When she was unhappy or upset, the young woman could always count on a ball of fur to slowly somersault into the room. Light brown fur, like fresh spring bark, two ears, which perked up, and a little black nose that still seemed too large for his face. Curious brown eyes—and that high-pitched voice which had yet to deepen.
“Satar. I’m bored.”
He never came when she was in a good mood. Somehow, her little brother always knew when the least convenient time was.
She wished she had a cat instead. Or a dog. Little brothers were far less adorable, although other people doted on him.
“Go away, Cers.”
The Gnoll boy did another somersault forwards.
“But I’m bored.”
She snapped back. The young [Shaman] of the Silverfang tribe put in her earrings—silver, of course, but with a bit of orange jade hung in one, and a tiny sigil of Silverfang’s crest…a silver fang…in the other.
Normally she wore other jewelry, because the traditional earrings were a bit…embarrassing. Big dangling earrings that marked her as a [Shaman]. She felt they were too old for her. Something she’d be happier wearing in…twenty years. Thirty. But they did make her look the part.
The occasion meant that Satar had gotten out her best [Shaman] attire, and she had even cleaned specks of wood off the largely ornamental staff. Cers poked a paw into her folded clothes, and she snapped.
“Cers. I’ll tell Cetrule!”
His ears flattened. Cetrule was his father. Also, the [Chief Shaman] of the Silverfangs, although Satar happened to know his real class was [Shaman of Purity]. He was Satar’s step-father, and Satar’s mother was Akrisa Silverfang, so she was privy to information like that.
“You won’t. Mother said [Shamans] are supposed to be responsible and deal with matters themselves.”
The Gnoll cub peered up suspiciously at Satar. She ground her teeth together as she snatched the top of her outfit up.
No robes for her like a [Mage]. That was fine; they looked hot with fur. Satar got a Corusdeer hide top—again, decorated with Silverfang motifs and lined with silvery fur—and leggings.
Not full-body cloth. On a Human or Drake it might have been considered scandalous, but Cers was still allowed to run around without any clothes on. Gnolls had a natural set of clothes. It was called fur, and some Gnolls walked around with only a loincloth. Some Gnolls didn’t walk around with any clothing.
Satar had seen them in the Meeting of Tribes, and they were fully-grown adults. Weird. For her, the old [Shaman]’s apparel was a bit too loose. She didn’t use it often. She preferred casual clothes, something like she saw Humans and Drakes in cities wearing.
There was a difference between species. Differences and similarities, but one was that Satar didn’t think of Cetrule strictly as a step-father or even a parent. She sometimes did, but that was because she was aware that was how Drakes would look at it.
He was just Cetrule. Satar had never known her father, but she did know his tribe.
Ekhtouch. The famously talented Gnoll tribe of mere hundreds who sometimes intermarried or had children with other Gnolls. Her mother had met an Ekhtouch Gnoll and had her.
Because of that, Satar was gifted. It wasn’t just that Ekhtouch Gnolls were taller from exercise, diet, and obsessive pair-matching through countless generations alone. They had Skills and passed down the best of their traits to their children.
That didn’t mean Satar was as tall as some of Ekhtouch, who were giants to rival Minotaurs, Centaurs, or even people with faint Giant blood. She was ‘only’ six feet and two inches, which was average for Gnolls. Some of Ekhtouch were up to eight feet tall, and there was one of them—their [Paragon]—who was over nine feet tall!
Thinking of them, Satar had an idea. The older sister turned to her brother with that too-casual air. She was nineteen; he was nine.
“Cers, why don’t you find the other kids if you’re bored?”
“I don’t want to play. They’re all with the Ekhtouch kids, and they cheat. They just want to play Triumphs.”
That was that game where you did complex things to prove your superior coordination.
“They’re just more coordinated than you, Cers. They’re Ekhtouch; it was how they were born.”
Satar sighed. But she had to admit—the other tribe she had come from was snobbish. She’d half-hoped they might like her…but the first night their tribes had met, one of the Ekhtouch Gnolls had come up to her and said she had done alright for herself, despite her mother’s line.
That happened to be Akrisa Silverfang, Chieftain of the Silverfangs, the mining-merchant tribe. But that was how they saw it, and Cetrule, her mentor and [Chief Shaman], had told her not to make an issue of it.
Satar had wanted to, but Cetrule was probably right. She wished he weren’t her mentor, though.
He was Silverfang’s best [Shaman] bar none, but he was also her mother’s partner, and it was…not unpleasant, but awkward. Sometimes she heard him dressing down another [Shaman], but he was always suggesting and offering opinions rather than telling her she was out of line.
Gnolls were not shy about that, usually. You earned your place in a tribe, if you were Honored—and Cetrule as [Chief Shaman] was certainly Honored Cetrule—you could tell another Gnoll when they were making a mistake. But Satar was Akrisa’s daughter…
She didn’t want to let him down. But Cers was poking his head into Satar’s spell-pouch, and she raised a fist.
“Cers—I’ll hit you! I have to take part in the Retellings. Wait for me, or go play!”
“I don’t want to.”
“Go find—yes, go find the new girl! Krshia’s ward! Mri! She’s with Gireulashia—the [Paragon]. Don’t you want to see what she’s up to?”
Satar wheedled. She felt like that wasn’t Mri’s name, but the little brown Gnoll with the gold ears was a mystery to Satar. Not only had she befriended Gireulashia, the [Paragon] of Ekhtouch herself, she seemed…important for reasons no one would explain.
Akrisa had stopped meeting other Chieftains just to welcome Mri personally and speak to her in her tent. Alone.
Well, with Krshia, her sister, Satar’s aunt, who fascinated the young [Shaman] so much, and Cetrule. But not with Satar or Cers…that meant it was important. Also, no less than Torishi Weatherfur and Feshi Weatherfur, both famous Gnolls from a famous tribe, also visited Mri. Oh! And the Golden Gnoll, Qwera, and her two friends. And Rose and Inkar seemed to know who Mri was, and all the other Silverfangs from Liscor!
She was important, and Satar ground her teeth, resenting not being trusted with the secret. Akrisa told her she was a full [Shaman] of the tribe despite her age because of her status—yet she didn’t tell her important information. She was lumped in the same category as Cers.
Cers smelled his own poo when he was done.
However, it seemed Cers was on the same page as his sister, for once. He glared and flopped onto his side.
“I don’t like her.”
“She doesn’t talk to me. And everyone says nice things to her. And Mother says I can’t bother her. And she gets to eat lobster whenever she wants. And she’s got a magic wand and I don’t.”
“Woe is you. Cers, get away from my spell-pouch.”
He was sniffing at it. Satar snatched it up and made sure she had all the compartments in order. She was almost ready…she took a few deep breaths.
“I’m ready. I can do this.”
“Why are you nervous? It’s boring. Anyone could do it, even you. Only baby cubs like Retellings.”
So said the nine-year-old. Satar glared at him.
“So don’t follow me.”
Of course, he did. Maybe it was some twisted form of support. As Satar hurried out of the Silverfang camp and towards the platform just outside the private area, she saw a crowd had gathered.
True to Cers’ words, they were all very young Gnolls, some with parents or older siblings or guardians in attendance. It did nothing to stop the man-eating butterflies in Satar’s stomach. She saw them turn to her and put on her best smile.
Her head rose, and she gazed out over the heads of little Gnolls who ran about on all fours. Brown fur, jet-black, even reds or blondes, though those were far less common. She had even seen Gnolls with faint purple to their fur, although it might have been dye.
The older Gnolls turned to grey, but kept most of their original color. Not that they were just fur; they wore colorful clothing mixed with dyes from across Izril and the world. Some had jewelry like her; others had dyed parts of their fur. Weatherfur’s Gnolls were practically pieces of art in and of themselves, having bright splashes of color on their fur.
Some Gnolls even dyed themselves in more dramatic ways. Fur, like clothing, was an expression, and every Plains Gnoll tribe of note was here, so they were incredibly varied. Any color of fur, brown eyes for the most part…
But no white fur. Never pure white fur, even as an aesthetic. Satar approached them at a trot, then realized she needed to slow down.
Slow. Walk! [Shamans] do not run! Unless there’s a fire or monster attack. Cetrule’s words came to her, and she tried to turn her stride into a confident stroll.
Cers slammed into the back of her legs and she nearly went over. The boy backed up, and Satar heard a titter from her audience.
Wonderful. She was sweating already, and not from her costume. She wished another older [Shaman] like Volah was here. But she was experienced enough to do this on her own.
Satar strode up onto the platform for her audience of maybe…at least a hundred…and her mind went blank. She hadn’t done this before so many. Hundred? There might be three hundred here!
Silverfang was a big tribe, but these were guests and this was the Meeting of Tribes—this was a free event anyone could attend. The Gnoll children were chewing on food from the free stalls, and Satar saw Cers plop down in the grass. She tried to speak, and her memorized lines she hadn’t bothered to refresh slipped away from her and tripped out of her tongue.
“Good morning. Um—greetings, Gnolls of the Meetings of Tribes! I am Satar. Shaman Satar of the Silverfangs. The Silverfang Tribe, that is! On behalf of the Meeting of Tribes, it is my honor to offer a small Retelling to you all now.”
Oh no. She saw some of the older Gnolls look resigned, just like her heart sank when she had to go to a Retelling and a bad speaker was doing it. Satar tried to rally.
She looked at Cers, cursing him for all of it, and saw the little Gnoll boy staring up at her. He hadn’t run off, and strangely…he was sitting there, not fidgeting at all. His head propped on his paws, and he stared up at her. Because she was doing a Retelling.
Like he always did, her little brother stared up at Satar when he was bored. He would seek out the [Shaman], or even when she was younger, as an [Apprentice]…and he would always say…
“Tell me a story?”
The young Gnoll woman stopped panicking. Satar saw her people look at her, even a few non-Gnolls passing by pausing to listen. She began as if she were talking to Cers.
“Tell me a story, Satar?”
This was how she told it to Cers each time, since he’d beg her to tell it to him again and again.
“Once, long ago, so long that every book ever written about it has crumbled to dust, so long that stone almost forgot and the world looked very different, Dragons flew the skies of the world in great numbers. Hundreds.”
“Thousands. Tens of thousands, maybe.”
“Is that a lot?”
“That’s…yes. Dragons of every color and scale. Good ones, bad ones—Dragons. They lived on Izril, you know. Before the High Passes ever existed, Dragons were a species you could find everywhere. So were Giants.”
“I’ve seen Giants.”
“Not half-Giants, Cers. Real Giants. So tall they would get tired of walking through clouds and sit. Back then, you know, there were other species too. Djinni—you know them?”
“Yes…and Jinn. Their half-mortal descendants. There were also, oh…Harpies? Lots of species. I don’t know them all, but there were Harpies who flew like Garuda, only they had no hands; they were more like people with wings for arms. We also had Elves, back then. Gnomes too. Halflings, I think.”
“Half…people? I don’t know. Stop interrupting my story. I’m just repeating the Retellings, and I have to get it right.”
“In those days, Dragons created Drakes, their descendants. They built the first Walled Cities afterwards. Afterwards…the last Elves vanished, and only half-Elves remained. The Dwarves appeared, but they grew taller. The Gnomes vanished, and some species died. Some moved; many fought. There were times when other species ruled the world. Selphids, half-Elves, Humans…other species appeared, like Stitch-Folk.”
“No, they were always there too.”
A little face shivered as Cers curled up. The girl stopped and shivered too, but Satar shook her head.
“This is long ago, Cers. Long before the Antinium. Before Humans even came to Izril. The point is…back then. When Drakes appeared. When the Walled Cities rose and fell. Through empire and war and cataclysm…always, always. We were here.”
Across every age were Gnolls. But the same could be said of every species. That they had survived was an accomplishment in itself, but there was more to it than that.
“How come we don’t have a Walled City, Satar? Drakes have six. Why don’t we have a kingdom? I want an orchard.”
The boy would run around her, too impatient to sit, and miss the pained look in his mother’s eyes. Satar would have to catch him, sit him in her lap and comb his hair as she explained. She’d hand him a grasshopper she found in his fur, and he’d watch it hop away as she lowered her voice.
“We did. We had many things, Cers. We had a kingdom and cities. In older days, we were everywhere. We were in the stories each species tells.”
“Everyone is in stories, Satar. I’m going to be in stories. I’ll be a [Hero].”
“Not a [Chieftain]? You were a [Chieftain] yesterday.”
“Then I’ll be a [Hero Chieftain]. You can tell my story.”
She pulled at his ears and he squirmed. Satar shook her head.
“Maybe you will be. The thing is, Cers, we are in other species’ stories if they bother to tell them right. Think about it. We’re in their stories. When Goldesh the Vanquisher reclaimed Izril’s north from the Troll King, on the eve of the last battle, he sent a Courier to rouse every paw, hand, and claw to battle. He sent Tekre Fleetpaw. When the [Knight-King] Zotn went into his duel against his mortal nemesis, the shape-changing Venom Dragon, Ischeveil, he entrusted his belongings and will to the Explorer Enheirr, who later took it through his kingdom, as it descended into chaos, to his daughter.”
Stories. Cers wrinkled his nose, trying to figure out what they had in common. Satar explained it for him.
“We were travelers. Explorers! We went everywhere, from Baleros to Chandrar, to the depths of the sea, to the highest mountains. Into the sky, just like they say in Great Plains Sing. Remember? ‘Chieftain Seru’nial took her tribe beyond the clouds’. We were there.”
“Why aren’t we now?”
Satar exhaled quietly.
“Terrible things, Cers. Some people did terrible things. We survived them all. When Dragons scorched the entire world, we hid underground for a long, long time. A terrible time, in the darkness. We had terrible enemies. Humans took the north from us, and Drakes have always made war with us. We were exiled from Terandria. The storm that covered Chandrar in darkness and midnight and created Zeikhal—we fled Baleros. We shrank. We waned. Every species has, but we…we have great enemies.”
It was not a fair story. It was a story to explain why they were here, in a fraction of a continent, and not the world over. A story to remember.
“Not just other species or monsters or calamity either. There are…things out there Gnolls must be wary of. Like..Raskghar. If you’re bad, if you’re naughty and break the rules, they’ll come for you.”
The little boy would hide his head in her fur. She wouldn’t tell him the really bad stories, the ones that made her stay up at night. But that was what she had to tell them.
Her audience was listening quietly now. Even a Drake, a Gazer, and some other non-Gnolls were listening. Satar liked stories, and she told the glorious days of the Gnolls well. They had known kingdoms. They had sailed across the world, often helping other species in their stories. Now, though, she uttered one word and felt the hair on her own fur stand up.
The children drew together or looked for their parents, because it was no longer a myth. It was real. Satar hesitated, but the Retellings were largely the same, even if the circumstances had changed.
“Remember to watch for them. Light the camps at night. Be good. Help your tribe. Because Gnolls have faded not when calamity struck—when it has struck, we have always survived. Terrible things happen, but we fell because we did not stand together. When we quarreled and fought in the darkness and turned on each other or acted like monsters…then came the Raskghar, creeping. Remember we are all Gnolls.”
She saw them nodding, looking at each other. Gnolls from every tribe, at this Meeting of Gnolls. They drew together, and Satar, emboldened, went on.
“Raskghar and…one more thing. If ever you should meet a strange Gnoll on your journey, or see one upon the plains with pale white fur, beware. Beware, for there is one kind of Gnoll that is marked that way. Not with color, but with fur as white as snow, all over.”
Her audience looked up, and someone murmured the name as Satar spoke it.
The very word made the adults who’d been idly listening suddenly sit up. The children had already been transfixed, Satar saw, as she looked around solemnly.
“It’s not to scare you. Well, not just to scare you, young ones. They exist. Gnolls with no tribe—though they are of Plains Gnolls, not City Gnolls. Let me tell you a story of the Knocte Tribe and the Beast of Albez.”
The way you did a Retelling was stories within stories. So Satar set up the small, prosperous Knocte tribe, who lived in the foothills of Albez, long ago.
“They were a happy tribe, not one with great, high-level Gnolls, but happy. One day, one of the [Shepherds] saw a white Gnoll in the distance. She was headed towards their tribe, and though the [Shepherd] knew better, she did not chase the Gnoll off. She went to her [Chieftain], and her [Chieftain] knew better, but the Knocte tribe did not leave, though they saw the white Gnoll and knew what she was. The white Gnoll came among them, and they refused to deal with the white Gnoll, the Doombringer. But they did not do anything more, and for that—they suffered. The travelling Gnoll left, and the Knocte tribe thought that was the end of it. The next night—a terrible beast emerged from the foothills of Albez and fell upon them.”
When she heard the word, ‘Doombringer’, one of the Silverfangs leaning on a table and listening sat up. She was Silverfang, but she was also from Liscor, and the word meant more to her than other Gnolls.
Senior Guardswoman Beilmark glanced at Satar, but the [Shaman] was doing a Retelling. And she didn’t know. As she went on, her young audience drew together.
Wide eyes. Beilmark had heard stories like this growing up, but she’d forgotten how…grisly they were. The Beast of Albez fell upon the Knocte tribe, devouring them, unable to be killed. They tried to flee or hide, but it hunted them down. The [Guardswoman] gritted her teeth, listening as Satar told the Beast of Albez story.
The wide-eyed children were shaking when Satar’s low voice came to the end of it. Not just because the young Gnoll could project her voice or she had a way with words. She was a good storyteller and augmented her story with little bits of powder or magical components from her pouch.
A darkening of the air. Little shapes of Gnolls—the hint of teeth, a growl in the air as she cast cantrips.
“They did not heed the warning. By the last day of the week, the Beast of Albez had devoured the tribe. It sat there, fat and evil and sleeping—until a warrior came to slay it. Another Gnoll, who took vengeance for the Knocte tribe. But, oh! If only they had listened to the warnings. When you see a Doombringer—stay away. Flee the doom it brings! Tell your Chieftain so tragedy can be avoided. That is what white fur betokens. They bring doom. Misfortune. Wherever they go…”
She looked around, and Beilmark heard the Retellings again. As every Gnoll child heard it many times throughout their lives.
“…they bring only misfortune and death. But let us not speak too long on Doombringers and Raskghar and darkness, yes? My next tale…”
It was just one part of the Retellings. And the Retellings were a tradition that encompassed so much history that Satar could speak for seven days and nights and not come close to recounting all the tales—not that she knew all of them.
[Shamans] spoke like this; it was one of their duties. An activity for children, a peaceful one rather than hunts or gathering. Just part of life in the tribes.
Beilmark listened. However, she couldn’t smile or applaud Satar like Cers or the audience when the [Shaman] was done. They were stories of Doombringers, glory, downfall, and evil.
But they were wrong. A little girl with white fur lived in the Silverfang’s own camp. And this was the story they told about her. This was why they hunted her. These were the stories Mrsha had heard about Doombringers herself, growing up, Beilmark had no doubt.
Now Mrsha was one. A Gnoll with white fur. Doombringer. Beilmark shook her head. She turned away from the tribal activity she had remembered so fondly.
It was wrong.
Satar got into trouble for her Retelling, and she didn’t know why. She stood in the [Chieftain]’s tent, her home, with Cers whining and pacing around the tent outside. A weary Gnoll with silver-paint markings, a metal-tooth necklace, and that put-upon hunch to her shoulders when she was angry sat there.
Akrisa Silverfang. To her right was her sister, the [Shopkeeper], the Councilwoman of Liscor that had brought back an amazing gift—who had helped expose the Drakes’ treachery in stealing their magic. Krshia Silverfang.
Also present was Cetrule. The [Shaman of Purity] was silently at work, casting a spell. He could make sure ore mined was pure enough to go to the [Smelter], or ensure drinking water was clean, or the food. He was a practical [Shaman] for a practical tribe.
All three adults were angry at her. Akrisa spoke sharply.
“Why did you retell the Doombringer story, Satar? Of all the things…you’re only lucky our guests didn’t hear! Now? At this time?”
Satar was confused. She had been riding high after her Retelling, and she’d thought she’d done a fine job. Everyone had said so. She’d come to see Akrisa and expected to be congratulated.
Instead? Krshia nodded slightly.
“Thank goodness she did not hear. But this…this is the heart of the issue. Each tribe tells it so, Akrisa. How will we put a motion before the gathered Chieftains? Now is the time. It must be the time, yes? But…”
She trailed off. Akrisa shook her head, but not to gainsay her sister.
“You are right, Krshia. I see it now. Like poison, seeping into our ears. From my own tribe and daughter! Satar!”
The young Gnoll burst out, and all three adults looked at her. Satar was nearly in tears.
“I just told the Retelling like I’ve been taught! Cetrule—Volah herself says I tell the stories as well as she does!”
She didn’t understand. Akrisa opened her mouth angrily.
“That is not the point. With Mri here and—”
“Hold on. Chieftain Akrisa. Honored Krshia. I think we have made a mistake.”
Cetrule interrupted suddenly. All three heads turned to him as the [Shaman] looked at Satar, then glanced around.
“Satar…she doesn’t know about Mri. Or the situation.”
Satar looked up, and Akrisa’s angry expression turned to one of surprise—then regret. Krshia rose slightly.
“We did not…?”
“What about Mri? What’s this, Mother? You sent me away.”
Chieftain Akrisa hesitated. She glanced at Krshia, then back at Satar. A flash of shame colored her features.
“Satar, I…no, you wouldn’t know. I have made a mistake in anger.”
“As did I. Beilmark thought she knew.”
But both sisters were looking at each other with that meaningful stare, and Cetrule kept glancing sideways at Satar—but said not a word.
Akrisa rested her paws on her knees. She looked at Satar, hesitating, and then spoke.
“—I cannot say, Satar. Forgive me. I have been the one to make the mistake. You could not know. But—no more stories about Doombringers. No more Retellings at all, in fact.”
“What? Why? Tell me. I am a [Shaman] of the Silverfangs, aren’t I?”
Satar stomped one foot. She knew that was a bad idea. But suddenly she was outraged! This wasn’t her fault after all!
Akrisa sighed. Satar waited and saw Krshia look at her with a keen analysis, then back to her sister.
“It might be wise, sister. But I will let you be the judge.”
Cetrule looked up from inspecting a bowl of silver dust.
“There is a danger in it.”
The older [Shaman] could only shrug.
“To us all, Honored Krshia, Chieftain. Until a decision is made or even proposed…I am uncomfortable with the leeway Mri has to begin with to run about.”
“She is being watched, but she is a precocious child. You are right, Cetrule, but raising suspicions is equally as dangerous. I am comforted that…”
The adults all noticed Satar listening keenly, trying to piece it together, and fell silent. They looked to Akrisa, and the [Chieftain] of the Silverfangs hesitated. For a long moment, Satar waited—and then Akrisa looked her daughter in the eye.
“This is a matter between Chieftains, Satar.”
“Even other [Shamans] are not aware of what is going on. I am sorry, but…you do not need to know. Not yet. Nor will I take that risk. Satar, I apologize for—Satar!”
The young Gnoll didn’t reply. She whirled and stormed out of the tent. Krshia slowly reached for a cup of tea and took a sip in the ugly silence after she was gone.
“That could have gone better, no? We…could have told her, Akrisa.”
Her older sister stared down at the ground.
“It is dangerous. Satar is young.”
Cetrule returned carefully. Akrisa glared at him, but not with any real rancor.
“She makes mistakes. All of us did, but we cannot. Not with Mrsha. It would take one off-hand comment to the wrong [Shaman] and all of the Meeting of Tribes would know a Doombringer was here. And some are murderous.”
“Would she do that? She’s a sensible young woman, from what I see.”
Krshia offered. Akrisa shook her head.
“You do not understand how deeply Doombringers are rooted in the tribes, Krshia. I myself felt a chill until you explained it to me many times. Cetrule?”
“I confess…I thought of every story. We tell many. I will not gainsay you, Akrisa, but I sympathize for Satar.”
“Yet she is immature. She has her head—not in the clouds, but in stories. She is good at Retellings, but if anyone were to take the stories seriously…”
Krshia looked curiously at Akrisa. This was a part of her family among the Silverfangs that she didn’t know about.
“Anything Satar has done?”
“Just silly things young women get up to. Nothing illegal or dangerous. Just silly. I was far too harsh to her with no reason. As for not trusting her…”
“It might have been a bad idea. Imagine how we would have taken that?”
Akrisa stared blankly ahead.
“Yes. I regret that already. But it is done. The Meeting of Chieftains awaits. We must bring it up then, Krshia. If all the rest of these disasters and moments of note don’t interfere.”
She sat, with a heavy weight on her shoulders. So heavy, she gave little thought to her daughter’s feelings when weighed against the life of a little girl and the fate of the tribes.
Satar did not slam into her rooms because she didn’t have a door. The yurt flaps didn’t slam. But she did hurl her staff down and tear off her [Shaman]’s dress.
She sniffed. So that was how it was! She was still just the [Chieftain]’s daughter. Not important enough to be trusted with…what was that about Mri? About her stories?
She couldn’t make sense of it—or if she did have a thought, it was so outlandish as to be impossible.
“How was I supposed to know I wasn’t to tell Doombringer tales? Is that fair judgment, Mother? Why did you bite my head off, and why won’t you tell me why it matters if I’m in trouble? Instead, you send me away like I’m Cers.”
She tossed her [Shaman]’s satchel down and rubbed at her eyes.
“I’ll never be respected here. How can I impress the [Chieftain] when she’s you? I’m…I’ll go somewhere where I’m not the [Chieftain]’s daughter. Like Demas Metal or Woven Bladegrass.”
She could do that.
That was how they had done it, long ago. She wished she were part of those tales.
Satar sniffled as she sat in her tent. It wasn’t fair. She knew her mother had to be a [Chieftain], but she couldn’t make Satar be both her daughter and keep secrets.
Satar wasn’t joking about leaving her tribe, either. It was something she thought of more and more. It was a terrifying prospect, but could she ever become more than Akrisa Silverfang’s daughter here? Aunt Krshia herself had left. Perhaps Satar had to as well, and if so, there would never be a time more fitting than the Meeting of Tribes. But, oh—
She didn’t want to leave her little brother, or mother, or Cetrule. It was too hard because she loved them, but her position made being family…difficult.
Satar looked around, and Cers wasn’t here for once. Even so, Satar cast a [Locking Ward] spell on the tent flaps. She looked around again and then went over to the comfortable roll of cloth rather than a bulky bed that she slept on. She hesitated and then felt around at a small package tucked into the corner of her bed.
Slowly, the [Shaman] pulled something out of its hiding place. Her secret…hobby. Obsession? Satar’s paws shook slightly as she unwrapped the object and held it up. It was…
A magical book. Thin as a journal, and with more pages than Satar could count. She rifled through it, as the little bundle of books she’d bought with her own coin sat around her. Yet that wasn’t what Satar was focused on. Slowly, she found where she had stopped, and her paw hesitated over the last passage. She traced the line with a furry finger and read out loud.
“…then, Ferkr Shallenside stood before the Meeting of Tribes as the Earth Elemental of the Gaarh Marsh tribe raised the crystal overhead. All secrets were revealed then; the treachery of the Drakes…”
She hesitated. Satar fiddled with something, and then lifted a quill. A magic quill, because she had no inkwell, and industriously scribbled. She re-checked her passage.
All secrets were revealed then; the treachery of the Drakes’ crystal, which had been buried under Az’muzarre’s traditional grounds, seemingly unbeknownst to all, shone plainly for all to see. Later, allegations that this was a part of Fissival’s ancient network repurposed to steal Gnolls’ magic, or a planted artifact by some other enemy of Gnolls, would surface. However, the truth of it was not yet borne out as of writing, in the 16th of Eviun, currently…
She left a blank. She’d have to figure out the exact year and write in multiple dates. And she felt strongly about writing down multiple dates, not just Wistram’s calendar, or the Gnolls’. This had to be an unbiased…less biased take. Especially if people would one day read it.
Satar sat, working hard, pouring her frustrations and anger into the book.
The book, which was entitled A Record of Satar, Volume 1. The world as she saw it, the news as she heard it. Someday, someone might read it, or she’d have it bound and copied by a [Scribe] and [Bookbinder]. Someday…
She might be a [Historian]. Or simply a [Writer], or even someone as famous as Krsysl Wordsmith. Satar tried to mix storytelling with history, because she didn’t like dry anecdotes. She liked [Shaman] stories. But she was more than a spellcaster, in fact.
