They ran. The Gnolls of Liscor fled the Raskghar camp as Snatcher fought the Raskghar. Mrsha could hear Ceria shouting, hear the screams and snarls. But it was the howl that filled her. The Gnolls howled as they ran into the tunnels, fleeing. Some of the Raskghar gave chase, but the Gnolls ran. They ran into monsters, into traps, dead ends. Fleeing, howling, dying.
Free. Mrsha felt Elirr gasping, heard his lungs struggling as he ran with her in his arms. The Gnoll ran down a corridor. Neither he nor Mrsha knew where they were going. Neither one cared. She was a child, a cub from a plains tribe and he was a City Gnoll, far older. She had white fur. His was dark grey. But it didn’t matter. Right here, right now, they were both Gnolls. Mrsha howled and heard Elirr howl as well. The other Gnolls howled, sounding their locations.
Danger ahead. The Gnoll who cried out howled her death. Elirr hesitated and then ran left, down another tunnel. More Gnolls howled, calling out. The Raskghar were chasing them! And Mrsha heard the sounds of pursuit behind her.
They couldn’t catch her. Better that she be eaten by a monster than be caught and sacrificed. Better to step on a trap. Better—Mrsha held her wand tightly. She didn’t want to die. But at least she wouldn’t be alone. That was a terrible thing.
Elirr’s voice was cracked. He stopped as he came to another intersection. He and Mrsha stared ahead. Three passageways, one leading up, the other two going left and right. Something moved in the right passageway. Elirr ran left. Behind him there was a howl. But it wasn’t a Raskghar. Mrsha moved, shifting her head. She saw a shape bounding towards them, recognized the scent, the form.
Nokha. First of the awakened. Elirr gasped as Mrsha grabbed him tighter. He turned his head and ran faster. It wasn’t just Nokha—three other Raskghar were following. And by the sounds of it, at least a dozen more Raskghar were behind them. So many! They were all coming for her, Mrsha knew.
Elirr’s lungs strained as he stumbled. He ran down a corridor, leapt over a patch of dungeon that smelled of fire to Mrsha, and then froze. Something was coming down the tunnel. Elirr hesitated—
A howl rang out ahead of them. Elirr and Mrsha looked and saw a group of Gnolls. They froze when they saw the two.
“We grew lost! That way. Is it—”
“Run! The Raskghar follow!”
Elirr bellowed. The Gnolls whirled. There were at least sixteen of them. A few of the younger ones howled a warning; the rest just ran. And the Raskghar slowly caught up.
They were healthy, strong. The Gnolls had been confined for days and starved. Without the head start, the Gnolls would have already been caught. But it was only a matter of time.
Nokha was fastest. She bounded towards Elirr and Mrsha, snarling. The Gnolls howled and then one fell back. He was younger, and smelled of glue. A [Fletcher]? Mrsha saw him look back, and then brace himself.
He howled as he charged Nokha and the Raskghar. The other Gnolls howled as he bought them time. Mrsha saw the young Gnoll charge the Raskghar, swinging a fist. Nokha leapt and bore him to the ground. She subdued him with two brutal blows and the other Raskghar hauled the Gnoll up. Quick as a flash, the Raskghar were chasing again.
Seconds. The Gnolls looked back and at each other. They might have been City Gnolls, but some had grown up outside of Liscor. They could tell how fast the Raskghar were moving.
Elirr’s voice was strained. His heart was beating too fast. Mrsha could feel his chest heaving. The other Gnolls ran. They heard howls around them. The surviving Gnolls were congregating towards them. But fewer howls. The Raskghar chased. Mrsha stared back at Nokha. The female Raskghar bared her teeth. She was looking at Mrsha.
We are whole.
Even if she died, let it not be like that. Mrsha struggled. Elirr growled at her to keep still, but Mrsha had her wand out. She waved it. Grass shot up, a twisting little catch of grass. A snare, like the ones the Stone Spears tribe had used. She saw Nokha’s eyes widen. The snare caught the Raskghar’s foot—and she surged forwards. The grass was strong, but the Raskghar was stronger. She ran on, on all fours now.
A Gnoll called out in despair. Mrsha felt Elirr’s breath catch. She smelled it too. A foreign scent ahead. Blood. But something familiar. The Gnolls hesitated.
“Let it be monsters, then! Run! Run! Better them than the Raskghar!”
One of the Gnolls shouted. They ran ahead. Mrsha saw a confusing sight ahead of them. It looked like dozens of monsters! Other Gnolls were howling panic and danger in ahead of them. But suddenly the notes changed. Mrsha heard the tone of the howl change. One of the howls echoed back to her.
Friend! And then Mrsha identified the scent. She saw one of the monsters look at her. It was tall. It had red eyes, a sword. Green skin. And it—he, was Headscratcher. The Hobgoblin looked up as he and the five Redfang Warriors led a group of at least a forty Cave Goblins. Several of the other Gnolls were wavering.
The Gnolls around Elirr froze when they saw the Goblins. But one of the Hobs—Numbtongue, threw up his hand before they could flee.
“Wait! Friends! Wandering Inn! Come!”
That was enough for the Gnolls. They ran past the Goblins, some nearly collapsing with relief. Elirr coughed and wheezed at Numbtongue.
“Behind us! Raskghar!”
The Hobs pointed. The Cave Goblins were already fleeing, screaming in terror. The Gnolls joined the rush. Mrsha saw the Hobs holding their ground. They stood in a line. Headscratcher. Rabbiteater. Shorthilt. Badarrow. Numbtongue. They looked…different.
Taller. Rabbiteater had a red cloak which swirled around his shoulders. It wasn’t cloth. It looked like liquid. And it smelled like blood. The Raskghar paused as they saw the Hobs.
“We have to—”
Elirr stumbled. Mrsha heard a Gnoll cry out in alarm, and then felt herself slipping. Elirr half-collapsed as another adult caught him. His face was twisted with pain.
