscor’s army was still coming, just out of range…he turned his head as someone muttered an oath.

“They just bounced off his skin. He’s—healing the ones who got through. [Mages]! [Lightning Bolt] spells on that Minotaur!

The [Siegemaster] looked left. He saw the Minotaur charging. At their catapults. Four arrows had managed to pierce his hide. And…he had an axe raised. He was roaring, so loudly that Hectval’s entrenched army heard it.

“Liscor’s army is beginning to charge!”

“Kill that Minotaur!”

The [Siegemaster] roared. Lightning bolt spells flashed out.

It was a bad day for lightning. They struck the Minotaur, three missing, two landing home. He stumbled—and then kept running. The Drakes looked at the Minotaur as he charged.

Death before dishonor. Then he was upon the catapult teams. He swung his axe and two Drakes vanished. The [Siegemaster] whirled around.

Kill that Minotaur!

Riders thundered down on Calruz, but he swung his axe, bellowing. The catapults hesitated, in disarray from this threat. Liscor’s army was charging now. 4th Company leading the way, coming in from the flank.

The [Siegemaster] was telling them to fire, fire any catapults at the army! But something was wrong. The chaos around the catapults was getting worse. He saw one of the war machines…sink into the earth. Like the ground was spongy. Another area collapsed. Then he saw the Antinium.

They stared up at him. Armor painted with their colors. The [Siegemaster]’s scales went grey with horror. Yellow Splatters murmured.

“Idiot.”

They forgot so soon that Liscor was an Antinium city as much as Drake. Perhaps they just thought there was no way Liscor would ever use Antinium tactics. But Olesm would.

The [Crusaders] surged out of the secret tunnels. Just in time; Zevara’s Watch and Liscor’s army were nearly on Hectval. Yellow Splatters chanced one look for the inn before he was leading the charge. The Antinium were fighting here—Tersk and Dekass and the other Prognugators had joined the Painted Antinium to destroy this army. He had to trust Xrn would guard the inn.

He saw the Small Queen activate her spell in the distance.

 

—-

 

Belavierr was getting tired of this Drake [Mage]. He was…persistent. And while he was not at her strength, he could distract her.

The Sinew Magus was panting. He ducked another blow from those enchanted scissors, and charged backwards. Just in time.

“[Wail of the Banshee].”

The scream tore the air, but Belavierr realized her magic wouldn’t kill the Drake. Worse—she looked up.

Xrn was done with her spell. The Antinium pointed her staff down at Belavierr and spoke. But it was no attack spell. Grimalkin swore as he unconsciously reached for a notepad. He and Belavierr understood at once as Xrn spoke.

“[I Call Open the Manaforge]—”

A…gap opened up in the sky behind her. Like the one Belavierr had torn open, but shining. Dimensional magic. Belavierr murmured.

“A [Thaumaturge]. I may be in danger.”

Xrn was glowing. Her voice was like thunder.

“[My Soul Shall Forge New Magic]—”

Belavierr began walking back slowly. Her eyes fixed on the glowing astral land beyond. Power, mana, raw and untamed, was flowing into that land of creation. To birth weapons never seen before.

“[Until Infinity Exhausts Itself].”

Xrn completed her spell and hovered between two worlds. It was that spell that told Belavierr the Small Queen’s class. The spell every [Thaumaturge] learned. But—always different.

A spell flickered in the air, half-writ, barely completed. Xrn had used her great magic to create a place where new incantations could be created. It was a process only the greatest [Mages] could dream of enacting, even with all this help. If you knew magic, you could see what she was working on. Belavierr looked.

Her skin crawled. She grew uneasy.

The unfinished spell read to her eyes: [The ___slayer’s Arrow].

Xrn placed it aside. She looked at Belavierr and began forging her new spell. Prototypes lashed outwards.

“[Binding of Belavierr]. Hm. Shall we reverse it? [The Bane of Belavierr]. What kills you, [Witch]? I have never met your ilk, but you seem familiar to foes I have seen. It vexes me. So let me kill you and learn how it is done.”

A ray of condensed mana struck Belavierr. Fire swirled around her. Xrn was probing for her weak points. Fashioning the beginnings of new spells.

“We will not part amiably. I must use my craft or be endangered.”

Belavierr spoke. She was creating barriers of magic now, cloth and magic. No longer could she rely on mere spellcraft. She had to expend her hoarded power. This simple trip to Pallass was costing beyond belief.

She blamed Mrsha for all of it.

The Stitch Witch whirled something out of the air. She blocked the first lance of magic with it. The cascade of raw magic nearly hit Grimalkin, forced to stand back.

You challenge me, spellcaster. But I am older than even you! You misjudge your foe!

“You have never met my ilk.”

The two exchanged spells. Xrn turned the air to fire and created a globe of burning sky around Belavierr. So intense even the [Witch] cried out. Yet she whirled the object around her and the fire could not pass it.

What is that? Xrn stared out of the Manaforge, and it analyzed the strange cloth for her.

Dragonscales. A cloak of Dragonscales—

Belavierr drew a long thread of hair and placed it in a needle. Xrn read the composition of both. The hair of a unicorn and Naq—

She dove, too late. The needle pierced her barriers and stabbed into one arm. It tried to dig itself into her chitin. She pointed at the thread.

“[Ray of Disintegration].”

Simple enough. Yet she bled green. Xrn stared at her blood as the needle was severed. It flew back, as the Naq-Alrama needle tried to flee. The Small Queen shook her head.

[Cenidau’s Complete Chill]. So you can fight, Human.”

She was surprised; Belavierr had been so oddly stationary. Now Xrn’s blood began to boil. Belavierr eyed the needle. It shattered and she frowned.

“Such needles are hard to obtain. I do not waste them. Begone, strange thing.”

Her fingers moved in a crawling pattern. Xrn glanced around; she snapped the threads before they could tighten around her and cut her to ribbons. It was a copy of the [Trapmaster Assassin]’s trick…no. He copied Belavierr. Xrn wondered if those threads could have gone through Liscor’s walls without slowing.

The sun’s light burst into full blast around Belavierr, and the [Witch] cried out, shielding her face. Xrn flew higher, warily.

The Naq-Alrama needle had pierced her wards. She had not bled badly, but she had to re-establish defensive spells. She cast a familiar magic as she targeted the ground.

“[Magical Field: The Somber World of Blue]. Ah, pests. Begone.”

She blasted part of Hectval’s army, which had nearly reached the inn. Counterspells and arrows shot at her; she ignored them. Wrong color. She turned back to Belavierr.

The [Witch] was not impressed. She looked at the field of color around Xrn.

You wish to dance with colors against me, girl? [The Cerulean Eater Awakes].

She powered the spell with something she drew out of her robes; a little figurine of an [Archmage]. It turned to dust as Belavierr sacrificed it, scowling.

Xrn saw something coalesce out of the blue. It came at her, a different shade amidst her spell. She began to blast it and nearly forgot—she had to use blue magic!

“[Paint Spray]. Hmf.

Grimalkin leapt. The blue paint over his scales shone wetly. He hit whatever was cutting towards Xrn and landed. She blasted it with blue fire and it screamed. The Sinew Magus folded his arms. He and Xrn gave each other unfriendly looks of respect.

“Interesting. Your counter?”

“Only a fool doesn’t take countermeasures. You played your hand at Invrisil.”

I have more cards in my analogy than you could dream of, Drake.

Xrn cancelled the spell. She was free to attack the cerulean monster with spells outside its color. She whirled, and aimed again at Belavierr.

This time her spell broke on a shimmering ward like a face. Accordingly, the talisman Belavierr held up burned away. The [Witch] stared at it. She flexed her hands, and looked—upset.

“They do not make such objects anymore. This costs too much.”

Costs too much? That was it, though. Belavierr’s lips twisted in genuine distress as she looked at her broken Naq-Alrama needle. The Archmage’s weapon she had used to attack Xrn…

“Far too costly. Mana is nearly free. I dislike doing battle with those who can threaten me. Please stop.

She aimed a flurry of free spells at Xrn, but the Antinium was superior in pure spellcraft. Belavierr was forced to throw up walls of a strange, transparent silk that absorbed spell after spell, but eventually broke. She stared at them, distressed, and then reached for a mana potion crafted by a [Sage]. She drank it, sourly.

“I would rather bleed.”

The [Witch] hissed, dropping the empty vial. Grimalkin charged in, landing a punch that sent her staggering as Xrn burned the last of the silk-barriers again.

“Collectors.”

He grunted. Belavierr whirled. Grimalkin dodged a wand which discharged a spray of brown pestilence that might have killed him; of course, it was in the air. He froze the air around him, praying it had been enough.

No good. He felt sick as he stumbled back. Belavierr looked at the wand, snapped it in irritation.

“So say those who have nothing of value.

Of all the things to retort to—Grimalkin desperately crunched counteragents against his scales, trying to neutralize the plague. But it was already—

[Greater Dispel]. [Bubble of Purity]. [Aegis of Saimune]!

Xrn pointed down. Grimalkin, choking as his throat closed up, felt the three spells fighting the plague. The spell was cut short—then the physical manifestations vanished in the soothing grey glow. The last spell made him feel alive. He felt his throat open and gasped.

“Stay clear of her artifacts.”

Xrn warned him. Grimalkin nodded, shakily. He looked up at her. The words of thanks strangled in his throat to the small Queen. But he murmured, looking at Belavierr.

“Inferiority. What a farce. The Strongest Mage in Pallass?”

He shook his head, looking at the other two [Mages]. Xrn and Belavierr. For some reason, that alone produced a cessation in the battle. Xrn’s mandibles raised and Belavierr raised one eyebrow. Both were…amused?

“So says the infant. I can walk, but not fly already.”

Belavierr whispered. She was flickering her fingers. Xrn pointed, and the [Witch] blocked a beam that tried to eat her as it clawed at her shields. The Small Queen looked at Grimalkin and one eye turned yellow with humor.

You are so young.

The Sinew Magus absorbed this, and looked at the two ancients of days. He nodded, and redoubled his attack, to give Xrn the opening to deal the critical blow. But by then—Belavierr was smiling.

The Stitch Witch held something up. She licked at it. Frowned. She shrugged, sighing.

“Strange. New species. Yet you are too close. And you do not know my craft, girl.”

Xrn looked down. Grimalkin uttered a curse and Xrn didn’t see why. All Belavierr had was a bit of green on her fingers. Her blood. So what?

The Small Queen had never faced a [Witch]. Let alone a hex and curse expert. Belavierr smiled wickedly. She looked at Grimalkin as he shouted up at Xrn.

“Now. [Blood of Enemies, Boil].

Xrn raised her staff. She called a searing prism of magic to life and shot a ray of burning red towards—Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] dodged. He roared—and pointed up.

“[Siege Fireball]!”

Xrn blocked the spell. Why had Grimalkin attacked her? Why had—

Drake! My foe! Slayer of my kin! Die—we were always going to slay each other!

A wave of lava poured forth at Grimalkin. He was running, aiming more spells at her. Everything he had prepared to fight her. Kill the Antinium. Kill the—

Belavierr watched, smiling. The strange [Thaumaturge] was strong. But she had no protections against Belavierr.

Still—the two weren’t idiots. They exchanged another withering blast of fire, and then Grimalkin growled.

“I can’t—”

“I am under some sort of magical attack, Magus Grimalkin. We are wasting energy. She is…doing something with my blood.”

Stop her.

Grimalkin spread his arms. Xrn didn’t hesitate. But she pulled the blow. Instead of annihilation, she flicked her finger.

A gigantic copy appeared and did the same to the Sinew Magus. He tasted blood as he flew for the second time that day. However—that left Xrn free.

Enough. Perish, Human.

She conjured her incomplete spell from the Manaforge and hurled it down. Belavierr shrieked as something cut into her. Xrn saw something snap. For a second she saw the same thing Mrsha had—and saw her burn away Belavierr’s protections.

Not enough. Yet she saw a weakness and poured more mana into research, adjusting the spell.

Belavierr finished her spell first. The last drop of Xrn’s blood she was whispering to, completely at odds with Xrn’s creation in the Manaforge. She was just…

Negotiating.

“We shall strike a pact, you and I. Power for power’s get. Your enemy mine, so I shall grant you my strength this time. Come and twist, destiny’s thread. Come—take her head.

Xrn felt the air twist. She whirled, wondering wh—

Facestealer tore her left arm off. It crawled out of the portal. Her—

It grabbed her head and yanked. Xrn flailed. A claw tore half her head off. Xrn’s eyes went…blank.

Oh. Klbkch, Wrymvr. I may be dying.

I’m sorry.

 

—-

 

Across Izril, in the Hivelands, Wrymvr froze. He heard it.

Klbkch, flexing an arm, froze. The Queens stopped. Incredulously.

“Xrniavxxel?”

The Grand Queen’s mandibles opened in horror. Klbkch’s head rose. It could not be. It could not—

 

—-

 

Xrn’s head began to tear. The claw sliced—and magic poured forth.

Raw magic. Her very being exploded outwards. It lashed Facestealer, tearing all the hide off its body and revealing the bone shell. It began to dig deeper, pure mana unleashed.

It let go, fleeing, retreating back through the portal. Belavierr hissed, but she watched, smiling, as Xrn flew back. The Small Queen put her good hand to the gap in her neck. Her eyes were flickering. She stared down at her missing arm and shoulder, at Belavierr.

yOu. i wILl RemEMbeR tHIS.

She flew back, trailing her life essence. Fleeing. The Stitch Witch watched her go. Then her head turned.

“Now, the inn. Come, fate’s soldiers. Come…let us end this.”

Monsters poured forth from the gaps she had torn open. Threads of fate. Mrsha’s, Xrn’s…

Monsters of the dungeon. An accord had been reached. Grimalkin saw the suits of enchanted armor, Crypt Worms, Liscor’s dungeon disgorge a horde. They all converged on the inn, already fighting Hectval’s army.

And there came Belavierr. Striding for the inn. She looked back as Grimalkin bellowed.

Belavierr!

He had seen Xrn flee. He had to know the difference between them. Even so—

The Sinew Magus charged.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn was under siege. The first battle to ever take place in the new inn’s walls.

That was to say…the first attack to ever truly come as the defenders had imagined. Against the hallway of traps, the reinforced walls and checkpoints.

Erin Solstice had been slain outside the inn. Belavierr had not been stopped by mere bulwarks of stone and wood.

It was almost refreshing to get a foe that had to obey the rules. Almost. But at least…here was someone they could fight. They had failed time and again.

At last, the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings discharged their debt.

First came the Doomslayers, in a desperate push, fleeing the [Witch]. On their heels came Hectval’s army.

Hundreds of [Soldiers] had been sent to destroy the inn. They tried to set fire to it, smash through the windows. But the inn had withstood Creler attacks, an army of the undead, Face-Eater Moths and that was before it had been rebuilt.

[Soldiers] who managed to break the windows of reinforced glass found walls of magic blocking them. A Centaur blew out a cloud of noxious smoke that drove the [Soldiers] into a confusion, hitting each other. A Minotauress held one window, smashing helmets in until it was closed off.

An Antinium loosed arrows from the rooftop as Rags grimly aimed spells out the windows in the common room. Calescent and Ulvama were on the upper floors, keeping the enemies trying to climb up off.

Everywhere a bee buzzed, the attacks grew slack. [Soldiers] ran into each other, or heard the wrong orders. Kevin, Joseph, and Imani, were nearly about to be killed by a Drake who’d climbed through the window they were trying to keep clear until Ishkr could reach them with a board and nails. They suddenly found themselves fighting with more skill than the confused Drake [Veteran] and drove him back out.

Fortress Beavers overwhelmed a Drake, bearing the confused [Soldier] down.

First [Soldiers] came, then monsters. They flooded around the inn, but the common room and even roof were easier to hold. Mrsha heard the shouting from inside the garden. She wanted to help, but all she was allowed to do was run from door opening to door opening, bringing potions and supplies to the others. It was more than enough; her healing potions passed through the door saved them more than once.

Antinium came to fight. They climbed out of the basement, rushing to where Rags and the unseen Niers directed them. Just in time; Mrsha saw a suit of armor grappling with Purple Smiles. Then a Flesh Worm trying to break through the outside.

Belavierr had called forth the enemies of the inn. That they failed to take the common room, and merely struggled at the windows, was because the vast majority of them broke in one place.

The hallway. That was where they came first. Hectval’s [Soldiers], the Doomslayers. Then monsters. All three were there at one point, fighting each other, confused, unsure of who their enemies were, just knowing they wanted to kill everything in this inn.

They never made it into the common room. There they died. They tried.

Oh, the Plain’s Eye veterans, as skilled as Hectval’s finest—more so. Drake [Soldiers], an army of them, far more than the treacherous fools who had killed the [Innkeeper]. Monsters, howling from the dungeon’s depths.

They were cut down by crossbows in the corridor, until their bodies blocked the arrow slits. Acid coated them, and they hammered on the reinforced walls, unable to break through. There was one entrance alone.