Classes had variations and secrets, but there was an order to classes as they pertained to storytellers, entertainers, and so on that most people cared not about. Like a [Soldier] became [Lieutenant] or [Sergeant]—which could be a dead-end class—or someday rose to [General] and beyond [General]…
Most great [Bards], [Writers], and advanced classes like [Historian] started as [Storyteller]. Or [Speaker]. Or [Scribe] or [Scribbler]. [Scrivener] was, of course, higher-level.
The class Satar had wasn’t secret to her mother or Cetrule; appraisal spells existed, and Satar was honest—especially because she liked the gifts and accolades for a level. However, she had justified it as being part of the Retellings, and her mother had allowed it because classes were something to be celebrated among the Gnoll people, regardless of what they were. You didn’t have to pursue a passion if you didn’t want to; her mother was a Level 7 [Fisher], for instance, and sometimes talked with [Anglers] when they visited the coast for hours about the double-line backflip supreme jagged hook or whatever.
Satar actually had a proper list of fishing terms and fish and hooks and whatnot lying around somewhere, but she was allowed to be petty. Indeed, her journal/chronicle obsessively noted a lot of details, like new monsters, any classes or Skills she learned the true nature of, and so forth.
Political events, important figures—especially the King of Destruction! All of it was grist to Satar’s level-mill, and, oh, she wanted to level up. She had found that the most economical way to level was by writing down everything important.
She wanted to level up. Everyone did, and Satar had an obsession with it. She was a bog-standard Level 16 [Shaman], which was fine for a nineteen year-old. Hitting Level 20 sometime in her 20’s was good progress.
But Satar did not want that. She knew that every famous Gnoll had stories of hitting Level 30 before they had turned thirty! Sometimes before they turned twenty!
She wanted to be important, especially because she was the Chieftain’s daughter. She might not become [Chieftain], but she wanted…
Levels. Her mother knew she was a [Storyteller], and she didn’t cast [Appraisal] since you had to pay for a [Mage], spell scroll, or have a Skill, none of which she actually had. So she had no idea that Satar had long surpassed her [Shaman] levels. She was, in fact, a Level 23 [Archival Storyteller].
[Archival Storyteller] wasn’t that great a class, incidentally. Satar suspected it was because she kept writing down the world around her, rather than telling a story. She wanted [Historian] or [Writer]…that earned you real respect among the community.
Not that the community of writers was very strong among Plains Gnolls. Of course, any Gnoll enjoyed a good book, but they had a very oral tradition, so a Gnoll who finished a book might end up telling the entire book with their own embellishments to friends over the course of a week or a hunt. The thing was…
They talked. They were good talkers, but that meant they were not strong writers. Books, paper, those were harder to get for a nomadic people, as was storage. [Shamans] remembered and did Retellings and passed on their information by word-of-mouth.
Satar listened and wrote it down. Because someone had to! She knew there was a place for it in libraries, and she wanted her story to be that.
The trick to leveling up as a [Writer] was to find what gained you the most levels. Other people were less deliberate about levelling. Satar? Immensely dedicated to each new level. She wrote down news and events every night and kept a little record of the days she leveled up. What made her gain her new level?
Often, at the start, it was just…writing down a big event, like the King of Destruction waking up. Devote enough pages to the account and she leveled, especially if she felt she had done a good job evoking the entire narrative. Satar realized that describing the world, describing appearances, the setting, earned her levels faster, so she did that.
However, like all classes, you slowed in leveling rapidly after Level 10, and more after Level 20…by Level 30 and Level 40, you were lucky if you leveled once a year unless you did something dramatic. For a [Warrior]? Fighting huge battles or in wars was how they levelled; people who just trained in peace stagnated at the same level for years.
Satar had wondered the obvious question—how did you gain massive levels as a [Storyteller]? If a [Mage] got levels from mastering a grand spell, and a [Warrior] for slaying some beast…
The answer was publication. Or—if you were a vocal storyteller like a [Bard]—performances, especially to important audiences. The only problem was that publishing a book wasn’t as easy as just…writing something down and magically copying it around.
Satar wished she could do that, but the truth was a book took a dedicated [Scribe]—or you had to do each book by copying over line after line with your best handwriting—getting good, quality paper, binding it—and you had to pay an expert for that—and doing that a few hundred to a few thousand times and finding a way to sell it! Distribute it! Get anyone to read—
…There were ways. And there were more than a few ways to level and write. You could level in [Storyteller] in other ways, like doing Retellings well. Or…
Reading. [Reader] was inherently tied to [Writer]; they were sides of the same coin. One could level in the other’s class at a slower rate by doing the opposite, and Satar had been a Level 11 [Book Reader] when it consolidated into her [Archival Storyteller]. Now, reading a good book might move her towards her next level.
Of course, you had to have a book to read first, and Gnolls didn’t own libraries. Satar couldn’t imagine a worse species to have been born as to be a book-loving writer-reader. Maybe Garuda? But they could fly and visit cities easily. Goblins didn’t count. Nor did Antinium. Fraerlings? Did they have tiny books?
They must have libraries! Satar wanted to visit one, go to a Walled City…but she was Akrisa Silverfang’s daughter. Sometimes, Satar wondered if she would have to tell her mother and what it would mean. Would she become a Gnoll of Silverfang or would she…
Leave? She hadn’t intended to leave at the Meeting of Tribes as some Gnolls could do, to seek fortune and fame. After today? She thought about it.
…But Silverfang was her tribe. Satar didn’t earn money, and she couldn’t fend for herself. Silverfang was a fairly rich tribe, so she had a good stipend of money, which she spent on her secret hobby. Only Cers knew she even had a book, and he just thought she liked drawing on the pages like he did, that book-defacing monster.
Satar had gear, Skills, and levels. She was unto the world of writing a Silver-rank adventurer in her mind. Her biggest weapon was her quill, which she had saved up for four years to buy.
It was a magic quill that you ‘linked’ to a bottle of ink with a simple dip of the pen. Then it wrote without needing to be dipped or running dry. It had cost her four gold coins and nine silver, down five silver from haggling with the [Enchanter] when she mentioned a book he liked and how she wanted to write as well.
Ink would have eaten the rest of Satar’s writing budget in a heartbeat, and in the past she’d even experimented with trying to make it herself—with bad results, as the ‘ink’ bled through the cheap parchment, ruining one of her earlier pieces of work completely.
The thing about leveling was that it made your life easier. For instance—the first Skill most [Writer]-based storytellers got was [Corrected Spelling]. Minor mistakes vanished.
Another great Skill Satar had gotten was [Quickened Scribing], which changed her writing pace with a quill to double its speed at Level 23. Another? [Remove Inkstains]. Perfect for fur.
Those were lower-level Skills. [Anti-Cramping Muscles] was actually universally useful, and Satar had once helped mend nets for the Silverfang [Hunters] while they visited a coast for two days straight without needing a healing potion once.
Her capstone Skills at Level 10 and Level 20 were naturally the best, though. For her Level 10 Skill, Satar had gotten the prize of a lifetime—at least in her eyes when the girl had received it at 15 years old.
[A Bottle A Day: Ink]. Every day, she’d wake up, and one of her carefully-placed bottles of ink would be full to the brim with whatever basic color she wanted. She’d experimented, and she could get red, blue, or even yellow and green—but not more than that. No fancy inks, and only a small inkwell, not a big one—although the amount of ink had grown as she gained the next thirteen levels.
It was beyond useful because, not only could Satar save her free ink, she could sell it—although, often, the cost of the glass bottle outweighed the ink itself. But she had made silver at times, selling it to [Scribes].
Her Level 20 Skill was a bit more mundane, but a bit more powerful. [Narrative: Spot Inconsistencies]. Far less materials, and seemingly useless…
Until Satar looked at her writing and saw how many times she used the word, ‘or’. Or realizing she had never given context to the Ferkr-Grimalkin connection in her anecdotes about him and wrote a section explaining who Grimalkin of Pallass was and referring readers to her notes on Pallass and the Walled Cities…
She wondered what her Level 30 Skill was and was determined to find out before she turned…twenty-five. Yes, that seemed possible.
Indeed, Satar had high hopes of leaving the Meeting of Tribes Level 25. She had come here at Level 21 and already leveled up twice from recording the dramatic events. And…
Well, if publishing was the goal of a [Writer], Satar was on baby-steps since she showed no one her work, right? She would never get to higher levels until she got enough money to really publish, and that was sort of a snowball effect because you had to have money to publish a lot and become famous, and you had to be famous and have an audience to have the money to…
Wrong. In fact, even among Gnolls, there were ways to get ahead. The storytelling community was not without…means.
Later that day, in the Meeting of Tribes, two hooded figures met behind one of the communal tents, this one reserved to let visitors see a [Performer]’s act. Amid the hubbub of someone juggling knives and the gasps of admiration, loud voices, and occasional suppressed screams as someone got stabbed—
Two figures met and were joined by a third. All three could smell each other; they smelled like paper and ink, and the disguises weren’t waterproof. Nevertheless, the first two growled at the third.
“Password? I don’t know a password—”
“Um. Uh…‘Quintessential Literature’?”
The two looked at each other. The first thought about it.
“That’s got enough syllables. We’ll accept it.”
“I would have held out for ‘Nomenclature’. Literature’s too common a word.”
The other two figures turned to the first. The new Gnoll held up her paw.
“…What does nomenclature mean?”
The wordy-hooded figure cleared their throat. H—e—it was definitely a he—spoke.
“The way of devising or choosing names for things. Not the words themselves; that’s lexicon. The method.”
“…Can you use it in a sentence?”
A loud sigh. The hooded figures kept up their quiet banter as they rustled for bags of holdings or items.
“Alright, let’s see it. What do you have?”
“I have…two of the latest off-the-cover stories of Tales of Adventure and Woe. Big names—fresh off the Mage’s Guild. Literal hours.”
“Heartslayi and Sandquen themselves.”
The new Gnoll groaned.
“Them? They’re romance.”
The nomenclature-Gnoll grunted beneath his hood as he waved the pieces of bound parchment at the other two. It was cheap; the other two had paper goods, but quality varied.
“Yeah, well, not this time. You know Sandquen?”
“I’ve read their work. Somehow; I bet she pays people to read it because there’s no other way it gets traded around. Even in her genre. Not impressed.”
Sandquen had never been published in Tales of Adventure and Woe. She lacked in some fundamentals, but she was just a weird writer too, who jumped to the glorious moments without proper buildup. Amateurs.
However…the Gnoll insisted on showing the others the first paragraph.
“She’s gotten better. This one’s about the ‘Silver Swordswoman’ in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Very sentimental, and full of platitudes and whatnot, but it reads realistic and better than anything else.”
“Huh. It is…better.”
The new Gnoll paged through the story before it was snatched back and felt a pang of grudging envy. Both writers had an actual audience to be featured here. To have people peddling their works. They had to level up to that.
“What about Heartslayi?”
“Also different. It’s a mystery—she calls it a ‘heist’ story. It’s a breakout of a magical prison, but it’s come out in installments. No one knows how it’ll end, and she’s not updated—she normally posts a new one every few days.”
“Weird. Is it good?”
“Very. How much do you want for it?”
“Will you…trade for some poetry? I’ve got about fifty-two poems…”
“It’s good poetry. Written by a Level 16 [Poet]!”
The second hooded figure’s voice was defensive. Both first and third Gnoll shifted, and one coughed. The second hooded figure’s voice grew louder.
“It’s not me! Swear by the tribes! Look, just read it—it’ll help someone level, alright?”
“Oh—fine. But I’m trading all of it for the Heartslayi copy, and you’re paying for the rest. I guess I can share it with people in the city…”
Grumbling, the first hooded Gnoll made the trade. The third, Satar, piped up uncertainly.
“I—I have a story too. Three copies. It’s entitled, ‘The Revelation of Ferkr’. It’s about what happened at the Meeting of Chieftains.”
The two other Gnolls looked at her. Satar was beet red under her hood, but the first Gnoll made a sound.
“Interesting. I heard Krsysl Wordsmith and other [Writers] were tackling it…is that a copy or something?”
“No. It’s…written from the perspective of someone who was here. It’s historical.”
No one had to say who wrote what, but the other two Gnolls exchanged glances. They took the pieces of paper Satar had paid for and worked so hard on and read.
“…Huh. History? But we’re all here. Why do we need this?”
“Because not everyone was here.”
The two looked at her, and the first Gnoll, who had been to a Mage’s Guild, nodded.
“Interesting. I’ll take…how many copies do you have?”
Her heart leapt.
“I’ll take four, then.”
“One for me. I bet you can get the others sold off, especially if you can get more. How much per?”
“I—I can get more! Eight copper.”
The others fished for coins. Satar held her breath; she priced her stuff low, mostly so that the people who attended these gatherings would buy. She took a loss most times, but gained in levels.
“Pleasure doing business with you. We have a meeting tomorrow. We’ll go to a big tent. Someone’ll hang a fish on the tent so you can find it—near the Steelfur camps. Late night.”
“A fish? That’ll stink to the skies.”
“I think it’s a carved fish, but we’ll see.”
The group of three had traded goods, and Satar had a copy of some poetry, the two new stories, and even a free little story she suspected the Gnoll with the poetry had written. But she’d read it all. This was the underground black market of words, and there was no better place for it than the Meeting of Tribes.
“See you there, then. Alright…”
Which also begged the question why all three bothered to do it in secret. The three hooded Gnolls standing behind the tent were turning to go when suddenly, someone howled. They froze—and then a Gnoll came bounding around the tent, a huge, spiked mace in hand.
Three more Gnolls, all wearing extremely dangerous-looking armor, what looked like shell armor to Satar, delicate mithril scale mail, and a poor Gnoll with plain leather, bounded around the corner, all holding weapons.
“By order of the Meeting of Tribes! Freeze!”
The Az’muzarre Gnoll brandished the club with spikes made of some monster’s teeth, and the Gnolls in hoods threw up their paws. One of the Gnolls sniffed.
“We were just—”
“Shut up. You lot make me sick. What are you selling? Selphid Dust? It can’t be Dreamleaf. Smells like rolls of parchment and ink.”
“Killing spells? Watch for traps—”
“Move and die! Hey, you. [Guardsman]. How do you want to search them?”
The Gnoll with leather armor gulped as the three high-level Gnolls, each from a different tribe, turned to him.
Guardsman Tkrn of Liscor hesitated.
“Well, if we think they’ve got something deadly—make them place it, and if they so much as twitch on the [Detect Magic] radar, we take them down. Hoods off, robes off, lying down so they can’t twist and stab us.”
“Good idea. Do it.”
The [Guardsman] watched as the Gnolls placed their suspicious cargo on the ground. Unlike the last three busts, which had seen Gnolls stealing everything from secret recipes from other tribes to dangerous drugs to stolen goods—he eyed the books and manuscripts.
“What’s this? Secrets? Hoods off!”
The Az’muzarre Gnoll didn’t ask twice. The hoods came off, and Tkrn looked at Satar as she stared at him. He blinked.
Held by her captors, the young woman stared the Archmage in the eyes. His sharp goatee and twisted smile on his face were like a piercing razor, but she never looked away. Her chest rose and fell as he snipped the first layer of cloth away with a spell.
“This would be easier if you told me where you were hiding the key,” he said. But the young woman refused to speak. Across from her, the bared chest and sculpted muscles of the young [Mage] shone with the faintest sheen of perspiration in the cell’s thin light.
“Then, some incentive will do. Call for the Golems—”
At this point, one of the [Shamans] had to put down the manuscript of Heartslayi’s latest novella. Another fanned himself.
“Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me, yes? So this is the illicit goods, eh?”
He turned, and Satar wanted to vanish into the ground like a [Shaman of the Earth]. She sat, burning with embarrassment under her fur.
“I thought you said she wasn’t writing romance!”
One of the two Gnolls sitting with her hissed at their companion. The male Gnoll, who was actually a [Tracker] from the Plain’s Eye tribe, held up his paws.
“It isn’t romance! Not really! She—it’s Heartslayi. What did you expect?”
The Az’muzarre Gnoll glared at them, but even the [Warrior] was trying very hard not to laugh. He sighed loudly.
“Why were you hiding? Behind a tent? You wasted our time and yours, unless there’s some secret in it? Hidden codes?”
“If there is, it’s hidden under all the abdominal muscles and light torture. What is it with Humans and bellies?”
“Probably the lack of fur.”
A group of [Shamans] from each Gnoll’s tribe and a few others were investigating the criminality. Satar wanted to die; not least because she and the two other Gnolls were now known.
A [Tracker], a [Shaman], and a [Netweaver], all from different tribes, all with a secret uniting passion. The worst part? The reason Satar wished they’d all been killed on the spot?
Cetrule was half-covering his face, avoiding her expression as the [Shamans] read out another passage from the manuscript. They were all much amused.
“They’re definitely not in trouble—unless liking this is a crime.”
“It should be. This is bad poetry.”
“Hey! I know the Gnoll who wrote that!”
The [Netweaver] protested. The [Shamans] glanced over and one looked at Satar.
“This is hardly illegal, Warrior Kuzait. We regret the wasted time, but perhaps these Gnolls will stop doing this in the future. It is not embarrassing to have a hobby, yes? More openness might help.”
“As you say, Shaman.”
Kuzait sighed loudly. He turned to the trio with him, one of whom was Tkrn.
“Thank you for your help, fellow warriors. We are surely done with our parts. Tomorrow?”
“If we don’t go to war before then. Yes. An honor to meet you all.”
The Gnolls broke up, and the [Shamans] turned. One looked at the three [Readers] with some mischief in her eyes.
“You are also free to go, although I’m afraid this might get out among the tribes. Fear not. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I’ll buy one of these ‘Heartslayi’ stories myself. How much?”
And that was that. The other two Gnolls left the tent fast—after selling one copy to the [Shaman]—with their trade-goods. It was a lighthearted moment, if hugely embarrassing.
Satar sat where she was for a long while, before Cetrule walked over. He inspected her works and picked them up, offering them to her.
“We should, ah, get back to the Silverfang tribe. Akrisa sent me right away when she heard. She will want to know all is well.”
So her mother knew she’d been arrested. Satar walked after Cetrule, head hung low. She tried to say something as they left the tent.
“Chieftain Akrisa doesn’t have to know why I was stopped, does she…?”
Cetrule hesitated, clearly torn.
“She…will want to know why. And not knowing the answer will bother her more than the reason. Which is not—awful? Not at all.”
He looked at Satar, and the [Shaman] didn’t say anything.
“It’s not a shame to have a hobby, Satar. If it is what you like—she knows you are a [Storyteller]. She might even be glad to hear of your level. Level 23 [Archival Storyteller]. You didn’t tell us you were Level 23! She would have thrown you a celebration.”
“I was going to. Later. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
The [Shamans] had used [Appraisal] on her to make sure she had no untoward classes. They were thorough. Cetrule nodded, looking at her.
“Then, you prefer this class over being a [Shaman].”
“I like being a [Shaman]!”
She protested, but she heard the disappointment in his voice. Satar looked at Cetrule wretchedly.
“I just like stories too. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”
“I was arrested. Mother will think I’m a child. That’s why she doesn’t trust me, isn’t it?”
Satar was close to tears again. Cetrule hesitated. He touched one of the silver charms hanging from his bracelet as he slowed. They were coming close to the Silverfang tribe, and more celebrations were on the way.
The Meeting of Tribes was winding down, but the threat of Drake armies, the revelation of the magic-theft…it was complicating the ending. Still, there was always an event, and Satar’s Retellings were one of a dozen on even the slowest day. It looked like a little parade, a celebration passing by their tribe, so Cetrule turned to Satar.
“She regretted that, Satar. Truly. It is unimaginably stressful for your mother and her sister right now, and they do not even trust the secret with the other Honored Gnolls of the Silverfangs. Only a handful know; even the Chieftains of other tribes working with us tell no one but their most trusted Gnolls.”
Satar’s head rose. The [Storyteller] felt a tingle on the back of her paws.
“Is it something like…Ferkr? Or our gift to the Meeting of Tribes?”
“Bigger still in its way.”
“Bigger? What, Cetrule?”
He hesitated. The [Shaman] looked around, then drew her into one of the tents not being used yet. He sighed.
“Give me five minutes. I would have to do this in the Silverfang tribe anyways.”
He drew something on the ground. A circle, no, a warding sigil Satar recognized. It took Cetrule seven minutes, and he actually pulled out silver dust to complete it. It was one of the most complete wards for privacy he could manage.
“There. I can tell you, now. But turn this way so no one can read my lips.”
The Gnoll angled his back to the closed flaps, and Satar’s fur prickled. She was excited—but suddenly nervous at the precautions Cetrule had taken. He leaned forwards, and Satar held her breath.
“That child who is in the Silverfang tribe—who Krshia and Akrisa made a fuss over when she arrived?”
“The one Qwera, the Golden Gnoll, brought? I thought she was her daughter or helper. Mri, you mean?”
“Yes…that one. She is not Qwera’s daughter, though she is under her protection. The protection of Silverfang, Weatherfur, Longstalker’s Fang, Ekhtouch, and Greenpaw. I fear it might not be enough for all that.”
“Not for two great tribes, Longstalker’s Fang, and Silverfang? Is she in danger or something?”
Satar wondered how that was possible. Cetrule nodded shortly.
“She is. And not from…Drakes. Or anyone else. She is in danger of other Gnolls killing her.”
Satar felt like she knew. That little girl with the brown fur and painted ears who Cers didn’t like? Gire’s friend? But suddenly, the [Storyteller] found her mind wandering back to her mother’s anger. The story…
“A white Gnoll.”
The young Gnoll whispered suddenly, and Cetrule jerked.
“How did you—?”
“It makes sense. It’s obvious. It has to be—or Mother wouldn’t have been angry. I’m right? She’s a Doombringer?”
“Never say that.”
Satar blinked. Cetrule was pale. She grinned in delight—then her mouth opened wide.
“Wait. I am right? She’s a…?”
Suddenly every story she had ever been told flashed in her mind. Cetrule looked at Satar.
Satar was going through surprise the wrong way, from confidence to realizing more and more what that meant. Incredulously, she looked at Cetrule and suddenly—she wanted to talk to Mri. A Doombringer? How? Why would Akrisa let her in?
But she was a child. So the stories…Cetrule watched Satar thinking. She didn’t draw back in horror as her mother had feared. If anything—it confirmed he was right to tell her. He exhaled in relief.
“Her name is Mrsha. She is the girl that was kidnapped from Liscor. She is under our protection, and the Silverfangs of Liscor know her.”
“She’s that girl?”
Satar started. Again, Cetrule was surprised, but she remembered that broadcast. The [Shaman of Purity] sighed.
“Yes. It is a long story, and Akrisa or Krshia can tell you the rest. Even Beilmark or Tkrn—they all know. But you will not speak of it without a secrecy-ward in place, Satar. As [Chief Shaman], I order you to keep it secret. Understood?”
She nodded rapidly. This changed everything. She wanted to record all this down—then she saw Cetrule watching her and realized—she couldn’t.
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“Or write it down?”
“Cetrule! I’m not stupid!”
Satar blushed, knowing the last hour hadn’t really helped her case. But she put her paws together.
“By the pride of Silverfang, I won’t. I mean it. This isn’t about my class. This is…huge.”
“Wait until you hear about Rose and Inkarr.”
Cetrule muttered, and Satar’s mouth fell open. So he had to tell her about that. She nearly burst their secrecy ward from her voice alone.
“They’re from another world?”
Cetrule shielded his ears.
“Yes! Stop shouting!”
“Why aren’t you more excited about that?”
“We have every issue in front of us, Satar! Mrsha is in trouble, and her name is ‘Mri’—remember that. Be careful of even speaking about her in front of Plain’s Eye. They are one of the most active groups hunting her.”
“But another world—and you just—have you talked with them? Can I?”
Satar had three people she needed to interview. She had wanted to talk to Feshi, of course, but now Feshi was an ant compared to the mountain of treasure…none of which she could write! Someday! Someday—Satar just wanted to know.
Another world. Cetrule disappointed her with his mentality, but he just shrugged helplessly.
“I did. They are fascinating and have objects of another world—ah, that tragedy. Chieftain Orelighn found a vessel that crashed out of the skies from their world. With dead children in it. Young people. They always seem to be young. But I honestly cannot imagine what they tell me. They have pictures, though. I will make sure you speak with them. Again, we must wait for the Meeting of Chieftains to bring it up. I will let your mother explain the rest. But I have told you…and that will simplify things.”
He sighed, and Satar realized he had done all this on his authority as the Silverfang’s [Chief Shaman].
“Thank you, Cetrule.”
He smiled as he broke the ward and tried to reclaim the dust. He’d have to purify it and the dirt, but it was worth it to him to see the [Shaman] happy again. They headed out of the tent and smelled smoke on the air and grilled meats.
“I hope you will accept that, for me telling Akrisa about your hobby. Did you write that history of Ferkr?”
“Yes…I like stories. I wrote down all the Retellings. Someone should, Cetrule.”
The Gnoll didn’t argue like she expected, just rubbed his chin and hmmed.
“Someone should. There are books like that, you know.”
Her heart leapt and sank.
“You are not the only one to have that idea, but we never maintained a central library. We did once—but like everything, we lose and gain. The older [Shamans] might know more. But it is not a bad idea. You could very well write down stories of our people—Akrisa would surely let you do that and sell copies. We can bring it up after the Meeting of Tribes ends. I think she’ll be proud to hear of your levels. Hurt you didn’t tell her.”
“It’s just…I didn’t want to…”
The young woman was trying to explain what it was like to strike out, to do something in secret on her own without parental supervision, to be her own person to Cetrule, as if he had never heard of the idea before, when they came to the celebration as it passed by the Silverfang tribe.
That was when Satar saw Mrsha, really saw her for the first time.
A white Gnoll. A Doombringer.
Of course, what Satar saw was a little girl, roughly Cers’ age. Old enough to stand on her two legs if she wanted to, which she was doing now, clinging to a giant Gnoll’s hand. A [Paragon], so tall that she had to bend slightly to let Mrsha squeeze it.
Gireulashia, whose fur shone, perfect in mind and appearance. Compared to her, Mrsha looked so plain.
One child among others, although the tips of her ears had been painted gold. Golden, like the Golden Gnoll, Qwera. Aside from that? She was so plain that Satar hadn’t really noticed her.
Mrsha was a silly girl. She had, of all things, a crab’s shell strapped to the top of her head like a silly hat, and Gire had one too. A child’s fancy. She had a bag full of gold and a magic wand, and in that she was not like other children.
However, what Satar noticed now, as she coughed and smelled meat, burning wood, and heard a [Shaman] shouting and a crowd cheering happily, were Mrsha’s eyes.
Brown eyes, a Gnoll’s eyes. A girl’s eyes…
And far older than they should be. At times, like now, it seemed like someone far older, still a child, but older, ancient, was staring out of the little girl’s face. Not for knowledge or the weight of years.
Simply…weariness. A weary, sad expression. A terrible weight all in one look. Not directed at Satar or Cetrule. The [Storyteller] nearly ran into the [Shaman]’s back.
Then she noticed the celebration. So caught up in staring at Mrsha, Satar never saw…the event.
It was a simple one. Gnolls ate hot meat from a hunt. They laughed and drank and talked and followed the [Shaman] from the Plain’s Eye tribe as they led a strange contraption forward, hoisted on a few poles by Gnolls careful not to let the embers burn anything down or touch their fur.
It was an effigy. The kind of thing you burned. The flames were halfway up, and the smoke was acrid because of the paint. Satar looked up and saw a white Gnoll burning.
A Doombringer. The Gnolls cheered as it burned, and it passed by the Silverfang camp. Some Gnolls came out to join them, not knowing why Liscor’s representatives and some of the Gnolls went so silent.
But they weren’t Doombringers. The little girl watched the white Gnoll burning as Gire tried to distract her. The worst part? If Satar could have written it down, she would have put it like this:
The little girl looked like my brother. She didn’t look evil, and Doombringers were always described as evil to me. In every story. As bad as Raskghar. I wondered, then, if any stories were true. Because if she was evil, no one was good.
Maybe she was cursed. I didn’t know. But the saddest part as she watched the effigy of the Doombringer burning wasn’t that the other Gnolls were cheering. Or that none of us could say anything. The saddest part—was that she didn’t look surprised.
Satar would never write this down. Not until the day came when it wouldn’t endanger anyone. Never, never. But she kept writing in her heart, in her mental diary.
That was the moment when I knew I had to help her. Find the truth. Doombringer. What…
Were we lied to?