“Too much! Someone help me!”
The Gnoll cried out and another younger Gnoll came. They helped Elirr, urging him to keep running. He moved mechanically—he’d pushed himself too hard to sprint while carrying Mrsha. The Gnoll tried to limp after the Gnolls, but they were moving too fast! The Cave Goblins were running ahead of them, and she couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth—
Someone shouted. Mrsha felt a pair of paws scoop her up. Another Gnoll grabbed Mrsha and they fled once more. Mrsha twisted. She saw the Hobs eying the Raskghar. The two sides froze. Five Hobs. Four Raskghar, including Nokha. Then thirteen. Then seventeen.
“They can’t hold them.”
One of the Gnolls gasped. She looked back as the Hobs spread out. Numbtongue had a guitar in his hand. His claws struck lightning. Badarrow loosed an arrow. Rabbiteater whirled his cloak as the Raskghar hesitated. They outnumbered the Hobs, but they were—nervous. They had never seen Hobgoblins before. Nokha growled, sniffing at the Redfang Warriors. She glanced at Mrsha and tensed.
Shorthilt’s sword shone. Headscratcher pointed.
The Hobs charged. The Raskghar didn’t expect that. The sounds of battle echoed behind Mrsha. She heard snarls of pain, a Goblin’s voice raised in song. The Gnolls ran.
The Gnolls fled onwards. Mrsha could hear the Hobs fighting. They were standing back-to-back, trying to block the corridor. But there were so many Raskghar. She saw Headscratcher roaring. He smashed into a Raskghar, picked up the huge beast and threw the Raskghar into the other warriors. Then he turned and Nokha leapt. She slammed into Headscratcher. And she had a sword too.
The Hob was strong. He punched Nokha, making her reel back. He slashed left-right, but she was quick too. She parried the blows, their swords ringing. She moved like lightning. As Headscratcher cut down with a two-handed slash she stepped back. Her sword traced an arc. She slashed open Headscratcher’s side.
Blood flew. Mrsha heard Numbtongue cry out. Headscratcher stumbled. Blood ran from his side. He looked at the gaping wound. Then he bared his teeth. Nokha was grinning in triumph when Headscratcher’s blade cut her across the chest. She leapt back. Headscratcher advanced, screaming fury. His eyes blazed as he turned, cutting at the Raskghar who stepped back. They stared at him. Headscratcher didn’t seem to notice the blood. He whirled, stumbled—then fell. The other four Hobs closed around them.
This time the shout sounded different. Mrsha, held in the Gnoll’s arms as the Hobs grew more and more distant, saw them standing around Headscratcher. Rabbiteater had a potion in his hands as the other three tried to keep the Raskghar at bay. But there were so many. And Nokha had cut Shorthilt.
Erill had seen it too. He shook himself free of the other two Gnolls, ran on his own two feet. Mrsha kept staring. The Hobs were falling back. But now it was only a matter of time. They were going to die. To buy them time.
Goblins. Monsters. But they had done it for the Gnolls. Mrsha remembered what Erin had said. She stared at Headscratcher as he pushed himself up. They were running now, trying to retreat. The Raskghar pursued them.
It was no good. Mrsha looked around in despair. The Raskghar would cut the Hobs down, and then catch up. They still didn’t have enough time.
Time. Mrsha stared at the Redfang Warriors. Then she looked at the Gnoll carrying her. The female Gnoll was panting with effort. Mrsha closed her eyes. Then she moved her injured legs. She leapt.
So this was it. Shorthilt parried Nokha’s glowing sword as it curved towards his neck. Because he had to. The Raskghar was too fast to let him dodge. But the cost—the Hob grunted as the impact nearly knocked the blade out of his grip. He saw the enchanted blade the awakened Raskghar carried bite into his steel sword. He cursed, stepped back.
Someone grabbed him. Shorthilt stepped back as Rabbiteater threw his cloak around them. Nokha’s sword lanced into the blood cloak, slowing slightly. The blade hissed and steam erupted from where she’d struck the cloak. The Raskghar backed up, eying the cloak as Shorthilt and Rabbiteater stumbled backwards. The other Raskghar advanced, keeping their shields up as Badarrow loosed another arrow.
Too many. The Raskghar were overwhelming. There were…fourteen of them now. A fair fight if the Hobs had the high ground or the advantage of surprise. Or the bell. But they had closed too quickly. And the female—
Shorthilt locked eyes with Nokha. She grinned at him, her blade making her eyes shine in the darkness. He straightened, and Rabbiteater patted his shoulder. For a second, the Hobs locked eyes and nodded at each other.
Five of them stood in a line. Headscratcher, barely able to stand. Rabbiteater, crimson cloak held up as a shield. Shorthilt and Numbtongue, guarding Badarrow. They waited as the Raskghar advanced slowly. Another minute. One more minute. Then the Gnolls might make it. Then they could escape. Shorthilt hoped they would. Then they could tell Erin—
For a second the Hob allowed himself to close his eyes. They snapped open as he heard something. A howl. It was high and echoing. It came from the side. He glanced back behind him with the Raskghar. And saw her.
Mrsha sat behind them. The White Gnoll sat on her haunches, staring at the Hobs. The Raskghar. Both sides paused when they saw her. Nokha’s eyes locked onto the white Gnoll. Mrsha stared at Headscratcher, at Rabbiteater, at the Hobs. Then she threw her head back and howled. The sound was mournful, long. Shorthilt had never heard Mrsha make a sound like that. He had never known she could.
Mrsha got onto all fours. She ran with something in her mouth. Her wand. She limped at first, and then ran. She dashed past the Hobs, past the Raskghar. Both tried to grab for her. But Mrsha was too quick. She leapt and dove, as if she were playing in the inn. She ran past the Raskghar and down the corridor, then left. The Raskghar turned. They stared at the Hobs, and then Nokha barked an order. They turned and ran after Mrsha.