A [Bard] with a sword held that gap. A Hobgoblin who carried the dead with him. Who had waited for this day. To die here.

The men with hats fought by his side. Falling, despite Mrsha trying to save them. Some crawled away. Others lay still, never to pick their hats off the ground.

Numbtongue fought on. He slashed arrows in half, carved shell and bone and armor apart with the deadly sword that Pelt had made for him. No one had a blade to match his. Yet his body was…weak.

They wounded him with arrows and Skills and fangs. Spells burned him. His wounds healed and opened and…he stumbled. He was about to fall, and there was no man with a hat to block the blow. They lay where they had died. Numbtongue saw a snarling Drake charge at him.

A pair of curved blades swept the head from the shoulders. Numbtongue saw the [Soldier] fall, and stabbed the last Gnoll sent to kill Mrsha through the chest. He fought on, and saw a pocket open in the hallway.

Someone else was slashing about her. Clearing the bodies. Laughing. As if this was what she had waited for too. But she lived for this.

The onyx-scaled Drake caught his eyes as they slowed a second. The [Bard] hesitated, his sword raised—and the two held their ground, cutting down the monsters trying to get through.

Until the [Witch] arrived.

 

—-

 

She stepped through the hallway filled with bodies, leaving the Drake [Mage] where he had been. He had slowed her for a little while.

A desperate Goblin blocked her way, covered in wounds. She looked at his sword.

“Enough.”

His clothing picked him up and tossed him aside. Someone kissed Belavierr’s lungs with daggers enchanted to kill. Belavierr looked at the little Drake and threw her aside as well.

Inside the inn were Antinium and the annoying [Mages]. They turned on Belavierr, and she saw the little warlord raise his finger.

No more.

Belavierr clapped her hands together and the shockwave blew out the last windows. Mrsha was spared the fury of the spell; she stared in horror at the prone bodies.

The Stitch Witch stopped in front of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She was…breathing hard. Her dress was damaged, and she looked wounded. Xrn had hurt her. Yet Belavierr was still here.

“We will end this now, Mrsha. Come out. Or…”

She lifted a foot and pressed it against a little bee and man. Mrsha heard a little crunching sound. She came out of the door. Belavierr pointed at her.

Stop!

Ulvama rose to her feet. She cast fire at Belavierr. The [Witch] turned, scowling.

“Little [Shaman], get out of my way.

Half of Ulvama’s magical paints burned off her body as a black bolt went through her chest. Niers sat up and roared.

Mrsha, run!

She ran. Away from Belavierr. Not to the [Garden]—the brave, idiotic child ran out of the hallway, trying to draw the [Witch] away from her friends! Belavierr followed after.

Mrsha emerged into the area outside the inn. Where Erin had died. Monsters from the dungeon were everywhere. They turned on her, prey. Belavierr’s quarry. Mrsha saw a Flesh Worm rear up, palps raised to drag at her, and Liscor’s army was so far away, routing Hectval’s…

Belavierr watched, smiling, in the doorway to the inn. At last. At last…

She saw another of the girl’s threads appear. Wanderer, appearing out of nowhere again, striking with his quarterstaff. Annoying. But he was one Gnoll, and the monsters attacked him. Belavierr waited. Then she heard a familiar cry. A familiar…unexpected…irritating cry.

The Eternal Throne of Calanfer! To glory! Protect the child!

The Stitch Witch’s head turned incredulously. What? Here? But like the pests they were, the four golden [Knights] thundered up the hill, waving their swords.

Thronebearers.

Ser Lormel was first, hacking at a caterpillar-thing. Ser Sest, Dame Ushar, behind, riding around Mrsha, trying to drag her up, ride to safety.

The last of them rode at Belavierr. She looked up as Ser Dalimont called a challenge.

Stitch Witch! We meet again!

Ser Dalimont had known it was her the instant he heard about a [Witch] causing havoc outside. It had barely been thirty minutes and it was a sea of carnage! Only she could have done this. He rode at her, lance aimed at her chest.

“I have seen you beaten and fleeing before! The Singer of Terandria laid you low; you will not triumph here! Begone!”

Belavierr’s eyes widened as he spoke. She looked up, saw Dalimont coming. She whirled, and he missed. Cursing, Ser Dalimont turned, bringing his lance down for a second charge. The Stitch Witch stared at the Thronebearer. He had been there. Princess Seraphel, Cara—

“Who are you?”

Ser Dalimont struck home. Belavierr stared down at the lance in her chest. She reached out—snapped it. The Thronebearer swore.

“Eternal Throne—”

There was no Cara here. He saw Belavierr glance at him. Then focus on Mrsha again.

“Where are all these threads coming from? So many would die for one girl?”

“Yes.”

Dalimont rode down on her, sword drawn. Belavierr pointed.

A needle went straight through his side and out the other end, tearing through armor and flesh. Dalimont wavered. He tried to hack at her as he passed. She didn’t even stagger from the blow. He fell out of his saddle and Mrsha cried out.

Dalimont!

Sest saw the man fall. The Thronebearers and Wanderer were trying to get Mrsha out of the press of monsters. More kept coming. They were pouring out of the hole in the air. They hadn’t overcome the adventurer’s defenses; Belavierr was summoning them directly.

“We’ll never make the city! The inn—is it overrun?”

Ushar turned to the others. Wanderer didn’t reply; was there anywhere safe from Belavierr? The monsters were…more direct than she was, though. They were closer to killing everyone.

Rags stumbled to the entrance of the inn. Her ears were bleeding and she could barely see, let alone fight. She shouted.

Run! Keep running, idiots!

The [Knights] didn’t see her, only heard the shout. They turned, trying to do just that.

Flesh Worms crawled at them. Dozens. Mini-Skinners. Each one more than a match for one Thronebearer. Rags stared at them, and the [Witch].

Some things never changed. Only got worse. She bared her teeth. That was fine. They changed. She changed.

 

—-

 

A naked, gigantic worm reared up, herald of the dungeon’s evil. It reached down for Mrsha as Ser Lormel’s horse went down, screaming. He was pinned under it. Mrsha aimed her wand up at it.

[Arrow of Light]!

She spat a single arrow from her wand into one tiny little eye. The beast roared—then its head exploded.

Mrsha stared at her wand. So did Wanderer, Ushar, and Sest. Belavierr’s head slowly swung around.

“…What?”

A second Flesh Worm went down. This time—pinned. Like a worm with a needle run through it, appropriately. Mrsha saw the oversized bolt dig into the ground. Then another tapped a suit of armor and sent it sprawling, armor bowed in. She followed Belavierr’s gaze and saw a shape flash overhead.

The Frost Wyvern spat ice over the monsters as Snapjaw dropped a jar of alchemist’s fire over another monster’s face. The Wyvern flew on another strafing run, but another had dropped its cargo.

A small group of Carn Wolves led by Redscar and Thunderfur charged down the slope. The Goblin was swearing.

Chieftain! Find the Chieftain!

The others broke off as he charged into the fighting. Behind him, the Thunderbows fired again. The Hobs had set up on a hill and were firing the oversized bolts at range at the monsters.

Not at Belavierr; they had no idea what was happening; they’d only received her order to arrive now. Badarrow looked for Numbtongue; he was loosing arrows as fast as he could.

The monsters broke as the Flooded Waters tribe and 4th Company of Liscor’s army hit them from two sides. Zevara and Olesm had seen the fighting and turned back to help.

Countless armies, fighting, friends of the inn. It was like the movie Mrsha had used to chase away the darkness. A glorious, sad, brave story, even without the [Innkeeper].

The [Witch] lost her temper once more. She snatched a passing Drake from the saddle, one of Embria’s 4th Company, and shattered every bone in the [Soldier]’s body. She was growing. Her body grew, like the giant Mrsha had seen in her eyes.

“Enough! Little threads of coincidence and chance cannot save you. You are dead, Mrsha! Dead!

She roared. Embria looked up at the [Witch].

“What is that?

She had no idea, but she knew an enemy when she saw one. The Thunderbows changed their targets on Rags’ order. They fired—

The bolts snapped in midair. Eighteen good [Soldiers] ran into a wall of shadows and never came out. Belavierr pointed and Dame Ushar shouted as her armor—the threads underneath picked her up and slammed her so hard into the ground she broke half her ribs.

Niers Astoragon shouted, saving Embria from the same fate with a Skill. Yet none of his worked on one target. And Belavierr fought all of them at once.

Grimalkin slammed into her, cradling his broken arm. She raised one hand and hit him so hard he collapsed. She strode towards Mrsha, ignoring everything and everyone.

I will take your skin and fur. I will destroy this inn, and the body of your beloved [Innkeeper] so she will never return. You shall not die, for I name you my enemy. I killed the [Lady] of fire who walked here. So perish all those who offend me.

Mrsha didn’t run. Wanderer looked at her, pinned by his enchanted clothing and cloak. Mrsha couldn’t run. How many more would get hurt because of this…this evil, unstoppable, petty [Witch]?

Someone had to stand up to her. Mrsha raised her wand, glimmering with her little spells. The [Witch] bent down towards her.

Someone stepped forwards. He raised the smoking censer, and brandished the shield and club. He barred Belavierr’s path.

Pawn.

The [Priest] had been with Yellow Splatters, leading the charge against Hectval. Xrn had promised him she would take care of the inn. Now? Pawn blocked this strange Human’s way.

“No one will hurt Mrsha. Which kind of strange enemy are you?”

He was weary, and the simple shield and club had traces of blood on them. Pawn stood there, as Belavierr stopped. Mrsha looked up at him. Pawn, no! Don’t do it! She went to tug at him and realized—

He was standing in front of Belavierr. Everyone else had fallen down. Their clothing choking them, the very threads and dark bindings dragging them down.

The [Witch] stared at Pawn’s armor and clothing. She gestured; Pawn’s armored hood, customized for Antinium, moved slightly. He stopped it with his fourth arm.

“Strange. Is she some kind of clothing-mage?”

“Strange. You…have I ever met a thing like you?”

The two regarded each other, equally puzzled. No—Belavierr more so. Pawn just saw a giant Human with a hat, threatening to kill Mrsha.

“Begone, whoever you are. I will hurt you if you try to hurt Mrsha.”

He brandished the shield and club. They weren’t magical. He held the censer in his other two hands, and it smelled of cinnamon.

Belavierr made an incredulous sound.

Begone, little ant. I have bested your great [Mage]. You cannot harm me.

Pawn glanced towards where Xrn had done battle. He nodded, slowly, not ignoring the truth of that. His head rose and his mandibles clicked softly as he looked up at Belavierr.

“That may be true. But you will not harm Mrsha. I have promised.”

So saying, he advanced. Belavierr was a giant now, forty feet tall. She could have attacked Liscor’s walls themselves. Pawn seemed comically small as he strode at her leg, covered by her dress. He charged and swung his club.

For Erin and the inn!

He did not expect to hurt her, just slow her, to save Mrsha. Belavierr expected nothing either. Mrsha saw her reach over Pawn, ignoring him. Pawn swung his club and smacked her shin.

And Belavierr winced. Mrsha saw the involuntary reaction run across her face, then a look of astonishment. Mrsha gaped too.

That was not Belavierr acknowledging pain, or stumbling. It was not her saying ‘ow’ when her skin was on fire. It was actually…pain. She recoiled. Pawn swung his club again. Belavierr’s face twisted into one of confusion.

“Why…?”

She was normal-sized in a moment. She stared at Pawn, backing away. Then she bent and…rubbed at her shin. Pawn hesitated.

“I thought I was dead. What is this person? Some [Mage]?”

He looked at Mrsha. She just gaped at him. Belavierr frowned.

“…I cannot see your class. What—what are you?”

She eyed Pawn, disturbed. He looked at her. Then he charged.

For the inn! Defend it once more!

Belavierr produced a staff of dark metal and blocked Pawn’s club. Light flashed and she stumbled. She stared at the artifact she held, and then Pawn’s club. It should have exploded, and taken the Antinium with it! Yet he had matched the Stave of Nerrhavia, given to the Stitch Witch long ago, like it was a relic of the same class! She tested it on a Flesh Worm crawling away nearby and it exploded.

Pawn flinched at the rain of flesh. He eyed the staff and backed up a step. Belavierr eyed his club and pointed at it.

“How did you come by that relic?”

The Worker eyed his club.

“…I bought it for three coppers on discount from a [Blacksmith].”

The two looked at each other. Then Belavierr spun. Her eyes went wide, the replacement and immortal one.

What is…that?

Mrsha saw two figures advancing on her from the side. Niers, Rags—everyone lying on the ground looked up. Mrsha had seen, heard about the things Pawn could summon; he had told Lyonette about them.

But those were not Aberrations. Two glowing Workers stepped forwards, armed with simple weapons. They looked…like Pawn. Yellow Splatters, lying prone, held down by the armor suddenly twice as heavy as lead, looked up and whispered.

Knight. Bishop?

“Erin would make a pun. I cannot.”

Pawn looked at the two Workers. They flanked Belavierr. She spun around, lashed out with her staff.

One of the glowing Workers vanished, mid-detonation as the staff struck his chest. The other lunged. He stabbed and she cried out.

How do these things exist? They should not be here!

She tore it apart with a hail of needles. It worked on the Worker, but she seemed unnerved. She whirled to Pawn.

“You—stay back. [Deathlance]!

Mrsha saw the spell shoot at Pawn and screamed. The [Priest]’s mandibles opened. The deathly spell struck the air around him and—vanished.

A wall of light blocked Belavierr’s magic. She tried again, this time with tendrils that melted as they tried to get close to him.

[Holy Barrier]. It protected Pawn. It was not invincible; it flickered as Belavierr struck it with her staff. It even went out from the third spell, overloaded.

Yet it unnerved her. The [Stitch Witch] looked at Pawn.

What are you? What is your class? How can you—

He struck at her and there was another flash as she parried his club. She struck—and her staff hit his shield, and was knocked aside. If she had touched him, he would surely have died. But the [Priest] fought on. He swung the censer like a makeshift flail and she recoiled from it.

Niers Astoragon saw Pawn slow, panting. The [Priest] gasped. An answer at last, as Belavierr backed up, wary of him. Yet she held the deadly staff. Pawn lifted the club, touched it.

“[Weapon of Faith].”

He looked up at Belavierr. The [Stitch Witch] stared at Pawn. Her eyes focused on him. She looked at him, the simple club, and where the two Workers had stood. The barrier of light.

Belavierr had challenged the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She had laughed at Erin. She had not acknowledged Grimalkin of Pallass.

She had only stopped when Xrn appeared, and she had bested her foe, outraged by Xrn underestimating her.

An army stood before her—multiple armies, and she had walked through them. Only Niers Astoragon had wounded her in a significant way—and only once.

Belavierr, that old legend, faced down all of Liscor and had not even contempt for them. Now? She looked at the slightly clumsy Worker, waving a club at her.

The Witch backed away. Pawn stared at her, confused. Then he saw Belavierr raise her staff. She struck the ground with it, and a wall appeared.

An old, gigantic wall. A fortress so old it seemed to bear every century on it. Yet the wall still stood.

For a second, Pawn stared at the wall, and fortress beyond. Called forth by the staff. Then—he saw Belavierr walk through the walls. The Staff of Nerrhavia swung at his face.

“Begone, mysterious thing.”

She struck with all her might. Pawn blocked the staff and his knees buckled, chitin cracking with the impact. Belavierr whirled the bottom of the staff up, to strike his chest.

Bird shot her in the back of the head. She didn’t blink. Bird stared at his bow, tossed it aside, and drew four kitchen knives.

Bird! Be careful!

Pawn saw Bird harrying Belavierr’s back as he retreated, shield barely turning aside the deadly blows. Belavierr was strong and the staff had reach and could kill him in a stroke—but she was more scared of his club than he was of her. She kept her distance, trying to touch him from afar.

Bird? She glanced over her shoulder and saw the Antinium. She flicked a finger—then frowned. The Antinium spread all four hands. He had knives, and he had abandoned his bow, but he was missing his normal ‘clothing’, which was just his loincloth.

“I am naked. You have no power over me. Take this! Stab, stab—is this working?”

She spun her staff horizontally. Bird ducked, slashed at her legs. He backed up slowly.

“You are not a bird. Why can I not kill you? I have never met anything I cannot kill. Hm. Hiyah.”

To Pawn and Mrsha’s horror, they saw Bird drop his knives. He jumped at Belavierr and kicked her in the shin. He punched her in the stomach, tried to go for an uppercut to her jaw, but he was too short. He stamped on her foot.

Belavierr tried to strike at him, but Bird whirled sideways. He gave her a jump-kick to her chest and Belavierr didn’t move. Bird fell onto his back and waved his arms and legs as he tried to rock back upright.

“This one does not hurt me. Why that?”

Belavierr whispered. She just thrust the staff forwards and Bird flinched.

“Uh o—”

A second time, the holy barrier blocked the staff. Belavierr recoiled. She whirled around.

How?