Something began to tingle in her mind. That rare class, that rare Skill…began to reach out. Highlight the mistakes in red, and they were everywhere. Satar reached for her Skill and felt it.
[Narrative: Spot Inconsistencies].
Mrsha du Marquin stood with her crab-hat on her head. It had seemed like such a good idea when she had crab legs with Gire today.
Now? She looked at the little bit of string looped through the crab shell and decided it was a mockery of a dead crab’s life. She took it off. She didn’t want to play anymore.
“Mrsha? Are you okay?”
Gire hovered around Mrsha, like an anxious terrier the size of a water buffalo. She nudged Mrsha.
“Want to play? I have the smartphone. Let’s play, Mrsha.”
The girl stared up at Gire. She reached for her notecard and wrote, staring up at the blue sky tarnished by smoke.
I am adequately entertained, Gire. I will lie here now and rest recumbent forevermore. Or until I get tired, thank you.
Gire hesitated. Her brows crossed. In anyone else but a Terandrian noble, Mrsha’s eloquent writing would have stumped them, much less from a child. Gire, though?
“Verily, Mrsha, I quite comprehend the impetus to laxitudity, but maudlin does not become you. I would that you repast yourself on fine foods or find something of import and would help you find that. What about…cookies?”
Mrsha almost smiled.
Forsooth, dear friend. It seems I needs must join you in some small measure of delight. Let us abscond, then. Carry me.
So Gire scooped her up, and Mrsha hugged her great friend. She buried her face into Gire’s arm. The [Paragon] hugged her gently and glared at the burning Gnoll effigy as she turned away.
It was then that Rose burst into tears. She started blubbering so hard for Mrsha, for Gire, that Adetr Steelfur stopped walking towards her, hesitated, and went to buy a gift and wait for her to stop.
Someone else was covertly watching the chaotic scene, yet he ignored everyone but the white Gnoll. That poor child.
Mrsha. How much more did she have to put up with? Didn’t you—if you knew what she had been through to get here—didn’t you want to pick her up, hold her, and tell her it would be all right and that that would never happen to her?
That was exactly why a Gnoll started forwards, paws outstretched. He never went through the Silverfang camp. A group of Gnolls stopped him.
“Chieftain Mrell. Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur has spoken. You are not permitted within the camp without invitation.”
A Gnoll patterned like the blue sky and clouds, with both on his fur, looked at Mrell as he casually put an arm out. He did not draw the glass sword at his side, but he didn’t have to.
Weatherfur’s Gnolls were guarding Silverfang’s camp, something confusing to anyone who thought about it. Mrell looked at the Gnoll.
He tried to push past the [Guard] without an explanation. Just that he had to hold…his daughter.
His daughter, who he had left. Who he…his daughter, left with his tribe who had perished while he’d been away starting a new life.
He had no right, and Torishi had told him that to his face. And yet. The Weatherfur Gnoll carefully grabbed Mrell, and two more Gnolls held him.
“Chieftain Mrell! what’s going on?”
One of his bodyguards had no idea what was going on, and the Gnolls of the Demas Metal tribe slowed. A Great Tribe like Weatherfur—no one wanted to cause an altercation, but they put their paws on their weapon hilts. Demas Metal—they were all armed with the new weaponry.
“Enough. Hold. It’s…just for a second? I—she needs me.”
“She does not need you, Chieftain Mrell. She has someone to look after her. You would make it worse.”
The lead-warrior looked at Mrell and delivered the address without direct hostility, but still, planted a dagger in Mrell’s chest and twisted it a few times. What Mrell deserved? Yet—the Gnoll looked up as a babble of voices broke out.
“Wait! Let me—”
Someone went down hard as three Ekhtouch guards appeared out of the shadows and tackled her. Of the two estranged parents—Prha got it worse because she had tried to stealth over the edge of the Silverfang camp walls. She was jumped on by three Gnolls who had a head and a lot of mass on her. Even so, the [Warrior] of the Sofang tribe looked after her daughter.
The struggling Gnoll woman and Mrell turned as someone walked through the camp. The guards nodded to Shaman Cetrule as he stalked forwards. He was angry. He cast a spell, and Prha’s words were swallowed away.
“You two are not permitted in the Silverfang camp. Begone, now. Are you mad? Do not speak that name. Begone and do not come back.”
He snapped, and Mrell remembered—Prha was using Mrsha’s real name. She was Mri, here. He had almost said it himself. The Gnoll stirred, and she was picked up, hustled to the edge of the camp, and Mrell was pushed back.
“Can I send her a message? Anything?”
“No. You have no right.”
“But she’s our…”
Prha and Mrell stood together, and the two glanced at each other, then away. Mrell, Chieftain of the new tribe, the up-and-coming Demas Metal with their wondrous steel, looked into Cetrule’s eyes. A young [Shaman] stared at him, confused, and then at Cetrule’s hostile face.
“That is why you have even less of a right. Begone. Stop trying to insert yourself into her life. The best thing that ever happened to Mri was that you two left.”
Cetrule jabbed a finger in Mrell’s face, and the [Chieftain] recoiled. He stalked into the camp, and the Silverfangs who had overheard blinked at the chief [Shaman]. They had seldom seen him so confrontational.
They left, because they had no other choice, but both of them kept looking towards the Silverfang camp. They listened…but they heard nothing. Their daughter never said a word. So the Gnolls sniffed, trying to pick up her scent. And they knew her.
Doombringer. Mrell had thought she had been cursed when she had been born mute. He had tried to abandon her, then.
Now? He wanted to make up for then and now. Do something. Something…
It came back to Doombringers. It came back to tradition, every time. The Waning World, this era, the smaller tribes, their situation—it was all based in the past. So long ago all they had were legends and fragmented memories.
Chieftain Akrisa met her sister’s eyes and knew it was time. Chieftain Firrelle of Ekhtouch, Chieftain Orelighn of Greenpaw, Chieftain Eska of Longstalker’s Fang, and Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur of her clan with Feshi Weatherfur, the [Strategist] of the Titan of Baleros, met in a tent.
Akrisa cleared her throat as she looked from face to face.
“I have a plan to propose the change to the Doombringer’s fate. I hope you will all stand with me on this.”
“Now? Today? We haven’t finished arguing about what to do about Fissival and the Drakes stealing our magic. Nor about the Raskghar. Or about Earth.”
Chieftain Firrelle frowned. Akrisa looked at her and wondered if she were on their side. She was—for Earthers. But Ekhtouch had never made their position on Doombringers clear. She looked at Eska and got a nod of support. Orelighn was also a good Gnoll.
Torishi? The Weatherfur’s Chieftain gazed at Firrelle, and the light shone down upon her, a beam of light from the skies, which followed Weatherfur’s [Chieftain of Countless Skies] at all times.
“Weatherfur will not allow that child to be killed. I say tradition is wrong, Firrelle. At least, where it intersects with Doombringers. If I must drag every Great Tribe with me—I will. We will put to motion the other issues. Akrisa will not bring it up just yet. She has a plan, but you must stand with her until it is time to strike, or else it will not succeed, yes?”
Firrelle raised her brows as Torishi deferred to Akrisa and let the Silverfang [Chieftain] explain.
“We will speak of Earth, today. Tell them of Inkarr and Rose—although their presentation must be careful and secret. But in the doing, we will bind other tribes to our cause. They have already seen we were right about magic.”
“A grand alliance of tribes. A majority to force the last, pivotal issue.”
Eska murmured. She fiddled with the dagger at her side.
“Tribes do not simply go along with each other.”
Orelighn pointed out reasonably. Akrisa nodded, and Cetrule bowed to him.
“Yet they do trust wisdom. Chieftains have already seen that we stand united and have been right about magic. So—if we present Earth to them, and garner their trust, they will come to see we are also right about Mrsh—Mri. We will present her to them and win them over.”
“Authority by winning each vote. Hrr. Very well. I agree on Earth, so I will back your words in the Meeting of Chieftains so long as they are the ones we discussed.”
Firrelle allowed after a moment, and Akrisa nodded tightly. However, amid the Chieftains and their [Chief Shamans] and occasionally seconds like Feshi, it was clear Firrelle and her [Chief Shaman] were reluctant to back the Doombringer plot.
Krshia and Akrisa would have left it there to avoid offending Ekhtouch, but a finger reached out and poked Firrelle in the arm.
“And Mri, Firrelle? Let me hear you say it.”
Torishi looked at Firrelle. The Ekhtouch’s [Chieftain] scowled at her.
“I have yet to make up my mind. There is evidence—”
“She is no monster to be burned. Say it, or you and I will discuss this in less than amiable words.”
Weatherfur’s Chieftain looked dangerous, and Akrisa saw Feshi grab the dagger at her side. The Diamond Dagger of Serept. Ekhtouch’s [Chief Shaman] looked warningly at Feshi, and Firrelle bared her teeth, completely unafraid of the threat. Torishi was a mighty woman, but Firrelle was Ekhtouch and, while lighter than Torishi by a bit, they were of a height.
“I will not be threatened by you, Torishi, or anyone. There is evidence that Mrsha is no…evil thing, but cursed? My [Shamans] have been looking into the issue, quietly. But I will not be hasty or…”
“We’ll help Mrsha.”
The Chieftains frowned at Firrelle. Firrelle frowned. She opened her mouth and spoke.
“I will help Mrsha.”
It was her voice…but it didn’t sound right. Also, Firrelle’s open mouth didn’t open and close. The trick was very good, and if they were distracted and Firrelle tired, you could almost believe it was her voice. However, Gire could throw her voice and imitate Firrelle—but not make her open and close her mouth.
“Gire! How did you get…?”
The [Paragon] had infiltrated Akrisa’s tent somehow, slipping inside past the [Guards]. She must have copied some kind of [Rogue]’s Skill. She rose calmly.
“You will help her, Firrelle.”
“You do not give me orders. Go to your rooms, Gireulashia.”
Firrelle turned red under her fur as the [Paragon] folded her arms at her She loomed over Firrelle. Like the best loomers over the world, she could loom while standing still, loom horizontally, and even speak in loom.
“We will help Mrsha. Or I will be angry, Firrelle. I am on her side, so you will be. You will help her. Or else.”
“Or else what?”
Firrelle might not have been Gire’s mother, but she had a part in raising her, and, like any good parent, she had the warning tone down. Unfortunately, unlike Akrisa, she had not realized Gire had entered a new stage of her adolescence.
Rebellion. Akrisa watched as Gire calmly raised a paw.
“Or else I will hit you, Firrelle. And if you do not listen, I will drag you out in front of Ekhtouch’s tribe and challenge you with one paw tied behind my back.”
“You are insolent—”
Firrelle growled, then looked up at Gire, who had three feet on her, probably at least a hundred…two hundred pounds? And the Ekhtouch Chieftain realized that Gire could probably pull her out in front of her tribe and punch her until she fell over. With one paw tied behind her back.
It was an amazing, dawning realization on her face. As a mother, Akrisa hoped it wouldn’t happen to her.
At the same time…she looked at Gire and wondered who could take her in hand if the young [Paragon] didn’t want them to. Torishi didn’t seem to mind.
“I—fine. Present Earth to them!”
Gire reached out and caught Firrelle as she went for the door. The Ekhtouch Chieftain tried to get away. She was fast—but Gire lifted her off her feet and shook her. It was so fast a dizzy Firrelle was yanked back before Akrisa could blink.
Gire shook Firrelle. Akrisa had never seen someone shake someone like a child shook a figurine. It disturbed her because it was unnerving. It looked—painful. Firrelle made a sound. Gire put her down. The Ekhtouch Chieftain stood there, looking at Gire with such a mix of anger and shock—and sudden unease—she spoke curtly.
“I promise. I will stand for speaking against hunting Doombringers.”
Firrelle muttered, and the Chieftains eyed Gire. The [Paragon] nodded once and walked out of the tent. Firrelle followed Gire’s back with an ominous look, but she said nothing.
Either way—Torishi met Akrisa’s eyes, and the Chieftain exhaled.
Either way. It was time to go to the heart of it all. She had her alliance.
“We must stand together on the issues of the stolen magic and all to come, or we will perish. Tradition. Tradition and unity. If nothing else, Ulcreziek, I fear we will all perish.”
“Yes, Chieftain Xherw.”
The [Shaman], Ulcreziek of the Plain’s Eye tribe, frowned as he turned to Xherw. The Chieftain of the largest Gnoll tribe in the entire world looked—stressed. Small wonder, with all the unwelcome revelations.
All the danger.
“We must resist any…incorrect decisions. Most of all, we must avoid any unwelcome truths coming out.”
That was all Xherw said, even between the two. Ulcreziek nodded.
“That is a separate matter from the Meeting of Chieftains, surely. Any investigation will not matter for political support as much as if any evidence is uncovered. And short of the Walled Cities—all they have are allegations. There is no proof.”
Xherw stretched out the word. He shifted, shook his head.
“Yes. You are correct, Ulcreziek, but there is also Earth, and Silverfang is poised to lead the arguments along with the other Great Tribes. I think Akrisa is a reasonable Gnoll, but I fear making a mistake in that or other things to come. I am simply worried. You are right. However, the easiest thing would be to find that Doombringer. To—reaffirm traditions.”
Ulcreziek frowned, then nodded.
“Ah. Focus the tribes on that.”
“What matters. Yes. The Raskghar—or doom. I feel odd, Ulcreziek. Almost as if Merish’s hunt was in vain in more ways than one.”
“He did his best by all accounts, though the Lizardman caused trouble. Will you hold it against him?”
Xherw shook his head.
“He is a brave, talented warrior. Why would I? Ulcre, no. I almost feel…”
He frowned and tasted the air, sniffing it. The Plain’s Eye [Shaman], with his one regular eye, the other he had inherited from the previous [Chief Shaman], looked at Xherw. Then the shadow he cast—the shadow in the air, the invisible presence Gnolls felt. Ulcreziek could see it.
Xherw spoke slowly, weighing each word.
“I feel as though one of them is in the Meeting of Tribes. And I did not feel so a while ago.”
The [Chief Shaman] looked at him sharply.
“That would explain a lot.”
“Misfortune? All of this? It would, Ulcreziek. It would be just what we need. Post watchers. Look around…carefully.”
Xherw touched Ulcre’s shoulder and turned.
“I will look myself, Chieftain Xherw, as long as I can take time from the Meeting of Tribes.”
“Split your time. And put our watchers out. Though, if it is that child or…they are so good at hiding. But I have a theory.”
Xherw’s eyes glittered.
“I think I know who it might be. But I will make sure.”
“How? Magic? My eyes?”
The Chieftain of the Plain’s Eye tribe shrugged. He began walking in a pointed direction.
“These things are too overt and would make them flee, especially if they know us, Ulcreziek. We have a talented way of finding things out. I will ask him.”
Him? Who…the Chief Shaman realized who Xherw was speaking of and rolled his eyes. In Plain’s Eye, the most traditional of tribes, they just had to spontaneously create the one Gnoll who had a class and mentality completely opposite of them.
Yelroan posed in front of the mirror and adjusted his signature look. To attract attention, of course, and inspire a new generation into believing the future was math. He tried striking another pose and adjusted his carefully-designed sunglasses so a ray of light blinded everything in a thirty-foot radius.
“Math. Arithmetic. Algebra. Statistics. Calculations. Geometry—oh, hello, Chieftain. Did you need something?”
Chieftain Xherw of the Plain’s Eye tribe was not a tall Gnoll, but he had a weight upon the world, and he was one of the most famous Gnolls in existence. Being around him was electrifying, and he never went most places without his bodyguard. He was a seasoned warrior, a great leader—and he rubbed at his forehead as if Yelroan were more styming than fighting one of the Centenium, which he had done.
“Yelroan. That is…Mathematician Yelroan.”
He used Yelroan’s title with a slight wince. He tried, unlike Ulcre and many others in Plain’s Eye, who patently hated the blonde Gnoll who dressed snappily and showily and did, to them, silly and stupid things in a worthless class.
That was why Yelroan liked Xherw. He tried. So Yelroan swept some papers to the side and offered him some cold tea.
“What can I do for you, Chieftain? Did you hear about the attempt on my life? Some issue come up with a tribe that needs accounting? Merish? Did he find the Doombringer? I’ve lost the trail, but I can try to find more data points…”
He worried for his friend. Honestly, statistics wasn’t his strongest suit, nor analysis-based models. Naturally, Xherw thought it was all one thing, if he even understood how math applied to such things to begin with.
Math was so complex and deep, yet people thought that all you could do with it was figure out how to supply an army. That was logistics, which, yes, had calculations, but was as much to do with knowing how much someone ate or terrain and whatnot as actual math.
Get a [Secretary of War] or [Strategist] for that! Sometimes it hurt Yelroan, feeling like a glorified [Accountant]. But then he saw how Xherw prized him, and how he showed up [Mages] and [Chieftains] and all those other classes with applied mathematics.
And he felt better about himself. Mathematics was deeper than that. It was a way of looking at the world. An entire perspective that you could see…everything through. Just like how a pair of spectacles brought things into focus, math was the lens by which Yelroan understood everything.
No one, especially Plain’s Eye, should look down on a new way of seeing the world. That was why he loved his craft, the numbers that could make sense of vast concepts with ease.
That was math. Yelroan really thought he should figure out how to explain it like that, but he had less of a way with words.
“No, Yelroan. I came to ask you to investigate something with your…math-Skills. I do not know if you can, but I suspect you can, and it will be a great service to the tribe. I hold you in high confidence and…did you say ‘attempt on your life’?”
Xherw must have been stressed. He normally caught things like that right away. He stiffened and looked around Yelroan’s organized tent.
Maps, data sheets, cabinets of holding—many cabinets of holding—and all kinds of tools that Yelroan used, from an abacus to sheets to plot data and more. Xherw glanced up and whistled softly.
Instantly, one of his [Bodyguards] appeared right behind Xherw, an axe raised. Yelroan saw the magical paint glowing, shedding the [Invisibility] spell. He knew Xherw’s bodyguards did that, but still slopped his tea all over himself.
“What issue, Chieftain?”
“Is there anyone nearby? Do a sweep.”
The [Shamanic Warrior] nodded. Yelroan clarified as Xherw looked at him.
“I don’t know if it was an assassination attempt. I just think my life might be under threat. Or maybe it’s a prank?”
“Why would this be? Did you…anger someone ag—at all?”
“Not that I can remember. But someone did break into my tent. I checked, but I don’t think they stole anything. They might have copied data down, but if they did, why would they tell me?”
“And who would use it?”
Xherw mused. Yelroan raised his brows.
“Chieftain, I have all the income, supply reports, even classes of all of Plain’s Eye and our allies written down.”
“Ah. That is concerning. But you say you don’t think it was that?”
Yelroan rubbed at one ear.
“No, Chieftain. If that were so, I’d never know about it—and I would like some bodyguards because I do have precious data. I know the other sub-[Chieftains] wouldn’t think of it like that…”
“You will have whatever you need, Yelroan. I understand. Tell me what was so odd.”
That was Xherw. He listened. Yelroan got up. He walked over to one of the chalkboards, flipped it over, and Xherw blinked. Yelroan pointed to it.
Xherw looked at the big word written in chalk across the board. Yelroan had circled it, added question marks, but the original writing was clear. One word:
“…Have you done anything to upset anyone, Yelroan? Beyond your usual antics? Slept with anyone? Injured someone, by chance?”
Yelroan threw up his paws.
“Honestly, Chieftain! I haven’t! I swear! It doesn’t even make sense. But look—”
He pointed. Xherw frowned. He saw…numbers after the word.
“I assume you wrote them.”
“Ah, you would normally be correct, Chieftain! Except I didn’t. Not this time.”
There was an odd set of numbers that made no sense to Xherw. If he read the entire thing and assumed it came from the mysterious intruder, it read…
= (-) 0.95892427466
“…What does that mean?”
Yelroan’s eyes glinted excitedly behind his tinted sunglasses.
“I have no idea, Chieftain. But it might be…a puzzle? Look—there are more, and I think they’re examples.”
He pointed to another number, which corresponded to another random series of smaller numbers. Xherw’s eyes began to cross just trying to figure it out. He understood the decimal point, percentages, and even ‘exponents’, something from advanced math that Yelroan had studied, but there he had to stop.
The question was, who would break in, leave a random math problem for a [Mathematician], and leave?
The answer was, of course, a [Paragon] who didn’t know what it meant either. However, neither Gnoll knew that. Yelroan rubbed at his chin, and Xherw shook his head.
“I think we must assume it is a prank or…or a mystery. I will assign a guard to you, Yelroan, but I have more important business. Guards. Seal the tent and stand watch.”
They did, and Yelroan felt his fur rise as Xherw looked at him. The Chieftain chose his words carefully.
“You have always been loyal to Plain’s Eye. I do not trust you with everything—but I have motioned for it, and those who are privy are slowly seeing your great worth, Yelroan. I could overrule them, but I want you to prove your class is good.”
“You honor me, Chieftain. That’s why I stick around.”
Yelroan answered, trying to be genuine. He saw Xherw smile tiredly.
“That is what I see, and I will make sure the Gnoll who replaces me one day understands it. But Yelroan…while I cannot trust you with the full weight of Plain’s Eye yet—I have involved you in the hunt for the Doombringers because you could do what the others did not. You predicted their course.”
“And lost them. That wasn’t math so much as my Skills, Chieftain…”
Xherw lifted a paw, and the younger Gnoll fell quiet.
“Peace, Yelroan. We cannot be perfect. But you have a talent for finding the truth in ways that others cannot ward against. So…I am trusting you with this. I believe there is a Doombringer at the Meeting of Tribes. I can feel them.”
Every hair on Yelroan’s body stood up abruptly. The [Mathematician] licked suddenly dry lips.
“A Doombringer, Chieftain? Here? That would explain all the things that have gone so wrong, wouldn’t it?”
‘Doombringer, Doombringer, run away!’
The childhood game came back to him. Of course, he had always been…Xherw studied Yelroan carefully.
“Yes. It would explain things, and help us immensely to find one. Especially with all this uncertainty. And a Doombringer…?”
It came out of Yelroan’s mouth before he even thought about it. Every Plain’s Eye Gnoll knew that. Xherw nodded.
“I need you to prove they are one before we strike. They are canny—and if they evaded Merish and all of us for so long, we must be certain. A false accusation will hurt Plain’s Eye beyond belief. So I need you to prove they are from a tribe, that they lost their tribe…with math.”
“…You mean, with records.”
Yelroan clarified after a second. Xherw blinked.
“Yes. That is in your purview, isn’t it?”
“Er…yes, Chieftain. I can certainly open drawers and read paper like the best of them.”
Xherw hesitated but then nodded.
“Whatever you must do to prove it, Yelroan. Of course, we can explain later, but there are ways to dye fur, and they have allies. But I can help you: I think I know who it is. I need you to investigate. I almost missed it, but I felt doom’s…presence.”
“It has a presence?”
The Plain’s Eye Chieftain nodded slowly, meeting Yelroan’s eyes.
“It does. I can sense it because of my class. Know this, Yelroan. I am fairly certain—but it could be—conflicting Skills or factors. So you will make certain. The feeling was strong though, but it could be something else. Even so, she tried to hide from me; she stays away from our camp, and that is also odd for her.”
Yelroan whispered. Xherw nodded. He bent over and whispered.
“Investigate this Gnoll. Report back to me as swiftly as possible, and make sure, very sure, she is doom. Then we will kill her. Look for her tribe. Her name is Qwera. The Golden Gnoll of Izril.”
It was time to begin the investigation. Doombringers. Doombringers and secrets.
The Gnoll prepared as simply and thoroughly as possible. They could, after all, leave no overt traces. There were enemies who would stymie them or attack.
Satar Silverfang had only a notepad and enchanted quill. But she did don her [Shaman]’s vestments of authority; a [Shaman] could go where they wanted.
Yelroan put on his sleek, semi-reflective pants. He adjusted his sunglasses and collected a small plethora of items from the [Quartermaster], who sniffed at him, but Yelroan did have Xherw’s direct authority. Invisibility scroll, potions to mask scent, seeing artifacts…he also had a [Message] scroll and access to most Mage’s Guild records and Plain’s Eye’s own knowledge.
Satar saw her mother, Akrisa Silverfang, Krshia, and the other [Chieftains] off to the Meeting of Chieftains. It was going to be a day of grand deliberations. Maybe not about Doombringers, but…she narrowed her eyes. That just gave her more time to search, before Akrisa brought the issue up at the Meeting of Chieftains.
What did it all mean? Was it connected? She was going to find out.
Satar walked into the Meeting of Tribes, never knowing she was being watched and followed. Yelroan? He geared himself up, then went back to his tent.
He sat down, adjusted his seat, got up, found a cushion, and put it down on the chair. Then he reached over for a cup of tea and saw a new product had been sent to the Plain’s Eye tribe.
A ‘for-your-consideration’ gift from…Oteslia. He read the label.
“Ooh. Coffee? What’s this now?”
He put on a kettle and read the instructions as he pulled out the first file. Absently, at some point, Yelroan took a sip as he read through the pages, tracing the facts, the math, and the Doombringer.
His life was never the same.
The Meeting of Chieftains within the Meeting of Tribes was unsettled. That was the only word for it. Normally, they gathered with banter, arguments, a preview of the discussion that would lie ahead.
This time, there was a palpable unease as Chieftains of every stripe, age, and color joined the gathering in the largest tent. They looked towards the Great Tribes, to leaders like Xherw…and to the Silverfangs.
Not with excitement, though. More like a fearful anticipation. What would be next?
Some were ready. They waited, still angry, furious. They did not have to wait long for a target of their anger.
“Chieftains. Once more we must gather to discuss great issues. We have had enough—enough arguments over who was to blame for stealing magic.”
It was the oldest [Shaman], Theikha of Gaarh Marsh, who once again convened the discussions. Unlike before, though, there was no respectful silence.
“And what about the traitors who helped them? What about retribution? Are we to let that go?”
One of the younger Chieftains shot to her feet. Instantly, Chieftain Reizet of the Az’muzarre tribe rose.
“Silence. No one will interrupt Shaman Theikha!”
Her glare and the force of that stare, her very aura, was enough to send the other Chieftain staggering back into her seat. However, Chieftain Reizet’s glare was in turn subsumed as Theikha turned.
“That is true of any Chieftain, Chieftain Reizet. I will lead this discussion myself.”
Reizet hesitated, then sat with a stiff nod, chastened. Theikha waited, then spoke again, her voice carrying around the domed room.
In her seat, Krshia wished she could be that intimidating when she was older. Gnolls leaned forwards, for the calm reassurance in Theikha’s tone as much as her wisdom.
“We will find if conspirators aided the Walled Cities. We will do what we must. Yes, Chieftains, we will do these things, but we have already voted to investigate the matter. Each tribe pursues it on their own time; it is fruitless to waste time. So we will not, for ours is fleeting. The Meeting of Tribes must end. We are at war with the Drakes whether we say it openly or not. So we must continue. We will vote and discuss and argue as we always do. However, two great issues lie before us…for today.”
A susurration as she glanced around. Akrisa was tense by Krshia’s side. Waiting.
“The first is another part of the gift of Silverfang—Silverfang, Longstalker’s Fang, and Greenpaw.”
Chieftain Orelighn looked like he was going to have a heart-attack as everyone turned to stare at him. This was it. Today, that long secret would be unveiled to the tribes of Izril. Neither Rose nor Inkar were here yet, but Krshia had borrowed something.
Inkar’s upgraded smartphone. Also, Rose’s laptop. Orelighn had samples of the plane wreck, and what they had was the authority to tell this story without it being questioned. After Ferkr…
Ferkr was one of the Gnolls in attendance. The Gnoll was very nervous as she sat by Chieftain Torishi and the Chieftain of the Wild Wastes tribe, Perale, but she had been accorded a place here for her bravery and role.
A rare honor. Theikha looked at Akrisa. Then she paused and sniffed the air. Her expression darkened.
“But first…I think the second issue is more pressing. It will be quick, Chieftains. But as Chaldion of Pallass hinted—there are dark tidings from our past. Enemies we thought long dead. We have not spoken of them or deliberated the matter. What is there to deliberate, save that our enemies live? That is up to you. Before we discuss the last gift—Chieftain Reizet? Bring in the…Raskghar.”
Raskghar. A sudden chill ran down Krshia’s spine. She knew what she would see. The other Chieftains? A low growl swept through the room, tinged with uncertainty.
They had only seen them once, from afar, before they were spirited away. Krshia had seen them up close multiple times, so she knew what to expect.