Headscratcher bellowed. The Hobs advanced, but several Raskghar turned. They held the Hobs back as Nokha and eight of the Raskghar fled. And the Hobs could hear more howls. Raskghar. They were coming.
“Retreat! Back! Back!”
Numbtongue was the one who said it. He grabbed Shorthilt as the Hob tried to cut past a Raskghar with a shield. Shorthilt hesitated. But Numbtongue was right. He turned, cursing in Goblin, and grabbed Rabbiteater. The three had to pull Headscratcher back despite his weakness. The Hob cursed and screamed at the Raskghar, who weren’t advancing. The beast-people stared as the Hobs began to fall back.
Alive. But more than one Hob wept tears of frustration. They stared back as they began to run, following the Cave Goblins and Gnolls. They heard a voice in the dungeon. A howl. It was desperate, tired. It came from a white Gnoll who ran as the Raskghar pursued her. Trying to buy the others time to flee. The howl echoed in the Redfang Warrior’s ears. A note of warning. Exhaustion.
But not despair. And the Gnolls paused. They looked back and howled. Dozens of voices echoed through the dungeon. They listened. The Hobs listened as they ran. They waited for an answer. But they never heard it. So they bowed their heads and ran. This time there were no pursuers.
She had looked into Skinner’s eyes. She had known fear then. Ceria Springwalker had fled from him as her friends died around her. She still remembered the terror. The helpless paralysis. The despair. Now she looked at another monster just as terrible. Perhaps worse.
Snatcher. Facestealer. One of the guardians of Liscor’s dungeon. His claws were long. He carried a bloody bag of heads on sticks. He had no head. Or eyes that Ceria could see. His eye sockets were hollowed pits. And if Skinner was fear, he was helplessness. As he moved into the Raskghar camp, Ceria fell. She heard the Raskghar and Cave Goblins falling around her like puppets with their strings cut. They lay on the ground as Facestealer walked forwards.
Slowly. Carefully. The giant monster walked around Cave Goblins and Raskghar alike. Ceria didn’t understand what was happening at first. She felt like something had sapped her of strength. She tried to move—and couldn’t.
Spell. It had to be. Ceria could see Snatcher moving. He was heading towards the Gnoll cages at the back of the camp. Towards the Gnoll who’d howled. Towards Mrsha.
Ceria’s lips barely moved. She tried to get up. Her arms shook on the ground. But they barely moved! What was it? She hadn’t seen the monster cast a spell. Was it an aura? Not a spell?
No. Ceria could feel something restricting her body. Something—it was magic. It had to be. She knew that because she could move. All of the others, Raskghar, Cave Goblins, Calruz, Gnolls—they were all still as corpses. But Ceria could see her arms tensing slightly as she tried to move.
Half-Elf. Descendants of magic. Ceria pushed mana into her arms. She saw ice begin to form at her fingertips, and then frost race down her arm. Not again. Not this time. She felt her arms move. She called more magic to her.
The ground froze. The ice spread around Ceria’s hands. She drew on everything she had as Facestealer walked as if he was taking a stroll. She felt her ring—the Everfreeze Ring emitting cold on her finger. She pulled from it.
And the ice grew. It pushed her hands up. Ceria shook as she stood. But she did stand. And the ice covered her legs, locking them in place. Ceria turned. She lifted her arm.
Facestealer was peering at Mrsha. It was a monster to inspire nightmares. But Ceria had already faced her nightmares in Liscor’s crypt. This time—she raised her voice.
“Back away from Mrsha, Snatcher. And look this way.”
Facestealer turned. Ceria fired an [Ice Spike]. Straight between its hollowed eye sockets. The javelin of ice flew straight as an arrow. It hit Facestealer’s head. And broke.
Ceria wavered. Then she raised her skeletal hand and loosed another [Ice Spike]. It struck Snatcher in the center of his chest. Again, it broke without leaving so much as a scratch.
Snatcher didn’t react. He stared at her. He seemed almost confused, as if he couldn’t believe Ceria was attacking him. The half-Elf panted with the effort of keeping her arm raised. She concentrated. She had to stop him! How? How—
His body was dark brown. Hide of some kind. But it looked lumpy. And in parts, the hide was missing, revealing a yellow interior. Bone? Or skin? Ceria focused on that. She shifted her aim as Snatcher began to shuffle towards her casually.
This time she fired five [Ice Spikes], one from each finger. It was a bad shot. Four of her [Ice Spikes] missed her target, striking Facestealer’s body harmlessly. But the last hit one of the yellow patches on his body. The tip of her spear of ice struck and dug in ever so slightly. Ceria saw black liquid run from the wound. And like that, the paralysis inhibiting her vanished.
And Facestealer paused. He had no neck so he couldn’t look down. But Ceria felt a wave of terrible fury coming from it. It looked at her. Then Snatcher raised its oversized arms and charged Ceria without a word, incredibly fast. She backed up and screamed.
She saw the Gnolls stirring in their cages. Ceria raised her hand but Snatcher was fast. It swung at her and Ceria dove. She felt something pass over her head. She rolled, conjured a wall of ice. Before it had finished rising something smashed straight through it. Ceria scrambled back.
Snatcher stood over her. It swung one arm and Ceria saw it pass inches from her face. She raised a trembling hand, and then someone smashed into Facestealer from the side. Calruz. The Minotaur could barely stand. He hit Snatcher with a roar, not having bothered to draw his axe. Snatcher held still as the Minotaur struck him, at least three hundred pounds of weight behind his charge.
Snatcher’s body didn’t move so much as a centimeter. Calruz bounced off and stumbled back. He stared at Snatcher and the headless monster stared back. Calruz backed up, fumbling for his axe.
“Fight off Snatcher! To me!”
The other Raskghar and Cave Goblins were rising, some half-collapsing. Facestealer turned around as if surveying the situation. It swung its arms and Ceria felt her body deaden. Half of the camp fell back again, limp. But the effect was weaker.