Faith didn’t have a cool down. Pawn advanced from one side, giving Bird time to roll away and get up.

“Bird, don’t let her touch you. Pick up your knives.”

“They are Erin’s knives. Give me your power, Pawn.”

“I will.”

The two Workers advanced, one from each side. And now—Belavierr saw Pawn look at Bird’s knives.

They did not glow. They did not shine. But she backed away from both, and saw more Antinium coming up the slope. They had also divested themselves of clothing; unlike the others, they cared nothing for nudity. Her eyes flickered to Pawn, to Bird, crabbing left to stab her in the ankles…and she threw her head back.

Wretches! Do you think you can hurt me?

Suddenly, Belavierr boomed, and grew. Pawn recoiled and Bird hopped back. Belavierr was growing again! She pointed down, a giant with eyes flashing orange and evil.

“I am the [Witch] who comes for the end of all stories! I am the last offer of age, the oldest of stories! I have toyed with you all—you now feel my wrath.”

She pointed down at Pawn as the sky turned midnight behind her, like before. Dark threads spun through the sky as everyone looked up. Mrsha stared at Belavierr. Afraid, but—was she—monologuing?

Pawn also seemed confused. He advanced, but Belavierr swung a finger down.

“You will know my ire, little thing, and I declare it on all your kind until the last of you die in your sleep of horrors I will inflict. Return to your deep nests on Rhir and stay my designs no further unless you wish my wrath. I…”

Her wrathful eyes flickered.

“…Hm. What else is normally said?”

Pawn looked up, perplexed. He wasn’t sure if this giant Belavierr boded better or worse, but he saw one of his kind move. Bird didn’t care for speeches.

Aha! Got you!

He stabbed with all four knives at Belavierr’s foot. And…the blades passed through her. Bird stared at the knives, and gave Pawn a look of betrayal.

“You made them worse. How could you?”

“No. No, you idiots. She’s getting away!

A voice shouted, male and furious, invisible, as people started getting to their feet. Embria felt her armor stop pressing her down. She realized it at the same time as everyone else.

The giant Belavierr who had been announcing her wrath and enmity—wavered. Mrsha saw it vanish in a second. She gazed across the blank space, searching, knowing—

There. Belavierr lowered her hands and stopped making signs in front of the lantern she’d pulled out. She resumed walking away, blurring across the Floodplains with each step.

Pawn hesitated. He looked at the place the illusion had stood—then at the distant [Witch]. His mandibles clicked a few times.

“…Huh.”

Mrsha peeked around behind him. She saw Belavierr, but in the distance. The [Witch] wasn’t looming anymore. The staff was gone. She was already a speck across the Floodplains, and with each step, she went further.

She was—running away. Mrsha couldn’t believe it. Belavierr, who had faced down Xrn—was running?

She had not been afraid of Xrn, just wary. But this? The Stitch Witch played no games with her life. She had no idea what Pawn was. She had seen him give his power to Bird. So she ran.

Just ran away.

Everyone, the people from the inn, the army of Liscor, the Antinium—just watched her go for a second. Running away after all she’d done?

“4th Company, with me!”

Embria roared. She was in her saddle again, streaking after the figure. Dozens of people followed as well, shouting in fury. Pawn himself began to run forwards, but half-turned back.

Intuition, maybe. Belavierr was still looking back. And her eyes were still wrathful.

Mrsha stared after Belavierr—then jerked. Pawn whirled around and lurched forwards, charging towards her.

“Mrsha—”

The arrow hit him in the stomach. It had been meant for Mrsha. A snarling Gnoll, the [Hunt Leader], still alive, gasped. Belavierr’s magic, which had given him a second chance, faded. He collapsed, dead again, before Numbtongue speared him through the face.

Pawn!

Everyone was on their feet. Pawn reached for his stomach. He was murmuring.

“[Heal Minor Wounds]. Poisoned? Of course. Of…”

Yellow Splatters shouted for an antidote. Not this time! Not—

He saw everyone mix up around Pawn. Antinium, Drakes, Goblins—some of them baring their weapons at each other. Unsure of who was friend or foe.

Mrsha! Mrsha—

One of them called out. A Goblin ran forwards, to where Mrsha had been. Numbtongue.

Someone else changed paths in the crowd. A Gnoll bounded forwards, sword raised. He howled—brought the sword down on top of—

Nothing. Numbtongue ran the Doomslayer through. He looked around.

Mrsha!

She was gone. The Doomslayer died, howling. The Plain’s Eye warriors had failed! But—more would be sent! They would find her! Find—

Her? The others looked around. But there was no little white Gnoll. Not here. Or here…where was she?

 

—-

 

Embria broke off pursuit first. Belavierr was running, but as soon as she saw pursuers, she sent a flurry of needles through the air—then called fiery meteors out of the sky.

And that was to cover her escape. Embria aborted her pursuit instantly. It wasn’t worth it. Yet every nerve in the Drake’s body, in all of them, felt it was wrong to let Belavierr go. Not after all she’d done!

Someone else pursued the [Witch], shouting profanities.

Get back here! You coward! I’ll hunt you down! Do you think you can just run away? Do you know who I am?

Niers Astoragon tried to follow Belavierr. The [Strategist] was beyond angry. Apista flew with him, uncertainly. Belavierr was far too fast for them. Niers shouted obscenities at her back, infuriated. And…guilty.

He’d barely been able to touch her! All the [Strategist]’s Skills had helped fight the army, but this [Witch]? Her craft was opposed to his. An old monster.

Niers killed monsters like that. He vowed to remember this, and turned back to the inn, disgusted. Then he felt a prickle on his back.

The Fraerling turned back just in time to see the distant [Witch] stop a second. And lift a tiny hand. I remember you too.

F—

Niers dove. But Belavierr’s parting gift flashed through the air. The tiny little sewing needle struck him in the stomach and nailed him to the grass.

He screamed, roaring, as he grabbed it. The [Witch] turned back and continued her journey. Niers Astoragon lay there, swearing, trying to pull the needle free. He couldn’t, as Apista buzzed around him. Not until someone knelt down and plucked it out.

Niers looked up and cursed. By the time he returned to the inn—he realized Mrsha was long gone.

 

—-

 

No one saw Niers fall—well, only those who had been there. The rest was important enough.

Hectval in retreat. The [Witch] of legends on the rampage! You could write a headline with each story—but no one was going to.

They even missed the Gnollish assassins. It was understandable; to the observers, you might well focus on Belavierr alone.

Yet there was no Wistram News Network special. No commentary.

Wistram was watching, but the waxy expressions on half the Archmage’s faces meant Wistram was also close to throwing up. Naili felt—uneasy. And saw it reflected on Viltach, Verdan Blackwood’s expression.

On the other hand—Feor had focused on Xrn, and she had noticed his intense, even rapturous expression. Valeterisa? She was just fascinated.

Naili shuddered. The [Witch] who had used so many spells so casually was a nightmare to her. She tried to backtrace the other [Scrying] spells. Who else had been watching the firefight? Manus? Pallass—definitely.

Someone had to say something after a scene like that. A joke, a wry comment—something to break the paralysis. The Star Lamia swished her tail uncertainly. Then she cleared her throat.

“Uh—who said the inn and Liscor didn’t matter after the Human died? Go eat your tail. We have to do something about that place.”

Belavierr? Wistram took one look at her and decided…to let her be.

It was not a sentiment shared by all. Chaldion focused on the image of the [Witch] with his one good eye. He made a sound in his throat. That had been lurking in his city? But that was one concern of many.

He had noticed the skills of a high-level [Strategist] and he read the news. And…his claws danced urgent orders on the [Message] scroll as his quill scribbled.

Chaldion had noticed Mrsha was gone. But who was that Gnoll who had grabbed her?

 

—-

 

Wanderer strode across the Floodplains, ignoring the kicking, biting Gnoll. He was panting, clutching at his wounds. He spoke, as he covered ground almost as quickly as Belavierr, albeit differently.

Let go of me, let go! Kidnapper! Smelly, evil—

Mrsha couldn’t speak, but she made her displeasure known well enough. She squirmed so hard and kept trying to cast thorn spells that Wanderer had to slow. He panted.

“Stop struggling. They’re coming after you. You can’t stay here.”

They were still close enough to the inn—but he was already at the southern edge of the Floodplains. He looked back towards the inn. The inn, surrounded by the dead. Wanderer shook his head.

“That—[Witch]? An army of monsters and Drakes? That’s no place for a child. Madness.”

He had seen a lot of things, but the battle had thrown him. Mrsha opened her mouth to howl so Wanderer covered it quickly. Accordingly, she bit.

Gah—stop! Enough! Didn’t you see that Gnoll? The [Witch] or not—he was coming to kill you! He was Plain’s Eye, do you understand?”

Wanderer forced Mrsha off his paw and put her on the ground. She looked back at The Wandering Inn and him. He squatted down.

He was injured. He’d taken wounds in battle—the worst of them simply the twisted fur around his neck. His eyes had a bit of red in them; Belavierr had nearly strangled him to the death with his own cloak. Wanderer coughed.

“I was trying to warn you. You have protectors.”

Mrsha nodded. She had to go back! She backed away, trying to explain—but she had no quill or paper. She pointed at the inn.

That’s my home. Don’t take me away!

She was poised to bolt, and Wanderer knew she would howl. He had only one chance, so the white Gnoll held out his paws.

“Child. Mrsha. Look at me. Look at…me.”

She looked, at the white-furred Gnoll. The mysterious traveller who had hid from even the Brothers, and whom she thought was bad…but had saved her? She hesitated. Wanderer nodded.

“I’m like you. I came here because I saw you on the scrying orb. White fur. If I saw you—they did too. You know Plain’s Eye?”

Of course she did! She was a Plains Gnoll! Mrsha nodded. Wanderer pointed back.

“They sent those Gnolls to kill you. Their best killers. Because of what they call you. And me. Doombringer. You know this, don’t you?”

Mrsha shrank. No—no—but she knew the rumors. She had known, in Liscor, that Gnolls feared her.

But those were City Gnolls. Krshia had learned. She’d be…

“They nearly got you, even with your protectors. They’ll come out of the shadows, they’ll try again. More tribes will. They will burn down a city to kill you. That inn—you have to hide. It’s the only way. Come, I know where you can hide. Where you’ll be safe. There are more of us.”

More of…? Mrsha looked at him, astonished. Even so—she backed away. Wanderer cursed.

Girl! You’ll put them in danger!

Mrsha looked at The Wandering Inn. That was her home, though. They loved her. Lyonette would come back and Erin…she couldn’t abandon it. She looked at Wanderer and saw how worried he looked. She didn’t believe he was lying. Even so—Mrsha thought of Pawn who promised to protect her. He was hurt because of her!

But run away? Mrsha drew in breath to howl, to call for her friends and protectors. Wanderer could have covered her mouth. He could have silenced her. Instead, he took a gamble and spoke.

“That [Witch] won’t forgive you, but even she will have trouble attacking you where we’re going. You know you might have drawn her? The attacks—you don’t know how to control your power. Not yet. You’ll put all of them in danger until you learn, and only we can teach you.”

The breath caught in Mrsha’s throat. She made a sound—looked at Wanderer. He knelt there, panting.

Liar. Mrsha stared at him. Everyone said—but it was just a myth.

Wasn’t it?

He shook his head. The Gnoll fixed her with two serious eyes.

“Why…do you think they fear you? Plain’s Eye? The other tribes? They forget—and they hate you because we are easy to blame. But there is a seed in every story, Mrsha. You don’t know the power of your fur. It can help you, the last gift of your tribe. However, so long as you don’t know it, you will endanger them all. Come with me, and I will protect you. Come; and you will be safe.”

The Gnoll waited. He saw Mrsha recoil, her face turning to shock, horror. Then—she looked back. Wanderer felt a pain in his heart. He did not want to tell her so soon. But the Doombringer looked at the other Doombringer. She did not resist as he slowly picked her up. Mrsha looked back at the inn, all the havoc and chaos.

Was it her after all? The Gnoll child wondered, hearing the terrible fear Belavierr had whispered to her.

Was it…me, Erin?

She did not have the strength to fight as Wanderer ran with her. For a moment, she was all the doom that caused misery and pain to her family, and it was better if she were gone.

But her family knelt there, searching for her, grieving and worrying. Doom? They had faced the [Witch] of legends for her. What was mere doom?

They followed soon after.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: No levels. There were more scenes I could have written; I have been editing at least for an hour, but I’ve used all my energy.

This chapter, the last one which hasn’t been published but is in editing—are big chapters. And I am still working for two more updates, until the end of the month; I’m going on a little vacation, and I might extend my usual break.

Either way, it’ll be rougher, but the chapter is done! I hope you like it, even though I could add bits and pieces. Levels, more with Ulvama, tighten and cut and…

Well, I’m exhausted, and the web serial pace means I can’t. For some, important chapters, yes! But I’d rather give this chapter to you than keep you hanging two updates. Rest assured, levels and consequences and what happens next are to come! But later. We have all the words I can type, and I can type a lot of words.

Thanks for reading and look forwards to more chapters coming at you…after I rest!

 

Belavierr, Horns Posing, Noears and Eater of Spears, and more by Gridcube!

 

The Florist, the Hill, and Belavierr by Lire!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/lightsresonance

 

Numbtongue and The Putrid One’s end by ArtsyNada!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.27

(The next Public chapter will be released on June 22nd, as the Patreon chapter is delayed. The revised chapter will come up as a ‘double update’ later on, but the story is delayed by one chapter due to this.)

 

It was time.

Enough time has passed. Too much. Time was finite. Time ran out before you expected it to.

So, on days like these, time skipped and jumped and came together in important events.

In ways unforeseen by almost all.

It began with a departure.

 

—-

 

“I’m leaving Oteslia.”

Lyonette du Marquin interrupted breakfast with Mivifa, the Gentlemen Callers, and Saliss for this. Well, all but Saliss; he had passed out in his impromptu alchemy-station and heard about it near the end.

“You’re going, already? But after the ball…”

The Oldblood of Feathers trailed off realizing that Lyonette’s near-fatal stabbing might be the exact reason for her departure. However, the [Princess] just gave her a smile. The real reason was much simpler and planned in advance.

“I have to go back to Liscor. I promised I would. I know a lot’s going on, but…it’s time to go.”

Mivifa met Lyonette’s gaze and hesitated before nodding. After all, she could hardly insist Lyonette stay. The young woman was a guest that was only here because of Saliss. However curious she might be and Cire asking about her—no, that was just another reason it might be for the best.

She hadn’t seen Cire since…

But that was Mivifa’s problem. Lyonette thanked her, promising a gift from Liscor, and that was that. It was not hard to leave a city.

“Is um…what’s his face still in prison? I bet he’ll have something to say about you going. Hah! That’s hilarious.”

Saliss blearily looked at Lyonette. She had no idea why that poor Gnoll’s fate was so funny to Saliss.

“Ferris? I haven’t seen him. I chartered a coach from Izril’s Wonders. We’ll be riding with others, but we’ll get to Pallass.”

“That’s hilarious. Well, I’m staying. I have more work to do here. More ingredients to get. That okay?”

Lyonette nodded. She was rather pleased not to suffer his presence on the way back. Besides, Ratici and Wilovan would escort her.

There were reasons she should stay. Magnolia Reinhart had asked Lyonette to call on her. So had Ilvriss, the First Gardener…they all received Lyonette’s careful, hand-written note that morning.

Leaving? She absolutely cannot! Ressa, do something.”

“Like what? Slash her carriage’s wheels?”

“Mm. That’s a good idea—”

Ilvriss just accepted the note, while the First Gardener was dismayed. And she was far from the only person who wanted Lyonette’s attention. The owner of the Faerie Flowers, the Human who had danced with the Wall Lord, who was from that famous inn in Liscor—leaving?

“She can’t! I haven’t even talked to her!”

Cire shouted in dismay; Rafaema was already out of the door. Lyonette hadn’t even sent her a note, but the Dragon wasn’t about to let her go! So she marched out and found a small crowd outside of Mivifa’s home. One of the Gnolls was already hammering at the door, but one of Oteslia’s top [Pegasus Fliers] knocked instead.

“Miss Mivifa? The First Gardener’s sent us to request the Human, Lyonette’s presence urgently.

Mivifa eyed one of her co-workers and the crowd all demanding to see Lyonette. She coughed into one claw.

“Not to stand in the First Gardener’s way, but…she’s already gone.”

What?

The Named Adventurer sighed and rubbed at her earholes. Still, she had to hand it to Lyonette.

She didn’t know that the [Princess] was from Calanfer, and thus an expert at things like this. When you announced your departure—you left before you could be held up.

In fact, Lyonette had outsmarted even the people now trying to race out the city gates and stop ‘her’, because she wasn’t leaving with the first shuttle north. She’d made one stop with Saliss in tow, just before she left.

“Excuse me? I’m looking for Researcher Dromenl? Lion Solstice and Saliss of Lights.”