But even so, seeing the…monster as it was moved into the center of the Meeting of Chieftains, behind steel bars—and shackled beyond that—was enough to send Gnolls to their feet, or drawing their weapons.
It was instinctual. Not just because the huge beast-person was bigger than any normal Gnoll, hugely muscled, with bigger fangs, a hunched body, and ripping talon claws—a match for any Level 20 [Warrior] already, more than a match—there was something else.
The Raskghar was instinctually, instantly, recognizable. Everything in Krshia screamed one word.
Enemy. Or was it…
Predator? She felt a fear that went to the root of childhood fears about the dark, the unease of the unknown. There it sat, in front of them. The font of all stories. Raskghar.
The first Gnoll to stand was another Chieftain. This one had a throwing axe. Chieftain Mrell, his hand on his own Demas Metal blade, saw her rise and throw the hatchet down towards the Raskghar.
It was chained. Mrell saw it in a flash. A chained Raskghar—then someone leapt from their seat. The Az’muzarre guards were a hair too slow, but this Chieftain was not.
Chieftain Iraz Steelfur didn’t try to catch the spinning hatchet. He just threw himself forwards, raised an arm, and blocked it. The enchanted axe struck his arm and he grunted, but it only cut his steel body. He tore it out, checked the light wound, and bellowed up.
“Have you lost your minds? That is a prisoner!”
The Chieftain was dragged down before she could cast another hatchet. Shaman Theikha restored order.
“The next Gnoll who casts a weapon will be exiled from this place until the Meeting of Tribes ends. The Raskghar is chained and caged. We must speak to it.”
“Can it even speak?”
Chieftain Xherw spoke next, and Mrell was amazed at how composed he was. The Plain’s Eye Chieftain looked down at the Raskghar as Shaman Ulcre leaned forwards.
Neither one flinched away from the Raskghar. What amazed Mrell more was, even when the axe was thrown, even under the stares of so many Gnolls…
The Raskghar didn’t flinch either. So the audience hesitated, because each Chieftain realized what Mrell already had.
That was no monster. Or if it were a monster, it was in the same category as Goblins or Trolls. The Raskghar watched them.
“The Az’muzarre tribe has kept the Raskghar from harm—to them or from others. They are…uncooperative. However, you should at least know the truth of the legends.”
Theikha approached the cage fearlessly, although the bars, guards, and chains did keep her safe. The Raskghar stared at her as the [Shaman] spoke, her voice and the Raskghar’s magnified for the benefit of the room.
“You are named Asoma.”
When the Raskghar spoke, Mrell felt another chill. It—she was female. And she spoke.
Badly. Each word looked like it pained her. He had heard they grew more intelligent when one or both of the moons was full. They had been found in Liscor’s dungeon. Why had so much come from Liscor?
“Yes. I am Asoma.”
The Raskghar growled. She was sniffing Theikha, and the [Shaman] didn’t draw away, but even she didn’t hide the displeasure on her face.
Mrell couldn’t explain the horror fully at first. It wasn’t just seeing a monster; he had seen Crelers, and they were nightmares. The fear of the Raskghar was entirely different. It was like looking at a person…twisted. Like seeing all the mannerisms you yourself had, but sinister.
Asoma watched Theikha and licked her lips.
“You are Raskghar. You call yourselves that, don’t you?”
Unlike what Mrell would have done, Theikha didn’t pace around the cage or walk back and forth. She just leaned on her staff and looked at Asoma.
“Yes. We are Raskghar.”
“Why do you call yourselves that? Do you know what we are?”
The female Raskghar narrowed her eyes. She tilted her head and tried to hunch over, but the chains restrained her too well.
Interesting. Mrell forgot his fear for a second. He saw some other [Chieftains] look around sharply and murmur.
“Why do you know your name and not ours?”
Theikha pressed. Asoma blinked at her. Her eyes were smaller, as if she didn’t need them as much, but Mrell thought she could move around in the darkness with perfect ease. Yes, a stalker, who would grab you and—
He realized he still had a hold of his sword and forced himself to relax. His [Shaman] was visibly trembling, but everyone was listening, now. Theikha was showing them this and conducting this conversation for a reason.
“Don’t know food’s name.”
There it was. That mad grin. This time, Asoma pulled forwards until the mithril chains clinked tight, but Theikha didn’t lean back. That seemed to frustrate Asoma, so she growled and snapped her head. Theikha looked at her.
“Why are we prey? Who told you that?”
“Don’t know. Smell it. Hungry.”
She looked around. Repeating the word.
“They sacrifice Gnolls and eat their hearts. To gain intelligence.”
Someone spoke; Chieftain Akrisa? No—her sister. Krshia Silverfang rose to her feet, looking down at Asoma.
“Why? How is that even possible?”
“Some dark ritual. It must be. Raskghar appeared during the dark years of our people. During the Age of Hiding—we dug deep. Deep, to escape dragonfire and Drakes. We were never meant to live belowground, but we did. It was a terrible era that drove many of us to madness, but we survived it. It is then that Raskghar appeared.”
Chieftain Ulcreziek rose to his feet. He knew his history, and other [Shamans] nodded darkly, even Torishi, who had been trained as one.
“Raskghar split from Gnolls. Some stories claimed them as our faults and sins made manifest; others simply that they were made of darkness in our image. The truth may not matter. The stories agree; Raskghar hunted us. This is why. Chieftain Akrisa—no, Krshia Silverfang. You were at Liscor when they were found in the dungeon. Can you give us an accounting of what you saw?”
Even Asoma turned to Krshia as she spoke. She relayed the first encounters with the Raskghar simply. Mrell’s blood chilled to hear how they scaled the walls during the flooding, outfought the [Guards], and abducted Gnolls.
“They are three times more dangerous under moonlight. Stronger, smarter…”
“I know of that transformation under the moon. But not from this.”
Chieftain Perale spoke up. The Wild Wastes’ best warrior nodded uncertainly.
“Is it a shared power?”
“I refuse to believe we share anything with that! Even ancestry!”
Another Chieftain exclaimed. Chieftain Firrelle of Ekhtouch snorted.
“How can you? It is obvious. Look at that thing’s…her teeth. Her claws. Her fur and body—do you think she sprung up naturally from the ground?”
She rose too, and Asoma eyed her curiously, licking her lips. She seemed to be picking around the room, finding Gnolls she…liked. Like Xherw, Torishi, Firrelle…
High-level Gnolls. Firrelle looked down at Asoma with visible unease, but spoke to the room.
“We are Ekhtouch. We understand how traits are passed down. Raskghar look like us. But split off, long ago. They are related to us; I would swear every level I have ever gained on that.”
It seemed like a fair statement, but even so, the uproar it presented was enormous. Some Gnolls didn’t want to believe it.
“Enough. Enough. We can deliberate their origins later. Or that is a task for [Shamans]. Shaman Theikha, why did you bring this one here? For us to see it alone?”
Xherw spoke, and Theikha nodded to him.
“No. You are correct. I have a few questions to ask. Then we will deliberate in peace. You have seen the Raskghar. Now…Asoma. Answer a question for me.”
She turned to the Raskghar, and Asoma grinned.
“Feed me. I answer.”
“Answer, or you will regret it, Raskghar.”
One of the Az’muzarre guards didn’t even lower her voice. Asoma glared, and Theikha raised a paw.
“Answer, Asoma. You have killed Gnolls.”
Asoma’s face contorted with effort. She frowned, searching for words.
“Not me. I…surrender. Mercy. Forgiveness. You make us better. You feed us. Nice Gnolls. We surrender. Forgive. Let us out?”
She looked around, grinning, and the feeling of appalled anger in Mrell’s stomach grew. Theikha ignored that.
“Your people have killed Gnolls. Why? Why did you know to…sacrifice us? Why do you attack us?”
She had the look of a child evading a question. Chieftain Reizet slowly rose, but Shaman Theikha planted her staff. She did not raise her voice…but the air around her grew dark.
Each Gnoll in the room felt a chill through the air. Theikha did not get bigger, but she seemed to focus, or the rest of the world grew blurry. It was unnerving to watch.
“Answer my question. Why do you hunt Gnolls? Who told you?”
No longer smiling or confident, the Raskghar backed up.
“Don’t know! Hungry. Know. We know food.”
Theikha took a step forward.
“Then—where did you come from? How long have Raskghar been below Liscor?”
“Don’t know. Long. Many lives. Lost. Can’t get out. Waiting.”
Mrell leaned forwards. Theikha glanced around.
“Did anyone put you there, Asoma?”
“Don’t know. When moons come, we look. But below is death. Above—no way out. Want to leave. Try to leave. No way out. Until bugs dig in.”
Antinium. The Antinium had unearthed the dungeon. The Raskghar had been…trapped? A buzz began, following this new idea, but Theikha had already lifted a paw.
“One more question, Asoma. Then you can go and eat. Tell me what you told Chieftain Reizet. What you told the others. Raskghar want to eat Gnolls. Your tribe wanted to be free of the dungeon.”
“Yes. Facestealer. Hrr. Facestealer. Mother. Bad things. Facestealer killed Stalker. Can’t kill Facestealer. Nothing kills Facestealer. And Mother is there.”
“Some kind of high-level monster down there.”
Mrell’s [Shaman] whispered back. But he didn’t know who…Mother was.
“Where would you go if you left the dungeon? If you didn’t—couldn’t eat Gnolls? Tell me what you said, Asoma. You can eat as much meat as you want. What did you say?”
Theikha coaxed. Asoma stared at her and around the room. She was clearly thinking, trying to figure out if she should say it. But the lure was too appealing, and she…she didn’t understand why it would matter. So she grinned and said it.
“Find people. Find more. Make more Raskghar. More, and more.”
Suddenly, Mrell had stopped breathing. He leaned over his seat, and Theikha whispered.
“Now, how would you do that, Asoma? Your tribe is the only one, isn’t it?”
The Raskghar frowned, then smiled.
“No. No…more Raskghar. Down deep. More Raskghar. Right there. See? See?”
She lifted one talon and pointed. Mrell saw her point, not randomly, but to the side—and down. Down. Theikha heard the low moan around the room and raised a paw.
“That’s enough. Take her away.”
It was a long time before order was restored. Even then, Krshia’s breathing was shaky.
There were more Raskghar? She hadn’t known that. Now, she understood why Theikha had brought Asoma here.
“The Raskghar revealed that during questioning. They didn’t even think to hide it, and they do have more secrets. They didn’t think it was something to hide. Mind you—we questioned them during the day, far away from full moon cycles. They’re too intelligent under the moons. They tried picking locks, and communicated—even by thumping the ground and hearing each other. We’ve begun putting them to sleep those nights.”
Reizet finished the summary. She looked around as Theikha retired. The [Shaman] seemed exhausted from that brief encounter, and it was the [Chieftains]’ turn to take the stage.
“I don’t know about you, but I see it one way. The Raskghar live. They live…in dungeons. In places hidden away from time. As Grand Strategist Chaldion said—we have enemies. We have enemies, and the Raskghar live, despite our wars to destroy them. Now, who could arrange that? Plant a seed of death to emerge later? Whenever they wanted to hurt us?”
The Az’muzarre Chieftain’s voice was too calm. Too…she looked around, and her answer came in an instant.
“Drakes. Only Drakes build dungeons. They did this. Just like our magic. It’s always them.”
A cursing voice. Growls of agreement. Xherw rose to his feet.
“I will not say it outright, but yes. Perhaps Drakes. The truth is we do not know. Maybe they fled. I counsel thought, Chieftains.”
“What is there to think, Xherw? Plain’s Eye counsels patience, counsels listening—first Raskghar, then our magic! How much more must we think on until we realize what the Drakes have done and always do? They march armies into our land. When will the Chieftains agree to force them back and punish them? A warrior does not think while her tribe is being slaughtered. She acts!”
Chieftain Werri of the Woven Bladegrass tribe stood. The younger and more radical Chieftains all stood with her, growling assent.
Instantly, Iraz of Steelfur rose to oppose her, and a wave of tribes that respected Steelfur as well, a clear split.
“I am a warrior as well, Chieftain Werri, and I will not risk a great war that will leave us open to death from the Antinium.”
“In that case, I propose to accept the Grand Queen’s truce offer! Let’s take their land.”
Werri grinned, and the Meeting of Chieftains went into an uproar. Theikha rose and lifted a weary paw.
“Is that a true suggestion or bravado, Werri? You brought the Grand Queen’s offer before the Meeting of Tribes—if you will ask it seriously, we will vote on it.”
Werri hesitated. She looked at Theikha and bowed slowly.
“…It is not a true suggestion, Shaman Theikha. Merely a point.”
She jerked her chin up at Iraz, and he gave her a slow nod.
“I do not take it lightly, Werri. We do not see eye-to-eye. But I have not forgiven the Drakes either.”
His eyes glinted, and he looked around to make sure everyone saw he was serious. Werri gave him a reluctant smile.
She was sitting when another Gnoll stood. This one had feathers attached to his fur. Krshia thought he was from Satest Fletching, a tribe known for their connection with birds and the sky. She thought Bird would have loved to meet him.
“I…do have a proposal to lay before the Meeting of Tribes, Shaman Theikha. I know Silverfang has its right, but since it is brought up, may I speak?”
“Each Chieftain is equal, Chieftain Yiew. Speak.”
The [Shaman] nodded, and the Chieftain looked around.
“I do propose that we take the Grand Queen’s offer for peace. Failing that? I propose—as I have heard rumored that other tribes will propose—that after this Meeting of Tribes, we head north. Past the High Passes into the north if Magnolia Reinhart will offer it. I will sign her contract. Or—if both fail? I will leave Izril and go to Chandrar and join the King of Destruction’s armies. Or even go to Baleros or Terandria. Anywhere but here.”
For a second, everyone just stared at Chieftain Yiew. Then there was shouting, howls of discord, and sheer disbelief. Theikha had to slam her staff on the ground three times and produce a charge in the air that made their fur crackle before there was silence.
Krshia looked at Yiew in disbelief.
“You would leave our home, Yiew? Truly? This isn’t just bravado for the sake of talk? Ally with the Antinium? They killed thousands of us, and the King of Destruction—”
Reizet argued angrily. Yiew didn’t raise his head. It was bowed, and his paws were clenched, but he did not flinch either. He spoke, and his tone was one of exhaustion. Calm exhaustion, after you had wasted every scrap of anger, burnt away everything.
“The King of Destruction? I see he is under siege, Reizet. Maybe he dies. Maybe he lives and kills his foes. But what I see is that he does not kill many Gnolls, if any. Antinium? Why are you so worried about peace with them?”
Reizet snarled with sheer disbelief at his stupidity.
“Because they will turn on us once they destroy the Drakes!”
“And how is that different than the Drakes slowly killing us? Better to have one enemy than two.”
Yiew countered. The Az’muzarre Chieftain hesitated, and Yiew went on.
“I’m simply tired of it. Tired of Drakes doing this and that. I am serious. I will take the Grand Queen’s peace, take her land if she will make a lesser offer. I will ally with the Antinium or flee Izril—go wherever other tribes will. But when I say this, I mean it. I will take the Antinium’s peace here and now and damn the Walled Cities. My tribe will never walk in their shadow. We are done with them. Be it war or peace or we flee—there is nothing to trust. We have no allies in Izril, only more and more enemies. I hear whispers of Doombringers, I see Raskghar—this Meeting of Tribes has revealed to me the foes set against us, and so I give up. They hate us. Raskghar. Drakes. We have such few allies.”
The Meeting of Chieftains was so silent after Yiew spoke. Not simply for what he was saying—but because it was so bleak. Even Theikha said nothing as he sat back.
They should have voted for the Antinium’s proposal, but it had not a chance of passing…or did it? How many Chieftains were like Yiew?
Krshia didn’t know, but she thought it was time. And because she thought it, her sister rose. Chieftain Akrisa’s silverfang pendant swung in the light as she stood.
“Though it may be out of turn…Shaman Theikha. I ask to speak. To speak to Yiew and the other Chieftains who see what I do and despair. Because such dire tidings—even if they are truth—have come to the Meeting of Tribes. Great gifts, yes!”
She reminded them of the magic tome and the hope of casting magic. The Chieftains’ heads rose, and they recalled that no tribe save for two had even offered their gifts. This was supposed to be a grand occasion for the bettering of all.
It did not feel it. But Akrisa turned to them and spoke, trying to meet every eye.
“There is one thing we of Silverfang, Longstalker’s Fang, and Greenpaw have not told you all. One final gift and revelation which—I would say—perhaps trumps even the revelation of magic. Well, perhaps not that, but is equal to it and the Raskghar’s warning.”
“Bold claims, Chieftain Akrisa.”
Chieftain Perale murmured. It was Iraz who looked at Akrisa and Krshia knew who spoke up.
“Yes, bold. But I say Silverfang has proven they do not boast idly time and time again. I will hear this, if you all will.”
He looked around for nods of support, and Akrisa turned. Among the Meeting of Chieftains, she called out.
“I ask for all the [Shamans] of the Great Tribes to seal this room!”
“It is already warded.”
One of the [Shamans] pointed out, miffed. Akrisa looked at her.
“I do not doubt it is, [Shaman]. But I ask you all to cast spells beyond the most stringent protections. You have already done so—cast your best spells. Cast the spells that cost you, because this secret must not leave this room until it is time.”
The [Shamans] glanced at each other, and Ulcreziek rose.
“I will do this.”
He drew a shining gemstone from his belt pouch, placed it on the ground, and smashed it with his staff before casting a spell. Theikha herself linked paws with Az’muzarre’s [Shaman], and the Gnolls looked sharply at Akrisa.
Even Ferkr, though she might have had an inkling of what was going on. Akrisa was trembling, but Krshia touched her paw and Cetrule stood next to her. When the room was secure, Akrisa spoke.
“This is not my story alone. So I ask Chieftain Eska of Longstalker’s Fang and Orelighn of Greenpaw to tell parts of it. But I will begin—my sister, in Liscor, was one of the Gnolls who first encountered Raskghar. She also worked to buy magical spellbooks, but that is not the revelation she considers most important. She found something last year, or rather…someone. A strange story, which she thought was madness at first, then realized could only be true. Perhaps—perhaps you have encountered hints of it yourself, but Chieftain Eska and Chieftain Orelighn have as well.”
The Chieftains looked at each other. Iraz was watching them, for he knew, but Xherw looked uneasy—confused. He didn’t know where this was going, nor did even Torishi, who gave Akrisa a sharp look.
Powerful Chieftains. Famous Gnolls like Garsine Wallbreaker, who raised her head as Akrisa went on. Thousands of Gnolls. The largest gathering in the world listened as Akrisa told them the secret spreading across the world.
“Each one of us met someone. Or found their passage. Each one…a Human or Humans. They are always Humans, you see, and, I think, always young. They are Humans among many in this world, but they are all different because they wear strange dresses or carry strange objects or…do not know what levels and classes are. They smell of oil and smoke at first, and things you cannot imagine. Perhaps you know them.”
There was a sound. One of the Chieftains that Krshia didn’t recognize sat up suddenly, and everyone glanced at him. Chieftain Mrell turned his head, then blinked at Akrisa as she went on.
“This is not a trick. Nor a coincidence. You will know these people when you meet them—and we must meet them, find them! We must learn from them and protect them and befriend them, because they are lost children. From nations no one here has ever heard of. They are travelers—by accident, or so we think.”
“From where? Drath? From a lost dimension, some magical accident?”
Reizet demanded. Even Chieftain Firrelle was peering at Akrisa. She didn’t know either. Akrisa smiled, and Krshia heard the tremble in her voice.
“No, Chieftains. They come from another world entirely. A world without magic. A world of Humans and technology more advanced than ours—but without classes or levels. They call it ‘Earth’, and they, like us, believed they were alone in the…universe. Now, they are coming here, though we do not know how. They are even at the Meeting of Tribes. We have proof.”
Dead silence. Chieftains gaped at each other. Torishi kept blinking. Theikha frowned at Akrisa, and Iraz sat back, looking towards Xherw and giving him a nod. The Plain’s Eye Chieftain looked at Iraz, then Akrisa, and he believed.
Chieftain Werri burst out into laughter. She guffawed, slapping her legs, and countless other Gnolls joined her.
“A fine jest, Chieftain Akrisa! Or do you believe it? That must be a trick or a great magic. Come now. You don’t believe that, do you? What evidence is there? Some artifact you can’t figure out?”
Akrisa held her ground.
“It is realer than you know, Chieftain Werri. Already, we think Wistram has some Earthers, and there are children in Terandria. One you might have even heard? They call her the ‘Singer of Terandria’.”
Werri stopped laughing abruptly.
“Come now. A [Singer]?”
“Have you ever heard the like of her music, Chieftain Werri? Do you not wonder about the strange new ideas appearing? Plays? Gelato? What about the news? Why did someone gain the idea to link scrying orbs together? Do you recall the game of football and Joseph of Pallass? Isn’t it strange how fast the world is changing?”
Chieftain Eska rose to her feet next, and she looked about. Werri stared at her.
“The world is always changing. So that means nothing.”
“Always Humans, though. Are Humans the font of all knowledge and innovation?”
Orelighn spoke, grasping something in his bag of holding.
“They’d say they are.”
Laughter as someone said that, but Akrisa was turning to Krshia. The Gnoll handed her something, and Akrisa lifted it up. It gleamed in the light, and the Gnolls focused on it. A strange…rectangle of metal. Metal and something else.
It looked a bit like glass, but even a [Smith] like Mrell didn’t know quite what it was. It was beautifully made, he could believe that. Akrisa handed it to the Gnoll on her left.
“We have objects that we will show you. Be exceedingly careful with them. But you will see—they contain no magic. Maybe it is hidden—but I think not. The material is not metal, nor is it any I have ever encountered. It is called plastic. These objects light up and do things no [Mage] I have ever met could dream of. They play music. They even create scenes that cannot exist. And these are small objects. Orelighn?”
“I have…something upon my lands, Chieftains. My gifts to the Meeting of Tribes. It is a giant vessel. Not as large as a warship, but made entirely of steel and strange substances. No—I say it wrong. Not steel. Something else. A hard, light metal. Yet it is broken. It fell out of the skies, and the children within were dead when we found them. A vessel meant to fly through clouds at speeds beyond the fastest Courier. They call it an airplane. This is a piece of it.”
The Greenpaw Chieftain was next, and he brought something else out; a piece of metal which he handed around. Salvaged, burnt electronics.
A watch that had been fixed with [Repair] such that it was even ticking.
Tick, tick, tick…the sensitive ears of Gnolls heard a strange sound they had never encountered before. One stared through the glass at unfamiliar parts more intricate than Pallass could dream of.
Slowly, Werri’s laughing face stopped being so merry. She looked around and sat uncertainly. Torishi was standing, breathing in hard.
She listened. Not quite sure what she was hearing. No—she couldn’t even imagine it. Even as the other three Chieftains, then Akrisa and the others tried to explain, the Gnolls couldn’t imagine it because the ones explaining didn’t have a full grasp.
But believe? They looked at the objects. Listened to strange music and saw a movie that could not exist play on the laptop. Xherw rose to his feet. One of the [Shamans] jerked away from a Dragon. The Chieftains of the Meeting of Tribes looked at each other and realized Akrisa had not lied.
The greatest revelation yet had just begun.
Investigations were a strange thing. It could take you ages to get anywhere. Satar realized she was in for the long haul after her very first [Shaman] interview. A kindly, old, male [Shaman] sat her down, answered her questions, fed her a toffee-like snack, and talked for three hours straight.
[Shamans] were good at talking to people. It was practically the job description; unlike a [Mage], a [Shaman] had to be part of the community. The problem was the [Shamans] that Satar had to talk to were old. Which meant they remembered everything and would tell you…everything.
“Old Doombringer stories? Why, I remember most of my Retellings. Not that they’re always spot-on. [Historians] call it a drifting in accuracy based on an oral tradition, but at least it’s communal. Compare that to one biased [Writer] like Krsysl Wordsmith who gets printed a hundred thousand times and everyone takes as the truth—you know, I met the Drake when I was young. Fantastic Drake. You think I’d be angry? Well, at the time he was eager, forthright, but fame got to his head. Now, Doombringers have always been such a contentious topic. I don’t tell stories like Plain’s Eye does—they have some horrific stories. I actually recall when one appeared and the tribes were terrified. But now the Raskghar are here—did you see them? Let me tell you about the Raskghar. When I was young, we thought there were Raskghar preying on us. This was back in the day—long before the Antinium came to Izril, mind you. You think they’ve been here forever? It’s been only twenty years. So as I was saying, we thought it was Raskghar…”
It was like a wall of words that someone was slamming Satar into. She was impressed; she’d read history books with much the same effect.
But she couldn’t get away. Each part of the [Shaman]’s story connected to the other, so when she hinted they should get back to the Doombringers, he just had to clarify one point or wouldn’t she like a toffee or meat…?
Three hours passed by very slowly. Satar survived via her journal. She took notes, doodled, and went to the next [Shaman]. The first [Shaman] had been from Greenpaw, the elderly Dolegroh, who did know a plethora of stories. She used it as the basis for her record-keeping. She had already pestered Cetrule and her own [Shamans] to recount the Doombringer stories.
Wild Wastes’ [Wild Shaman] was far more direct. She told Satar the story the entire time while wrestling an angry cow.
“Stand still and let me milk you. You want a fight? I’ll give you a fight—”
A cow. Not a bull. A cow with horns, the most ornery look that Satar had ever seen, and it took a [Shaman] with the muscle to force the cow to let her milk her and not knock her flat with a headbutt or just sit on her—which she tried to do twice.
The female [Shaman] looked at Satar as the [Storyteller] backed up from a stray hoof. Unlike domesticated cows, with their black and white spots, this cow had a dark brown coloration shot with small, pale yellow marks. Also, a thicker fur more like a yak, and horns. Not big horns, though the bulls in their own pasture looked like they could run through multiple people with one charge. They were even wavy, like a sword design.
This was just a female milking cow, and her milk was far more yellow. It tasted amazingly savory and buttery, but the effort didn’t seem worth it. The [Wild Shaman] explained apologetically to Satar that this was normal.
“Sorry. Our [Cowfriend Milker] is sick. And yes—it’s a very specialized class. Don’t laugh. Only he can do this and feed the bulls safely. These cows are the ones that our new warriors get to fight.”
“Fight. A cow?”
“Yep. Barehanded. Don’t worry, the cows are used to it. I think they enjoy it; the new warriors seldom win. Once you’ve met a cow who blinds you with a hoof, rolls over you, or kicks you with both hooves, you learn you’re not invincible. Good training—terrible for milking. Where were we?”
The [Wild Shaman] grunted.
“Oh, those? I don’t tell them.”
“What, not at all? I thought Wild Wastes’ [Shamans] were…um, traditional?”
The Gnoll shrugged.
“We are. I just don’t tell those stories. Or Raskghar stories unless I have a mixed audience. Retellings are for the clan, right?”
“Well, Doombringer and Raskghar stories scare little cubs. They have enough to watch out for from real monsters without wetting themselves at night thinking a Doombringer is going to wipe out the tribe.”
Actually sensible. The [Wild Shaman] obliged her by retelling the stories anyways, and Satar frowned at her journal.
Something was off.
Maybe it was just this tribe…but Satar’s instincts as a [Storyteller] told her she was onto something. She was halfway towards the third [Shaman] when someone appeared behind her.
“So you’re investigating Mri’s past. You’re helping. I see that. I don’t have to hit you. Good. Is that milk?”
Satar spun around and saw someone’s lower chest. Gireulashia loomed over her, and Satar’s mouth went dry.
“Is that milk?”
Satar was holding a jug of milk the [Shaman] had gifted her. She had intended it as a gift for the next [Shaman] she met, but Gire licked her lips, and Satar handed it to her. The Gnoll [Paragon] happily began drinking it.
“Yum. So good.”
It was practically a normal bottle in her paws. Satar was still wondering how a nine-foot-tall Gnoll girl snuck up on you, but that was Ekhtouch. And Gire was a [Paragon].
One of her Skills was literally called [Superiority Made Manifest]. Another was [Perfect Basic Action]. If it sounded arrogant to say she could do anything…Satar had seen it. One of Silverfang’s best [Archers] had tried to beat Gire in an archery competition. She had split his arrows three times, then hit the target blindfolded without using her Skills when he conceded.
“Did you follow me, Honored Gire?”
The [Paragon] lowered the bottle; she was sipping rather than wasting the milk, but greedily, savoring it. Satar had heard she wasn’t allowed to eat anything not on her diet; the [Paragon] seemed good at getting around that restriction of late.