Calruz bellowed. He had his axe in his hand. He raised it and shakily slashed at Facestealer. The blow was slow, weak. The axe head bounced off of Facestealer’s front. It stared at Calruz and then turned. Back to Ceria.
“[Ice Wall]! [Ice Wall]!”
Ceria pointed and formed a double-layered wall of ice, at least five feet thick. Snatcher walked forwards. He paused at the wall and drew his torso-head back. He brought it forwards and smashed through the wall. Then he swung at Ceria.
This time she couldn’t dodge. Ceria jumped backwards as the claw came hurtling towards her. She felt the impact—something compressed her side and then—and then she was weightless. Ceria gaped, half-turned as she felt herself flying—
And then she struck the ceiling of the Raskghar’s camp. And fell. Twenty feet. Ceria landed on the ground and heard something scream. She’d landed on something. A Raskghar. She would have screamed too, but pain overwhelmed every part of her.
She felt something moving under her. Ceria gaped, and then reached for a healing potion. She had to—had to—
The bottle smashed as she squeezed it tight. She ignored the glass biting into her hand, let it pour over her body. Her torn flesh began to knit. She felt the pain lessening. Then she managed to scream.
Another potion. Ceria had two. She grabbed the other and drank it. Her bones were cracking. She rolled as the Raskghar screamed and pushed her off. Ceria stood—and saw chaos.
The Raskghar and Cave Goblins surrounded Snatcher. It was turning, slashing with its claws. Every time it did, Raskghar and Cave Goblins died. One swipe sent three Raskghar flying and caved in another’s head. Facestealer grabbed—and three Cave Goblins were headless. And the weapons of the Raskghar and Cave Goblins did nothing to it! They bounced off Snatcher’s hide. And as it turned, some of them collapsed.
Paralysis. Ceria couldn’t feel it from here. She pointed her finger shakily at Snatcher, saw Calruz bellowing.
“Keep it in place! Archers! Fire! Enchanted weapons, to the front!”
Raskghar tried to obey him. Ceria saw them shooting arrows, but half of them were too weak to move. The arrows landed short of their target or struck the Raskghar and Cave Goblins around Facestealer. He turned and swept his hand. Six Raskghar and Cave Goblins died, bodies broken like twigs. He turned—
And another [Ice Spike] struck him on his yellowed weak spot. Snatcher didn’t react, but he turned. Ceria pointed at him, trembling.
“Calruz! Back me up!”
“Protect Ceria! Form a shield wall!”
The Minotaur rushed forwards. The Raskghar and Goblins tried to block Snatcher’s advance. He walked through them, swinging his arms, slaughtering them. Ceria aimed for his yellowed flesh, but this time the monster blocked the [Ice Spike]. She was backing up when an arrow struck Snatcher from behind, striking his yellowed flesh.
The monster turned. A group of Raskghar with bows was taking aim at him from the far wall. They were shaky, but far enough from him that they could use their arms. They loosed a hail of arrows which bounced off his skin. But a few struck his exposed flesh. Facestealer began striding towards them, and then turned as Ceria landed another shot from behind. He turned towards her, and the Raskghar shot again.
Turn, shoot, turn, shoot. Ceria almost wanted to laugh. But it would have been hysterical laughter—Snatcher was almost comical in how he moved! He went after whomever had wounded him last! Then her laughter caught in her throat as he turned and beheaded a Raskghar. He stared at the shocked face and carefully opened his sack. Ignoring both her spells and the Raskghar’s arrows, he put the head in the sack. Then he turned around. He seemed to realize he was being struck. He turned to Ceria and she felt a chill. Facestealer stared at her for ten long seconds as Raskghar and Cave Goblins battered him from all sides. Then he turned.
Raskghar collapsed around him. Facesnatcher strode towards one of the entrances. He stopped there, turned, stared at Ceria, and then vanished into the darkness. He left a trail of black liquid. It might have been blood.
And then it was over. Ceria stared at the empty spot where Snatcher had been. She was waiting for him to reappear, but he didn’t. She realized that the Raskghar camp was completely still. All the Raskghar and Cave Goblins were staring at the same spot.
“Was…was that it?”
The Raskghar and Cave Goblins jumped and stared at Ceria. She couldn’t take her eyes off that spot. He’d just left. As if he hadn’t felt like being here. And he’d stared at her. As if memorizing her face. She shuddered, then heard Calruz’s voice.
“Raskghar—Raskghar, seal that entrance! Tend to the wounded. Someone—open the supply of healing potions. Double—no, triple the sentries!”
His voice roused the Raskghar. They began to move shakily. Calruz turned. His eyes widened.
“Where did the Gnolls go?”
Ceria whirled. She’d almost forgotten! She saw the Gnoll cages had been forced open. The Gnolls were gone!
Some of them. A few were lying on the ground, pinned by Raskghar. Most were still in shackles. But many of the Gnolls had removed their shackles! And Mrsha! She’d gotten away too! Ceria dared to hope. But then she saw Calruz striding towards her.
The Minotaur looked as shaken as Ceria, but that didn’t stop him from seizing the front of her robes. Ceria held still as Calruz roared at her. The Minotaur pointed furiously towards the cages.
“You told me she was mute!”
“She can do that! She can’t speak!”
“Liar! Traitor! You deceived me!”
Calruz roared in Ceria’s face, covering her with spittle. His grip tightened and Ceria braced herself.
“I didn’t know that thing was going to appear! I told you the truth, Calruz! Mrsha can only howl. Or make sounds. She can’t speak!”
“That’s not what mute means!”
“Yes it is! Don’t yell at me because you don’t know the meaning of the word!”
Calruz’s eyes were wide and furious. They were turning red—but then he paused. A curious, affronted look replaced the enraged expression on his face.
“I know the meaning of the word mute. It means unable to make sounds. You are incorrect, Ceria.”
“No, it doesn’t. It means ‘unable to speak’. There’s a big difference, you giant idiot.”