The research institute that Lyonette had visited before opened its doors to her and she was conveyed for a speedy meeting with the Human man. After all, she’d convinced one of the best research teams in Oteslia to take on her case. It was in their best interests; they’d get no Faerie Flower parts without her help.

Thus, Researcher Dromenl had taken half his team to look into Lyonette’s quandary while the others were using their sample of non-growable cuttings to find out what they did. The man was quite polite, and offered her 3-day old tea, which Lyonette refused.

“I see you’ve been working hard?”

He wiped at his face, and was mystified by the smudges his hand returned.

“What? Oh, yes, Miss Solstice. Quite. It’s a fascinating problem, if a confusing one. Returning a frozen person to life…there are precedents. We’ve made some headway.”

Really?

Lyonette and even Saliss leaned forwards. She’d been worried they’d be devoted only to the flowers, for all that had been the carrot to get them to take on her project, but it seemed once a [Researcher] got stuck into a project, there they remained. Dromenl nodded enthusiastically, sipping from the old tea with no apparent disgust.

“Indeed. Healing issues aside…well, your poison is a known mix in the Hectval region. Tongueshade, Pithberry, and I think the venom of a Sworttoad or something similar. We’re working the last one out; it’s a classic anti-healing poison, practically standard on crossbow bolts.”

“I could have told you that. I did tell you that, didn’t I?”

Saliss snorted. Dromenl gave the [Alchemist] a reproving look. Lyonette just sat up, writing down the ingredients. They’d actually found out the poison?

“Yes, well, Master Saliss, you could probably heal or produce an antidote easily enough on a living patient. However, in this case? We’re working on neutralizing it, which won’t be easy if it’s in the bloodstream, but there are ways.

“Tell me.”

Dromenl sighed, but recited his findings from memory.

“Well now, what we’re looking at are multiple issues, so my team is working on each one…with various degrees of success. The poison’s easiest. We debated a counteragent, but if it’s in the ah, body—it would be easiest to extract it prior to a healing attempt. What we need is a skilled [Mage] who can perform a [Detoxin] spell that removes said poison. We’ll find the right spell; we just need to consult enough spellbooks.”

“That’s—that’s wonderful.”

Lyonette and Saliss exchanged a look. Just conjure the poison out? Dromenl nodded.

“That’s simple. The harder issue is…bringing back someone who’d technically alive, but frozen. Frankly, I’m not sure if this young woman is alive—”

“She is. We tested.”

He nodded.

“—Then the trick is her flesh. Not healing. The Potion of Regeneration may have failed simply because her flesh cannot be unfrozen by mere heat. The damage…well. That’s why you hired us. I’m still not sure a Potion of Regeneration even works on someone with her parameters—only the living. We’re looking into precedent.”

“That doesn’t sound promising.”

Saliss raised his brows. Lyonette’s heart sank. Dromenl gave them another patient smile.

“It doesn’t? It does to me, because there is precedent! Old, but there. We have at least four studies we’re trying to find more data on—old records of adventurers surviving freezing by Ice Dragon breath, or similar spells. Even someone who was frozen in a block of ice but later thawed by a [Sage].”

“That—!”

Dromenl was nodding.

“Not the same, given poison, but we have progress, Miss Lion. We just need to run down each option. If you are leaving, does that mean you won’t require checkups?”

Lyonette shook her head instantly.

“Not at all. Weekly at minimum, [Researcher]! I need you to send updates to Liscor, The Wandering Inn. The Mage’s Guild will know me. I’ll be back within a week or two, but I have to return. Will you have more progress by then? This is excellent, thank you for your hard work.”

Knowing the poison was valuable, but Dromenl could only shrug rather than reassure Lyonette.

“These things come in leaps and bounds or slow stretches, Miss Solstice. Not predictable at all. However…”

He chewed on one lip.

“I hesitate to mention this, but your down payment won’t last for the entire duration. We’ll need more funding over time. I’d ideally like a sample of the ice or even tissue…I know that’s extreme. Maybe just the same spells used, so we can duplicate it on testing subjects? But ah, financially, are we secure on this project?”

Lyonette hesitated for just a second, although she did have quite a bit of gold—just perhaps not for an entire [Researcher] team? However, Saliss interrupted both.

“Money? How about this?

The Drake slapped a copper coin on the table in front of them. Lyonette and Dromenl stared at it. Saliss looked at their faces, then reached into his bag of holding and slapped five more down.

He met Dromenl’s gaze.

“There’s more of that if you keep bothering me about money. Literally. I will dump two thousand copper coins down and make you clean it up. She’s good for money.”

“If a Named Adventurer is vouching for you…very well.”

Dromenl pushed the coins back towards Saliss. The Drake happily flicked them onto the carpet. Dromenl sighed.

“Very well, Miss Solstice. It’s back to work for us. Fissival is sending some of our notes via teleportation—two have to be transported by Courier, given the fragility of the information—we will communicate with you in seven days, sooner if we have a breakthrough…can we arrange the Merchant’s Guild to pay and communicate extraneous costs? Adventurer Saliss, please stop throwing copper coins on the ground! Please?”

And that was that. Lyonette bade farewell to Saliss as Wilovan and Ratici walked with her to the waiting coach. It was anticlimactic, but she’d be back.

“Maybe with Mrsha. Or not…I was stabbed.”

“Eh, you get stabbed everywhere. I can get stabbed on my way to the toilet. Don’t worry, I’ll check in too and kick their tails if they slack off.”

“So you are staying?”

The [Alchemist] grinned; he’d put on pants and even clothing to help her leave in peace, a heavy imposition, but one he’d agreed to. He adjusted the hat he’d insisted on wearing as part of the ‘disguise’. It still made him noticeable, but Lyonette had to admit that even a bright yellow hat and garish clothing still made everyone assume the peculiarly-dressed Drake was anyone other than Saliss of Lights.

“Eh, I need more ingredients and the Faerie Flowers are being researched here. Might as well stay; Xif needs someone to bother him. Be seeing you.”

He saw Lyonette off as the young woman got in the coach. Saliss said nothing about Manus’ agent, who was probably tearing his fur out at her leaving after all his hard work. Nothing about Magnolia or Ilvriss, because, in the end, Lyonette leaving was probably the most chaotic thing she could do.

Saliss was all about that, so he waved as she sped out the gate with an actual coach of Izril’s Wonders and a Drake [Coachwoman] animatedly chatting up the guests within about their first visit to Pallass—or returning trips for Lyonette and a Garuda.

The Drake smiled as Lyonette went, wished her the best of luck and turned away. Then he whirled back.

No damn way. Lyonette! Lyonette—

He began running, but it was too late. The first boom-boom of distant drums met Saliss’ ears. He raced out the gates as Oteslia’s [Guards] came alive. Saliss stopped, and stared out across the bridge leading over Oteslia’s lake.

There, in the distance, just as he’d heard, came war drums. Lyonette’s coach slowed, and those within Oteslia looked up. At…the army coming their way. Saliss heard someone sound inner alarms, but he didn’t need to hear them.

Army within siege range! Lock down the gates!

“Everyone in! In!

The queue at the gates turned into a panic as the [Senior Guards] shouted in alarm. One of them turned to the sentries on the gates.

What army? Gnoll? Drake? Where’s it from?

“Drake! It’s—”

The enchanted spyglasses trained on the flags. Saliss saw with his augmented eyes a second before the sentries.

Zeres.

 

—-

 

The City of Waves had come in force. They had been at war with Oteslia for a while, but war between Walled Cities didn’t always come to full blows. Normally, it was assailing each city’s assets; attacking a Walled City front-on cost too many lives for Walled Cities to countenance. Even sieging a city was dangerous, as their protections made it more dangerous for the besiegers than defenders.

This? This was a rare case. A kind of gesture, although it would certainly lock down Oteslia. Zeres had sent an army, one large enough to make Oteslia’s own army hesitate to sweep down and push them aside. They might have still tried it, but the immediate effect was to shock and awe.

The Sharkcaptain of Zeres himself was leading the gesture, courtesy of the Serpentine Matriarch. He was aware the gesture was more of a middle finger to Oteslia. And Magnolia Reinhart.

“Humans.”

He snorted as he saw the foot soldiers advance. Mostly infantry; Zeres, being a naval nation, didn’t specialize in riders or fliers like Manus and Fissival. However, they were good enough on land.

Halt! Oteslia is under siege! Halt for inspection!

A Zeres [Lieutenant] was in front, stopping all traffic in or out. Most vehicles halted; several leaving Oteslia went straight back the way they’d come, fleeing inside the City of Growth.

All except one. A coach bearing Izril’s Wonders’ logo was heading north. It seemed to waver and began to slow, turning in a ponderous arc to return to Oteslia. That was all fine and the [Lieutenant] was happy to ignore it.

Right up until there was a muffled argument from inside, and a Drake clambered out to replace the terrified [Coachwoman]. He whirled the coach and began to take it north.

That was when Zeres’ army took notice.

You! Hold!

A full squad of Zeresian [Soldiers] charged after the coach, but they were on foot, and the coach was heading north, at a gallop now. Swearing, the [Lieutenant] called it in.

“Coach going north! Probably civilians—orders?”

It went to two leaders; the Admiral of the Land, and the Sharkcaptain. Femar, the Champion of Zeres, stirred himself, but the Admiral of the Land just sighed.

“Long-range [Appraisal] check. Occupants?”

The [Mage], one of the specialists in counter-smuggling and spells like this, usually on a ship, grumbled. She cast the spell, a Drake Drowned Woman, her scales turning into a fish’s gills on half her face. Her breathing was thus harder in the air. She frowned.

“Six civilians, all below Level 20, Admiral, but…three unreadables. All masked.”

The Admiral of the Land and Sharkcaptain stirred. Both of them glanced at each other.

“Magnolia Reinhart, the [Butler], and that [Maid]?”

Femar suggested. The Admiral of the Land shook his head.

“That’s a regular coach. Just a coincidence. Still…don’t risk it.”

Every instinct in Zeres’ command was that if someone ran and you couldn’t tell what they were carrying, stop them. They were used to smuggling runs, so the order went back.

Stop that carriage. Mark it!

The army gave chase, more [Soldiers] streaming out. Still—the few [Riders] were distant and for all the Drakes on land charged, the coach was getting away. The Sharkcaptain watched calmly. After all…

 

—-

 

Saliss commandeered a horse and a [Guard]’s gear by grabbing it. When the Drake resisted, Saliss just ripped off his clothes.

Saliss of Lights! Give me that!

The Oteslian [Guard] was smart enough not to argue with a Named Adventurer. Saliss swore as he rode the horse forwards. He would have given anything to use a Potion of [Haste] rather than a stupid horse, but he was low on every potion! Damn, damn…

He saw Lyonette’s coach heading north, pursued by Zeres’ army. Saliss thought they’d make it—right up until the second army came over the hilltop. This time, Saliss snarled.

You bastards! That’s your own side! Don’t do it—

But it was too late. A wedge of riders made for the carriage, alerted by their allies, no doubt. It was all so ironic. Saliss’ eyes focused on the distant flags, the second set of war drums. He had been taught by Chaldion since he was small. Of course, Saliss knew what this army was.

Liscor’s army had been participating in the war between Oteslia and Zeres. Now—Zeres called them in. A group of riders shot towards the carriage and it turned, realizing it was heading for the second half of the sieging force. It turned back to Oteslia after hesitating—too late. Now, Zeres’ [Soldiers] were closing in and it was a race to the bridge and the closing gates.

 

—-

 

Lyonette’s first view of Liscor’s never-seen, oft-spoken of army was a smaller force than Zeres’, but with just as many standards. It appeared and [Riders] shot forwards, riding down on them.

Weapons drawn.

You’re going to get us killed! We have to surrender!

“No, back to the city.”

Wilovan snapped. Ratici was flapping the reins, urging the horses onwards, but he was no [Driver]. Lyonette looked at him.

She had asked them to try and get them north, but they’d already been acting by the time she made the gamble. Now, they ignored the pleas from the other passengers to stop!

“How much trouble are we in?”

The Gentlemen Caller gave her a snarl of a grin, so uncharacteristically worried she realized something was wrong.

“Us, Miss Lyonette? In for a rough share of it, but no more than that, I’d wager. A bit of a to-do—if we weren’t with you. The trouble with fine folk like Zeres is how they treat people on their lists. They like looking into things, which means all three of us are up a few creeks I wouldn’t mention in polite company.”

He meant them. The Gentlemen Callers! And her. Lyonette’s heart began to beat faster. If they took her ring off and read her class—

Faster, Ratici!”

 

—-

 

“Looks like they spotted us coming.”

“You really thought they wouldn’t?”

The Sharkcaptain and Admiral of the Land were talking, ignoring the only bit of drama. Some idiots in a coach; Oteslia was their focus, and there were really no surprises. Their army was ready for this, even if the citizens were panicking. No one escaped fliers’ visions, especially not with an army.

They’d never siege Oteslia to surrender; the city could literally feed itself forever. What they could do was strangle trade, make Oteslia sweat gold, and it didn’t have much to sweat.

Reinhart. That was the issue. The Sharkcaptain’s eyes narrowed. Their agent must have seen something truly nasty, to not hold off and move right away. Too many Drakes from other cities were here for his liking. Peace with the Humans? It was going to be a knife in the back. So…

Admiral, clash with the coach!

Both Drakes turned back. The coach had stopped, chased by Liscor’s riders straight into Zeres’ troops. It had tried to swerve past, but been caught by the unique weapon employed by the infantry.

Nets. They’d tangled it up and now the army was going to conduct some questioning. Or…they would have. Because three had come out of the coach, a young Human woman, a Gnoll, and Drake. And they were fighting.

The Sharkcaptain stirred and snarled. Half a dozen Drakes were down!

“Those are high-level! Dead?”

No blood was visible at this distance; it looked like that Gnoll was laying about him as the other two ran for Oteslia. Which, of course, was the wrong move. Zeres’ army, interrupted from the enclosing operation, began to close in.

“Looks like they’re not bad. I’ll go and sort that out.”

The Sharkcaptain didn’t wait for a reply. He took off running, a grin like his namesake on his face.

 

—-

 

For a second Lyonette had wanted to talk to Liscor’s riders, but telling them she was a citizen and proving it was…not going to work, even if she had documentation. They’d turned back and run into the nets.

Now? It was getting bad. Ratici was running with her, and he blocked a Drake coming in with a spear thrust, severing it, and kicking the Drake. Wilovan was knocking Drakes down, too fast for them.

But that just meant Zeres was beginning to realize they were a threat. They came in, and Lyonette felt an ominous shudder run through her. A knife pricked her skin.

Wilovan, Ratici! Someone’s coming! Someone with a powerful aura!”

Like jaws! Like teeth!

The two Gentlemen Callers heard her and ran faster for Oteslia’s walls. They would not surrender, if it had been an option before. If they were caught? They died. Zeres dealt with criminals one way.

Lyonette ran, now drawing her sword to defend herself. She saw Ratici swear, and jump back—arrows thudded into the ground ahead of him. The bridge! It was so far away, and Zeres’ troops were entering into Oteslia’s range, cutting them off. She saw Wilovan snarl and take a sword slice from the enemy [Lieutenant]. He lashed out, but a wall of [Soldiers] had spears. They were trapped! It was surrender or fight and die or…

That was when Lyonette saw the single rider racing across the bridge. She turned and her eyes widened.

Saliss?

 

—-

 

It was all damned idiocy. Drakes and pride. Drakes and grudges.

Saliss was sick of it. He knew why Zeres had come; to force the issue of Magnolia. The Walled Cities would take sides. This? This was flexing their muscles.

So was the carriage. They just had to stop everyone. Couldn’t let something lie. Now, because they saw the three as a threat, they were ready to spear all three.

Idiots. It didn’t have to come to this! Oteslia was blasting warnings at Zeres, he knew. But they wouldn’t open up with their attack-spells, though they could kill hundreds of Zeres’ [Soldiers]. They didn’t want war.

And Saliss didn’t want Lyonette to die. Or risk becoming a political captive if they found out she was Calanfer’s 6th Princess. Wouldn’t that be a disaster on multiple fronts? If worst came to worst…Saliss could just imagine Terandria pivoting and declaring war with Zeres for taking a [Princess] prisoner.

Not to mention the two Gentlemen Callers. So—Saliss rode. He hadn’t ridden a horse for a long time; he could run with potions much faster. Yet it was familiar. The horse was used to combat, and obeyed his directions easily. He bore down on the stream of soldiers hemming in the three. No blood had been spilled save for Wilovan’s. Saliss bellowed.

Saliss of Lights. Lower your weapons, in the name of the City of Inventions!

 

—-

 

Mivifa stared from her position on top of the walls at Saliss in shock.

“Saliss? What are you doing?

She couldn’t credit it. That wasn’t like Saliss. She could imagine him causing chaos, even confronting an army with potions, like he had with the [Assassins], but this?