“Yes. You can call me Gire since you’re on Mri’s side. I thought you were going to tell someone, but you’re gathering stories about them, aren’t you? Doombringers.”
“How did you…?”
Did she overhear Satar? Gire looked at the [Shaman].
“I listened to you, and I figured out what you were doing. It’s not hard. Secretive people act secretive. They tense up. When people lie, they move their eyes up and to the right. It’s simple.”
It was to her, but Satar was amazed nonetheless. The [Paragon] crouched down.
“I’m glad you’re helping. What are you looking for? Truth in stories? Lies?”
“Um…something. I—where’s Mri?”
“She’s writing to her penpal. She’s sad, so I left her be.”
Of all the things she would expect Mrsha to do, something as mundane as writing to a penpal was the last thing Satar expected.
“She has a penpal? Who?”
Gire took another big sip from her cup and shrugged nonchalantly.
“I don’t know who it is. Mri says it’s ‘a funny old guy’. Which to her means anyone over thirty. She’s occupied, is the point. I’ll help you search if you want. That old [Shaman] was boring.”
Suddenly, Satar found Gire had joined her investigation into the Doombringer stories. Gire knew a lot of [Shamans], and her very presence opened doors for Satar. She was intelligent, physically perfect…
But she was no [Storyteller]. She listened like a child, open-mouthed if the [Shaman] was good, fidgeting if not—although, when she caught herself, she was the model of attention. Faked attention.
The point was that she was an uncritical audience, insofar as that, while she was intelligent enough to read into a story, she didn’t read it like a [Storyteller]. She was yawning after [Shaman] number four.
“Are you just collecting a list of stories, Satar? Maybe I’ll go find Mri.”
“No…I thought it was just my imagination, but my Skill pointed it out, and now I’m sure. I thought it was just Wild Wastes at first—but it’s…strange. Beyond strange.”
The [Paragon]’s droopy ears perked up. She looked at Satar curiously, and the [Shaman] told her about her Skill.
“[Narrative: Spot Inconsistencies]. Sounds like something an [Interrogator] or [Guardsman] would use. Why is it working now?”
“Because of this. Look at this. I’ve written down the points of each Retelling of the Doombringer stories, as if I were giving you details so you could do it.”
“Oh…you simplified it.”
Without the gregariousness of details, or lurid, descriptive scenes, Satar had broken down each story into component parts, since writing down each [Shaman]’s story verbatim would have killed her ink supply, although it would have given her a great insight into how each one told stories.
However, when you broke down a story, you could make it very simple:
Doombringer comes. They’re chased off with sticks. Tribe dies. Tribe survives? Magic sword is found…
These were the parts of a story, the bare bones. It was arguable there was no story without the details, the meat and muscle and whatnot, but Satar had done this because she had noticed something.
“Look at this. Do you remember the Beast of Albez story?”
“Well…look at how each [Shaman] tells it.”
Satar showed Gire the list. The [Paragon] flipped through page after page, reading at a speed Satar thought was fake. Her brows furrowed.
The young [Storyteller] nodded. She felt it. She saw it on the page.
She had asked all the [Shamans] for the Beast of Albez story, and each one had told her it. They all knew it…but as she broke down the components into parts?
Each story was different. Not in the main elements, but in one key way:
It was the exact same story. Take out the Doombringer, and you had a fine, if generic tale.
Once upon a time, there was a tribe. Knocte. They lived in the foothills of Albez. However, they failed to heed a warning and the Beast of Albez emerged. One by one, it killed the tribe and lay fat and bloated among their bones. Amidst the tragedy, a Gnoll came to slay it.
The odd thing was…the Doombringer popped up in Satar’s story at the start. The Gnoll who was the dire warning to run and flee that the Knocte tribe ignored.
In the Wild Wastes [Shaman]’s story, it was completely different. The Doombringer didn’t appear at the start, but at the very end.
“And as the Beast of Albez lay sleeping, the last Gnoll escaped its clutches and ran off. Their fur turned white, and when other tribes beheld them, they knew Doom had touched the boy. For he carried the doom of Knocte upon him, for the rest of his days. The beast lay dozing, fat and horrid, until one day…”
Another [Shaman] from Weatherfur had the Doombringer at the absolute end, to Satar’s surprise.
“Lo, then came a Gnoll with a magic blade to slay the Beast of Albez. Not to avenge the tribe, but to answer doom with doom. A white Gnoll came, stole sleeping up to the beast, and planted the sword in its belly. Then it rose with a scream that made the foothills shake and the two did battle. Doom against doom, for where Doombringers walk, only calamity has followed.”
That was the oddest story. Gire’s brows furrowed.
“A Doombringer killed the Beast of Albez? But in the story I was told…I remember it perfectly. My [Shamans] had it like yours. A white Gnoll appeared, and the tribe was warned. They didn’t listen.”
“Yes, but look. There are multiple accounts of the Beast of Albez. Each [Shaman] is telling it differently. Why?”
Gire frowned, trying to work it out. Satar thought she had an answer.
“Gire. It makes no sense. We do change Retellings slightly, but the core of a story doesn’t really change. Not so fast, at least. And even if it did—other [Shamans] would be on the same page. This…this is like someone’s put the Doombringer into the original story.”
Gire’s eyes sharpened. She looked at Satar.
“Someone’s edited the story.”
“Yes. The question is why? And what’s the real story?”
Satar thought she knew the reason why. She closed her journal.
“Doombringers can’t be evil. They just can’t be, Gire. Mri doesn’t look evil. Maybe it’s just a curse. There have to be…records. Don’t there?”
“You mean, besides Retellings and [Shaman]’s memory.”
“Yes! Surely there are books? Cetrule said some people kept them. That we even used to have written records. Who would know if we have any left, even just one book?”
Gireulashia thought for only a moment, then she snapped her fingers.
“I know who would know. Come with me.”
She took Satar by the paw and led her off through the Meeting of Tribes. The investigation had taken five hours so far, and both were tired, but the Meeting of Chieftains had broken up. Little did they know their absence had been noted. Gire’s little friend wanted her big friend, so she found them.
“Mri! You shouldn’t leave without guards!”
Satar exclaimed as a little brown Gnoll with painted gold ears raced over. Gire turned, and Satar’s heart beat faster as Mrsha waved at her.
“Hello, hello. I’m Mri.”
Her pre-recorded words played, and Gire tossed her up and put her on her shoulder. Mrsha waved a little [Message] scroll at Satar.
“Did you talk to your friend? Are you bored? I’ve been listening to the same stories all day. We should bring food to Shaman Theikha, Mri. Do you want to buy something to eat?”
Mrsha indulgently patted Gire on the head, and Satar watched her carefully. So ordinary. So normal. Doombringer—
No. She seemed like a normal girl. She waved at Satar, and Satar smiled.
“We’re going to see Shaman Theikha, Mri. Do you want to come with us? Your guards…”
“They’re over there.”
Gire pointed. Satar looked around and saw no one in the hustling, bustling Gnolls and other people. Gire pointed to a Gnoll casually watching one of the fair games.
Mri and Satar looked at Gire, but both were learning to expect that. So they went off to see Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh. None of them noticed the Gnoll with sunglasses glance up and stare after Mrsha.
“What in the name of logarithms…?”
Yelroan’s investigation took him about twenty minutes. By twenty minutes and halfway through the cup of bitter coffee, which he wanted more of already, he had already found out that Qwera Hatail had been sighted in the very city where they’d searched for the Doombringer last—and failed to find her.
Then she had made a beeline straight for the Meeting of Tribes, which was not on her caravan’s published route.
Oh—also that she had no formal record before an eleven-year-old Gnoll girl apprenticed herself to the Mudrock Caravan under one of the [Merchants]. Which meant he was tracing down eleven-year-old Gnoll girls in any city around that time period, right? A labor-intensive task that might require months and a dedicated team, correct?
Wrong. Yelroan was a [Mathematician]. He did a pose, turned to a cabinet full of records of every deceased tribe that he had ever compiled for Doombringer hunts, and pointed.
“[Locate Number: Eleven]. Any tribe past then! Cutoff…let’s say, twenty years?”
The drawer shot open, and eight files popped up. He grabbed them. Yelroan sat down—after doing another pose for his nonexistent watchers.
The truth was that this wasn’t actually math. It was more to do with his job, which was a glorified accountant/secretary/whatever else had to do with filing and organization. Yelroan sighed to himself.
He was a [Mathematician], but most of his Skills and indeed his class had a lot to do with the real world. Which made sense to everyone when he explained it. What’s the problem?
How could he tell Merish that most of the Skills and powers he wanted didn’t apply to the real world? For instance, he had [Check Sum], which checked equations. Handy in making sure the sums were right. He could [Locate Number], which helped him do all kinds of things filing-wise. But these were Skills a [Secretary] or [Scribe] could get.
The thing was…that was how he’d started. Using math to do practical things. Yet Yelroan knew, knew in his heart of hearts, that he was only beginning.
“I stand at the precipice of a cliff, not a path forwards. A glass cliff, and no one’s told me how to fly.”
That was how he saw his class. He didn’t know how to advance [Mathematician] because no one used math like him. Only [Engineers] in Pallass had any idea what he talked about, and they used it to calculate weight, drag, the angle of trebuchets.
But math was deeper than that. Sin? Yelroan felt it was the first light on a new road forwards. For now, though, he looked through the lists of tribes and any hints as to ones who had perished in a reasonable timeframe for Qwera to have been born in.
Gnolls didn’t keep good records. However, Plain’s Eye had kept lists of dead tribes for this exact reason. This was not math, just logic. Yelroan discarded four tribes for not matching the criteria, another two for having confirmed Doombringers…and ended up with two tribes.
Kelmsand and Lairef Fur. Both had been destroyed by actual calamity around the time when a girl might have escaped and made it to a city. One of the two had been in the south, along the coast. The other?
Yelroan checked where Qwera the apprentice had once signed on as an [Apprentice Trader] and the Lairef Fur tribe.
“Within forty miles of each other. That’s a really unlikely coincidence.”
So he had a likely tribe, and an odd coincidence with the other Doombringer to show Xherw. The Chieftain might order an investigation just based on that, but Yelroan wanted to be thorough. Impress him!
Next, the [Mathematician] hit the mean streets. By which, most Gnolls gave him mean looks mainly because of his odd dress or sunglasses occasionally blinding everyone when he put them on.
He wanted to see Qwera with his own eyes.
Doombringer. It chilled him just to imagine it. Was he in danger for doing it? But if Merish could hunt down two, Yelroan could brave this. He found Qwera at the [Merchant]’s block, swanning around, making deals, stepping large.
A golden Gnoll, with obviously dyed fur. Yelroan’s own fur stood on end as he pretended to check out the small stand of spectacles one Gnoll was selling. What a brilliant trick! Paint your fur gold if it was white.
But…he stared at the Gnoll woman, not feeling too out-of-place doing that. Everyone stared at the Golden Gnoll of Izril. She was charismatic, smiling, a show woman…
She must be some twisted fiend underneath that look. By all Yelroan could dig up on her, she was an accomplished businesswoman who sold her advice as much as her goods. Respected…
He didn’t see horrors following her. But if she were a Doombringer, maybe he didn’t see what it was.
Disturbed, Yelroan decided not to linger. But he stopped and stared at something before he went. The [Glass Merchant] sighed. Male Gnolls.
Yelroan was staring at a patch of reddish-brown fur juuuuust below Qwera’s navel. Brown fur. It tended to draw the eye, and it was certainly provocative. But it stumped him.
Was he wrong?
Yelroan stood at his favorite place in the Meeting of Tribes to think. That was, the fair games. All the game-organizers stared at Yelroan with pure hatred because he won their prizes and cost them money.
The string-game he was at was the one where you pulled strings, and they were attached to costly items. Few people won even with Skills; the strings were enchanted, some were invisible, and the stall owner did her absolute best to make sure you lost money rather than get an enchanted shortsword, like one of the strings was attached to.
Yelroan had won three times already. He was watching her booth, calmly tracing each of the hundred plus strings and figuring out which ones were real.
He knew there was only one or two at most; not all the prizes even had a real string attached to them. Some were hidden, but it didn’t matter. He was using a combination of seeing people lose to the game to eliminate bad strings as well as sheer math and probability—and his own math skills.
The problem was, he did have too many skills that quantified the world in terms of math rather than math as a concept. Applied versus theoretical, and he wanted theoretical.
One of his Skills? The one that let him do most of what he wanted?
[Perfect Measurement: Length]. The string connected to that scrying mirror was exactly eighty-two inches long. Exceptionally long. Why was it…?
She must have looped it around or done something cunning with it. Maybe put it through a drawer of holding?
The stall owner was sweating as Yelroan used his Skills. Math was hard to counter as opposed to the cunning [Rogue] who could be fooled. The thing was—
Doombringers weren’t math. Why would Qwera have brown fur? Yelroan felt stupid as he gazed at the strings.
“Of course! It’s a fakeout! It’s a decoy!”
A Drake girl reaching for a string hesitated, looked at Yelroan and the stall owner, and chose another one.
The stall owner pointed at Yelroan. The [Mathematician] sighed and wandered away, but he’d figured it out!
The brown patch of fur was fake too! What was cleverer than making people think that was your original fur? If she covered her entire body in gold paint, why not one spot too?
He could point that out to Xherw. Yelroan sighed. He gave himself over 80% odds he was right. Then they’d find out, and if she was a Doombringer?
The [Mathematician] stopped as he paid for a little stick with sautéed meat on it.
Well, obviously, yes. You had to kill Doombringers. You had to. The sky was blue, grass grew…
Would they…kill a respected [Merchant] in public? They’d tell everyone she was a Doombringer. Anything else, and that would be murder.
Yelroan was chewing on his meat, but it tasted off. Maybe he’d gotten some undercooked or bad food? He stared at the stick.
That…was against the law. For anyone but a Doombringer that would be murder, even if they were a convicted criminal. But he knew Doomslayer teams would put an arrow through a Doombringer’s chest as they were walking down the street.
Because they were Doombringers. It was just—knowing that and knowing it was right were different. He’d never seen a Doombringer before.
That was when Yelroan wondered why Qwera had come here, to the Meeting of Tribes, when she’d be in the most danger. He was thinking about that when a little Gnoll ran past him, and he heard a voice.
He looked up and saw a little Gnoll girl with painted gold ears race over to the tallest Gnoll he’d seen besides Garsine. That had to be Ekhtouch’s [Paragon].
Qwera had a child? No! She didn’t, nor any registered apprentice. Who was this? The [Mathematician] lowered his sunglasses and blinded the stall owner cooking meat.
The little girl was clearly affiliated with Qwera. Either she was a fan, or she had a hold of gold paint dye; even Weatherfur didn’t dabble with gold paint. But Yelroan thought she had to be with Qwera. So…he stared at the little girl.
“What in the name of logarithms…?”
She joined a [Shaman] and Gireulashia, and the [Paragon] swept her onto her shoulders. Yelroan heard them speaking.
“Why didn’t you stay in the camp? Or go with Tesy to see Qwera? You wanted me? Aw.”
Well, that blew the coincidence theory right out of the water. But Yelroan had gone still, dead still, for another reason.
Which was that he was not an idiot. Little Gnoll girl. Golden Gnoll. Merish was hunting for Mrsha of Liscor. Yelroan’s breath caught, and he didn’t even whisper it…
[Perfect Measurement]. He stood up, adjusted his glasses, left a huge tip, and walked off. He almost ran back to his tent and searched around.
“[Shaman]. Do you have a recording of the Doombringer? The one Xherw had me look at?”
One of Plain’s Eye’s [Shamans] sighed but dug out the recording for Yelroan. The [Mathematician] took one look at a little, white Gnoll girl and used the same Skill. She was an inch taller than the girl in the scrying orb, but he knew how children changed. A Gnollish feature, which was distinct and didn’t change as markedly, was the length of your tail to the base of your body.
It could vary a good amount, although Drake tails were far longer. Yelroan ran the math. Every number was almost dead-on, with a little bit of growth.
“Is that all, Mathematician?”
The [Shaman] sighed, clearly eager to be back to her work. Yelroan didn’t answer at first. He had just felt a shiver run all the way through his body and straight through his soul.
Two of them?
It would be quick. In the Meeting of Tribes, they would have to find out if they were right or not. So Plain’s Eye would strike Silverfang fast. Not hurt Silverfang’s guard, but go in, grab both girl and [Merchant], and apply a simple test to remove any dye from their fur.
Xherw might lead it himself. Fast. He’d take his best [Warriors], grab them, and if they were Doombringers?
Execute them on the spot. It would explain some of the events going on in the Meeting of Tribes. Yelroan would have two feathers in his cap and be inducted in the highest part of Plain’s Eye, and be able to make changes for the better. Take real apprentices and figure out what math…was. What sin was.
He knew that. Xherw was coming back from the Meeting of Chieftains, and the rumor was that it was so big each Chieftain refused to talk about it. Yelroan didn’t wait for him or Ulcre.
He didn’t tell anyone Mri, or rather, Mrsha—another oddity in names—was a Doombringer. Not yet.
He knew that was Mrsha Stone Spears. Mrsha from Liscor and ‘The Wandering Inn’. Numbers didn’t lie like that. Everything, even the inner pink of her ears, matched the girl in the scrying orb in dimensions. He could see the numbers adding up.
So she was a Doombringer. The same one Merish had hunted and who had slipped through his paws. Qwera might be one too.
Two, under their very noses. All he had to do was speak, and she’d die and stop plaguing the world with the curse she carried.
No—no, with the very evil she was.
Because it wasn’t a curse. A curse was different. That would mean she was innocent. There was a very good reason the girl giggling and licking the cone of ice cream had to die.
He just had to figure it out. He knew the answer. She was a Doombringer. But face-to-face with one, for the first time, Yelroan couldn’t help but think he was staring at a little girl.
Doombringers had to die. He kept hearing that. But the trio, Gireulashia, this Satar, and Mri, weren’t doing more than…their own investigation?
The little girl insisted on buying the biggest hat she could and wanted a ‘magnifying glass’, though all she did was write down her requests or do some fast sign-language with Gire. Another sign she was the mute Mrsha from Liscor.
The [Mathematician] watched them try on hats for a while. He had to step away.
“Just tell Xherw. You might be wrong. You might be wrong. But tell him and…he knows what to do. He’s the Chieftain.”
Xherw had to wrestle with difficult decisions all the time. Yelroan knew it was right. He was trying to do it, and his feet weren’t moving. He kept…staring at them.
“Yelroan? What are you doing out of your tent? Are you on your day off?”
A voice called out to him. Yelroan spun around, and one of Merish’s friends, Ghamen, another [Warrior], lowered his paw.
“What’s with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I…er, I’m just walking about.”
Yelroan looked at the warrior from one of Plain’s Eye’s other subtribes and saw him chomping down on a few sticks of meat, like he had. He was with a few other Plain’s Eye Gnolls.
“Well, if you want to walk about with us, feel free. This is Yelroan. Merish’s friend. A…math-person. What’s the class?”
Yelroan didn’t pose or do his sunglasses trick, so the other Gnolls eyed him and asked what that class meant and what his job was. He answered, not really paying attention.
“What was that?”
Yelroan glanced up. Ghamen looked at him and lowered his voice.
“Sorry. I just said that Merish is off hunting them. He hasn’t come back—you don’t know what’s happened, do you, Yelroan? He’s safe, right?”
“I…I can’t say. Chieftain Xherw’s orders. Confidential.”
“Chieftain Xherw speaks to you? Directly?”
One of the other Gnolls stared at Yelroan incredulously. Ghamen glanced at him and rolled his eyes.
“Yelroan’s a big-shot. Bigger than Merish, somehow. We all grew up in the same place, but look at them. Dead gods, but I can’t do more than count to a hundred, and I’m not hunting…them. I’d have nightmares.”
“Me too. I’d be too scared to move. Merish is tough.”
Yelroan saw the other Gnolls agree. He licked his lips and glanced over his shoulder at something.
“Do you remember, growing up, all the stories about Doombringers?”
Ghamen was asking the others. They nodded. Yelroan muttered.
“You mean, the [Shamans] dressing up in white and grabbing you out of bed before they’re chased away by warriors?”
The other Gnolls chuckled. One of them nodded, baring his teeth.
“I remember that. I wet my bedroll for three months afterwards. You know, I told that story to some other warriors the other day and they looked at me like I was crazy? They don’t do that.”
“Not chasing off Doombringers either? Really? It just goes to show what kind of traditions the other tribes keep…”
“Don’t start a fight, now. Let them do what they want. Plain’s Eye’s honor.”
“Here’s to that. What’s wrong, Yelroan? You look sick.”
There’s a Doombringer over there. Go kill it. The other warriors looked at the [Mathematician] as he stood there.
He felt a sudden, abrupt wave of nausea spill over him. Someone offered Yelroan a stick of meat just in time to see him clap a paw over his mouth—and vomit anyways, around it. The other Gnolls leapt back. They shouted and called for a [Healer] but had no idea why he was suddenly sick. Yelroan looked around, shaking.
He felt it too. That sudden, burning intuition that wasn’t math. But because it ran in his blood, he thought of it like that. An equation that didn’t add up at all.
There was something deeper here. Far, far deeper than tradition. And he was part of it. His eyes went back to the little girl heading through the Meeting of Tribes. He brushed off the paws of the other warriors and went after her.
He had to see.
The last investigation had taken over a month, and it was nowhere near its conclusion. The person leading it realized it might never conclude to his satisfaction.
But now, the news was out.
Feshi Weatherfur stared at Rose like she had giant Demon horns sticking out of her head and wings. The Earth girl shifted uncomfortably, but that was the same look Adetr gave her.
The [Battle Seeker] and warrior of the Steelfur tribe looked at Rose.
“Tell me…tell us more stories of Earth.”
“I’ve told you so many. History, my life…what more do you want?”
Rose complained, but mildly. She was flattered by Feshi’s attention and a little overwhelmed. Inkar had vanished on a ride with Tkrn once the secret came out.
The Chieftains knew. Their most trusted warriors and [Shamans]—they all knew. Now, they were struggling with the revelation.
Only, Adetr had learned a completely different way than Torishi, Feshi, and the rest. He had walked into a simulation of Earth’s [Soldiers] fighting on Rose’s behalf with his Skill. He had seen their weapons. Guns. Tanks. Even an aircraft dropping what Rose thought was a nuke on him.
So he looked at her completely differently than Feshi, for all the [Strategist] was clever and intelligent enough to understand what this meant. Adetr had seen enough to understand what they didn’t understand.
“Oh—okay. Just for Feshi. So, where I lived, Los Angeles—that’s one of the biggest cities in the world—”
“How big, exactly?”
“Um…if you included the suburbs, four m—”
“The what? What are ‘suburbs’?”
That was the thing. Rose backtracked, but she was really, really…bad at explaining a different world.
To be fair, not many people were good at it. Still, she kept forgetting that her audience had no grounding for anything. Adetr, after a month of talking with Rose, still couldn’t picture it.
Planes in the sky. Skyscrapers on the ground. Humans all connected to this internet…he felt like all of them had some kind of invisible tether attached to a giant cloud. That was how he saw it, and Rose kept correcting him, but he had gotten a rundown of Earth’s history and a lot of major events and factoids, even if she refused to tell him everything about their weapons and so on.
So as some other Chieftains approached them in the Silverfang camp, Adetr rose and bowed. Feshi caught sight of them and instantly did the same.
“Chieftain Iraz! Chieftain Reizet, Chieftain Werri!”
“Strategist Feshi. I should have known you would beat us here. Intelligent, while we sit on our paws…”
Rose blinked as three famous Chieftains joined them, despite two being rivals. They all looked at her, and the young woman licked her lips.
“May we speak with Miss…Rose? Please, join us. Adetr.”
Iraz nodded at his nephew, and Adetr bowed his head.
“Of course, Chieftain. I have been speaking with her too.”
“Ah, so Steelfur knew ahead of time? Well, I suppose that’s fine.”
Werri bared her teeth. She looked Rose up and down and sniffed the young woman, which Rose clearly found uncomfortable. They were all sitting when Adetr turned, and Feshi’s mouth opened.
Garsine Wallbreaker strode into the Silverfang camp. The tallest Gnoll in the Meeting of Tribes, nay, the world, was thin, stretched out, wearing the hide of the magic bear she could transform into.
“I have come to meet them. May I enter your discussion?”
Her voice was far lighter than Adetr imagined—still deep—but the other Chieftains instantly bowed to make room for a hero of their people. Rose gulped as Garsine bent.
“So you are Rose. From…”
She hesitated and looked around.
“We’re well warded, Honored Garsine. Please, speak freely!”
Feshi urged her. Garsine nodded.
“Well thought. You are from Earth. Another world. Is this true?”
“I—y-y—oh my god. Yes.”
If anything could have proven she was from Earth, it was that. All the Gnolls looked at each other. Garsine exhaled.
“I thought the grandest thing of my age would be the Antinium, and feared to leave the world behind with them. Now? Now, I fear I am too old for what will come. I must sit. I must listen. Chieftain Werri, it is good you and Feshi Weatherfur are here. The young must hear this. They must all hear this. Where is Lehra Ruinstrider? Where are our Named Adventurers? All must…”
“They are with their own tribes, deliberating, Garsine. But rest assured—all will hear Rose’s words. We are merely the first.”
Iraz assured the older Gnoll, and Garsine nodded slowly.
“This world apart. Earth, you call it. Earth…such a strange name for an entire world. Why that? Please tell me everything.”
“I—I—where would I—oh man, this is so—”
Rose was overwhelmed. It was one thing for Adetr to talk to her, and he was already intimidating enough with his body of steel and his piercing intensity. But Garsine?
Draped in the fur of the Racdelbear, she looked like half a beast herself. Her arms were so long that Adetr thought they were longer than he was. She smelled of the pelt, of nature itself, and it was not unpleasant, but it made even the Gnolls here feel like they were intruders into a wild place.
Garsine’s eyes were that of one of the greatest warriors of her generation, the Wallbreaker tribe’s hero, who had smashed through Drake stone again and again. Not to mention…her presence.
Her aura. Combined with Werri, Iraz, and Reizet, leader of Az’muzarre, that tribe of legends? Even when they weren’t trying, the air had that intensity you sometimes felt. That surging chill that ran down your spine when you felt inspired or scared or…saw something wondrous?
That was in the air, and intensified many times over. And that was when they weren’t upset. Right now, they were so intent that they magnified the aura, and Rose was like a bug being slapped repeatedly by the sky.
“Start from the beginning. How did Humans come to your world?”
Iraz suggested, with a look to Adetr.
Feshi leaned forward excitedly.
“Have you explored all of it? Why do you say Earth is a ‘planet’, as Honored Krshia claimed?”
Werri broke in before Rose could answer.
“No. Start with your weapons.”
The young woman started to panic. And in that sense, she was not the woman for the job. Of course, if Erin were here…and alive, she would have been chatty, aggravating, and less helpful. Ryoka Griffin would have already run off.
But there were still better people; Inkar perhaps, because she was close to the Gnolls and could relate to them and thus explain her perspective better. Or Kevin, who would be casually charming. Or…
Rose began stuttering, trying to clarify, and Adetr saw she was overwhelmed. Regular Gnolls did this too, when faced with this kind of pressure. So he raised a paw.
“Chieftains. I believe you’re pressuring her.”
All four Gnolls looked at Adetr and realized he was right. They had cups of water. The water was defying regular physics and pressed against the other side of the cup to get away from them.
“Apologies. We should introduce ourselves, go slow. This is a long lesson, and we must learn each part of it.”
Reizet muttered. She relaxed a hair, but was clearly antsy.
“It is just—without intelligence about Earth, we do not know if this transportation system is stealing our people. Whether a portal will open, or what will occur. And a world of Humans? That could spell a war worse than the Antinium. Assuming they are dangerous and not…weak from lack of magic.”
She looked hopeful at that, but Feshi bit her lip. And that was imagination for you. Adetr would have agreed with Reizet instantly before seeing Earth’s armies, even if he thought about it.
You cannot imagine what a gun is. They had no frame of reference for machine-technology, even Adetr. It was literally out of their understanding.
But he had seen it.
“Chieftain Iraz, Honored Gnolls. I think I can help. Rose has been speaking with me this last month; I happened to uncover the secret early. I have not understood Earth at all in many respects, but I understand it from a military angle. I can answer questions for you and take that burden from her.”