“How do you know that?”
“I read it in a book. Okay, Pisces read it in a book and told me.”
The Minotaur and half-Elf stared at each other. The exchange was furious, tense. But familiar. After a second, Calruz let go of Ceria slowly. They stared at each other. Ceria was breathing hard. She pointed at the splatter of black liquid where Facestealer had been.
“That wasn’t my fault. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. That was Snatcher, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. He sometimes approaches Raskghar camps. They can usually deceive him into leaving by pretending to be statues. Usually.”
“I didn’t know. And I didn’t lie to you. Knowingly.”
“I could have run. I saved your life.”
The Minotaur paused. He looked at Ceria and nodded slowly.
“Yes. You did.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Calruz turned. He looked around his camp and exhaled. Slowly.
“The Gnolls fled. They’ll die in the dungeon. You there! Send a team to retrieve them!”
He pointed at a Raskghar who looked confused. The Raskghar growled. Calruz frowned.
“Already? Who? Nokha? She abandoned the camp when—”
The Raskghar backed up as Calruz snorted in anger. Ceria stared at him anxiously.
“Well? Did the Gnolls escape?”
“Nokha led a team after them the instant they fled. She will not let them run.”
Ceria prayed he was wrong. Calruz stomped away. She saw him begin organizing his camp, directing the Cave Goblins and Raskghar to physically seal the entrance that Snatcher had left by. The mood in the camp was tense, afraid. And angry. The Raskghar forced the remaining Gnolls, barely twenty now, back into the cages, beating them as if to punish them for Mrsha.
“Calruz! Stop them!”
The Minotaur looked over and shouted a word in the Raskghar’s language. The beast-people turned away sullenly and the Gnolls lay in the cages. Ceria expected them to be devastated by the failed escape attempt, but to her surprise—and the Raskghar’s—she heard laughter. The Raskghar turned, disbelieving, as one of the Gnolls sat up.
The female Gnoll had a bloody lip and her eye looked…wrong, as if it weren’t moving properly. Still, she grinned at the Raskghar as they snarled at her. She lifted her shackled hands, pointed. At Mrsha’s empty cage.
“You captured her. But she is your doom. White fur. Doombringer. You are doomed! Your tribe will end! That is fate! She brought it on you! Mrsha, the child of omens! You—”
A Raskghar bounded over and kicked the Gnoll in the chest. She curled up, choking, until Calruz himself threw the Raskghar back. Then both Gnolls and Raskghar were silent.
It was nearly twenty minutes before Nokha’s team returned. When they did, the Raskghar howled and gathered anxiously at the entrance to their camp, hearing them coming. Ceria ran forwards, heart beating in fear. She heard Calruz roar, saw the Raskghar make grudging way for him—
And then she saw Mrsha. The Gnoll cub was hanging limp in Nokha’s arm. She still held Ceria’s wand. The awakened Raskghar looked displeased. She growled as she walked into the camp. She had Mrsha, and the Raskghar behind her looked wounded. Had they fought monsters? Or had the Gnolls managed to fight them off? Where were the others?
“Is that the only one you managed to catch?”
Calruz’s voice was disbelieving. He strode towards Nokha, hand opening and closing as she slung Mrsha into one of the Gnoll cages with the others. Nokha turned. Her expression was furious.
“Others fled! This one ran other way! We caught! Would have caught others, but strange monsters stopped us! Goblins but not Goblins!”
“What? What? You were stopped? By who?”
Ceria listened with disbelief and bated breath as Nokha described their encounter with the Redfang Hobs. When Calruz realized what Nokha had to be describing he snorted dismissively.
“Fool! Those are Hobs! They are Goblin.”
“No! Goblins are small! Not large! They do not fight Raskghar! They obey!”
Nokha lashed out at the nearest Cave Goblin scurrying around her in fury. The Goblins shrank back as the Raskghar growled at them. Calruz shook his head.
“Hobgoblins are standard aboveground. This must have been a group that wandered into the dungeon. Somehow. They’re intelligent. Good fighters, for scum. You should have overwhelmed the five!”
“They were strong. And little white one ran other way. So we chased.”
Nokha’s ears flattened in displeasure. Calruz snorted. He cast his eyes towards the eastern entrance to the camp and Ceria saw more Raskghar dragging or carrying limp Gnolls.
“One Gnoll versus dozens? Think, fool! At least the others caught more than a single Gnoll child.”
“This one is special. White fur. Cast magic! Will sacrifice now. Get others later.”
The awakened Raskghar bared her teeth as she pointed at Mrsha. The other Gnolls were shielding her from sight protectively. Calruz’s eyes narrowed.
“That is not your decision. I am Chieftain and I say if we sacrifice any Gnoll! Understand?”
He locked eyes with Nokha. The air grew tense again and the Raskghar around Nokha grew still. The eighteen awakened Raskghar stared at her. Three had died to Snatcher. Nokha glanced around, her expression savage. Then she seemed to note the dead Raskghar and Goblins. Snatcher had barely fought save to defend himself and still a score of corpses lay on the ground. She glanced at Calruz and inclined her head ever so slightly.
There was no ‘Chieftain’, or any other sign of acknowledgment. Nokha turned and stalked towards the Raskghar who weren’t working. Calruz stared at her back. His hand clenched in anger and his brows drew together, but he seemed to think twice about calling her back. He turned to look at Ceria.
“Use a potion if you need to. And find one for your belt.”
He stomped off to shout at the Cave Goblins and Raskghar laboring at the entrance. Ceria watched him go and then looked around. The air in the camp was tense. Snatcher’s attack might not have been Calruz’s fault, but the Raskghar were shaken. And they were already chafing at his restrictions. They kept staring at the remaining Gnolls. And the awakened Raskghar, led by Nokha?
They were looking at Calruz. Not fearfully, but with a calculating look in their gazes that made Ceria shiver. She stared at the remaining Gnolls in cages and at Calruz. The Minotaur looked around. He could sense it too. He adjusted the axe strapped to his back and stood taller.