He had taken weapons from the [Guard] he’d accosted, and the horse. She knew he had to be low on potions. He was shouting as he bore down on Zeres’ [Soldiers], trying to free Lyonette and the other two. Mivifa didn’t understand why they’d panicked. However, now she saw Zeres’ soldiers turn to face him.

They looked up and saw the Drake riding down on them. Naked. Carrying a spear and shield he’d snatched from one of Oteslia’s guards. They hesitated, and maybe some thought of the famous Named Adventurer, but…they were [Soldiers]. They set themselves in a quick spear line. Mivifa expected Saliss to turn away.

He did not.

 

—-

 

Idiots. Saliss looked down at the line of Drakes, the thin gap where flight remained. He shouted at them to stop, listen to him! They did not. It was always like this. The [Soldiers] watched the Drake bearing down on them. Maybe some knew he was Saliss of Lights, but it was Saliss with a spear. Not potions.

As if that made him less dangerous. Saliss? Saliss was a Named Adventurer, you stupid idiots! Potions or not, a Named Adventurer. And what they forgot every time—

Granddaughter of the Cyclops of Pallass. Chaldion’s heir of war.

The Drakes fighting with the two Gentlemen Callers barely saw him coming. Saliss struck through the first line of Zeresian [Soldiers] in an instant, spear whirling. Unlike Wilovan—he played no games. Unlike Wilovan, the criminal, but a gentleman of one—Saliss had been trained by no gentleman.

He left behind only dead Drakes. The [Lieutenant] turned, eyes wide—Saliss brought the spear down as the Drake tried to pivot with the sword. A sword versus a Drake on horseback? Idiot—

Lyonette saw blood fly. The Drake fell, cut across the arm and chest as Saliss slowed. Lyonette, even the Gentlemen Callers stared up at Saliss. He’d—killed six Drakes, running them through with the tip of his spear in rapid succession.

To the city! Now!

He snapped, leaping from the horse’s back. Lyonette was boosted up and they fled. But more [Soldiers] were coming.

 

—-

 

“A Named Adventurer is assailing our forward ranks! Saliss of Lights!

What?

The Admiral of the Land couldn’t credit it. He stared at the lone rider, and turned.

“Someone stop Femar! Stop—pull back the [Soldiers]! We don’t want conflict with Pallass!”

It was too late. The Sharkcaptain had seen the first [Soldiers] go down. He roared, already running forwards, pointed at Saliss and the others, and bellowed over the top of the commands.

You!

He might not have even recognized Saliss. The four were running towards Oteslia, but the [Soldiers] were keeping clear of Saliss’ spear. The naked Drake turned as he saw and heard the Sharkcaptain running at him. Wilovan turned, eyed the Sharkcaptain and ran faster after Lyonette.

 

—-

 

The idiot of idiots was coming his way. Saliss saw the Sharkcaptain of Zeres, his own barbed spear aimed at him and shouted back.

You idiot! Just let us go! Don’t make this worse!

He didn’t get an intelligible reply. The Sharkcaptain of Zeres bellowed in fury and charged. Saliss swore.

“Don’t make me—”

That Drake was far more dangerous than a regular [Soldier]. Saliss checked his bag of holding, mind racing.

He had two dozen items in stock he could use. He reached for the shapeshifting tincture. If it was the Sharkcaptain, it was kill or die if that idiot lost his head.

Not one of our best, dying over this! Senseless, senseless—his mind was racing. But if it was him or the Sharkcaptain…Saliss grabbed the tincture and lifted it, swearing. Lyonette’s horse reared, screaming, as the jaws of the Drake’s aura closed on it and Lyonette screamed. She stared down at the blood from the gashes on her arm and barely blocked the rest of the aura; Ratici staggered, Wilovan snarled, spinning with his club. Saliss saw the huge Drake leap through the air—

And twist. Something flickered past Saliss and he heard a second bellow, saw a blur in the air. The huge Drake crashed down, slashing with his spear, rolling upright and clutching at…the stab wounds?

Shriekblade leapt backwards, grinning, her daggers stained red. Saliss blinked at her.

“Tessa?”

She was slashing, diving in and out, tagging the Sharkcaptain twice more, ignoring his aura, which cut at her own scarred scales. Saliss turned, half about to go back. One stab and she was dead—or the Sharkcaptain was. Either way, Izril lost someone they couldn’t afford to, and this was the worst duo to get into a fight. Neither one would back down until the other was dead.

 

—-

 

It was about this time the Admiral of the Land realized how far it had all gotten in moments. This ‘routine’ siege had turned into the makings of a true disaster. This wasn’t supposed to turn into combat action! They were just here for the referendum on the Human peace—and the Meeting of Tribes. Not this.

“Dead gods! Two Named Adventurers—get the Sharkcaptain to safety! Pallass and Salazsar have taken the field!”

If he died—calamity, not just from the Serpentine Matriarch’s wrath. It would be war indeed, full-out, and in earnest. More of Zeres’ soldiers rushed forwards, to prevent the bloodbath. The three who’d started all this were trying to make for the gates, but now Liscor’s army had seen and the [Riders] were shooting towards them.

A massacre! But for who? The Admiral of the Land saw a single shape break through the horror-show. His eyes widened and he threw up a claw and bellowed the only order he could.

“Hold! Everyone—hold! Do not advance! Do not attack!

His army slowed as the last party entered the fray. Lyonette du Marquin looked up and could have sobbed in relief.

 

—-

 

The pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart. It stormed towards the Drakes and Humans, faster than even the Drakes riding down on them from the north. Reynold bore down on all those fighting, and came to a stop, door already open.

Get in.

No compliments from the [Combat Butler], no polite greeting; Lyonette piled in with Wilovan and Ratici. Saliss turned.

“Tessa, get in there!

He thrust her back. The Sharkcaptain looked up, snarling.

I knew it! You—

He stabbed. Reynold turned and the carriage slammed into him side-long, and the two Named Adventurers leapt inside. The Sharkcaptain stabbed the coach from the side as he was knocked back; the spear left a mark, but that was all. Then the pink carriage was racing towards the last gate open in Oteslia. Only then did Saliss breathe out.

Everyone was safe. Everyone was alive. Except…for six poor Drakes he’d just killed. Six, because of stupid pride and armies. He realized their blood was on his scales.

Some days Saliss hated Saliss more than others.

 

—-

 

That one incident had caused almost as many problems as Zeres’ army. Ilvriss and Magnolia both met the [Princess] and two Named Adventurers as they poured out of the carriage, and Oteslia was fully locked down. Neither one spoke to the other; Ilvriss eyed Magnolia, and Ressa and Osthia exchanged appraising looks that Osthia was afraid she got the worst of.

Unfortunately, it was done. Zeres’ army had clashed with representatives of Pallass, Salazsar, and Magnolia Reinhart’s people. Six Drakes were dead.

Recriminations could come later. Lyonette stumbled towards the waiting Wall Lord and [Lady].

“I just wanted to go back. Why are they here? Why now?

She was almost weeping, she was so angry and distraught. Magnolia pursed her lips, staring towards the army behind the gates. Ilvriss was striding towards Saliss and Shriekblade.

“My dear, I fear—”

Ratici was getting out of the carriage too, feeling at the cuts from that Drake’s aura. He’d seldom tangled with a foe who could cut him just by being in the same area! He also felt, instinctively, that his and Wilovan’s presence hadn’t helped Lyonette at all. But for them, she might have never come to this. The [Gentleman Thief] was remonstrating with himself when his head snapped up.

Watch out!

Too late. Ratici threw himself forwards at the same time as Ressa, Shriekblade, and Saliss, a beat behind them, reacted. Lyonette looked up as death shot at her, Magnolia, and Ilvriss.

Six projectiles, two magic, four blades flashed out of the crowd, from windows, and even from the top of Oteslia’s walls themselves. One actual arrow, two bolts, and one, a blown needle. A bolt of lightning and a [Fireball] spell. Each one soaring at the cluster of individuals standing together.

Not a one made it. Ratici grabbed both bolts out of the sky, twisting to block Lyonette with his body. Ressa made a quick gesture and both magic spells vanished as they hit an invisible barrier in the air. Shriekblade slashed the arrow in half and turned. But the needle—

“Ow.”

Saliss blocked the needle with one claw. He frowned down at it, as it quivered, stuck between his scales. It had struck him, drawing blood. Everyone whirled and he winced, then pulled it out. He waved it in front of Lyonette’s shocked face, and grinned at her.

“Good thing it was me. Poison’s nasty on other people. Oh, wait. It’s acidic. Never mind. Still okay.”

A small trail of smoke rose from his scales—then stopped as the acid neutralized itself. Saliss patted the cut, then he glanced up and met Magnolia Reinhart’s gaze. Ressa’s own hand, and Reynold’s was outstretched to block the last needle. Saliss’ face fell as he looked at the [Lady] of House Reinhart.

“Aw. No. Did I accidentally save your life? Sorry about that.”

Magnolia Reinhart made no reply. She looked around. So did the others.

Ilvriss, Lyonette, Magnolia, all stood together, the Wall Lord’s hand on his sword hilt, Magnolia’s on one of the rings on her finger. Lyonette met everyone’s shocked gaze at the same time, and the thought flashed between them.

Which had been aimed at? All three? Just one?

In the uncertainty Oteslia became chaos and confusion. Mivifa flew down and Rafaema skidded to a halt, as Ferris and Hunt Commander Makhir growled curses at Zeres’ poor timing, only a few facts were clear.

Two armies were camped outside of Oteslia, the City of Growth. It was under siege. Magnolia Reinhart’s trip had begun to reap a harvest of consequences. And…Lyonette was not getting home to Liscor any time soon.

 

—-

 

Time, time…it seemed like everything took too long.

Tic, toc, went the metronome. It counted down time so smoothly. But what was the point? Everyone said they were going to come back, or things were going to happen. But they lied.

“Lyonette is delayed at Oteslia.”

Mrsha didn’t react in tears or biting or any of the ways Ishkr feared she would. She threw no tantrum as he explained about the army, omitting the assassination attempts as Lyonette had told him to. The little white Gnoll listened, nodding.

It can’t be helped.

She lay on the floor of the inn, next to the metronome. Lyonette wasn’t coming back like she promised. There were reasons. Probably even good reasons.

Okay.

A worried Hobgoblin [Shaman] sat there, poking Mrsha and chewing on some salted chips Imani had made. She poked Mrsha in the side; the Gnoll girl didn’t react. Even when Ulvama sprinkled salt on her nose and she sneezed.

Ulvama needn’t have fretted. Mrsha wasn’t sad. She knew it wasn’t Lyonette’s fault and Ulvama was being worried for nothing. She was just…

Going to lie here for a while. Ishkr fussed, but eventually left it up to Ulvama, trusting her. Mrsha was just about to do something to make Ulvama stop poking her when she had a visitor.

Someone came to visit her, as Mrsha lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling. The poking Goblin stopped, and glanced up warily. She edged backwards as a polite person greeted both.

“Hello. I hope I am not disturbing you two? I heard Lyonette would be delayed and came to check on Mrsha. Do I know you?”

“No. Who you?”

Ulvama grunted in her pretend-speech, which was worse than her actual diction when she wasn’t around strangers. The Antinium bowed slightly and held out a hand which she didn’t take.

“I am Pawn.”

Pawn? Mrsha’s ears perked up. She looked up at Pawn, sitting, and saw the Antinium turn to her.

“Hello Mrsha. Are you sad? I have come to visit.”

Mrsha stared up at the [Priest], her mother’s consort, and leader of the Painted Antinium. She saw Pawn smile at her.

Her ears flattened and she crossed her arms.

Wonderful.

 

—-

 

Astonishing as it might seem, but for all they had been at The Wandering Inn for quite some time, neither Pawn nor Mrsha had really spent a lot of one-on-one time together.

Oh, they were there in all the big events. From baseball to huge battles. But neither one had participated with the other. Their connection was mainly through Erin, through Lyonette.

Mrsha sat, arms crossed, as Ulvama walked off. She had apparently decided to let the strange Antinium talk to Mrsha, and Pawn sat, very amiably chewing on some bratwurst that Ishkr had fetched as a snack.

He was, of course, an honored guest. A longtime friend of the inn. Mrsha scowled at him.

“Are you sad, Mrsha? Would you like some of my food? I am sorry I didn’t come earlier. Managing the Painted Antinium takes time, and I was uncertain of how to visit. Lyonette did ask me to check on you, and I believe I failed in that regard. I am sorry.”

The [Priest] smiled at Mrsha. She began to sign…then decided only the written word could convey the full nuance of what she wanted to say. She scribbled and he waited, eating quietly.

He was so…polite. So nice. The Antinium walked with genuine faith in his heart, and the other Antinium who had come with him, a small group of four Painted Antinium, ate at a far table, savoring the food.

I am not desirous of sharing food with you at common table at this time, Pawn. May I inquire as to why you have paid this social visit?

Pawn read the neat, curved words, and considered his reply. He nodded at the Painted Antinium.

“I often come to the surface. Liscor, that is. However, no longer to this inn. It is no longer appropriate now that…Erin is gone. We visit other restaurants and places, now. It took some doing, to find establishments that were willing to serve Antinium.”

That didn’t answer her question. Mrsha glanced at the Painted Antinium. She was glad they had a place to eat. She hadn’t thought of the Antinium, but if she had, she would have worried about them having a place to experience joys and wonders.

However, Mrsha didn’t want to hear that from Pawn. He was being too…chatty. Too friendly.

Of course, Mrsha would have accepted that from Garry, Anand, Belgrade, even Yellow Splatters or anyone else. Pawn was different, and he seemed to sense her hostility. Pawn carefully stopped chewing the food and looked at her.

“I did not come by, except to visit Erin, because I felt that Lyonette’s request might be problematic. You—do not like me much, do you, Mrsha?”

She hesitated. How did he know? Maybe it was written on her face. Mrsha checked her reflection in the blank scrying mirror and saw a little Gnoll, scowling back at her.

The Gnoll girl supposed the clues were there. He might have picked up on it from the times when she’d glared at him and Lyonette, tried to sabotage their time together, thrown bread crumbs on Pawn’s head when he was leaving…the clues could be uncovered by an astute [Detective].

She wrote back.

My animosity towards you is entirely based on your relationship with…

Mrsha crossed that out. She liked the fanciful writing that Lyonette had taught her, but sometimes you just needed to Erin your intentions out there. She handed Pawn a revised note.

No, I don’t like you, Pawn. You stole Lyonette. Go away, I’m fine.

The [Priest] looked at the note. He looked up at Mrsha, and the two met gazes. Ah, now. It was in the open. Mrsha didn’t just ‘dislike’ Pawn’s presence. She disliked…him. He was the first Antinium that Mrsha had disliked. Perhaps he was the first Antinium in the world to be disliked thusly.

This was a landmark moment in some ways. An Antinium had made an enemy, socially speaking. Not a dread enemy in blood and fire; just made someone who didn’t like them being around.

It was strange to Mrsha too, to dislike one of the Antinium. Oh, she’d been afraid of them, and Liscor’s citizens no doubt had mixed reactions to them. However, that was the unthinking bias against a species, which was in itself racist; they did not hate Antinium as individuals, just for existing.

Mrsha disliked Pawn for reasons that had nothing to do with his species and everything to do with Lyonette and Pawn being so…Pawn. He regarded her, as if mystified by the animosity. For a moment, then he nodded, slowly.

“I thought that you did not like me, Mrsha. Lyonette claimed you were simply jealous, but it seems I was right. May I ask if it is just because of Lyonette?”

Mrsha scribbled a response.

Yes. You took her away. Thief. Jerk. Bad smelly person. Creler-bait Selphid’s tits.

She added that last part in uncertainly, but she’d heard Seborn using the phrases, so figured it had some kind of insult-quality. Pawn lowered the note.

“I see. You resent me for liking Lyonette?”

Mrsha nodded, glaring. Why did he have to like Lyonette? Lyonette was Mrsha’s mother! She had said so! Pawn sat there, thinking.

“Lyonette is the first Human—no. The first person to ever truly know me, Pawn, besides Erin herself. I hope you understand that, Mrsha. It is impossible to love Erin like Lyonette. She is too much. You see—in my mind, she is up there.”

He gestured at the sky, or rather, ceiling. Pawn went on.

“As wondrous as the sky. Lyonette, though…Lyonette is different. We knew each other for a long time. I helped her when she was alone in the inn. I grew to like her. I hope you know this?”

Mrsha rolled her eyes. She signed with her paws, dismissively. Oh, here it came. I like your mother, so that’s why I took her away! Pawn was going to be nice and try to make friends with her. Fat chance of that. She knew she was being petty, but since Lyonette was her mother, Mrsha believed there was a time and place for pettiness.

She wrote back, as Pawn tried to cozy up to her. She handed him a reply.

I don’t like you, Pawn. I know that I should and it is unbecoming of me to be jealous, but I cannot gainsay how I feel. You took Lyonette from me, and that is a bereavement, however slight, I shall not, cannot forgive.

You can explain your affection, but it does not change the fact that I harbor a grudge towards you. We cannot be friends, so I invite you to stop trying. I will be fine on my own.