Rose turned to Adetr with surprise. The [Battle Seeker] clasped his paws behind his back so they couldn’t see them tremble as the other Gnolls looked at him. Iraz raised his brows.
“You do understand battle well, Adetr. Yes, he uncovered Rose’s secret through his ability.”
“[Analysis: Vision of Greatest Battle]. Annoying Skill. Makes my fur itch.”
Garsine growled, but she looked at Adetr as he bowed to her, shamefaced.
“I apologize for disturbing you, Honored Garsine. But I can see Earth’s warriors. Thanks to that, I understand more than I ever would without. I can tell you all, Chieftains, honestly, that we must prepare for Earth to meet our world. If we have time, I suggest we race to develop arms like theirs. If we have years…we may survive. If they appear next month, next year? We must find the best way to hide or surrender.”
The Gnolls looked at him, astonished. This, coming from Adetr Steelfur, the [Battle Seeker] and [Vanguard of Metal]?
It had far more weight than coming from even Rose herself. Werri sat up, and Iraz blinked at his nephew.
“You truly say this, Adetr? You did not say it to me.”
“I was making sure, Chieftain Iraz. But I am certain. Rose has spoken to me about Earth. I have…facts. They have superior weapons to ours. Not magically—we can use magic against them—but if two sides meet unprepared, ours will lose. Not just Gnolls. Any army in the world. Named Adventurers would stand a chance, depending on their Skills and artifacts. But if we meet tomorrow, and every nation allies without restraint, enemies and allies, and both worlds go to war—we will lose absolutely and instantly.”
Adetr was shaking. Now that he could say it, it was a relief. Rose sat upright.
“Adetr! That wasn’t what we talked about. I told you about Earth because…you were nervous! I thought you understood we’re not like that.”
He looked at her and almost smiled at her.
“I have talked with you, Rose, and you have told me many things. I cannot imagine your world fully. But I can understand your numbers. This is the number you should know first, Honored Gnolls, Chieftain. Seven billion. Possibly eight. That is a thousand times a million. Eight billion Humans reside on Earth.”
The Gnolls all looked at Adetr, completely unable to understand that number. Feshi’s fur drained of color, and she lowered her notepad.
“Eight…I cannot…the Walled Cities number in the millions, and they are among the grandest cities in the world.”
The huge [Shapechanger] rubbed at her head. Adetr nodded to her.
“Rose’s city is four million people strong, Honored Garsine. And it is one of many. But not just that—Earth Humans have the ability to fly in vehicles and launch explosive weapons at us, greater than [Fireball] spells. They can fly a mile up, and they have created metal vehicles like Golem armor—but controlled, with weapons capable of knocking down a Drake City’s walls with one shot. I have seen it.”
“With your Skill. I cannot credit that. Where is one of these weapons? How would Az’muzarre fare against them?”
Chieftain Reizet was patently incredulous. Adetr met her eyes, and saw the Gnoll woman stiffen as he delivered the next words.
“Chieftain Reizet. I say this with no insult but with the truth. There is a scenario where their average warriors—average warriors, with their weapons, guns, firearms, rifles—could face all of Az’muzarre from afar. And, before you took one of their lives, they could kill your entire tribe. Steelfur as well. I have seen it.”
The Chieftain of Az’muzarre stared at Adetr for a second in pure astonishment before she grew angry. But she was forestalled—
Iraz dropped his cup out of his paws. He didn’t even look at the water splashing down. All the Chieftains looked at him. Werri shot up, cursing, then saw Iraz staring at Adetr. Because what sounded like alarmist talk, or someone exaggerating?
Iraz knew Adetr. He didn’t lie.
“But—but listen. Adetr. I thought we talked. I thought…”
Rose broke in and saw all of the Gnolls stare at her like she were laying Creler eggs. Adetr turned to her, and Rose looked up at her friend.
She thought they had been growing to become friends. Adetr was a battle-obsessed Gnoll with poor manners. Who had looked at her like that. Like she was terrifying. But she hadn’t seen that look, of late.
“Adetr. I thought you weren’t scared of me. Do you fear me? Me, Rose, who can’t even open a bottle properly?”
She tried to smile, but Adetr looked so…so…
The [Battle Seeker] nodded after a moment.
“I don’t fear you, Rose. That’s true.”
She smiled, but he didn’t. The Gnoll went on.
“I don’t fear you, but your people scare me to death. A million soldiers in one nation’s army, all armed with weapons that can kill a Level 30 [Warrior] in a single shot. I do not fear you, but your people? There are eight billion to fear. I do not know them. I cannot imagine your world. You have tried to tell me the good, and I hear it…but I hear how many wars your people make and how you kill each other. And I wonder—what would Humans do to us? Especially if we have something they want, like magic, or gems, which you say you have so much less of?”
Someone else stood.
“We must discuss this. Adetr, you know our tribes. You can tell us most directly. We will return. Honored Feshi, you are welcome to join us, but you must explain it to us again, Adetr. I cannot believe it.”
“I will, Chieftain Werri.”
He nodded, and they rose. Rose reached out, but Adetr looked at her.
“You don’t have anything to fear, Rose.”
You don’t. He stared down at her, and she saw a flash of it. That fear.
What had he seen? He couldn’t tell her, only describe it. Not the other Gnolls…what did you see?
He couldn’t imagine Earth, even after a month of talking. But he could remember what he saw. A war. The Gnoll walked off, and Rose saw the Gnolls looking at her. Not like a guest, or something to be exploited. It was almost refreshing that of all the species, Gnolls looked at Earth’s Humans and saw another threat.
Adetr’s testimony didn’t help. Krshia wanted to kick him, but she felt like she’d break her foot if she tried that.
It was understandable, given what he had seen, but it did not help.
…Nor was it the only problem. When the Chieftains reconvened the next day, his words weren’t the only ones echoing around. The first thing a Chieftain did was bow to Akrisa.
“Once again, Silverfang delivers us the most important warnings. We know Earth exists. Now…we must prepare for it. I do not know if we tell other species. We surely must if the threat is this grave and prepare for the worst. But in what manner? Do we strike an alliance between all species or tell only those we know can be trusted? These are grave and dark considerations. Perhaps—and I say this not lightly—but perhaps we must find a place to hide. Prepare an escape, that some of our people might survive.”
A rumble went through the room. Not in disagreement. Just plain unease. Akrisa shot upright.
“Chieftains! There is no need for that! I will speak plainly—I had hoped we could agree to find, shelter, and work with the Earthers. To make them our allies, so that if we go to Earth, or find a way to return them or bridge worlds, we would greet them with open arms.”
“An easy way to be shot with one of their bullets.”
Chieftain Reizet muttered. Adetr nodded, next to Iraz, and Krshia glared at him. However, even Chieftains who hadn’t heard his horror stories shook their heads.
“It seems to me the tribes must agree that if there is a doorway, to slam it shut. To devote all our efforts—more than punishing Drakes, more than addressing the Raskghar or Antinium—to keeping Earth from our world. At least, until we can hold our own. Eight billion Humans could wipe out every nation combined in numbers alone. I vote to create a list of allies. Perhaps we begin with trusted guardians? The Blighted Kingdom, the Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar…the House of Minos? Would they be able to stand against even one billion, if they linked arms?”
“What’s a billion?”
“Someone get me a [Mathematician]. Xherw, what’s yours say a billion is…?”
The number ran around the room in a heartbeat. Krshia closed her eyes. She only opened them when someone else spoke.
“I agree. They have powerful, even wondrous technologies. It is already changing our world—but we cannot trust them. These…Human-Earthers are no less deadly than the other ones. For our survival, we must be wary.”
“Wary? Why must we call the first other species from another world enemies, Chieftain Thost?”
It was Torishi who spoke, but even she appeared troubled. The Gnoll looked down at her, and something like Yiew’s look was in his eyes.
“Why would we assume they are peaceful given that we know their world is not, Torishi? We have seen other species and how they treat us. Some have been friends. But many? Look at the Humans of this world! They took Izril’s north from us and the Drakes because they could. The Drakes have stolen our magic. What are the Humans doing, poisoning our rivers in secret?”
There was a broad murmur in the room of agreement, despite the hyperbole. Krshia Silverfang and her sister looked around and saw even Firrelle and close allies looked unnerved.
Too late, Krshia realized they had made a mistake. This…this shouldn’t have followed the revelations of the Raskghar and theft of magic. This was not the time to propose peace with another world after so much treachery and darkness was unveiled.
All the Chieftains were disquieted, and not least because when you looked for examples of Earth doing terrible things? Rose had told Adetr some things in confidence, but even when they asked her…she wanted to be honest.
So when he asked, ‘what had Earth done that was evil? What should I fear?’ she had far too many examples. Rose tried to cut it with the good, but he had seen only war.
And Rose had also told him the worst of it because it mattered to her not to lie. Not to hide it.
Genocide and gas chambers. Nuclear weapons capable of wiping out any world multiple times over. Rose was principled, if unwise in how she told them.
They had to know. So the Meeting of Chieftains listened. They looked at another world.
Collectively, they drew back in fear. Krshia Silverfang rose to her feet and spoke.
“Gnolls. Chieftains, Honored guests. Hear me.”
They fell silent. Akrisa looked at Krshia with a vestige of hope, and Krshia searched for the words to turn this around.
“It is true Earth has done terrible things, or so I hear. So has our world. They are one species, but is it not true Humans have done good and ill? Let me tell you—I would not be here to uncover the truth of magic to you, I might not be here at all but for one Human. One girl from Earth, who I knew. Who was a great friend. She was…is named Erin Solstice. She was the one who helped stop the Raskghar. I saw her stop the siege of Liscor myself. If there are Humans who are the worst of a species, remember. There are ones who are better.”
She turned to her right.
“Perhaps you have seen how many new goods come from Longstalker’s Fang this Meeting of Tribes. Well, what would you say if I told you much of it was made this last year? Inkar came to you, didn’t she, Chieftain Eska? Did she come with wrath or ill-intent?”
Chieftain Eska rose.
“I have nothing ill to say of her, Krshia. She gave us new knowledge and was nothing but credit—even when my own tribe was unkind to her. She was so beloved that Honored Deskie—Deskie, whom you all know—wove her very clothing herself. A mark of respect, for Honored Inkar, a Human who we are proud to call our own.”
Krshia nodded, turning desperately to her audience. Her words were not in vain; they swayed some of the Gnolls. But again, someone spoke, and this time it was Yiew. He looked at her with hollow eyes.
“You tell us of good individuals, Krshia Silverfang, Chieftain Eska. But I hear individuals. I do not know this people. I only hear what they are capable of. Good, yes, or ill. I cannot imagine a world where smoke belches into the sky and metal and lightning rules. I fear it.”
How could you imagine it? Krshia tried to argue, but the Chieftains, even Adetr, had never seen Erin Solstice. They had no idea what she was like, even if words could capture the way she laughed.
In an age long gone, aeons ago, if the Gnolls of another Meeting of Tribes had heard another world existed, they would not have feared a world of Humans. In those days, some would have prepared for strife, and others gone with open arms, but their people would have not feared, but gone as equals.
They would have rejoiced, because it meant there was twice as much of reality to explore, and been the first to walk across the furthest lands, for better or worse. A fearless people who walked arm-in-arm with myth and legend.
Once, Gnolls traveled the world. Once, we were explorers.
But that is only what the stories said. How could you prove it? Perhaps…perhaps someone had written it down?
Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh entertained her guests in the evening, although she had to rest for tomorrow’s meeting on Earth. The Gaarh Marsh [Shamans] and guards wouldn’t have let them meet her normally, because Theikha was so important and wise—but Gireulashia was the [Paragon] of Ekhtouch.
“Ah, now, who is this? Mri?”
The girl hid behind Gire, and the Gnoll hurried to introduce her. Theikha gave Mrsha a keen-eyed look but turned to Satar.
“Well met, Shaman Satar.”
“You honor me too greatly, Shaman Theikha.”
Satar was red beneath her fur, and also petrified. Theikha herself! The oldest [Shaman] living smiled at her and gestured.
“Sit, sit! We are all Gnolls. Let us never forget that. And I have all the time for young Gnolls who ask serious questions, no matter what my minders say. Not least for gifts! These must be cookies. I will help myself and keep them as gifts.”
Her eyes lit up at the cookies Mrsha had bought as a gift. A big basket…and soft, nice, chewy cinnamon ones. Theikha took one and ate with great humor as Satar laid out her problem. She watched Mrsha anxiously, but the Gnoll had refused to leave. She wanted to hear the truth too, and, of all the [Shamans]…well, Satar hoped Theikha wouldn’t say anything grisly. The old Gnoll was certainly frowning as she listened, though.
“Hm? Each story of Doombringers is changed? That is odd. I have noticed…odd things in our Retellings, but you understand, each tribe keeps to itself aside from the Meeting of Tribes. Oh, we join up, but no wonder we seldom look at it as a whole.”
Theikha put aside her cookie as Satar showed her the notebook. She frowned as she saw how each story changed.
“It could simply be the style of it.”
“But…is it possible that we have an incomplete story, Shaman Theikha? Or if there is one, unified copy…is it possible we’ve written it down somewhere? Or someone has a Skill to recite it perfectly?”
“They would only have [Perfect Recall] as it was told to them, in most cases. Perfect truth in what are already myths? I do not know about a Skill, Satar. But I do know there is a library. Was a library, containing every record and scrap of history and knowledge we ever had.”
Satar’s heart leapt…then she heard the word.
Gire looked up from stuffing her face with a whole cheese round. Mrsha glanced up too, and Theikha nodded, protectively covering her gift basket from Gire’s wandering paws.
“Was. Do you know the old stories of the times Gnolls had silly things like [Kings]? Do you remember that, once, we had a Kingdom of Gnolls?”
The three shivered. Theikha smiled, and she was the [Storyteller] Satar longed to be. Her voice deepened, and she flicked sparks into the air with a simple wave of her paw.
“Once, there was a Kingdom of Gnolls. Ah, but I cannot tell you the whole story of its rise and fall. We have made grand edifices before, and great Gnolls arose. Kerash was one of the last, and I knew him. He would have led us into a new age but for…the Necromancer. Each time we build something, it falls. The Kingdom of Gnolls—at least, Izril’s—was here, in the Great Plains itself. It was one of our repositories of knowledge, craft, and wisdom.”
All three children listened as Theikha conjured a kingdom out of words. Satar tried to envision it, a nation where Gnolls had borders and land. Mrsha could almost see it too. Did they have [Knights]? A [King]?
Were they like Brunkr?
Then…Mrsha saw the kingdom shake.
“It fell into ruin. I do not know exactly how, because, in the chaos, it led to a dark age of our people as well as others. Some say treachery, but my mentors agreed—it was then that Raskghar crept in. They do when we fall. Raskghar appear, and darkness consumes our people.”
Mrsha hugged Gire and felt the [Paragon] squeeze her tight. Theikha glanced at her and smiled. The sparks lightened.
“I shouldn’t tell such scary stories to children. That was one of the last repositories of knowledge, Satar.”
“So it was lost long ago.”
“Was. Yes. And then we made a second library.”
Gire nearly choked on her cheese wheel. Theikha chuckled as Satar sat up.
“What, do you think we lose everything, throw up our paws, and give up? We made more libraries than that! The last one was a grand place that tribes came and went to. Do you want to know something strange?”
Theikha looked at Satar, and her face grew mightily troubled.
“The last one was around four hundred years ago. A great library that had existed long before that. It burned one day. Burned—and I don’t need to tell you any [Librarian], [Shaman], or [Architect] would invest in magical spells against fire. But it was destroyed, and the tribes hunted for whoever had done it. They never found out, and Drakes were blamed since that is a safe bet. However, when you tell me these things…I wonder.”
Satar frowned and felt a tinge of unease creeping up her spine.
“It could be a coincidence.”
“Perhaps. But I know Doombringers were not always…so vilified.”
Mrsha, Gire, and Satar looked up as Theikha hunted around for cookies in her basket.
“Wh-what do you mean, Shaman Theikha?”
The Shaman glanced up, and Satar felt like she was the one being interrogated. Theikha looked calmly at the three children and spoke.
“Only that I am so old that I recall, very vaguely, my oldest mentors—that would be someone who was as old as I was when I was as young as Mri—disputing some of the tales about Doombringers. I don’t even recall the conversation, but I feel as though I remember it. That’s the trouble. I feel, as you now come to me, that Doombringers might have more of a story behind them. But I have never fought to know more. Frankly, they are rare, and I do know for a fact that trouble tends to follow them.”
Mrsha looked urgently at Gireulashia, who tried to clarify.
“But are they evil and cursed like the stories say?”
“Plain’s Eye certainly believes it. I know what you will say, Honored Gire, and the truth is I haven’t thought of them for a long time. For twenty years, I was consumed with fighting Antinium and rebuilding after the destruction they wrought—and the Goblin King. Before that? Zelkyr was striding about with his Golem armies, telling us to ‘do this, do that’. That was still before my time—I’m not old enough to remember more than when he died and a bit before that.”
Wouldn’t that put her at over a hundred and…? Gire silently did the math. Theikha threw a cookie at her to distract her.
“Stop uncovering my age. Uncover the truth instead, you silly child! Zelkyr marched about with his Golem armies, and the Walled Cities still had them when he died. Such fighting.”
“So it’s not just this era that has a lot of wars. Even without the Antinium.”
Satar murmured as Mrsha reached for a cookie, and her paw was slapped down. Theikha looked sad.
“No, Satar. But perhaps we can make tomorrow better. Everyone is abuzz about…well, you will learn soon enough.”
Mrsha’s ears perked up. Earth? But they weren’t supposed to know, and the [Shaman] did not elaborate if that was what she was referring to. She sat with a sigh.
“The truth is that we lost our history. Yes, Chieftain Seru’nial took her people into the sky, or so it is said. But we have no proof, so even Garuda laugh at us—as if they could fly that high! We went to Chandrar and Baleros, Rhir and Terandria, but we lost our histories, and Gnolls don’t write books as often as we should. So we can only claim it.”
She looked sad and weary.
“If there were any records of Doombringers, it would be from those Gnolls, but they are long gone, Satar. Here? I will tell you my version, but it is the same as Weatherfur’s. I wish…”
The [Shaman] looked at them, then around the room.
“I wish I could take you back and tell you all the stories as they were written. But I have forgotten, and even Skills cannot stop time and age. I wish you luck on your search, but I must prepare for tomorrow. Please, forgive me.”
And there they had to leave it. Satar rose and kissed Theikha’s cheek. Theikha pinched Mrsha’s ear gently as the Gnoll tried to swipe a last cookie, and bid them farewell. The three quietly left her tent. They felt enlightened, grateful to have talked to Theikha and hear her stories and…lost.
What did they do next? Not one had any idea.
Here they sat, by nightfall. Mrsha, Gire, Satar, staring down at her journal, Yelroan, Rose, arguing with Adetr and Feshi.
Everyone had looked at Yelroan. The [Mathematician] had come and sat down with them without a word, and no one had told him to shove off.
Feshi was here because she was trying to wrap her head around Earth and wanted to talk to Rose. Rose was here to shout at Adetr.
“Why did you have to say it like that? Why do you have to talk about Earth’s weapons? We’re not all warmongers!”
He growled back.
“I told you. I saw them. I saw them shoot me through the eyes, Rose—and then I didn’t see anything after that!”
“You saw a projection! It wasn’t even real people! Do you think we’d just gun you down the instant we saw you?”
“Why not? You told me you love making movies about killing species you haven’t even met!”
“Most of them attack us!”
“You make the movies!”
The screaming match in the background made Mrsha shift slightly. She looked at Yelroan, hesitated, and poked his side. He jumped, nearly leapt into one of the campfires they were sitting around, and stuttered.
He stared at Mrsha like she was a monster. She eyed him, then pointed.
“Can Mri try on your sunglasses, Mister Yelroan?”
Gire knew who he was. The Gnoll hesitated, then handed them to Mrsha. She put them on and then began to do poses. I am so cool! This is the best pair of sunglasses ever!
The [Mathematician] looked at the girl laughing and doing poses that made Satar giggle with such an expression of pain that he had to turn away. He focused on the screaming match instead.
“You’re so unreasonable!”
Rose hollered. Adetr shouted, his nerves breaking at last.
“Well, I cannot help it! I’m afraid of you!”
Rose stopped. The young woman from California stared up at the Gnoll who had a head and a half on her, and probably three hundred pounds with his steel body. She spoke, surprisingly calmly.
“Adetr. You’re a huge, metal Gnoll. You scare me.”
He looked her in her eyes.
“Your people could kill us all. It would be easy.”
Yelroan turned to frown at Adetr, and the two looked at him guiltily, but the [Mathematician] waved a paw.
“I know about…it. Does everyone else?”
They all nodded. Yelroan had been summoned to Xherw and Ulcre with the other leaders to explain what eight billion was in context of their tribes. Horrifyingly huge numbers that appeared from adding a few digits onto the end of the last.
“I just wish we had stories. I want to tell stories, but what’s the use if everything I write will disappear?”
Satar whispered, and Adetr, Rose, Mrsha, Gire, and Yelroan looked at her. Satar rubbed at one eye.
“We were everywhere…and there’s not one book? Not one? Someone burned it all? We explored Baleros! We climbed mountains and fought with other species. And…all we have are Retellings. And they’re wrong.”
She thumped the journal and Yelroan eyed it. Mrsha looked at Satar and patted her on the knee. She handed her a note.
Forsooth, it will be alright, child.
Satar glared at Mrsha. Why did a child have better writing than she did? She started sniffing hard. At first, all of the other Gnolls thought she had smelled something. Then they realized Satar was trying hard not to cry.
Adetr patently didn’t know what to do, so he looked at Rose to do something.
“There, there…Mri, don’t bully Satar.”
“She isn’t bullying me!”
As if to prove Mrsha’s subtle bullying, Satar teared up harder. And not for reasons she could explain. It wasn’t just Doombringers somehow—she knew—being misrepresented in stories.
It was the dearth of stories that bothered her. Libraries. A kingdom. She hadn’t even known what the kingdom’s name was. Why didn’t Theikha and the others tell the story? When she asked, the [Shaman] had looked abashed.
Theikha, the oldest [Shaman] ever. Not a mere [Chief Shaman], but a [Shaman of Tribe and Plain], a class that only one Gnoll got. The great [Shaman], who would one day pass and leave less stories and memory of the world, looked embarrassed.
“I suppose, we are ashamed to try and tell the stories we no longer have, young Satar. To tell a story incomplete? We have our pride. We lost the right to tell it.”
Even things written down vanished. Satar kept sniffing, but she didn’t really cry. The others busied themselves by doing other things.
“You’re the intruder who wrote sin on my chalkboard?”
Yelroan exclaimed as Gire asked if he’d figured out how it worked. She promptly produced Inkar’s smartphone, and they bent over it as Yelroan’s mind tried to explode. This was it. This was—
He looked to Mrsha. Rose was sitting with Adetr, trying again to explain her world to him, and he was shaking his head, trying to see something besides blood and death.
Feshi Weatherfur watched Mrsha too. That sad little girl. So did Satar. She saw Mrsha bend down over a [Message] scroll, one of the more expensive ones, not a one-use one. Ink appeared and vanished, and the little Gnoll pulled something else she’d bought out of her bag of holding.
Satar closed her eyes. She lay back as a faint, click, click, followed by the familiar scritching of a quill made her small tantrum fade. She closed her eyes and drifted off, mind wearied by an entire day of listening to [Shaman] stories.
If only I could read their stories. Then I’d know how to tell stories about my people. I just…
There was a reason why she wrote a history. Not fanciful stories about people loving each other like Heartslayi or even great adventures like Sandquen. More than that—and that mattered to Satar—
She wanted to know they had happened. That they were…
[Archival Storyteller Level 25!]
[Skill – Seal of Veracity obtained!]
With a yelp, Satar sat up. She’d been asleep for twenty minutes, but as soon as her thoughts reached that Skill, she woke. Mrsha jumped, and Gire, beating Adetr in an arm-wrestling competition, looked up.
“I leveled up!”
Satar smiled. With wondrous happiness. Two levels for her hard work?
“What is it? A new Skill about the past?”
Gire was excited, but Satar knew it wasn’t that. Unfortunately, this was no new Skill the likes of which no one had ever heard of, whose meaning was to be learnt.
“It’s…[Seal of Veracity].”
The [Paragon] looked at Satar and then rolled over.
“Oh. [Historian] Skills.”
Which was unfair, because [Contract Makers], [Notaries], people who inspected magical goods and documents, and so on, all had this Skill. It was the kind of thing Satar wanted.
She could put that on her writings and reassure her reader that the following was correct. Mind you, it had caveats; it could be correct as she understood it, but factually wrong, and so on, but it was still a seal.
Seal? So cool! Can you show me?
Mrsha danced about excitedly, looking away from her [Message] scroll and penpal. Obligingly, Satar reached out and drew…a magical stamp out of the air. Mrsha went cross eyed, and Satar pressed it into Mrsha’s forehead.
The magical stamper glowed and vanished, leaving a little, glowing stamp on Mrsha’s forehead.
“Oh! So pretty!”
Rose marveled. Because the stamp, the little symbol written therein, which looked like a book and quill as Satar would have preferred it, felt…like truth. Now, if only you could shake it from the aether and find what was lost.
Alas. Mrsha went cross-eyed trying to see it.
“It lasts as long as it’s true, Mri. I think it changes color if it’s less true. Go on! Try it!”
Mrsha frowned. Then she wrote, carefully, and held up a notecard for all to see.
I am always a good girl.
Instantly, the seal glowing a gentle green-blue, and even slightly changing to hues of yellow or purple—turned red, burst into flames, and fell off Mrsha’s forehead. The girl stared down at it.
“Well, it’s good for a job. You know, you could make some decent money just applying that once every day.”
Yelroan chuckled. Mrsha looked at Satar and handed her a note.
Your Skill doesn’t work. Stupid.
Then she went back to her [Message] scroll.
“Veracity isn’t like a simple truth stone. It’s…oh, fine.”
Satar stuck out her tongue at Mrsha’s back. She sat up, feeling a tiny bit better—but still upset over the entire lack of stories thing. Mrsha glanced up at Satar, remembering how sad the [Shaman] had been. She kept scribbling and that click-click continued.
Feshi came back; she had apparently gone out to the bathroom or something.
“They’re passing out food. Anyone want to eat at Weatherfur’s camp? We’re eating some fresh salmon someone brought. Even a tuna from deep at sea. Big. Gire couldn’t finish all of it herself. Anyone interested?”
Gire shot up.
“Me, me! I’ll go!”
The others murmured agreement, and Feshi assured them they wouldn’t be disturbing anyone, and it wouldn’t be for another twenty minutes. Yelroan looked down.
“It’s an equation. Sin, cos, tan…I can almost…”
His eyes were glittering, but he kept glancing at Mrsha. Caught between delight and…
The little Gnoll glared down and slapped something. The clack made Feshi, Satar, and even Rose and Adetr look up. Mrsha rolled over and whined in the back of her throat…then raised a notecard.
Feshi! Help me, please! Beat this stinky person up!
She wanted Feshi to help her? With…Satar looked over and saw what Mrsha was doing at last. She was writing on the [Message] scroll to her penpal. And…
Feshi’s ears perked up instantly, and she crouched down.
“What is this, Mri? Wait a second…”
Everyone else crowded around, except Gire, who read the scroll upside-down. They all blinked down. Mrsha folded her arms.
She and her penpal had been corresponding. Incidentally…Satar had heard Krshia had been involved in some kind of amazing conversation via Wistram the other day, but she hadn’t known what. Now? She looked down and saw a conversation.
Fetohep of Khelt: Good evening, ‘Mri’. Would you kindly desist sending [Messages] to my palace?
Mri: But we’re penpals! Can I have a throne? Or a crown? Or jewels?
Fetohep of Khelt: No. You are a child.
Mri: You thought I was intelligent!
Fetohep of Khelt: Age is but a concept, yet a child remains a child.
Mri: Ur a bully. I hate you.
Fetohep of Khelt: Insolence is unwise. I am Fetohep of Khelt. A ruler of Eternal Khelt. Do you think it is wise, even for a child, to taunt me?
Mri: …I’m sorry. But you’ll forgive me! Because I’m cute :)
Fetohep of Khelt: I cannot behold any appearance of yours, Mri.
Mri: What do I do!? Everyone is nice to me! I am very cute and cuddly, Fetohep! Forsooth! No child hath more delightful appearance than mine own!