“Get to work!”
The Raskghar obeyed. But it was only a matter of time. Ceria was certain now. She looked around, and then backed up to the cages. The Gnolls looked up at Ceria.
“Hurt. But not critically.”
“I’ll get you a healing potion. For all of you. If I can.”
The Gnolls nodded. Ceria hesitated, and then bent. Pretending to inspect Mrsha, she concentrated. A little fiery bug crawled out from her hands. It fluttered upwards, vanished, carrying a message for Pisces.
Gnolls escaped. Mrsha here. Raskghar rebel soon. Hurry.
The Gnolls stared at the fiery bug as it disappeared. They looked at Ceria. She gave them a slight nod and straightened. None of the Goblins and Raskghar around her had noticed. But then she turned and saw one of them staring at her.
Nokha. The Raskghar had snuck up on her from the side! She stared at the Gnolls and Ceria. At Ceria’s hands.
She’d seen the spell! Ceria felt a chill of fear, but the Raskghar didn’t immediately shout what Ceria had done. Instead, she locked gazes with Ceria and smiled. The half-Elf met her gaze. She glanced at Calruz’s back. She gave Nokha a frozen smile.
“Just try it.”
Erin Solstice paced back and forth in her inn. She had a plan. It was a good one, or at least, it was simple. The best plans were simple. Except that they weren’t in chess. Chess was an ever-moving game of attack and defense and opportunity. You had to think a hundred moves ahead of your opponent. That was why computers were so good. But her plan had only one moving part. She couldn’t adjust it. It worked or it wouldn’t.
It would work. But first, Erin had to know where the Raskghar camp was. And for that, the Redfang Warriors had to return. It had been four hours. The magic door to the Goblin’s cave was open. Only a few people were in Erin’s inn. Pisces had gone out with Yvlon and Ksmvr to bring back the Gold-rank adventurers. Erin hoped she wouldn’t have to tell them her plan wouldn’t work today.
“Lyonette, have you eaten anything today?”
The [Princess] sat at a table and didn’t move. Erin looked at her. Lyonette stared past Erin. Apista buzzed around her anxiously.
“Have you fed Apista?”
Lyonette blinked. She looked at the Ashfire Bee and a bit of life entered her eyes.
She half got up and had to put her hands on the table. Erin looked around.
“On it! I’ll get honey for Apista, and what do you want, Lyonette?”
The young woman hesitated. She sat back down.
“I don’t want—”
“Water and a bit of meat and cheese, maybe. Crackers? Yeah, crackers and meat and cheese. Just have a few bites, Lyonette.”
Erin tried to encourage the young woman. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had breakfast. Maybe not? Well, she was in better shape than Lyonette. Erin stared back towards the Goblin cave. Then she heard a shout from outside her inn and whirled.
“Erin! Get out here!”
That was Yvlon’s voice! Erin hesitated, grabbed the knife and one of Octavia’s potions she’d put on the table and raced outside. The rain pounded her face. She blinked, nearly cut herself as she went to wipe her face, and then saw the boats. The Gold-rank adventurers had returned! And they had brought—
Two of the Hobs looked up. Headscratcher tried to rise, but Rabbiteater forced him down. The boat rocked as he leapt out of it and began swimming to shore. The adventurers rowed towards Erin’s inn. But another group was heading straight for Liscor. And in them—
“They found the Gnolls! There was an escape! Erin, we need stamina potions!”
Erin stared in disbelief. Yes, some of the boats had Gnolls in them! They huddled together, staring around. The Gold-ranks were escorting them to Liscor and a cry went up from the walls. Erin saw more boats headed her way. The Horns and Halfseekers rowing boats with Gnolls in them. And Cave Goblins. And the Redfangs. Erin stared at all of the Gnolls, looking for a flash of white. But there wasn’t any.
“Mrsha? Where’s Mrsha?”
The adventurers looked at each other. Yvlon stood up in her boat.
“They think she’s captured. Erin! We need stamina potions! Now!”
For a second the [Innkeeper] wavered, but then she realized Yvlon was right. She turned and ran into her inn as Rabbiteater ran up the slope.
“Drassi get me all our stamina potions! Some of the Gnolls are back!”
The Drake turned. Lyonette shot up, knocking her plate of food aside.
Erin met word with action. She grabbed her crate of potions and ran out with it. The adventurers were still rowing towards her boat.
Erin threw a potion through the air. The glowing potion flew straight at Pisces who ducked. Yvlon fielded the bottle and yanked the cork out. Erin didn’t know why they needed stamina potions, but when she saw the Gnolls lying weakly in the boats she understood. The adventurers had enough healing potions to cover them, but they hadn’t brought many stamina potions. And the Gnolls looked half-dead.
“Get them in here! Drassi, get me food! Lyonette—”
The young woman ran past Erin. She splashed into the water.
“Mrsha! Is she okay? Where is she?”
The Gnolls in the boat were rousing themselves. Some looked at Lyonette and shook their heads, but one, an older, grey-haired Gnoll with red stripes, spoke weakly.
“She ran back. She distracted the Raskghar. To save us. She freed us too. She is alive, we think. But maybe—”
Lyonette stared in horror at the Gnoll. The adventurers ran their boats aground and leapt out. They helped the Gnolls out as Erin saw the people on Liscor’s walls trying to do the same for the Gnolls there.
In the end, all the boats had to come to Erin’s inn. The Gnolls had exhausted the last of their energy fleeing from the Raskghar and now, in safety, could barely move even with the stamina potions. Erin changed the door from her cave to Liscor and had to step back as the Watch and Gnoll families flooded into her inn. She opened her pantry and soon the Gnolls were eating small portions.
“Not too much. You’ll injure yourselves. Eat only small bits. And we must check you for broken bones and other injuries. The healing potions will not heal everything. They may make some things worse, but the adventurers have taken care not to heal wounds incorrectly.”