The little Gnoll waited. She’d be guilty if Pawn was crushed, but he had to know. She was sensitive to the Antinium’s fragile emotions and she even felt bad about being so direct, but it would be best if he left and they only met when Lyonette returned.

If Pawn was wounded by her letter, he did not show it easily. His mandibles opened and closed a few times as he read, and his antennae waved softly. Then he looked up and nodded.

“I see. Thank you for being clear, Mrsha.”

She sighed. He’d taken it better than she thought. She waved at him, graciously inviting him to leave. Pawn glanced at her, then looked around the inn. Ishkr was coming back with some drinks for the Antinium. Pawn leaned forwards.

“It is just as well, I suppose, that you do not like me, Mrsha. After all. I never liked you much either.”

The little Gnoll’s jaw dropped. She stared at Pawn and he sat back.

“Not as much as the others, to clarify. I never harbored you as much animosity as you seem to have towards me, but I do not like you that much. If we are being honest, I should tell you this too.”

Mrsha stared at him. She was outraged! Then hurt! He didn’t like her? Everyone liked Mrsha, except for bad people! Pawn’s mandibles rose in a smile when she opined that.

“I believe that is untrue. You are very cute. I quite like your company, and your antics. I do not mind when you steal from other people or cause trouble; all these things are well and I like you more than many people in Liscor. Less than other Antinium. You do cause trouble, however, and I believe that you are what Erin refers to as a ‘jerk’ from time to time. Sometimes, I feel as though you cause too much trouble with too little comeuppance, and get away with it because you are a child. You are older than I am, you know.”

Mrsha stared at Pawn. His admittance that he didn’t like her, not to mention these—these scurrilous allegations struck her deeply! She began to question him. Why didn’t he like her? Mrsha…felt sort of hurt!

Pawn thought about his reply for a while. At last, the [Doomspeaker Priest] nodded.

“I suppose it is not fair, Mrsha. I am being unreasonable. It is just…when you came to the inn, Erin had less time for me. I know it was necessary, but I resented that, though I never told her. You see, I was Mrsha before Mrsha. You took my place.”

The little Gnoll stared at the first Mrsha, dumbstruck. She…had taken Erin from Pawn? That wasn’t true! Erin loved Pawn!

But he didn’t stay at the inn. And…didn’t Erin care for Mrsha because Mrsha needed help? Not as much as Lyonette, all the time, but she taught Mrsha and played with her and…Pawn came by and she had time for him.

Mrsha had stolen Erin? But Pawn had stolen Lyonette! Mrsha felt disoriented. Weak. The world was on its head! Top was bottom! Right was left!

The first Mrsha and the current Mrsha regarded each other, realizing how one held a grudge for affections robbed. Meanwhile, the first Rags snorted in a corner at the latecomers.

 

—-

 

It seemed she had been selfish. Mrsha realized that. If she could hold a grudge—other people could do the same. She looked at Pawn and felt a bit—bad.

But the [Priest] didn’t seem angry. He just spoke the truth. And the truth was…they weren’t friends.

“Nor are we enemies. Are we?”

He looked at Mrsha and she shook her head. They were just—acquaintances. Unfortunately bound by Lyonette and the inn. She didn’t hate Pawn, and shyly corrected her mean words. He nodded.

“Thank you for writing that. This is why I did not come earlier; I felt my absence was best. However, since Lyonette will not be coming for a longer period…I miss her. I wished to make sure you were alright. It is hard, with her gone. Harder than it should be, because I was fine before I knew her.”

Mrsha looked at Pawn and he bowed his head. She scribbled.

Are you alright?

He looked up.

“I am fine, physically, Mrsha. I simply—miss Lyonette. You see, she left so quickly after Erin was hurt. We could not talk long. I…wish she had asked me to come. I know it is impractical, but she left because helping Erin mattered. As it should. But it felt as though our relationship was less important. More fragile. I would have gone with her, despite the danger, if she asked. I wonder if we will be the same when she returns.”

He was uncertain too. Mrsha reached out and patted Pawn on the knee. There, there. She was sure it would work out. He nodded at her.

“Thank you, Mrsha. I miss her. That is all. And I will not take up your time or bother you. We do not have to like each other, Mrsha. However, if you need help, I will give it. I know you are safe here, but if you need me—ask. And I will do what I can.”

It was a powerful promise. Mrsha looked up at Pawn, appreciating it. She had a new regard for the Antinium. Not that she liked him more—but perhaps she respected him, despite their animosity. And perhaps that did mean liking him a bit. Just a tiny bit. She thought, as Pawn rummaged in his belt pouch for money and a tip, then held out a card.

There is one thing you can do for me, Pawn.

He glanced at her.

“Yes?”

She wrote her request.

Give me cookies.

Pawn stared at the note. Mrsha met his gaze, deadly earnest. Imani and Ishkr guarded the kitchen like the most zealous protectors of a treasury. She waited, expecting the [Priest] to refuse.

Instead, Pawn just nodded, walked into the kitchen, and came out with cookies. He gave Mrsha five. Her eyes went round at the five, each a different flavor.

For me? Really?

She signed, and Pawn nodded. He let her gobble, furtively watching for rogue Ishkrs, but he didn’t even glance their way. Pawn explained his reasoning as Mrsha happily devoured the desserts.

“Cookies exist to be eaten. You should not eat too many, but I see no harm in giving you some.”

Mrsha decided this Pawn fellow was alright, after all. He had dubious designs on her own relationships, and he was objectionably direct, but he could deliver dessert where it counted. She saw Pawn smile, and then he spoke.

“I will tell Ishkr, of course, that you have had a satisfactory amount of dessert. You cannot have too many sweets, or so Lyonette says. And it is not good to lie.”

The little Gnoll stopped, mid-chew. Her smile turned sour. Her eyes rose to meet Pawn’s calm gaze. She gave him a narrow look which he calmly met.

It seemed they were destined to be mortal enemies. So the little meeting went, on the heels of bad news from Oteslia. However. It was still a time for choices.

A time for relationships. Distant, acrimonious…

Or even those about to end. Those on the brink. A decision had to be made. For everything was…falling apart.

 

—-

 

I’m going to rest I’m going to sleep

I’m going to cry I’m going to weep

I’m going to look out over the sea

Where there’s nothing left of you and me.

            — Rufelt Owelt, [Bartender].

 

As poems went—it was not the kind of thing that would adorn the history books of fine poetry. It probably wasn’t even good.

He only wished…it would make her laugh again. The Gnoll’s quill scratched in the silence, yet he did not think he would show it to her.

Not anymore. Perhaps not ever.

Rufelt felt a pang in his chest. It joined the pain in his stomach, the fear and trepidation and terrible longing. Destruction, absolute, rampaged through him, just emotion, but with such intensity that his body was beginning to break along with his heart.

He sat at an empty bar. There was a bit of dust on the surface. He’d have never allowed that. Not normally. But Tails and Scales was closed. They’d open, maybe, in a bit, but the regulars weren’t there.

The spirit wasn’t there, and their guests noticed. It had been packed the first few days when Lasica returned, but it had soured, like beer.

Everything was falling apart. The business. And…Rufelt and Lasica themselves.

If he showed this poem to her, what would she say? She’d told him his little poems, far from impressing, were just annoying.

Annoying. That hurt. That stung. It wasn’t just that Lasica said it, it was how she said it. She could be direct, but they made up, laughed about it.

There was nothing like that now. It was like being cut. Rufelt recalled what he’d said back and felt the pain intensify.

Barbs and sharp glass. That was what they tossed at each other. Words. So harsh.

What do you see in this picture?

That had been the start of it. Rufelt whispered the words. It had started with that—then led to another fight. He couldn’t get them out of his head. He sat at the empty bar counter. He knew he looked—bad. His clients had asked if he was well. They knew he and Lasica were fighting, guessed part of the reasons.

They could not know all of it. Rufelt’s paws trembled as he looked at the rectangle he was holding. Not a glass or dust rag like usual.

Their fight last night had been bad. Lasica had stormed out. She’d be back by nightfall; she hadn’t gone missing again, but he dreaded her return as much as he longed for it.

What was wrong? It had never been like this. Not once. They’d fought, like every couple did, but this? This wasn’t the same. When they snapped at each other, they left wounds Rufelt could feel.

It was her. The [Bartender] knew it, in every hair on his body, in every fiber of his being. Lasica’s anger, his retorts which were too harsh, the discord in their relationship, and what was driving them apart rather than together could be traced to one person. So many little events—all part of the same web. The same skein.

Belavierr. The Stitch Witch. The Spider of Terandria.

Was it wrong to blame her for everything? The miscarriage had been bad enough, but Rufelt thought they could have survived that. It was the [Witch] appearing, offering them the deal that was doing it.

“I can bring your child back. Just give me a bit of you. Just a bit of time, and everything will be made well.”

Rufelt heard her voice, whispering in his ear. He hated it. He hated her. Yet Lasica listened. Rufelt would have refused Belavierr, reported her to the Watch.

He could not. The words didn’t leave his tongue. The writing wouldn’t be put down, even in clues. He couldn’t talk to anyone, even his regulars, even in his own bar. He’d tried dispelling the curse or hex—but nothing worked.

Lasica refused to say anything. She’d told the Watch about her encounter with the ‘strange Gnoll’, but not Belavierr. She was listening to the [Witch]. She hadn’t said ‘yes’, because she wanted Rufelt to agree first.

The Gnoll didn’t want to. This was how they lived, these last weeks. Going mad with indecision. Fighting. All tangled up in her web of lies or…worse, truth.

She had sworn she could do it. The history books said she could do it. Rufelt wanted to believe it was a trick, but he’d found copies in other libraries when he’d tried to disprove it. She could still have lied, but…the most dangerous thing was if she didn’t. If she could make good on her promise and channel a magic beyond even the Archmages of today.

“Why us?”

Rufelt muttered. He turned over the rectangle. Each day, she visited them. Each day they fought and cried and—she came by and asked them. Why them, why so much effort for someone so powerful?

“Because you have more to give me than most.”

Rufelt knew it was true. She looked at him and he shivered, knowing she didn’t mean gold or their status as a famous bar in Pallass. Their levels. Their…

He stood in the bar, dull-eyed, going through the same thoughts in his head. As if hypnotized. Here was every father’s nightmare.

The loss of a child. Here was every parent’s dark dream.

If you could bring them back, what would you sacrifice? If it were any other way, Rufelt would have said anything. His health? His levels? His fortunes and life? For Lasica—in an instant. For the child he hadn’t known? Of course. Some nights Rufelt lay awake, thinking of the names they’d made. Dreaming of if. If the Demons hadn’t…

What would you do? But this was a different deal. Dark magic. Yet Belavierr said that in this case, she would make no simulacra. She would use true magic. She had looked him in the eye.

“I swear upon my craft, Rufelt Owelt, that I do not lie. Upon my hat and daughter that I possess—I can bring the dead back to life. It is a great magic. Yet give me what I want, and I will perform it. For I desire your strength. What would you do if all I said was true? Think of that.”

He did. He couldn’t help it.

If it could all go back to how it was before…

Rufelt Owelt no longer feared ‘what might be’, the cursed hope the [Witch] dangled in front of him, that he might see the child that had been lost. He feared what would happen if he refused her.

He feared he would lose his wife too. Lose everything.

He couldn’t think. He lived, day in, day out, like a zombie, only thinking of the choice. He knew it could not continue.

Time. Time to make a choice.

He sat in the empty bar, head in his paws. Going mad. She made it so hard. The Stitch Witch knew her clients. She knew how to plant the worst seeds in their heads, hatching dark fruits.

What do you see in this picture?

He whispered it out loud. Then, Rufelt picked up the object he held, which he’d been turning over, staring at. No glass ready to be filled with alcohol. It was…a frame. A glass frame, with a little mage-picture, an illustration inside.

The words of a monster. Oh, dead gods, but she was evil. Pure evil. Rufelt tried to look away, but he couldn’t.

He looked and saw a picture that had never been. There he was, with Lasica, grinning, her laughing at something to the side as they stood in front of his bar in Tails and Scales.

Holding a child.

The image had been torn out of…something. An alternate time? He kept staring at it, trying to believe it was an illusion. Trying to tell himself it wasn’t real. The longer he stared, though…

What do you see in this picture?

Rufelt stood in the darkness. Wearing himself at the impossible choice, waiting for Lasica to return. Wrestling with his fears, his desires, his hope and love. Until it or he—

Snapped.

 

—-

 

Niers Astoragon frowned as he sat in the beams of The Wandering Inn. He was shaving. A bit of metal and a bit of glass and black fabric did for the impromptu kit. He even had a gel from the [Alchemist]’s shop.

Yes, life was pretty good for the Titan of Baleros. Better than slogging through the High Passes. Yet it couldn’t continue.

He knew, even now, that his opponents had to be searching for him. The Wandering Inn might be on their lists and if the Great Companies were after him, well. The Iron Vanguard had the loyalties of countless Dullahans and Pallass was filled with enough.

They didn’t even need their own species. So when Niers acted, it was to stay ahead of his opponents. He waited until the strange Antinium finished exchanging insults with Mrsha and left.

She’d saved him some cookie. Well—a crumb, which was good enough. Niers took a few bites.

“Thank you, Mrsha. Now, I have work for us. Are you willing to help out?”

He didn’t mention her mother and Oteslia, though Niers was wondering what that boded. Drake infighting was plain enough, but there were layers and if he’d had proper intel, he might have made it an assignment with his class to puzzle out.

No time for that now. Focus. Niers knew he wasn’t really abreast of things. So, what he did today was ask Mrsha for help in an interesting way. A safe way, which disappointed her a bit, but a vital one.

 

—-

 

“There you are. I heard from Pawn you ate five cookies. No dessert for you. What do you want?”

Mrsha scowled up at Ishkr. She handed him a bit of paper.

I would like to visit Liscor, please.

It was one of her standard cards. Ishkr eyed Mrsha.

“To eat more snacks?”

Mrsha shook her head. She signed that she wanted to pay a visit—to the Mage’s Guild. Ishkr hesitated.

“Oh—I suppose so. Do you want to send Lyonette a [Message]? We can do that.”

To his surprise, she said ‘no’, although Mrsha did amend that to ‘maybe’ after a second. But that wasn’t her purpose. She really wanted to go check something. The Gnoll hesitated, but the inn was empty as always, so he agreed to take her.

 

—-

 

Niers tagged along in Mrsha’s belt pouch. It was far from comfy, squished up as he was, and he risked a bit of squashing, but he wanted to know. She walked on two feet with Ishkr as they went to the Mage’s Guild and he waited for her to put his plan into action. She heard Ishkr muttering as they went to the head of the line.

“What’s this about? Excuse me, hello.”

“Hello! How can I help you today? Oh—is that Miss Mrsha?”

The little Gnoll was a celebrity of sorts, if only for her white fur. She waved at the Drake, who knew Erin. The [Scribe] smiled as Ishkr explained.

“We have a [Message] to send to Miss Lyonette in Oteslia…but I think we have other business?”

Mrsha nodded. The [Scribe] read the neat writing, which was a match for her own, and her brows shot up.

I, Mrsha, would like to inquire into the Merchant Droshi’s business and news. He is working for The Wandering Inn.

“Merchant Droshi?”

Both Ishkr and the [Scribe] looked puzzled, but the [Scribe] at least nodded.

“I can pull up anything…one second.”

“I didn’t know we were working with a [Merchant]. Did Lyonette ask you to check?”

Ishkr grumbled at Mrsha, a bit nonplussed that he had no idea who this was. Some person in the north, like the [Lords] who still asked if they could get goods shipments? Mrsha made an excuse as Niers grinned inside the belt pouch.

It was hardly the most cunning plan, but it worked. ‘Droshi’ didn’t exist—it might be some Drake’s name, but it was one of a few he knew to ask for. And he did exist today, and his regular reports to his clients were lodged at a Mage’s Guild, ready to be retrieved. It was service they offered.

And the Forgotten Wing Company often made use of it. In fact, Mrsha received no less than a full page of writing, and paid for it out of her own belt pouch, much to Ishkr’s bemusement. The [Scribe] who’d copied it out looked a bit amused.

“I’m afraid it’s a bit dry, but I hope you find it um, useful. I’ll take your [Message] to Oteslia now. Care of Lyonette? One second and I’ll run it up to the [Mage] on day-duty. That will be…”

Niers tuned out the rest. He’d come along just to make sure it all went well, and while Mrsha had neatly folded the bit of paper and put it in the pouch he was in, he didn’t want to unfold it and make noise. It was also too dark to see, so he stared at the bits of words he could see until they got back to the inn.

Far too long! Mrsha put Niers down on the table in the secret part of the jungle in the garden and he sprang out, swearing.

“Argh! What was that, forty minutes? I’m too old to do that! Not your fault; I should have waited! Excellent job.”

She nodded, a bit confused. She held out a card as Niers unfolded the paper eagerly. He glanced at it.