Fetohep of Khelt: You are a precocious child.
Mri: Please help Erin.
Fetohep of Khelt: I am in the process of doing so. There are…complications, however.
Mri: You should help Erin. She could teach you chess. Do you like chess?
Fetohep of Khelt: I am exceptionally adept in the game.
Mri: Erin’s better, you know. She’s so good no one can beat her. I’m one of her pupils. I bet I could whoop you like a backwards salmon being smacked on steps!
Fetohep of Khelt: That is a preposterous statement.
Mri: Nuh uh.
Fetohep of Khelt: Indeed? Then, I shall move Pawn to E4.
Mri: What are you doing?
Fetohep of Khelt: Playing chess. Or can you not visualize the game?
Mri: I can! Give me a minute!
It appeared the smack talk and conversation had taken place over the last few days, and the chess game had been carefully recreated on the board Mrsha was using, with Fetohep’s pieces on hers.
Oh—and this wasn’t the original game. This was game #8. The score was 7-0 so far, and if you understood how often you tied in games of chess…
Feshi looked at the winner of all zero games.
“You want me to beat him?”
Mrsha nodded rapidly. Feshi folded her arms.
“No. For one thing, he gave me the dagger. For another—that’s cheating.”
But I have to beat him! Just once! Please? It’s too hard! He’s cheating by being too good!
It reminded Satar of Cers, actually. Mrsha, for all she could write like a jaded [Lady] of Terandria sipping wine while staring out an ivory tower in the twilight of Terandria—could also be a little child.
Feshi refused. Mrsha slapped the chessboard—then her face fell. She scrambled to redo the pieces and then started crying…or fake-crying.
It’s not fair! It’s too hard! I can’t do it in my head! The pieces are stupid! You’re all mean! I’m cute! Be nicer to me!
She rolled around on the ground, and Feshi sighed. Gire calmly put the chess pieces back and nudged a bishop.
“Move that into check?”
Mrsha instantly sat up, and Feshi looked at Gire.
“Gireulashia, you shouldn’t help her. Mri needs to either learn the game or admit defeat. She won’t grow or level from cheating. Except as a [Slacker].”
A what now? Mrsha the Sloth sat up and contemplated her new career path. Feshi tried to show Mrsha what she was doing wrong.
“You’re starting a new game, and you have all your pieces. It looks like you don’t really know how knights work, do you?”
Mrsha was, in fact, Erin Solstice’s worst student, and that included Toren. She hadn’t paid attention when Erin taught her, and…well, she didn’t even really understand how Fetohep kept checking her behind her own lines.
That was because she created a wall of Pawns and expected them to hold the line, like the actual Pawn would with [Holy Barrier]. Feshi, Gire, and even Rose tried to explain, but Mrsha held her head in her paws.
It’s too hard! Too many moves! Too many ways!
Fetohep had one of her knights in distress, and she kept nearly moving it into an early-demise. She understood how the knight moved, but the endless loop of possibilities and moves from each individual piece?
There was a reason why, even if a computer could do it better, people liked this game. Even Apista could beat Mrsha. Even a bee.
Feshi looked sympathetically at Mrsha, but then she snapped her furry fingers together. Which was a lot harder than when a Human did it.
“I know! Mri, I won’t help you cheat…but what if I help you play? Hmm? Sit down.”
Mrsha plomped her butt down, and Feshi waved a paw over the gameboard. Satar, watching, who was also bad at chess and, she feared privately, worse than Mrsha, saw Feshi speak.
“[Visualize Outcomes]. There. How’s that?”
Mrsha’s eyes went round. Satar, looking down, gasped. She saw Mrsha pick up the endangered knight piece—and saw a bunch of little squares light up on the board.
In L-shapes, just like where it was legally allowed to move. Mrsha looked around and saw all the spots the knight could move.
“Oh! Like a chess program! That’s genius, Feshi!”
Rose clapped her hand in delight. Adetr muttered in her ear.
“Yet another thing Humans can do that we need a Skill for.”
She slapped his arm and winced as her hand met metal. However, thanks to Feshi’s Skill, Mrsha could now see each piece’s threat zone and how they moved when she picked it up. She found a safe spot at last and smugly wrote in her move to Fetohep. Two seconds later, he checked her.
Feshi watched Mrsha throw a tantrum. In truth, that Skill’s application in chess had recently been discovered. It was more useful for a [Strategist] to see how a group might try to execute a maneuver and realize the terrain was too rocky, the shallows too deep in actuality to wade, etcetera.
“Not a bad Skill. You do visualization Skills too?”
Yelroan interrupted. Feshi turned to him.
“I do. Just that. Do you, Mathematician Yelroan?”
He smiled and adjusted his sunglasses, but modestly.
“I do. Take a look. Let me just find something like…how about all your ages? And then I…[Visualize Data Set].”
He did a quick scribble with their names, and ages, and then used his Skill. Instantly, the piece of paper turned into a little, floating graph. A crude drawing of Mrsha and her name shot up only a tiny bit with her age represented. Next, Gire. Then…Adetr?
“You’re younger than me?”
The Gnoll exclaimed as his bar came to rest just below Satar and above Rose. Feshi was next, then Yelroan. Mrsha looked up from angrily scribbling with Fetohep.
“See? Look how many times older I am. Seeing data is very useful to me. I’m amazed [Strategists] don’t all have the Skill.”
Mrsha handed Yelroan a card. He flipped it over and read two words.
Adetr looked at Feshi and Yelroan and cleared his throat.
“I have a Skill too. Only, I see battle in its entirety.”
“And a fat lot of good that does.”
Rose muttered. Feshi raised her brows.
“I’ve heard of [Battle Seekers], but not that you can visualize it. Can I ask how it works? Do fights shape up the way you see them?”
Adetr shook his head.
“Almost never. But some things I can learn—even enemy Skills or gear they carry. It’s not…precise. It is for a warrior to train their spirit, to learn how to defeat their foes. But I do not learn enough, not like a [Strategist] would want. My tribe’s [Strategists] gave up long ago on asking me to find out information. Part of it is simply…to sate my hunger.”
He looked embarrassed at the admission. Rose peered at him.
“Really. But that’s so powerful!”
“Hrr. Yes, well…it was my Level 20 capstone Skill.”
Rose and Adetr looked at each other, and the Gnoll bowed his head.
“I’m sorry. I’m only trying to protect my people.”
“Not from me.”
“No. Not from you, Rose.”
The good mood in the group broke upon Adetr and Rose’s quarrel like waves on a beach. Both looked guilty and broke off their arguments, but it was true. This had been a pleasant distraction from the greater issue of Earth, but Feshi could not let go of Adetr’s fear either.
Feshi longed to believe Rose when she assured them Earth had enough good to balance out the bad, but she had a vision of a metal flying-thing dropping weapons—even stones—from a mile up. And Humans had a population of eight billion. Even if most were non-combatants? Even if they were armed with rocks…
They could outproduce us. They could take over our lands. We can’t let them reach our world. We need to be careful, to learn what they’re doing. We need…to tell the Professor?
She had been having nightmares of Humans flying through the sky. Feshi suddenly realized where Eldavin had gotten his new armor idea from. More danger.
Satar saw Feshi’s face grow troubled and looked at this strange group, from Gire to Mrsha, Rose, Adetr, Feshi, and Yelroan. They were nice people. They had all come together to help one another, and they had done their best. But Satar had tried to find out the truth in stories for Doombringers…and failed.
They really had lost so much. Mrsha’s ears drooped, and Satar saw her listening to Rose and Adetr arguing.
Satar remembered what she herself had said in the Retelling.
We were here.
We were there. But…no one could prove it. Kingdoms vanished. They lost their library. Mrsha sighed. Satar wiped at her eyes and sniffed again. Everyone avoided looking at her. Rose and Adetr argued again.
Mrsha looked down as Gire gulped down a snack, Yelroan fidgeted with his sunglasses, and Feshi headed over to see if dinner was ready yet.
Satar’s crying was perfectly understandable, given how hard she’d tried, only to be foiled by time and malice. She was a [Detective] with no leads, only questions, and it frustrated her to tears.
She had not found her answer in the Doombringer stories, only noticed the absence. She would keep trying, but her Skill had not miraculously solved all problems. If that were so, Gnolls would never want for anything.
Yet there was more to miracles than just luck. Even a Doombringer knew that. So while Satar had cried, Mrsha had been thinking big.
Mrsha could not predict when a bishop would swan into enemy lines and hold a king-piece hostage. But she had learned something from Erin Solstice, the master herself.
And that was that other people could do things for you. Mrsha, the [Slacker]-in-training—which pretty much meant she’d never get the class because she kept trying to work for it—had made a little plan. And the thing about little plans? When you handed them to giants or geniuses, they always turned them into big plans.
Mrsha the Delegator quietly wrote onto her [Message] scroll as Gire watched her out of the corner of one big eye. The [Paragon] winked at Mrsha, but Satar never noticed.
Mri the Magnificent Mind: Old guy. Old guy, I have a biiig favor to ask. Will you help me? Pwease?
Fetohep of Khelt: If you address me in such an obnoxious fashion again, child, I will be forced to hire an [Assassin] to burn your [Message] scroll. There is such a thing as etiquette.
Mri: In that case, um…forsooth—
Fetohep of Khelt: I will post the bounty at 1,000 gold coins within the hour.
Mri du Marquin: Your Gracious Eminence, I humbly beg your forgiveness for my misconduct. It is unbecoming for a young lady, and I can only apologize that I have taken leave of my senses. It would not only honor my house, but do justice to the endless bounty of Khelt’s munificence if you would consent to heed my petition.
Fetohep of Khelt: Who taught you to write like this? Truly.
Mri: My mother.
Fetohep of Khelt: Ah. I do not employ any such individuals in my palace permanently, as I have not needed to address foreign powers substantively these last five hundred years. Someone of her talents would be useful. Would she be interested in a position in my Mage’s Guild?
Mri: Nope. Can I tell you my big idea now? It’s smart!
Fetohep of Khelt: You may.
She outlined it in great detail and waited for him to agree. However, Fetohep’s response was succinct.
Fetohep of Khelt: I will not do this for you, Mri.
Mri: What? Why? Stinky! Rude! It’s so nice! You’d be on television! And you have lots of old things! You’d love it!
Fetohep of Khelt: Be that as it may, I am not a Djinni. I do not ‘grant wishes’, nor am I interested in guiding any among the living outside of my kingdom. This is a matter that goes to the heart of Gnollkind.
Mri: Yes. So are you not friends with Gnolls? That’s racist. You’re racist.
Fetohep of Khelt: I am not. ‘Mri’, you misunderstand my point. What you suggest is intelligent, original, and has a chance of success even the most precocious of children would envy for such a scheme. However, I will not do it simply because it is righteous. Even if it is easy for me.
Mrsha’s brow wrinkled up. She sat there as Fetohep wrote on.
Fetohep of Khelt: This is a Gnoll issue. Gnolls must overcome their own trials. You are a Gnoll. You may petition me as a penpal, to act in some small way. But the whole of it? I leave that to you.
Mri: Me? By myself?
Fetohep of Khelt: Yes.
Mri: But I’m a child.
Fetohep of Khelt: You will always be one until the day you decide not to act as one. It need not be you alone. Think. When you have a request I will agree to, I will heed your words.
Then he left her alone. Mrsha punched the [Message] scroll, hurting her paw, and rolled around, crying silently.
Fetohep was a jerk after all! The biggest jerk, who was stingy because he could do things and didn’t! She saw Satar look at her as Gire exhaled.
“That’s too bad, Mri.”
Satar was done crying and looked exceptionally embarrassed to have done it in front of everyone. Yelroan, Adetr, and Rose saw Mrsha waving her [Message] scroll to show the others.
Look at my brilliant idea! It would work! But he didn’t want to do anything.
Satar blinked down at Mrsha’s plan. Her eyes widened.
“Mri? That’s brilliant! Of course there would be—oh. He won’t do it?”
Crestfallen, the [Storyteller] read Fetohep’s replies. However…as Mrsha threw a tantrum, she saw what the undead king meant. It made her fur rise slightly.
Gnolls must overcome their own trials.
That spoke to her. Mrsha didn’t understand, perhaps because she was so used to a certain Human solving people’s issues. Fetohep—King Fetohep of Khelt understood something about pride.
“It might not be the same, but I could at least…ask.”
Satar’s mumble caught Mrsha’s attention. The girl looked up as Gire picked up her little friend.
“Ask who? Fetohep of Khelt is the most influential person I know too. How do you know him again, Mri?”
The Gnoll shook her head mutely. It was a long story. Satar didn’t know any [Kings] herself, but…
“I don’t have to ask a foreign [King]. What if I…wrote to someone? Like a [Librarian]. Or—well, it doesn’t hurt to ask, does it? All it takes is a few silver at most, and you can send a [Message] to anyone in the world.”
The problem was most people wouldn’t answer it. It couldn’t hurt to ask, though. Mrsha’s ears perked up.
“Who could I ask, though? Um…um…is there a [Librarian] in the—uh—a nation in Terandria? What would that be?”
Desonis? I know Earl Altestiel too!
“How do you—nevermind. What if you wrote a letter to him?”
Mrsha scratched at her head. That sounded like work! Gire gently pulled at one of Mrsha’s ears.
“It’s not that much work, milady du etiquette, is it? And you know how to be fancy.”
My paw hurts when I write too much. And it gets inky.
Mrsha sulked, still in a pet about Fetohep. Gire tossed her up and down.
“What if I wrote for you?”
Mrsha the Dictator—no, wait, that sounded bad—thought about it and brightened up. She nodded eagerly.
“I’ll help too! I just…I don’t know an Earl Altestiel. I need a book of current nations. Um. Oh no, I need to find someone who I can [Message]. Not the rulers or leaders, obviously.”
Satar felt that frustration of not knowing exactly what to do. She’d have to grab a book, maybe bother a [Mage] who could send [Messages], and the cost—!
Mrsha plopped a huge bag of gold on the table. She could send [Messages] all day. However, the contact details?
Yelroan’s sunglasses blinded Satar.
“Exactly how many people did you need to talk to? Because I have a list of contact details for almost every major nation and group. Plus, the Plain’s Eye tribe knows who to actually talk to if you want a response.”
Satar turned to look at him, and Rose waved a hand, mostly because she wanted to be helpful.
“I could write to Drassi! And I just bet Joseph could help; he can run down to Pallass’ library.”
Adetr scratched at his head, still confused.
“I don’t see how this will all help. But I can help you send the [Messages]. There’s a group of [Mages] who do it for coin. Steelfur can reserve a few.”
Satar looked at the others and then bent over a piece of parchment.
“We could just ask them all. Even if he’s not willing to help do it all, Mrsha, can you write back to Fetohep? Be nice!”
Mrsha sighed, but with Gire translating her fast sign-language into writing, she began to ‘dictate’ a [Message], which was a lot of fun. Adetr trotted off to grab a Human [Mage], Rose began scribbling a note to Drassi, and Satar composed her own first letter to a [Librarian] in…
“Where should I start? Who would have what we want?”
She turned to Yelroan, and the [Mathematician] smiled.
“You can bother as many people as you want. From experience, I would guess that a rich company or nation has the best shot. Why not the Forgotten Wing Company?”
Mrsha’s ears perked up, but she decided not to interject as Satar stammered.
“The—the—you think they’ll respond?”
“It’s worth a shot, yes? Oh—I have a contact for you. [Strategist] Perorn and—wait, don’t send it to [Chamberlain] Peclir. Not a good move. But send it to…let me grab a file.”
He headed off, and Satar began to write. She took her time on the first letter, but she got into the rhythm of it soon enough. Even if only one of the fifty [Messages] she sent got through…then a hundred…
Gire was massaging her paw, but Satar had no cramping, so she wrote on. It was an exciting gambit, like throwing a letter in a bottle into the sea. It was unlikely it would bear fruit, in her mind.
However, she hadn’t realized just how astute Fetohep’s observation was. Mrsha might have been young, and she certainly lacked for table manners, the ability to dress herself, and she was distressingly bad at math, much to Yelroan’s chagrin.
But a certain [Princess] had used many, many [Flawless Attempts] to hammer in the very foundation of proper formality in letter-writing.
Arguably worse, she had instilled the very best…worst…of Calanferian traditions in Mrsha’s mind. Gire laughed about it, and Satar didn’t read Mrsha’s letters, so she had no idea the vengeful Gnoll girl wrote her letters along these lines.
Dear Sir or Madam (Gire, write in their name and titles!),
I, Satar Silverfang, would humbly like to request your attention on a certain matter which I have corresponded with His Majesty, Fetohep of Khelt upon, and I believe Drassi of Wistram News Network is also considering a television segment regarding said issue. I would deeply appreciate a letter at soonest convenience, as the Meeting of Tribes is ending, and it behooves me to bring this matter forwards as an issue of highest importance among my people.
It may be that you have an object in your possession that may help my inquiry into the history of the Gnoll peoples. To be precise, I am referring to…
Satar felt a flash of hope as she wrote nearly a hundred letters—and she thanked Mrsha, who helped bankroll the entire affair. Adetr, who mainly got paper, convinced the [Mages] to send so many spells and refilled ink pots because his handwriting was atrocious and he couldn’t spell. Rose ended up going with Feshi—who’d waited for everyone at the Weatherfur camp for nearly an hour—to come back with food, and Feshi herself joined in after realizing what they were about.
She felt like she had done something! Then…Satar closed her eyes and realized no level ups were coming. She’d already gotten to Level 25, of course, but she’d thought maybe after all that writing…?
No. No levels for all her hard work. Mainly because she’d been writing letters, not a story.
So she rolled over and tried to sleep, despondent. Why would anyone respond? She was just Satar and…
The Gnoll girl went to sleep, in the particular expectation of nothing tomorrow but disappointment and silence. Because she had never seen anything marvelous happen except between the covers of a book. Those were stories.
Throughout the night, an undead king from ages of yore when the dead ruled the living did not sleep. Six hundred years old, a mayfly in immortal years but heir to one of the great kingdoms of Chandrar, Fetohep of Khelt sat upon his throne and considered one thing.
“They make much of the blinding ego of Dragons. The arrogance of Drakes. The wrath of gentle men, the enmity of Dullahans. Worst of all, it would appear, is the pettiness of little children.”
[Message] after [Message] flashed upon the dozens of scrolls surrounding him, all asking for a polite confirmation that, yes, this [Message] was genuine? Was there a plan to…? Would he like to speak with Grand Magus Eldavin now or later? Wistram News Network calling. Was this in relation to—?
A little girl did this. One who knew how to name-drop his name into the ears of the high and mighty.
“Calanfer. The Kingdom of the ‘Eternal Throne’ has changed markedly from its original ruler’s inception.”
Fetohep would have had a headache if such luxuries were afforded the undead. He looked at the chess board he’d set up with Mrsha’s last game. Despite all her help, a lone king-piece sat surrounded by his pawns. Fetohep looked at Mrsha’s personal request to him.
In the darkness, the Revenant smiled. Well enough for a child’s effort. He rose and gave the children’s plan a little nudge.
They had done something today. Each of the Gnolls and singular Human could rest easy, even if it might not come to anything, even if that good feeling didn’t last. They tried. They made friends. They slept well.
All save for one.
He didn’t sleep. Chieftain Xherw found him with his head in his paws.
“Yelroan? Is something amiss?”
The [Mathematician] looked up. He spoke carefully, hanging his head.
“I…can’t make sense of it, Chieftain.”
“About what? Your investigation? Are you done, already?”
The [Chieftain] looked sharply at Yelroan and the [Mathematician] nodded. He pushed something across to Xherw and the Gnoll saw a jumble of numbers.
“Oh, facts, figures about Qwera. I can’t make them add up, Chieftain. I’m afraid…I can’t help you. I keep trying, but I can’t create a direct link between her being a Doombringer and…”
Yelroan shrugged, speaking very carefully. He tapped the paper with the confusing list of numbers. Qwera’s birth date, income, money earned, locations visited represented as coordinates.
Xherw studied the paper, but briefly. He shook his head, sighing hard.
“If you cannot, I believe you.”
“I’ll keep working, Chieftain! I don’t want to doubt your intuition, it’s just as a [Mathematician]…”
Yelroan trailed off. He gestured at the paper and knew every word he spoke was true. There was no mathematical way to make all the numbers about Qwera’s life line up into something that spelled Doombringer.
Math wasn’t silly. Xherw just smiled.
“I can be wrong. It may be she’s just…lucky. Keep working, but we will need you for this Earth-matter. Thank you, Yelroan.”
The Gnoll nodded and sat back down. He stared at the closed tent flaps, then began shaking uncontrollably. But he did it. He…
He wondered what Merish, his friend, was doing. Merish was a good Gnoll. A warrior.
Had he tried to kill that little girl? Yelroan sat in the darkness…then he pulled out more lists. More information, since he had insisted they keep such data. Older information too. It was time to begin another investigation. A better one.
He didn’t know what he’d find, or even what he was looking for beyond the obvious. Only…that he thought, now…it was there.
The next day, Satar was fast asleep when a Gnoll landed on her. Cers hit Satar, went flying as she yelped and rolled over, and jumped on her again.
“Cers! I’m going to hurt you! Leave me be!”
“Satar! Satar! What did you do? What did you do?”
Something had riled her younger brother up even more than normal. Satar raised a fist, but then saw how excited he was.
“What? Has the Meeting of Chieftains decided something?”
Blearily, the Gnoll girl stared at him. The Gnoll cub stopped, looked at her, and a gleeful expression filled his face.
“You don’t know? Satar! You’re on the scrying orb! Satar, what did you do? You’re in trouble! Cetrule’s looking for you!”
Satar sat up fast, blinking.
“What? Don’t lie, Cers. That’s a stupid lie.”
“Am not! Everyone’s watching! You’re in trouble—”
He raced out of her tent. Satar looked after him, heart suddenly pounding wildly. Did that have anything to do with…? But surely not—! They had just been letters! Why the scrying orb? Wait. Wait. Had Rose said she was writing to Drassi?
What did she write?
Satar stumbled out of her tent a second before Cetrule came running to find her. The [Shaman of Purity] was panting. He had something in his paw.
She looked at him in confusion and then at the orb he was holding. And she heard her name echoing from it.
Across the Meeting of Tribes, as Gnolls tuned into the scrying orbs for the news and any major events in what was rapidly becoming a habit, the siege of Reim, on its sixth day, was interrupted by a special call in.
Fetohep of Khelt had begun his address and claimed the right to occupy the world’s attention in the following manner.
“I am Fetohep of Khelt. I have a moment of import to communicate. You are free to ignore me. At your peril.”
He was talking to Drassi and Noass. The [Reporter] and [Commentator] were listening as the Revenant-king spoke.
“Yes. Satar Silverfang, I believe. A…penpal of mine of whom I have found myself regularly corresponding brought up the issue. Naturally, it was within my vast purview, and I have taken it upon myself to answer the request in part.”
Satar stopped breathing when she heard her name. Cers touched her arm, then jumped as she inhaled.
“Gnolls. Gnolls have now come to Chandrar, and that was the cause of the King of Destruction’s war with Belchan and Jecrass. I listened to your commentary, Noass of Pallass.”
It was amazing that Fetohep didn’t laugh, and pronounced the Drake’s name so seriously. The Drake shifted uneasily.
“Er, yes, Your Majesty?”
“I found it inaccurate. You speak as if Gnolls came to Chandrar for the first time. As if one of their great [Archmages] did not hail from Chandrar itself. This question about Gnolls practicing magic could have been resolved by simply reading a book. Ah, but I am told that such books are passing rare in Izril. I communicated my surprise that the existence of Gnolls across the world was in such doubt. Even Feshi Weatherfur, who bears one of the Diamond Swords of Serept, did not have sufficient proof.”
“Satar, Satar, what did you do?”
Cetrule was shaking her urgently. Satar burst out.
“I don’t know! I didn’t do anything. We just sent letters, but I didn’t tell Fetohep to do anything. He refused to help at first! Why’s he on the news? It had to be—Mri!”
There was only one person who could even possibly be responsible for this. Cetrule looked around, and the smuggest little girl in the world poked her head out of her tent to look at Satar, confirming Satar’s suspicions. Mrsha’s satisfaction lasted only about five seconds until Krshia stormed out of her tent.
“Mrsh—Mri! You are in big trouble!”
Off the little girl ran, helter-skelter, but it was far too late. Fetohep of Khelt was still speaking.
“Feshi Weatherfur. I have no doubt you are listening to my address.”
“She could be asleep.”
Noass pointed out reasonably. Drassi elbowed him; annoying Fetohep didn’t seem wise. The golden undead’s eyes flashed.
“Then she will hear my words. Feshi Weatherfur, do you doubt your kind’s boast that you came across the world? You are a talented [Strategist]. But you are young. Investigate your possessions. Learn. Hold the dagger above your head. And call for Dorrer of Khelt.”
In the Weatherfur camp, all of the Gnolls turned to Feshi. The Gnoll [Strategist] paled. Then—at Fetohep’s words, raised the dagger over her head. She spoke.
“Dorrer of Khelt?”
The dagger flashed. Black diamond opened a portal to somewhere else, and something rose from the ground.
An undead. A servant in undeath, like the Minotaur champion of old. Like the other warriors bound to serve the wielder and Khelt eternal.
Of course, Feshi knew she could summon warriors to fight for her. But she had never thought…the Gnoll looked down and stepped back as a figure rose.
Like the others, the mummified corpse was so old it had lost almost all of its fur. It was bone in places. Yet even bones revealed the original form. And this warrior, armored in ancient golden metal and holding a spear and shield?
This was a Gnoll. A Gnoll? A Gnoll had once lived in Khelt? Feshi turned, and Fetohep of Khelt had his servants bring in a tapestry so everyone could see it.
“This hangs on the Serept-era hallways, quite appropriately. I had it brought out that I might illustrate my point.”
He smiled with modest satisfaction at his joke. Everyone looked at the illustration, and Drassi gasped.
It was one of those classic pictures of overwhelming victory. A half-Giant king—Serept himself—stood, pointing down at his enemies who were fleeing or surrendering in a rather craven manner. His trusted vassals, mostly half-Giants, were arrayed around him, each bearing a Diamond Sword of Serept. The same dagger that Feshi carried was in a Garuda’s grip.
But look. Among the vast—and it was a vast tapestry, maybe five hundred paces from end to end, because a half-Giant had commissioned it to be properly big—there was one tiny figure. Just one, but visible amid the scene of operadic triumph.
A Gnoll stood upon a hill of his foes. He was armored in the same way as the undead standing before Feshi, raising a blade in triumph.
“Just one Gnoll. Rather…kitschy. Tapestries are largely exaggerations.”
Fetohep actually made his eye-flames do something like a roll as Noass broke the silence.
“Unsurprisingly, you fail to take my point, Noass of Pallass. Behold. In the era of Serept, a Gnoll warrior was vaunted enough to be represented among Serept’s finest vassals. I happen to know Dorrer of Khelt traveled from Izril to Khelt and won Serept’s favor. It is a small, but noted passage in The Hammer of Giants, one of the many biographies of Serept published in Khelt’s library. It is my will that Satar of Tribe Silverfang receive it. She has no stories of Gnolls that remain in ink and paper? She will have one.”
Feshi stared as Fetohep lifted the book he intended to send across the sea—and handed it to a Courier ready to take it to a boat chartered to make a direct delivery. Such was Fetohep’s largesse.
Satar was sitting now, with her mother and Silverfangs watching. If that were it, it would already have been a small, but special moment. A book from Fetohep himself! So ancient! She’d probably level from reading it.
But that was not all. Fetohep did not know the meaning of restraint. He thought he did, and he knew the dictionary definition, but nothing about the undead king ever indicated he could put the word into practice.
“This is one example from Khelt. Now, I cede my time upon the orb to a ruler of surpassing respect. From Eternal Khelt, we salute the skies and the Shield Kingdom of Qualvekkaras, the Kingdom of the Winds. Sapki Makhita of the Garuda, I salute you.”
Fetohep made a complex gesture to imitate a wing-arm, and both Drakes on television gulped as they realized they’d have to pronounce that.
Then Fetohep vanished, and a Garuda appeared in a shower of trumpets and song. She stood upon a cliff, the clear skies behind her, and her royal guard bowed in a flash of feathers and armor.
Someone who knew how to make an entrance. And, forewarned by Fetohep, Makhita used her time to capture the eye. Nor did she waste time.