A Drake [Healer] was cautioning the Gnolls as they sat at Erin’s tables. They ate slowly, some surrounded by their loved ones. Many were in tears as they ate simple foods. A few spoke to Zevara and the others, recounting what they’d seen and heard.
“It was the child who saved us. She used a—a—”
Erill glanced at the Drakes and hesitated.
“She used her voice! The Raskghar thought her mute, but she howled and brought the monster down on them. We fled in the confusion, but Mrsha, she ran back when it became clear the Hobs would fall. She bought us all time to flee.”
“Mrsha. Oh, Mrsha.”
Lyonette buried her head in her hands, weeping. Erin stared at the Hobs. They were intact, although Headscratcher was still weak. They all looked like they’d healed wounds recently. None of them could meet her eyes.
“You say these awakened Raskghar were smarter? And stronger?”
“They were leaders among the others. Terrifying. The ritual—it must be stopped. And the Minotaur is insane. I saw him beat the half-Elf when she tried to stop him. But I think—I think neither will be alive much longer. The awakened are too intelligent. They will dispose of both if they are not stopped.”
The Horns and other adventurers exchanged uneasy looks. Zevara just nodded. Another Gnoll spoke up.
“We remember where they’ve gone. But I am sure—the Raskghar keep their camps watched. And there are so many. They will surely move their camp tonight.”
“And if we attack them, they’ll just fight us off. We don’t have enough bodies!”
Keldrass pounded a scaly fist into his other clawed hand. Zevara glanced at him and shook her head.
“The fact that any of you were able to escape is a miracle. Mister Elirr, I know you and the others must be exhausted. But if you’ll speak to our [Strategist], I’d be deeply grateful. Rest assured we’ll try to save the others if at all possible.”
Again, she glanced at the Gold-rank adventurers who looked away. Some of them shook their heads. Elirr bowed his.
“We owe Mrsha a debt we cannot repay. To think we blamed her—and the Goblins! They saved us.”
Zevara met Erin’s gaze. She shook her head.
“We’ll get a full accounting of this later. For now, let’s bring you back to the city. The Council will want your statements and then we’ll issue an announcement. Solstice, we’ll settle the costs later. Is that fine?”
“What? Yes. Go on.”
Erin nodded. She was talking with Numbtongue. The Hob’s head was bowed.
“We tried. But there were many. And the female one—”
“I understand. You weren’t supposed to fight them. It’s okay, Numbtongue.”
The Hob looked up wretchedly.
Erin grabbed the Hob’s shoulder, squeezing hard.
“We still have a chance. Did you find the Raskghar camp?”
“Yes. But it is…what is the word? Fortified. The adventurers will not take it. And there are many Raskghar.”
“I know. But you know where it is, right?”
“Then come with me. Drassi! Change the door as soon as I’m through. Then let us back when everyone’s in Liscor!”
Erin pushed past the crowd and headed to her magic door. She slapped the red mana stone on, opened the door, and strode through. She heard an exclamation behind her and an oath from Zevara and slammed the door. She looked around.
“Pebblesnatch! Where’s Pebblesnatch?”
The Cave Goblins looked up. They stared at Numbtongue and raced over. Erin looked around wildly and saw a familiar face. Pebblesnatch and a bunch of smaller Goblins looked up from Erin’s magic chessboard. They’d constructed a very tall tower out of the ghostly chess pieces. They scrambled back guiltily as Erin marched over.
“It’s okay. Pebblesnatch, I need your help. Will you listen? Numbtongue, can you translate?”
The Hob nodded. The Cave Goblins could understand Erin well enough, probably thanks to Calruz, but the Hob translated with word and gesture so Erin was certain that Pebblesnatch understood every word she said. She crouched next to the Cave Goblin.
“The Raskghar are bad. They kidnapped Gnolls. And they’re mean to you and the other Cave Goblins. The adventurers have been fighting them. So have the Redfangs. But the Raskghar have some of my friends. Two people very important to me. I want them back.”
Pebblesnatch stared up at Erin with round eyes. She glanced at Numbtongue and at Erin. She nodded hesitantly, but then gave Erin a Goblin shrug. Numbtongue didn’t have to translate. Erin smiled ruefully.
“Yeah, that’s bad, but what can you do about it? Well, there is something. The Redfangs found the Raskghar camp. And I have a plan to get back my friends. But I need your help. It might be dangerous, but not too much. And it will save my friends. Will you do it, Pebblesnatch?”
The small Goblin looked alarmed. She looked at Numbtongue. The Hob stared at Erin. The young woman looked from Numbtongue to Pebblesnatch.
“I won’t ask her to steal a key or anything. It’s very safe. So long as you can get her there. Can you?”
Numbtongue nodded at once. Pebblesnatch began to quiver. She looked at Erin and the [Innkeeper] could tell that Pebblesnatch was afraid to see a Raskghar again. Erin reached out and touched Pebblesnatch’s hands.
“I know it must be terrifying. But you’re the only one I can ask. The Hobs can’t do it. And you—well, your name is actually important. Pebblesnatch. It’s part of how I came up with my plan, actually.”
All the Goblins looked astonished at that. Pebblesnatch touched her chest. Erin nodded.
“It’s true. And I know this is a lot. I know it’s scary. But I need your help. You’re the only one who can do it. So will you?”
The small Goblin stared up at Erin. She hesitated. She looked at Numbtongue and the Hob nodded. But the Cave Goblin was still afraid. She met Erin’s eyes. The young woman stared into hers.
Pebblesnatch wavered. Then, slowly, she nodded. Erin smiled.
“Thank you. It’s very simple. All you have to do is take these—and do exactly what I say.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled something out. Pebblesnatch’s eyes went round and the other Cave Goblins gasped. Numbtongue stared at Erin, and his eyes lit up in sudden comprehension.
“Ah. Good plan.”