“What? How did I know there was a ‘Merchant Droshi’ to ask about? Basic subterfuge, Mrsha. I made contact with my company after the Village of the Dead’s raid. They knew I was alive—so I told them to send a report via Droshi and that I needed help and was in Liscor.”

Mrsha’s ears perked up. He’d done all that? How? Niers grinned at his pupil.

“Think about it. What do I have that connects right back to my company? That only they’d be able to see? I was worried they wouldn’t check, but my people are clever. Perorn’s probably the one who thought to look.”

The Gnoll girl tilted her head left and right. What…? Then her eyes widened.

The chessboard. Of course! Niers had arranged a message and it had appeared on his little board in Baleros! Genius! But what about Droshi?

“If I had you ask for anything for ‘Niers Astoragon’, the Mage’s Guild wouldn’t give it to you and my enemies would know right where I was. Merchant Droshi on the other hand—less easy to track. They might still notice, but they can’t easily figure this out. See?”

Mrsha stared at the paper summary of the [Merchant]’s reports. It was indeed, as the [Scribe] had warned, dry.

 

To my esteemed clients and friends, I, Droshi, have undertaken the following business this past month, which I hope will provide illumination.

Firstly, my people have sold a quantity of candlesticks at no less than fifty six pounds, at commendable profit. I have personally sold six red candlesticks, which were of quite elegant make.

Next, we engaged in a bit of light trading of Silvergrape, although at a loss. Flies have ruined a good amount of the crop, and I fear we will not be returning.

As for other goods…

 

Niers Astoragon read. He had, apparently, not even trusted a long message to the chessboard, although he’d gotten a lot of info from it. He explained to Mrsha.

“The chessboard was never meant to prevent magical interference. This is safer; I risked a lot on that message alone. This…hm. They’d only tell me of important news.”

The cipher he’d established relied on a lot of useless information. The key was trigger words that provided context. Niers read through impatiently, wincing twice. He elaborated to Mrsha.

“They’re hunting for Peclir. ‘Loss’ and Silvergrape. The key is flies—they went after him but haven’t found him. Damn. Six assaults on the Forgotten Wing already. Not sure what. I—”

Then he went still. Mrsha saw him stop, nearly stumbling as he went down the paper. He walked back slowly and read a part near the end.

“I—no. How did they…? Peclir. Peclir—”

He was staring at a line near the bottom. Mrsha saw him read it out loud and then to her astonishment, saw the Fraerling begin to tremble.

Issues with the supply of grain? Might be rats in the warehouse, but we killed one. No. They didn’t. I’ll—”

He looked up. Mrsha saw the Titan bite back whatever he was going to say. She backed up, slowly.

Niers Astoragon didn’t know what expression was on his face. All he knew was that his head went white for a second. The Fraerling Villages? One was—

And then he knew he was out of time.

 

—-

 

Mrsha sat in her and Lyonettes’ room and listened to the Titan. He could be—scary. Very scary. Even so, she was disappointed as he spoke. Because—he was leaving?

The Fraerling stood on the windowsill, next to her, staring out across Liscor. He turned to Mrsha, eyes serious.

“I have a lot of Skills, Mrsha, but even I need a scrying orb to make them work. I need to be back with my company—and without me, they’re in trouble. They have Foliana, my technical superior, but she’s not me. They need me. Something bad is happening and I think…”

He stared out across the rolling hills and valleys.

“…It’s not one of the Great Companies. They’d never do this. They want to capture me, you know. Kill me, maybe, but if I’m taken off the board, everything changes. You see, the Forgotten Wing company is the thing that keeps Maelstrom’s Howling—the Centaurs—and the Iron Vanguard of Dullahans from triumphing. Either one. Either I support one or attack if one gains too much ground. They’d want me gone, but I’d be a better ally.”

Hence his bounties. Mrsha nodded. Niers had told her all about the people who wanted him, and she’d thought it was a grand adventure. Until he’d killed the [Spymaster]. Now? She saw him wearing that same, adult, dangerous expression.

“This? This is…someone who wants me dead. Peclir, the traitor, knows what the Fraerling Villages mean to my company. He knows the secrets. Damn him. How did he find out? Even Perorn doesn’t know their locations. Maybe he just has general locations. Either way—I have to go. I could wait out anything but this.”

He turned to her.

“The problem is—I have a Skill that lets me know about impending military assaults. All but the most secretive ones. I know there are two attacks that are coming towards The Wandering Inn or Liscor as a whole.”

Mrsha’s eyes went wide in alarm. She began to write, but Niers held up a hand.

“I didn’t tell you because I could have handled it. Believe me. If it was Hectval or…anything. Monsters from a dungeon? I could empower this inn to hold off an army. But I can’t stay and fight it off. Nor does my Skill detect infiltrators, spies. So rather than that—I’ll take the offensive. One letter to Chaldion and your Watch Captain each should do it. I can arrange for a division of Pallass’ finest to occupy the inn.”

He hopped off the table. Mrsha’s head was spinning. He was moving so fast! Niers turned back to her.

“Don’t worry; the Cyclops is cunning, but he knows the odds. He’ll move for me. I can probably even get them to send a [General] if they have a spare. I’d love to stay. But I have to get to Baleros. My company is sending help, but I need to get to a port if I can.”

Mrsha signed quickly and Niers tried to follow.

How are you going to get away? Can I help? A port is far!

He nodded.

“My plan was to wait for them to send some trusted agents and go with them—have them help out here, even. I can’t wait a month. I can’t wait a week. My students—no. I’m going to reach a port as fast as possible and there’s only one way to do that.”

He turned. The last occupant of the room looked up from where she was doing something on top of the dresser. She flew down and Apista landed in front of Niers. He looked at her, the little saddle he’d made, and then at Mrsha.

“Give me your bee-friend. Apista. I’ll keep her safe, Mrsha. I’ll fly to a port.”

Mrsha’s eyes went round. Apista fanned her wings as Mrsha signed frantically. Apista? But she was Lyonette’s! She was part of the inn! She couldn’t go! It was too dangerous!

“I’ll keep her safe!”

Niers tried to soothe her worries. He pointed to Apista and drew a little container out of his bag of holding and waved it at Mrsha. The price of him helping with the Thronebearers prank; they were still visiting the inn, preparing to head south for Lyonette, securing passports and papers.

“All I need is enough invisibility potion and a few other of your [Alchemist]’s goods. Frankly, it’s not ideal, but it will be for stealth alone. We’ll head to a port. It will take weeks, maybe, even if Apista can fly as fast as a raven, depending on whether we run into pursuit, but they can’t tell where I’m headed. Not with the door.”

Mrsha looked at Apista, desperately wanting to refuse and knowing this was the option Niers had chosen because it was safest. What did Apista think? Was she willing to do this? Was she even aware of what it meant?

Apista saluted Mrsha with one antennae. She had to do her part! Besides, a bee had to fly. If this helped the white Gnoll or Lyonette, she was willing to let the weird little man tell her where to go.

Niers smiled wearily as Mrsha looked at him. She was distraught. So was he, in a way. The grand adventure was being curtailed. Curtailed by pettiness and reality and…death. He looked at her, gently speaking.

“I’m…not willing to risk your life. Nor can I stick about forever, as fascinating as it is. If I return? I promise I will, but when I’m not putting my company at risk.”

She nodded at last. Mrsha sniffed, and Niers patted her paw.

“I’ll be back. And I’m not going tonight. One more day. I’ll make my arrangements. And there’s something I’d like to do. Listen, can you get me into the [Alchemist]’s shop again?”

Mrsha nodded. Niers was already getting on Apista’s back. He buzzed out the door, and she made to follow. Mrsha looked out the window, wondering if she would see Apista before Lyonette. Why did they have to go? They all promised to come back. She hated how they lied and told her it would be safer. Take her with them. She didn’t want to be alone.

The little girl rested her head against the glass. Then rose to follow Niers. However, Mrsha halted.

“Mrsha? Mrsha, come on! I need you to open doors! Don’t get sad, my little helper!”

Niers buzzed back five minutes later, impatient, trying to raise the girl’s spirits. He really wasn’t a child-person. Worse than Foliana—okay, maybe not. Then again, she could be nicer.

Mrsha was at the window still. She jumped and turned, and then began to pad after Niers. She wavered and looked back.

Had she missed it? She was reluctant to tell Niers, because when she’d looked back, it was gone, despite her searching. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, or her seeing one of the [Hunters] or so on wrong. It was just…

She could have sworn, for a second, she’d seen something out in the Floodplains of Liscor. A figure, staring at her. Then it had vanished. Nothing strange about that; there were plenty of people who left the city. Only, it had been unique. She could have sworn she’d seen…

A white Gnoll.

 

—-

 

Somehow, Rufelt left his bar and found himself wandering Pallass. He didn’t know why, only that at some point even his mental loop of misery and confusion impelled him out of that dark place.

Still, it seemed the City of Inventions had lost its spark for the Gnoll. He walked around in a haze. The sun shone, but it was not comforting. It was hot, not warm. Bright, not light.

He supposed he was looking for Lasica. He didn’t know where she went on her walks after they fought. She knew him well enough to be able to avoid him. The library? He went looking for her, a single Gnoll stumbling forwards. Disheveled, unsteady—but one in a crowd. Sometimes a [Guard] might stop him, or a friend, on days like this, but rarely. Pallass was home to millions.

So, it was unusual for Rufelt to be noticed, but he met someone as he walked up to the 6th Floor. They were talking next to the grand staircase, another chance meeting. He noticed them because it was impossible not to; even in Pallass, a Centaur was rare, and a Human unusual. But the figure of the massive Drake bulging with muscle, Grimalkin of Pallass, was more unmistakable too.

It seemed he wasn’t the only person having a bad day. Not that Palt and Imani looked like they were suffering; they were arm in arm, doing some window shopping in the City of Inventions. They had discovered that it was quite possible to go for a day-trip and explore the quite fascinating Walled City, from visiting the public bathhouses to different shops, and so on.

It was Magus Grimalkin of Pallass who looked upset. Only, not miserable—he had the narrowed eyes and tense posture that Rufelt had seen rarely when the Drake visited his bar. Grimalkin was angry.

“…I’d like to talk to this Elirr, or any other Silverfangs still in the city. Miss Mrsha has quite good diction; would she know anything about this? I’ve questioned Plains Gnolls in Pallass, but no one can give me a straight answer.”

He was talking to the two, who looked genuinely concerned. Imani was nodding.

“Of course. Come on through any time; Liska checks the door, and it’s not like we have any visitors. Do you know why it happened?”

Palt was smoking a thin blue rollup. He took it out, frowning, as the smoke funneled away, rather than fill the air around them, a permanent little cantrip. Rufelt stopped, swaying, focusing on something else with relief.

“You hear strange things about Gnolls and magic. I heard a secret once in Wistram about the tribes sending one of their own to the academy, but I’m embarrassed to say I never looked into it. Could Ferkr have been…doing someone a favor? It’s the only reason I can think of.”

“I don’t teach my apprentices to lie, Mage Palt.”

Grimalkin snapped back, and then visibly controlled himself.

“Apologies. She’s not responding to me and I have no idea where she is. I am going to get to the bottom of this. Thank you for your time. I apologize—I will visit the inn. Excuse me, I must make arrangements for my travels.”

He stalked off, clearing a path by his presence alone. Palt and Imani watched him go. Rufelt heard the two whispering, Imani standing on tip-toes to whisper into Palt’s ear.

“I wonder what happened. Did you ever see Grimalkin so mad?”

“Not since he got locked out of Erin’s garden. I know it’s inappropriate but—did you see his upper bicep twitching under his shirt? The one on the left? I couldn’t stop staring at it!”

Palt! He’s worried about his apprentice.

“It’s still hilarious—”

And then they noticed Rufelt. The two blinked, and then Imani’s eyes widened.

“Is that you, Rufelt? You look—terrible!”

The Gnoll blinked at them. He realized he’d been standing amid the traffic, ignoring the insults and occasional shoves from passersby. He jerked.

“Oh. Imani. Palt. I’m just…what are you doing?”

The [Bartender] saw both exchange glances. They came over and stood by the railings, talking. Imani peered at Rufelt.

“We’re on a little shopping date. Ingredients, but mostly interesting things. I haven’t seen you or Lasica since…”

She trailed off and Rufelt felt a pang in his chest. It still happened—people meeting him and remembering. Or not knowing and asking—

Where was his white armband? He’d forgotten it. So many people had stopped wearing it after the first week, the first month. As if—it was already time to move on. Rufelt hated that. He just shook his head.

“Condolences. Are you…”

Palt hesitated because ‘are you feeling better’, or ‘are you well’, or any question of that nature was clearly evident from look alone. Rufelt mutely shook his head.

“I’ll be better soon.”

Time.

What do you see in the picture? He tried to smile and they gave him uncertain grins in return; he couldn’t have known what a rictus was on his face.

He looked at them. On a date, they’d said? Imani was asking about Lasica and he mumbled something.

“You’re seeing each other, then.”

Imani smiled and Palt ducked his head.

“It just sort of—happened.”

“No, it didn’t. It took a while and it was completely uncoincidental. Palt helped me so much in dealing with my nightmares about Crelers and he can cook. Then, he had to deal with his love for Erin, and now we’re finally here.”

Imani poked Palt in the side and he shuffled his hooves.

“I like my version better. It sounds more romantic. Like the mov—like a classic romance from your home, you know?”

“More romantic than a genuine connection? Palt! Accidentally falling in love with someone you run into is…such a Centaur idea!”

Said Centaur harrumphed.

“It’s a classic in my culture too. Two Centaurs nearly gallop into one another, or collide, they get to talking after the first quarrel…”

“Sounds like a recipe for broken legs, especially if it’s Centaurs.

“You’re not romantic at all.”

The two smiled at each other, before recalling Rufelt, so into each other’s presence that it was the kind of thing a little Gnoll might pretend to dry-heave at. Yet it struck Rufelt differently. He looked at the two and the words slipped out as part of him…came awake.

“A Human and a Centaur. I imagine it draws a few comments, even in Invrisil. Do they bother you in Liscor?”

He asked because—well, they were familiar. They were younger, but not actually that different in age from the Drake and Gnoll when they’d met. And while it was a different pairing of species, he did understand this. Imani’s smile slipped and Palt frowned, puffing on his blue cigarette.

“You get a few idiots wherever you go. I’m used to the stares. You’d be surprised; Invrisil is the worst with it. I suppose Drakes think Humans can do whatever they want. It’s why we prefer Pallass. But then—I suppose you’d know, wouldn’t you, Mister Rufelt?”

The Gnoll did know. Gnolls and Drakes marrying was the most common interspecies marriage in all of Izril, even more than Humans and Drakes or Humans and Gnolls, given the proximity of the two species in the south.

Even now, though, he remembered family, friends…and comments. He looked at Imani and Palt, who were clearly familiar with whatever was said by now. And content to ignore it.

It was like looking at an old reflection of him and Lasica. Not alike in so many ways, but the core of it…Rufelt’s knees trembled. He felt weak. He looked at the past and the words spilled out of his mouth in the present.

“Don’t invest everything in it. Don’t—be careful when you care for each other. Children, marriage—it’s a double-edged sword.”

Don’t fall in love. He nearly said that, but he was ashamed when it came to the tip of his tongue.

Imani’s eyes widened. Palt trotted his hooves back in astonishment. For a moment, the two just looked at Rufelt, and he stared away.

“I’m sorry. I have to—”

He turned, to go back to the bar. To—

“No. Don’t go. You’re clearly not well, Rufelt.”

The [Chef] caught his arm. He’d forgotten she had the same class as Lasica. Wretchedly, Rufelt turned back.

“I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I’m sorry, I’m just—”

“We understand. We heard about the spell and, well…you look thin. When did you last eat? Sleep?”

Palt was nodding. The two clustered around Rufelt and the Centaur eyed him. Rufelt was shaking his head, but Imani had a firm grip on one arm.

“Is Lasica in the same shape, Rufelt? Where is she?”

“Better. She’s—a bit better. I don’t know where she is. She goes out.”

Another look between Imani and Palt. The Centaur chewed on his cigarette rather than smoking it. Imani opened and closed her mouth. It was Palt who spoke.

“I heard about the Demon’s ritual and I know you’ve lost a lot, Rufelt. I…”

He hesitated, eying Imani, but then went on, taking the rollup out of his mouth. The [Illusionist] fixed the Gnoll [Bartender] with a serious gaze.

“Mister Rufelt. I know you’ve suffered a great loss. I don’t mean to be…insensitive. I am going to be, though. You need to pull yourself together. It’s a traumatic experience, miscarriage. But you need to move forwards or you’re going to fall to pieces. You and Lasica.”

Rufelt jerked. He whirled on Palt, and Imani gasped.

Palt!

The Centaur raised his hands at the angry Gnoll.