“In the days when Gnolls lived upon Chandrar, the greatest of them who raced across ground and sky came to us. When Fetohep of Khelt asked if her story remained, I laughed. Of course we remember her! Few species born without wings ever learned to fly without artifacts or magic alone. We have stories and books with her name.”
She turned and, with a flourish, produced a tome that looked like it was a well-worn novel.
The Gnoll Who Flew.
Somewhere, the Flying Gnoll of Pallass fell over in a dead faint. Satar nearly fell over as the Sapki of the Shield Kingdom of Chandrar lifted her head.
Her feathers were white. Because, to Garuda, that was special, even royal. Mrsha stared up at her as Makhita spoke. Not in the royal tones, but almost conversationally.
“I grew up reading stories of her! I would wager many rulers of Qualvekkaras did! We have books of her and her stories. Other Gnolls too! The thought that the tales of Arculen Jawbreaker were lost—I myself will pledge to send a copy of our stories to Izril. Although it may be simpler just to have a [Scribe] copy it. But I will send our tales to the Gnolls of Izril.”
“And who is this flying Gnoll?”
Drassi leaned forwards, and Satar’s fur began to rise of its own accord. It couldn’t be. But wasn’t it right there, in one of the most famous songs ever written and sung? The white-feathered Garuda looked at Drassi in shock and then threw her head back and caw-laughed. So did her retainers.
“I didn’t even say! I thought everyone would know her! She was the [Great Chieftain of the Skies], and she flew higher than most Garuda ever dreamed. Her name was—”
The Gnolls whispered it. The Gnoll who took her tribe into the clouds. The Sapki looked around, beaming.
“She came to us to learn to fly! Well, of course she did. Imagine if she’d been taught by Drakes! She’d have crashed before she got halfway up!”
All the Garuda exploded with laughter and slapped each other with their wings. Noass opened his mouth—and Makhita looked up.
“Ah, but I’m wasting time. Who’s next? Um—ah, yes. It’s written right here. Gorgon Lixctoria.”
The image changed, and a Gorgon appeared—or rather, one slitted eye. Noass nearly fell out of his seat, and Drassi recoiled. The Gorgon boomed as a plethora of Lizardfolk clamored to get into the shot.
“Of course we had Gnolls. We have books of how they explored the Dyed Lands with the first of us. Or do you mean older? They came across the sea in ages past. Gnolls, who lived across this land. We were sorry when they left—we didn’t do it. Blame the Centaurs and Dullahans.”
She held up a book and brandished it, before one of the Lizardmen raced onto the scrying orb. One of them produced a ring and tried to kneel down as he spoke rapidly.
“Drassi, will you marry m—”
The Gorgon slapped him out of frame with her tail so fast they never heard the rest. And she was the last person Fetohep had prepared. But, of course, she was hardly the last.
“Gnolls? We had them. Obviously. There are records of Gnoll-[Knights]. You’d think they’d be called [Fur Knights] or something, but apparently that was a slur back in the day.”
A Terandrian [Historian] did his best to explain, but the energetic King of Avel was the one to use the unfortunate appellation, jostling for his screen time.
Satar said nothing. She just listened. And she looked. Not just at the stories each nation had…
At their books. The [Bow King] raised it triumphantly.
It wasn’t all about them. Some books were, but the others? It was just a single passage, or a side-character. But there they were.
We were here. Gnolls. They were in the other species’ stories. Heroes and villains and helpers, cunning tricksters and stalwart friends. More and more nations began cracking books open. Even nations that Satar had never heard of.
A Dullahan wearing what looked like coral armor from an island pointed to a library of a hundred books.
“We have a hundred books in our library. Of the stories with histories or adventures, over sixty have Gnolls. We counted. They’re here.”
“Well—of course. We have stories with Gnolls too, you know. Lots of Gnolls. We just don’t go waving them about.”
Noass tried to bluster. The Dullahan looked at him and frowned.
“Shut up, Pallass.”
They were there. Not just Gnolls…white Gnolls. Some of the pictures on the books definitely showed Gnolls with white fur—but Satar didn’t know what the books contained. It didn’t matter—later, she’d read everything anyone wanted to give her. Who turned down free books?
…Unless they were bad books, of course. But these? These were their history.
We were there. And they remember. Mrsha watched the scrying orb and knew this made up for all the missed dessert in the world.
Mri: Good work, old guy. You’re old.
Fetohep of Khelt: I am aware.
Satar was less sardonic. She was crying again. She saw her people across the books of the world. And not from their perspective. Other species wrote of them. Critically, complimentary—but in such ways that you couldn’t deny that they had been there and done great things.
She saw the world differently, and all because they had stood there and told her the truth. She looked around and saw the longing in even Cers’ eyes. Cers, who didn’t like reading.
He wanted to know those stories. If only they could know those stories…
Maybe we’ll know the truth behind Doombringers. See it.
Someone had tried to erase the history of Gnolls, and they had done a thorough job, especially with a certain Wyrm accidentally aiding them at one point in history. But they couldn’t erase everything and burn every book.
And that truth would set everything right. If any descendants of the original conspirators were still trying to hide the truth, this was a very unhappy day for them.
It was then, looking at this display of goodwill from people eager to give Gnolls something, however small, and stick it to the Drakes, that Satar realized what the Meeting of Tribes was missing.
She looked at Inkar, holding hands with Tkrn. The least monstrous person you could imagine to represent Earth. Rose too, come to it.
Adetr knew that. But still, he feared what he’d seen. Like Mrsha, in a way, Doombringers were a nightmare if all you knew were the Retellings. But if you looked at Mrsha, lying bloated after too many bites of tuna or rolling down a hill with Gire?
Could you see a monster?
Yelroan knew the answer, but Satar had no idea of what he had found. Or whom he now feared.
As more texts with Gnolls were unveiled and Noass’ name was made fun of at least a dozen times, which was bordering cruelty, Satar turned away. Because she had an idea. The only question was—could it be done?
Surely. They had to try.
Back to the Meeting of Tribes that morning. The [Chieftains] didn’t get to watch their achievements reflected in the literature of the world. They were tired of dark revelations.
Scared by the prospect of another world. A people they couldn’t comprehend.
Truly couldn’t. Adetr had watched Rose’s movies, and she’d realized something when he had ducked when he thought something was coming towards him.
The first Humans who saw movies, like a simple clip of a train coming their way, had ducked and gone for cover. They had been uncritical viewers incapable of that level of abstraction to understand it was simply an image because they had never seen the like before.
In the same way, Gnolls had no reference for a skyscraper. They imagined a tall building, but even that was largely foreign to Plains Gnolls.
It truly was hard for them to think of Earth and all too easy to understand the worst of them. Just like, frankly, Earth would fear a world where something like A’ctelios Salash just lay buried in the sand or Crelers roamed.
It cut both ways. Yet the point was not to cut. Another species—Drakes—could react by making a giant wall or reaching for a sword.
Not her people. Krshia Silverfang had wanted, had believed that they would be better than that. She argued desperately, alongside a few other voices like Torishi, but she was outnumbered. It was not that they were fools or bad people. They had simply seen betrayal and darkness too soon.
They needed something else.
So—as the Meeting of Chieftains began to swing one way, someone interrupted it. The guards at the tents raised their spears, but warily, remembering Ferkr. They took one look at who was coming their way, put up their spears, stepped aside, and threw open the tent flaps.
“Hold. I say, hold. Before we vote upon Earth and what happens—hold. For what we lack in perspective. You have not heard the children of Earth.”
Akrisa petitioned the [Chieftains]. Werri snorted.
“Some of us have talked to them. Will it change our minds, to hear one of them speak? One Human is not all. Just like the King of Destruction is one man—we understand there is good and evil, Akrisa Silverfang.”
“But you do not understand it.”
A voice rang from the opening at the entrance to the Meeting of Chieftains. As the Gnolls turned to look up, they saw someone standing there.
No one had noticed because she’d let someone else take over, but someone hadn’t been there to lead the Meeting of Chieftains.
Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh had been absent. Now…she stood there. Akrisa half-rose and made a choked sound. Not because of Theikha—but because of who stood with her.
Satar Silverfang was shaking so hard it looked like there were two of her. Yet she stood by Theikha’s side. The [Shaman of Tribe and Plain] was holding her staff and dressed in the full regalia of her office.
In clothing not much different from Satar’s, honestly. Dyed and worn…but she had put them on for this moment.
And Satar and Theikha were not the only ones who stood there. When Satar had proposed the idea, she had known that executing it would not fall to her. She hadn’t a fraction of what that would require. Satar had thought, recalled something her new friends had said that had a common link, and gone to each one.
They had all agreed, but even together, they doubted it would work. Satar hadn’t known either. There was no guarantee you could just…make a miracle.
So she had gone to the greatest Gnoll she knew, the [Shaman] who had lived over a century and a half without a drop of immortality in her veins.
Shaman Theikha. The [Shaman] had heard her, her eyes had crinkled up, and she had placed a paw on Satar’s shoulder.
“You are the future we need, Satar Silverfang. Yes, it will work.”
“But the power…we don’t know how.”
Theikha had laughed softly. She had looked around at the others and smiled.
“You are in the Meeting of Tribes, Satar. At the heart of a people, gathered together in strength, even in this age. Believe anything is possible, and it will be so.”
This is how they came to the Meeting of Chieftains. They met each other, looking the others up and down, as nervous as could be.
Satar Silverfang, of course, to explain it. To take responsibility if it failed and see what would happen if it succeeded. Journal in hand, quill poised to write.
Then was Rose, because she had to be there. Rose and Inkar, who were the heart of it. But they didn’t have the Skills.
Feshi did. Feshi Weatherfur, the Diamond Dagger of Serept at her side, turned and nodded to the Gnoll made of metal, who stopped, so heavy he left a trail of sunken footprints where he walked. Adetr Steelfur.
Mrsha ran over to them, and Gire picked her up, handed her to Tkrn, and Mrsha was captured. Because she would not be joining them. It was dangerous and besides—they didn’t need a Mrsha. She turned as the third Gnoll who most certainly had to be there walked forwards.
“Great Shaman. Are you sure you’ll need…me? This is old magic.”
Yelroan, the [Mathematician], looked nervously at Theikha. The old Gnoll chuckled.
“And since when has math not been old, young man? You have a Skill, just as Satar said.”
“But can we combine them? It doesn’t work like that. It’s about chance. Luck, working hard, and a confluence—”
Adetr demanded, but Theikha lightly tapped his forehead with her staff.
“That’s how you think it works, Adetr Steelfur. Which is fair. Now let me tell you how it truly is.”
She walked forwards, adjusting her [Shaman]’s outfit. Satar had helped her put it on. She had thought it mattered, but Theikha had just laughed.
“There’s no grand magic in these clothes, Satar. Nor would that necessarily help. It’s just so I look the part. And that matters.”
Now, she took the staff and walked out of her tent. She had called for the Gnolls, of course, but she had also prevailed on Cetrule, Gire herself—and others for help.
Because this was more than Theikha, Gire, Feshi, Adetr, Satar, and Yelroan. Six Gnolls stood inside the tent as Mrsha tried to kick Tkrn in the crotch and make him let go. Rose and Inkar walked over to Theikha as she gestured for them.
“We’re supposed to be there already. Are we going to be late?”
“You are going to the Meeting of Chieftains. As am I. Late? Satar, we are [Shamans]. We are always perfectly on time. Now…follow me.”
Theikha winked one huge, brown eye, and left her tent. Satar saw the others follow, and was last to go. She walked outside and stopped.
Stopped dead in her tracks, like the others, because she had seen many great things at the Meeting of Tribes—but always as an observer. Right now? She was at the heart of it all.
Gaarh Marsh stood around Theikha’s tent. Not one Gnoll, or a dozen, or even a fraction of the tribe. Nor even a thousand solemn faces, brown eyes shining behind fur adorned with gifts of the wetlands. Nor ten thousand. So many stood, silent, not a whisper passing as insects landed on fur, and animals like little packrats bounded forwards to watch, eyes too-intelligent, a sea of faces.
Such a stillness in the air that Satar’s heart juddered in her chest. She looked around and it seemed like there was no limit to them. This was Gaarh Marsh’s people.
All of them. Every Gnoll had come, forming a huge, vast crowd, parted on two sides. Leaving a wide walkway, positioning themselves, holding children and shorter Gnolls up so they could see one Gnoll who had asked them to do this for her.
They did it. Not for anyone. Not even for their Chieftain. But for her? Shaman Theikha?
Of course they did.
Other Gnolls in the Meeting of Tribes had seen the strange gathering. They saw Shaman Theikha emerge from her tent—then the sea of Gnolls forming a line straight to the Meeting of Chieftains’ tent.
Not just Gaarh Marsh. Oh, no. Ekhtouch was barely a drop in the bucket, but they stood there. Silverfang too. So too did a number of Plain’s Eye, though they had no idea what was happening. Longstalker’s Fang, Greenpaw…
Six tribes looked at Theikha as she walked forwards, the others following her. Just…walked. Head held high, pace measured.
The younger [Shaman], the [Storyteller], stumbled a bit as she walked through that ocean of gazes. She did very well, but for all her training, she was not prepared for this.
Satar hadn’t known how hard it was to simply…walk in front of so many people. To do it normally was one thing, but to do it in front of countless thousands? Yet Theikha did it, and as she passed, the first ranks of Gnolls slowly sank to their knees. They knelt—or sat—but they did it for her. Theikha smiled at them, and Mrsha, still in Tkrn’s arms, saw something familiar.
Something she had seen only once. The first Gnolls—[Shamans]—reached up for something and then they handed it to the next Gnoll. Those Gnolls took it, just for a second, and handed it to the next Gnolls.
It was invisible. But Mrsha thought she could see it, almost. Something. Passed from one Gnoll to the next. Small, but growing. And there were…hundreds of these things. Passed along.
“To create great magic is very simple, you know, children.”
The other Gnolls and Humans started and looked at Theikha as she passed along. The Gnoll turned her head, smiling, speaking almost conversationally. But this moment was anything but casual.
It was growing, in a wave, moving across the Meeting of Tribes, and now every Gnoll was watching. Something completely different than Eldavin’s great ritual, but something the Archmage of Memory would have recognized and respected beyond all else.
Theikha went on.
“To work grand magic, to do great things together is difficult and simple. It takes the heart to trust. The love to place yourself in another’s paws. Such difficult things. But to combine your Skills is easy.”
She turned, and her plain staff of wood set with a simple crystal rose, to show them the tribes passing along their magic. The countless faces, lives, all looking at them.
“All it takes is this.”
It was growing heavier, as each Gnoll passed it along. Heavier…yet still lighter than air. The Gnolls looked up, and Satar saw their gazes change.
Many Gnolls could demand they do what they did. But only a handful in the entire world could walk along like so. Theikha raised her voice and asked them one question as she lifted her staff overhead.
“Do you believe me, my people? Believe that I will create great wonders for you?”
The answer was in the burden they passed along, merging into one thing. The greatest [Shaman] carried it now, letting Gnolls touch it. It was too heavy, too vast to carry unaided.
It divided further, until only a few Gnolls were left. Then—Theikha reached the top of the hill. Six [Shamans], one from each tribe, bowed deeply to her and lifted something in their paws.
There was nothing there. There was…everything there. Theikha took it from them and threw her head back. Then she motioned to the Gnolls and Humans to follow her.
That was what the guards saw. That was why they let her in.
Now, Theikha walked slowly down the amphitheater, passing by Chieftains and Gnolls who were every bit as famous as she. They all turned to her and watched.
Satar could not take her eyes off Theikha. She still walked with that measured tread, but now it seemed like the [Shaman] was walking through the world as if it were mist. She was the only real thing in the world. When she looked back to smile at Satar—her eyes!
Oh, her eyes were filled with a thousand shining stars of light. Like the reaches of space. The air around her glimmered with magic. It was all contained in her chest.
The great [Shaman] of the Gnolls stopped in the center of the floor and turned. Rose and Inkar tripped after her. There came Gire, looking up at Firrelle, Satar, watching, as three Gnolls halted.
Yelroan, who looked at Xherw and smiled at his [Chieftain]’s surprise. Feshi looked at Torishi and saw her aunt beaming proudly. Adetr looked up at Iraz and bowed his head.
“Gnolls of Izril! You have heard the revelations of another world. They are terrifying. The world is changing. You fear what they have done and might do—rightly. I will never say that the world has been kind to us. Yet—as a young Gnoll pointed out to me—we lack perspective. It is too hard to look through another’s eyes.”
Theikha spoke to the assembled Gnolls, and one of them, Akrisa, almost guessed what was intended. She looked down at Satar and saw Theikha gesture.
“A great magic took place here once, to reveal the truth. Now—I hope to work one again. For only good, this time. For understanding. Permit me this moment. Rose, Inkarr. Take my paws.”
She reached out, and the staff floated upwards around her, curling her body as it defied gravity. Inkar and Rose gulped, then both young women reached out and took Theikha’s hands. They gasped as if they were touching the font of some immense power.
A Giant’s hands. That was how she looked to Adetr. But the [Battle Seeker] slowly looked at Rose and saw her glance at him.
“Will you try to see more than just death and battle?”
“I will try.”
He whispered and took her hand in his paws as gently as he could. On the other side, Feshi looked at Inkar.
“My teacher, the Titan of Baleros, always told me the world looks differently from where you stand. I want to see what he means.”
“Me too. I want to show you.”
They linked hands. Then was Yelroan. He hesitated. He looked at them.
“I can’t…I have math, but I have no understanding of the rest. I don’t know people as well. I’ve been a fool and blind.”
He looked at Theikha. She didn’t respond. A current was running around them. Feshi nodded.
“I want to see. I can provide understanding. I have seen many peoples.”
“I have seen war. But I do not—I cannot make sense of the rest. You can. But I cannot understand it all.”
Adetr hesitated as well. Theikha’s head rose. It was incomplete. They were missing something.
So a giant girl stepped forward and Gire captured Yelroan’s paw in hers. She took Feshi’s paw and looked around.
“I can understand it. Whatever they made—I can understand it. Whatever you can do, I can do better. Trust me.”
She smiled, that arrogant [Paragon].
“We’re still missing something.”
Theikha’s voice was dreamy. Not a [Chieftain] moved. Not a Gnoll made a sound. The [Shaman]’s head turned, searching. She did not have to look far.
Satar started. The [Storyteller] saw the [Shaman] nod.
“Satar. Join us.”
“But I don’t have a Skill…”
“We have logic and math and understanding. We have the children of another world. But that is not enough. We need someone to fill in the gaps. Stand with us, Satar.”
So the [Storyteller] walked forwards like she was in a dream. She took Yelroan’s other paw and Adetr’s. One by one, they lowered their heads.
“I call upon something greater than each of us. I am [Shaman of Tribe and Plains]. I summon the magic of the tribes. My magic is [Magic of a Thousand Souls].”
Rose gasped, and Inkar lifted her gaze upwards to Eska and Honored Deskie watching her. Rose looked to Adetr. The [Battle Seeker]’s jaw was clenched. As if fighting for every word, to show them, for good or ill, he spoke. It was so hard—then he met Rose’s gaze and spoke.
“See what I have beheld. Our end. And…something else. Show me. [Vision of Greatest Battle].”
He added his other Skills into it, everything he could. Next, Feshi. She whispered.
“[Visualize Outcomes]. Let us see this world apart and know what it is!”
Yelroan lowered his head. His sunglasses flashed in the light now pooling around them. Shaman Theikha’s magic, shining like countless stars.
“[Visualize Data Set]. Let’s see who they really are, not just numbers.”
Gire joined them, her voice strong and level, but quivering with something she couldn’t process herself.
“[Superiority Made Manifest].”
She looked at Theikha and gasped. The magic ran around the ring of hands and people. Satar felt it building, but like a circuit with no end, an infinite loop, there was no outlet.
They knew what they wanted. Theikha had the power, each a piece of the puzzle. But there was no answer. The magic built—until Satar thought she would scream.
Maybe she was. Adetr’s mouth was open, and Feshi was silently howling. Yelroan’s eyes were wide, and Rose and Inkar were looking up.
At a vision of their home. But it was only what they knew. Satar’s soul cried out, looking at them.
If only I could see what you see! If only I could tell your story perfectly!
If only my words would one day reach into every heart and deliver meaning like that. It was too easy to be confused by poor words, by other people who couldn’t show you what they meant.
If…if it were possible. Let it be now.
Theikha was struggling to carry the magic with her. The others fought to share her burden, but still—it wouldn’t happen!
It was so close! Satar could see it, struggling to get out.
Why didn’t Theikha reach for it? The Gnoll was staggering, falling, failing. It was going away. It was right there in front of them. But not even Gire saw it. She was struggling to carry the weight of it all and failing.
Theikha looked up. Her eyes met Satar’s and her voice rose.
“Do it, Satar. Show us! Only you can.”
The [Storyteller] felt Yelroan’s paw tear away. Then Adetr’s. She looked at Theikha. And then—she reached out.
It was right there, trying to materialize. Something—an idea that had never been before. The Gnoll felt like every fraction of space was an eternity to reach across. But she had to see. It was not will, or courage—but simply curiosity.
She reached out and grabbed something. The other Gnolls were on their feet, and they saw it, for a moment.
It was…a book. Just a book. A book, shining with all the things written between them all. Written in magic, glowing. Satar looked at it and tried to lift the page.
It was there. She needed to see it. She would uncover the truth of the Doombringers. She would tell this story. And tell it right.
The truth of the world was not one fact. It was never one thing you could point to—but it was still truth. Satar gasped. She reached out, and with all of her might—
Turned that glowing page.
[Conditions Met: Archival Storyteller → Historian of the World Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Shaman removed.]
[Historian of the World Level 25!]
[Skill – Tribe: F—
All the shouting voices in her head, trying to tell her so many things, removing, changing—were silenced by the loudest one of all.
[Combination Skill — The World of You and Me created!]
It activated as Satar turned that wondrous page. She turned the page—
And the world vanished.
Akrisa looked around for her daughter, but she saw nothing at all. Then—everything. She jerked with surprise and looked around.
Krshia Silverfang, staring, also looked around wildly. She turned—and nearly fell over. The Gnoll woman had an odd dress on. Akrisa looked down for her daughter…and saw something in front of her.
It was…a tiramisu tart. On a plate of white porcelain, and she was sitting in one of those precarious stools which crashed over as Krshia overbalanced and went down.
Everyone who saw it winced, and someone hurried over.
“Are you alright, Ma’am?”
Someone helped Krshia get up. The Gnoll got to her feet, dizzy.
“I’m fine. I’m fine, thank you…”
She stopped and stared at a polite young man wearing a server’s uniform, but in bright, monochrome cloth, with the little cafe’s emblem sewn onto it.
A young Human man. Akrisa stared at him and then around the cafe. Other diners looked at them. Her eyes fixed on a chalkboard where someone had spelled out all the food in what looked like…dollars?
She realized her clothing had changed too. She even had a handbag. Akrisa dug in it and found it was not a bag of holding but rather inconvenient. She pulled out green pieces of paper and stared at the number on them and the man staring back.
“What—where are we?”
Krshia staggered to her feet. The two Gnolls looked around—then caught sight of themselves in a mirror.
Two Human women stared back. Sisters. They looked around the cafe and then wandered out of it. They walked into the streets of a city and saw strange vehicles zooming past them. And everywhere they looked…
Were Humans. Most were going about their day. Some looked bored, or harassed, or angry or sad. Some were odd; others tried to blend in. There was a honking sound that made both Gnolls wince—and they looked overhead at a flying object that Krshia and Akrisa had only ever seen the wreckage of.
Akrisa stared up at a stoplight, and then Krshia pulled out her personal smartphone. She looked around at Humans.
Not at their best or worst. Not even caring about the two women. Someone in a giant fur-costume of a walking rat-thing moved past them. A Human, wearing it for reasons you could only guess at.
Humans at their weirdest. Humans at their finest. You could stop and talk to them, but they were probably busy.
Also, this was Los Angeles.
Inkar looked about and found she was lying on her back, staring up at the sky. She looked about and saw she was home. Home—and tears sprang to her eyes. There was no one around, though; she was in the middle of one of the rolling grasslands.
Only after a while did she see someone riding a horse around, poking it, checking the saddle, the gear. Chieftain Werri rode across the ground, looking up at the bright sky and laughing at how small it was.
Xherw jerked in his plane seat and tried to get up.
“Sir, stay seated until we’re at cruising altitude.”
A strange man in a uniform warned him. Ulcreziek looked about wildly as the two were crammed into tiny seats. Not even first class.
How did they know some things? It was like dream-logic. He knew the rules in vague, like ‘don’t walk into that street when the light is red’. However, seeing a traffic light was still a shock beyond shocks.
He looked upon Earth with fresh eyes, and everything else…fell to him. Yet he was not alone.
Adetr opened his eyes, and Rose was there. She was looking up at something.
“Come here, Adetr.”
The Gnoll looked around for Iraz and saw only Cetrule, the Gnoll tugging open a manhole to peek inside. Both Gnolls looked up as Rose pointed towards her house. She was trembling. Afraid of what was inside.
Longing to see it, if only for a moment.
Yelroan ran about the university until someone called for campus security. Elsewhere, Theikha collapsed into one of those handy massage chairs at the airport as Gire brought her a drink and everyone stared at the nine-foot tall woman. Someone tried to recruit her for their university basketball team.
It was only for a second. It was only for an hour. The Gnolls within the tent walked out of it early, or just left because it was too much. Some died. They died like a dreamer, and some woke shaking, running from the tent, and others clutched at their heads, overwhelmed by what they could not, would not comprehend.
It was a story, and it told itself across each person differently. Wonderfully, with great joy and sights they loved—others like a horror unfolding piece by piece, a nightmare and warning.
But they did see, and for every Gnoll that ran, a dozen stayed to talk, ask questions or just walk down a street. Others walked into a pub, had a drink, and decided they had Earth beat on beers. Or they checked the news, played games, found out what coffee tasted like when done right.
Even the terrible moments. Chieftain Orelighn of Greenpaw could not take his eyes off a Human without a home. Without anyone who would take his hand, alone among so many. He followed the Human around and watched. A steel and glass city with flaws in how they had made it.
“So they are not that much happier.”
Iraz Steelfur murmured to himself. He realized how blind he had been.
Two nations represented themselves for the Gnolls, Rose’s and Inkar’s. Beyond that, the world turned to mist, but the Gnoll had the most unpleasantly nonviolent experience of being crammed into a metal box with other people going to work. He could not imagine it was pleasant.
He looked around and saw no great warriors here. Or at least, not a nation of conquerors. Just people. Look at their miserable, empty faces. His tribe could lead them forwards and show them something better.
That was how they passed the time, all of the Gnolls who stayed.
Looking at Humans. Not sterling examples of the world, especially depending on where you landed. Far from perfect. Rude, or helpful, or surprisingly gracious. With odd customs and beliefs and far too much of an obsession with navels.
But people. Not monsters, running around with weapons, making war. They did make war and do terrible things. But…if ever their worlds should collide? If those lost children found their way to them—
The Tribes of Izril would not welcome them with walls or distrust. They would treat a people like a people, varied, strange. And the children?
They would protect the children and let them choose who they wanted to be.
That was wisdom. And Satar Silverfang looked around, as she sat in a movie theater. She walked around and saw the story she wanted to write. The story of the world, as a proper account, never unbiased, but proper and true.
The story of two worlds. So she looked around for a journal, found a pad of paper and a handy scribbling pen. She looked at it with a frown.
Satar had seen a keyboard for the first time and decided she was done with quills forever. Just as soon as she could figure out how to make a computer. She sat down…
And began to write.
Author’s Note: This was a big chapter. I have noticed–I tend to make my edited chapters the most ambitious, the toughest, and the grandest I can.
Not always in action. But I think it’s me pushing myself. If ever there was a reason to have editors…aside from the constant self-improvement? It’s that.
Writing is constantly trying to self-improve. And editors feel, to me, to be one way to continue to improve. I also felt like this was a stronger chapter, and the edits gave more nuance to one part at the end around Fetohep…
You’d have to read the draft to notice the difference. Suffice it to say, I’m glad I got it done, but wow. It’s a lot of words and I worked hard to get it done. It took a while to get edited because I was working on the Hectval arc and my vacation came up, but was it worth it?
Let me know. Hope you enjoyed this story about stories, and I’ll see you next chapter!
Satar – Interlude (Draft 1) can be read here.
Navah’s Editorial Letter can be read here:
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