“I’m sorry. Centaurs have it terribly bad too. It’s—a huge complication in our species. But it happens more often than you’d think. It’s one of the reasons our species are less numerous than Humans. Usually only early on. It’s because of the difficulty of creating, well, two species in one. It’s terrible, and I have friends and family who went through it. They go to [Healers]—[Thought Healers], though. You…can’t stay like this. You’ll waste away. I’ve seen that too.”

He shuffled his hooves, looking quite uncomfortable. Even ashamed.

“I’m sorry. I know this is not the right thing to say, but I’ve seen this kind of thing tear relationships apart. You look—awful.

Rufelt’s paws were clenched. He snarled back at the Centaur.

“You think we haven’t tried? Lasica doesn’t want to go. She just wants to—”

Take the deal. Imani was patting his shoulder. She looked at his dirty fur, glared at Palt.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a diplomat?”

Palt shook his head.

“Ullsinoi are tricksters. Wistram is…Wistram. I’m sorry, I was too direct. It’s just…”

He looked at the Gnoll again, and then snapped his fingers. Rufelt stared at Palt, almost ready to take a swing at the Centaur, despite the height and weight difference. Then Palt held something up.

It was… a mirror. A magical mirror, a little spell, but it reflected what Palt saw, nonetheless. Rufelt looked into it.

What you do you see in the picture?

He saw a stranger. A Gnoll so filthy and wild-eyed and…worn that he wouldn’t have let him in his bar, even when he was just starting out. He looked at the image of himself, and wondered if he was dying.

“Is that me?”

Imani and Palt looked at him. Slowly, Imani took his shoulder.

“Rufelt, why don’t you come with us? You need to eat. Come to the inn, and we’ll get you something hot. And—then you should lie down.”

Rufelt shook his head.

“I need to go back to the bar. Lasica will be there.”

“I’ll go and leave her a note or tell her. You—you should get out of that bar. Come with us.”

Palt frowned at Rufelt, and snapped his fingers twice. Imani glanced at him. Rufelt hesitated. He rubbed at his face. He felt…tired. So tired.

“I can’t do that. I need—”

The Centaur frowned deeper. Imani tugged at Rufelt’s arm.

“Come on. Just a bite to eat. We can’t let you go without food. Just a bit?”

Palt muttered under his breath. Rufelt felt a tingle this time and glanced at Palt. The Centaur raised his hands, smiling.

“Come on, Rufelt. One meal. What’s your favorite dish?”

“I…like fried potatoes with meat. Lasica makes a hot dish in an iron pan.”

Rufelt remembered her making it for special occasions. Suddenly, his eyes tingled and he felt weak. He barely protested as Imani tugged at him, cajoling, encouraging. Palt helped usher Rufelt towards the inn.

“Just one bite, and we’ll let you go. Maybe a nap, too. I’ll tell Lasica.”

The [Bartender] protested, but he was too weak. Too tired and—he did feel his weakness, then. The image of himself had shaken the Gnoll. Palt let Imani do most of the talking. He gave it two more tries and Rufelt began to perk up both times and they got him moving before he could protest.

The Centaur watched Rufelt, eying him. He didn’t tell Imani, as she was talking to Rufelt, but he bit his blue cigarette and chewed it hard.

[Joyous Spirits] was a Tier 4 mood spell. Even if Rufelt was rock-bottom, it should have done more than that, and Palt had cast it three times! It felt like he was moving a rock, and he was panting as he burned mana. What was wrong with the Gnoll?

Rufelt stumbled on, letting Imani talk him into food.

“We have a room for you, okay? An open one. Just sit down and…”

He found himself nodding. Time…time might help. No dark bar. Just a day? He wanted to rest. To sleep without dreaming of what might be and what was.

It was time. But…one more day couldn’t hurt. He left Pallass, and somewhere else in the city, a certain figure paused.

The Stitch Witch turned her head and felt one of the threads change. It was still close in one kind of proximity, but the weave had suddenly jumped from here to somewhere far distant, geographically speaking.

“Strange.”

She tilted her head left. Then right. She felt someone trying to interfere, but their magic could not interfere.

Belavierr was making many deals, but they were among the most valuable. She had cast no spell on Rufelt and Lasica; they were one of her clients, one group she had found in Pallass to do business with. If she had persuaded, it was with word and deed and offering them truth; she was honest in that regard.

But she would brook no interference, magical or otherwise. That too was part of the deal. She tilted her head unnaturally far, and then turned it back. A little [Mage] wouldn’t do much. She went back to sewing.

Business was good. Just a few more deals…and she could go back to her beloved daughter. The Witch smiled.

Everyone should have a child.

 

—-

 

The inn was busier that night. Imani and Palt dragged in a smelly, mostly dead-looking Gnoll and fussed about him. Everyone seemed to know who he was, and Rags supposed it was another thing she’d missed.

She ate potatoes and meat quietly, savoring the Calescent spice that Imani had added in a mild blend. The Goblin [Spice Chef] grunted happily. He was among his kind here, and poked Rags.

“Chieftain. If Ulvama not stay, maybe I stay? Good place.”

She swatted at his hand.

“Shut up, Calescent. We have work to do.”

He sighed, but nodded. Rags knew her own sojourn at the inn had to end soon. She had seen Erin. She had talked to Erin and known what must be done. There was nothing here. Not in this quiet grave. So she would go and right what she could.

At least she hadn’t been attacked. Rags retired to her room, reflecting that the lack of a Relc and [Guards] trying to kill her was a plus—and she’d certainly justified the visit. All these new technologies, goods bought from shopping, and so on were worth it. Not to mention finding Ulvama and Numbtongue, even if Rags was dubious about taking Ulvama. Yet the [Shaman] had made a good case, so Rags decided she’d bring Ulvama.

She was trying to figure out if they should buy any last items—although they could always visit another city with those illusion rings—when she noticed something. It was lying on her bed.

A little…slip of paper. The Goblin’s eyes narrowed. She locked her doors, and no one came in or out, not even the Gnoll, Ishkr. Yet here was a discrepancy. She walked over to the piece of paper, checked it magically, and opened it. She read the thin writing, very small…and her crimson eyes opened wide.

 

Do you know why Goblin Kings go mad? Do you remember why Velan forsook his oaths?

 

The Goblin Chieftain whirled, going for her bag of holding. Rags nearly drew out her crossbow—then reconsidered. You couldn’t shoot a target that small. She hesitated.

“Who are you? Why do you ask?”

No response. Rags’ gaze swept her room. Her infrared vision checked all the corners and she paused for an infinitesimal moment. Ah.

She didn’t go for a weapon. Killing was a last resort, after all, and the question deserved questions of their own, especially if this was who she thought it was. The Goblin drew out something she’d had Calescent buy in Liscor.

A little bug-catching net.

She wandered around the room, pretending to check the corners—then spun and dove for the side of the dresser. The little person thought he was clever, but he’d made a mistake.

Rags saw heat. Abundance of it, and the absence. The cold patch was obvious as the sun! She swung the little net down, over the ice cube just large enough for a tiny man to lie prone behind it.

Got you!

Rags looked down at the ice cube…and saw no man. Just the slightly-melting ice cube and a second piece of paper. She recoiled slightly.

Tricked! He’d—tricked her into believing he’d made a mistake from the time she’d spotted him during the Village of the Dead’s raid! She stared around again, checking every corner of the room. Now she had no signs. So she picked the piece of paper up and read the second message.

 

Answer my question. Do you know?

Don’t try to run.

 

Rags’ head slowly rose. She looked around the room. Not one sign of the Fraerling—that was what they were called. And he was tiny. Nevertheless…she didn’t try to run. Nor did she go for a weapon. She stood there, looking up, down, left, and right.

Nothing. The Goblin hesitated. She scowled, and barked a response.

“No.”

That was all he was getting. She backed up towards the door, slowly, alert for anything. She’d fireball the entire room if she was attacked and risk the damage to herself.

A flicker of movement caught her eye. The Goblin whirled, finger pointing and burning with fire—

A third piece of paper fluttered down from a corner of the room. She stared up at the patch where it had been, but saw nothing.

Invisible? Some kind of tripwire, a delayed mechanism? Rags hesitated. She picked up the piece of paper, growling. She did not like this feeling of being outsmarted, but she wanted to know what the third question was.

 

Where did Velan leave his legacy? I know it exists.

 

Every hair on Rags’ head rose. She whirled, looking around, and didn’t touch the key at her neck. She turned—made a decision. Rags shot out the door, ready for—

Nothing. She sprinted downstairs to find Calescent and Ulvama, rattled. It was only when she was gone that Niers sighed.

“Interesting.

He sidled out from the windowsill—on the outside of the inn. The tiny mirror he’d placed allowed him an angle on the Goblin and he’d seen her react to the last question. The Titan rubbed at his chin. There were some questions you could only ask a Goblin of Izril about, and he’d never met one—the ones on Baleros had no clue.

“So, they know where it is. Or that it exists.

The Fraerling man jogged towards the open window he’d kept and hurried inside. There were few birds thanks to that Antinium, but he didn’t like being outside either way. Razorbeak memories haunted him.

Only then did he dump the shards of ice out his coat, swearing mildly. Most of it had melted, but it had been a trick and a half keeping himself ‘neutral’. As he’d guessed, the Goblin Chieftain wasn’t high-enough level to make out individual cold patches mixed with heat—only the overall temperature, especially at a distance. Foliana’s expertise had helped a lot in that regard. She knew more than Fraerlings about tricking people’s eyes.

As for what he’d learned…Niers shook his head. Now there was something he could take back to the Forgotten Wing Company. As secrets went—it was right up there with news of Earth. He shook his head. Not much he could do about it now, but he was certainly going to act on it. If he had given Wil Kallinad a treasure hunt worthy of the lad and his friends—this was one worthy of the Titan and his friends.

“One down. One to go.”

It took some doing, but he’d already fashioned little climbing aids; just pieces of wood, like a [Climber]’s picks. With them, Niers could scale most places in the inn, and even without Apista, it wasn’t hard getting into the next location.

He had to go. If the Fraerling settlements were under attack, the Titan could not wait. They were able to defend themselves, but this was duty.

He only regretted this inn was so fascinating. The occupants—the Titan sighed. He couldn’t take any of them with him and he would have if he could. Especially the young man named Kevin.

Kevin, Joseph, Rose, Galina, Troy, Imani, and Leon. Three of the seven were gone. To that list Niers had also appended the names of Ryoka Griffin, Geneva Scala, Erin Solstice, and Rémi Canada. The Singer of Terandria was also on it, though her name wasn’t listed.

He had names, even rough locations, and not one member of his company or any power. Niers Astoragon sighed as he stared around the room. He looked at the map of the world again—his world—and his gaze travelled left to the second map of…another world.

“So much to ask and not a second more to waste. Damn. This is torture.”

The map of Earth sat in front of him, next to a diagram of what he could only assume were multiple worlds. If ‘Earth’ was there…what were the lines? Magical tunnels? But the sun was in the center, so…

The Earth-rooms were a goldmine. All he could do, though, was make copies of everything here. He couldn’t take a mage-picture, and he couldn’t steal anything or leave traces he’d been here, even if he could carry the images off.

Of course, he’d found the rooms. Mrsha was smart enough to keep some secrets, but a Fraerling got everywhere, and air-holes were obvious, especially if they were big enough for him to squeeze through.

The Titan grinned as he worked, a pained, ecstatic grin.

“If only I’d come months earlier! If only!”

It took him quite some time to note it all down, and he’d already been making copies. He looked back just once, longingly.

He would be back for all of it. Then he went back to the garden and began planning his journey. He checked his travel provisions, route, and new equipment and sighed.

They’re destroying the villages. Tulm—none of the Great Companies would do this. They want me. Peclir. He knows they’re our secret advantage.

Niers Astoragon clenched a trembling fist. Time to return. This took priority, as this inn had little that was changing at the moment. It could wait. He’d be back. Right after he killed every single person hunting his people in all Baleros.

He was just leaving to pen the final note to the Watch Captain and Chaldion when he came across something…interesting in the inn. Niers stopped as he crawled out of the tiny air-hole and frowned.

“What’s this, now?”

 

—-

 

They fed him and helped him get a bath and even gave him a soft bed. For a while, he felt better. However, Rufelt Owelt couldn’t sleep.

He tossed and turned and felt the bar calling to him. Lasica. He found himself rising, like a moth pursuing the flame even if it burned him.

He was walking down to the first floor when Palt found him. The Centaur was heading up the stairs and saw Rufelt.

“Mister Rufelt! What are you doing up? I thought you were lying down!”

The Gnoll smiled and indicated the door to the hallway with a paw.

“I’m—I’m going back. Can’t be away or Lasica might decide—I’m sorry. Thank you for your hospitality.”

Palt looked around, but Imani was tuckered out and most of the inn was heading to bed. He raised his hands, blocking Rufelt as the Gnoll tried to exit the common room.

“You’re frazzled. Sit, Mister Rufelt. Just take a seat. Let me get you something.”

The [Bartender] wanted to argue, but Palt had him sitting and handed him a glass of something that was most distinctly not a traditional beverage. He drank it anyways, just to make Palt stop fussing and shook his head.

“I appreciate it, but really—I have to go.”

The [Illusionist] gave Rufelt a second look.

“You—aren’t feeling mellowed out?”

“No. I have to—”

This time, the Centaur put a hand on his shoulder.

“Then something’s wrong. Because that was my best Calming Tonic and if you weren’t placid as a glass of frozen water—you’re not well, Rufelt. And I don’t mean just mentally. It’s magic or—something on you. Maybe a disease, maybe a spell, but I don’t see anything.”

Rufelt blinked. He looked at Palt and had a thought. Had she cast a spell on him? She’d said she wouldn’t use magic on them directly to change their moods. She’d twist their heads, torture them with pictures—but not coerce them with magic.

Doubt seeped into that assertion, and he’d already doubted her. Rufelt felt so…cloudy. It was lack of sleep. Palt fussed around him.

“Try a puff of this. It made Saliss blink.”

The Gnoll tried to refuse.

“I don’t smoke regularly. No thanks.”

“Just do it. This isn’t about smoking, it’s about…”

The little argument from the Gnoll and Centaur drew a sleepy head. Mrsha had been napping by the fire, having eaten a bellyful of potato and meat and no one had brought her up to bed yet; Ulvama was searching for something with Rags.

She came over to where Rufelt had just taken a puff and felt his head spin—then normalize. He looked down at Mrsha and she up at him. She saw his expression as he stared at the girl and averted his gaze. She would have scampered away, mindful of his grief, but then Mrsha hesitated.

One of her ears perked up. Rufelt thought he heard something…but Palt was muttering about other drugs and substances of various legal and illegal natures. Neither noticed Mrsha hurry upstairs.

“I have to go.”

“You’ll do no such thing. All my magic is bouncing off you! I’m not certain if you’re under an effect, but I can’t put one on you!”

That rankled the [Illusionist]’s pride. Rufelt shook his head.

“I just need to—to choose. I have to go.”

Palt put his hands on the [Bartender]’s shoulders. Rufelt growled, and it might have gotten physical, as desperate as he was to go back home—when Mrsha came back downstairs.

She waved her paws and the two adults looked at her. Rufelt saw her hand a note up and Palt took it.

“Mrsha, I’m kind of busy—actually, could you wake Bezale and Montressa? I need—hm?”

He frowned at the note. Then looked at Rufelt. The Gnoll could read it too.

 

Go into the [Garden of Sanctuary] for me! Pwease?

 

The Gnoll and Centaur both gave Mrsha a look, but she gave them her biggest, roundest eyes of pleading and Rufelt hesitated.

“I really have to—”

“No, Mrsha’s right. Just for a second or two.”

Palt was looking at Mrsha thoughtfully. Rufelt growled, but now Palt was whispering.

“You can’t cast the spell on…? Assuming you really can cast a T6 spell, now would be the time to—”

Mrsha shook her head and Palt sighed, but the two began ushering him to the Garden’s open door. It was night, of course, yet it looked serene.

“Just for a second. You stay in there five minutes, sir, and I won’t have Bezale put you in a chokehold.”

“I—fine! Five minutes! If you don’t let me go, I’ll shout for help!”

Rufelt snarled. He walked into the garden and turned around. He glared at the two—and then his face changed to one of bemusement.

“I feel…different.”

He murmured. Rufelt looked around. The Garden was quiet, serene. Beautiful; the most beautiful garden of different climates he’d ever seen. Of course he remembered that, but he hadn’t wanted to go inside.

Erin lay here. Yet—Rufelt began to feel better all of a sudden, dead young woman or not.

Ah.

Palt sighed, and gave Mrsha an admiring look. She looked smug herself. Rufelt felt at his head. Suddenly—it was as if the cloud was lifted from him.

“What’s going on? Was I ensorcelled?”

“Maybe not.

Palt admitted, after taking a note from Mrsha. He raised his brows.

“That’s—fascinating. Mrsha has a theory I agree with. You might not have been under a spell or Skill, Rufelt. That is to say, you weren’t being affected, but nothing I could do would change your mood either. It was just you being at your worst—naturally.”

The [Barte