Erin turned and smiled at him.
“I know, right? I thought of it myself. Now, I need Pebblesnatch to go now, but we need to time this exactly right. So here’s what we’re going to do…”
“Keep all the camps on alert. Snatcher may strike at them. I want the watches doubled, but no patrols. They’re dead if they run into him. Go!”
Calruz was giving commands like normal. The Raskghar he was addressing bowed its head and moved with speed. Like normal. But the mood in the camp was on edge.
It was strange for Ceria to think of ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ after only having been in the Raskghar camp a few days. But she could tell that the Raskghar were growing discontent. Calruz would have called it insubordinate. Ceria just thought they were finally confident enough not to need him any longer. And the source of that confidence were the awakened.
They were intelligent. They would keep being intelligent when the moons fell. Of that Ceria and Calruz were now sure. The other Raskghar seemed nervous about the absence of the full moon, only one more day away. But the awakened? They moved about without fear, followed by a pack of lesser Raskghar who ran to fulfill their every whim. And Nokha led them all.
It was like two tribes, now, really. Calruz strode about, giving orders, but the awakened did the same. And while they moved when he looked at them and told them what to do, there was an air of…expectancy. As if they were waiting to strike.
But they kept watching Calruz for now. Because he was still important. Ceria saw Nokha listening, pretending to be listening at attention as Calruz dealt with an issue that had reared its head in one of the smaller camps.
“How many sick? And what are the symptoms?”
The Raskghar growled. Calruz frowned and made Nokha translate.
“Hotness. Shaking. Throwing up. Blood in…leavings. And lumps. Yellow pus.”
Nokha gestured and Ceria made a face. Calruz wrinkled his bull’s nose.
“And the cause? Did they not cook their food again? What monsters did they eat?”
“No, Chieftain. They say it was adventurers. A few Raskghar were wounded by…arrows? And spells. They thought it minor, but the wounds grew worse. Now many are sick.”
Calruz cursed. He looked at Ceria.
Ceria felt a bit sick. She knew some adventurers used those tactics, but it was cruel, even against Raskghar. And dangerous. She’d heard stories of adventurers who’d used poison against rats and killed thousands in major cities, or spread disease for hundreds of miles by accident. The Adventurer’s Guild was very strict about that sort of thing. Calruz frowned.
“Quarantine the camp. That means no one goes in or out. Not Cave Goblins, not Raskghar. No one touches the sick. Burn the bodies.”
The Raskghar didn’t like that. They tried to argue until Calruz cuffed the scout across the face. He glanced at Ceria as the Raskghar whined and Nokha barked at him sharply.
“Anything else, Springwalker?”
Ceria had to think.
“No healing potions. That can help with some diseases, but it might spread the plague faster. And…wash with hot water? There’s not much we can do without seeing what it is. And I’m not going to inspect it in person.”
The Minotaur nodded grimly.
“True. If we had an [Alchemist] or [Healer], we might try something. But we don’t. Quarantine the camp. Do as Ceria says. The surviving Raskghar and Cave Goblins will remain in place for…”
He glanced at Ceria. She shrugged.
“Four days after getting better? And don’t bring them here.”
“Four days. They’ll patrol with healthy Raskghar or Cave Goblins to make sure they’re well.”
The Raskghar whined unhappily, but Nokha snapped and he went. Calruz growled under his breath.
“Adventurers. Damn them. I need to make sure they haven’t infected any other camps. Where are my other scouts?”
He looked around and stomped towards some Raskghar who were eating by a fire. Ceria and Nokha were left. The half-Elf eyed the Raskghar. The awakened smiled.
“You know things about adventuring. Like Chieftain.”
“Yup. More than you do.”
Ceria smiled and Nokha bared her teeth.
“True. We need Chieftain. He is smart. Knows much.”
“Even if he won’t let you kill the Gnolls? Even if you’re smart when the moon isn’t full?”
Ceria saw Nokha’s grin waver. The Raskghar looked concerned. She glanced swiftly at Calruz and back at Ceria. The half-Elf kept her smiling mask up.
That’s right. We know.
But far from being nervous, Nokha instead just smiled again.
“Yes. We still need. Someone who knows what we do not. Very important. Chieftain is valuable. Important. But won’t let us sacrifice Gnolls. Too bad.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll have to live with it. Unless you want to take his place? But oh wait, then you don’t have Calruz. Shame about that, especially if you run into something like infected Raskghar, huh?”
The half-Elf smiled mockingly. Nokha nodded. She drew closer suddenly.
“Yes. Very bad. If Chieftain was only one. Good thing we have two.”
She grabbed Ceria’s arm suddenly. The half-Elf tensed. She raised a fist, but too slow. Nokha leaned forwards—
And licked Ceria.
The action was so surprising that Ceria forgot to hit Nokha. She spluttered and tried to back up, but Nokha licked her across her face. Her tongue was rough and wet. Ceria twisted out of her grip. She wiped at her face.
“What in the name of tree crap was—”
She backed up and saw Nokha smiling at her. The Raskghar stood back, smiling. Ceria stared at her, and then remembered something about animals. They liked to mark their territory, didn’t they? Was that—
Calruz had seen the entire thing. He stormed over and Nokha backed up. The Minotaur snarled at her, much like a Raskghar himself and she backed up.
“Back to your work!”
Calruz roared at her. His fist clenched, but Nokha moved out of range before he could strike. She sauntered back to the other Raskghar, who had of course been watching. Ceria scrubbed at the saliva, blushing. That had felt like more than just a challenge against Calruz. It had been an attack on multiple levels. She was his companion, and that had felt like an oddly sexual jab from Nokha against Calruz as well. She glanced sideways at Calruz to see what he thought.
The Minotaur was clearly furious. He stared at Ceria, clenching his hand, and spoke through gritted teeth.
“Why did she do that?”
“She was telling me that she only needed one of us for our knowledge. She’s not afraid of you, Calruz.”
The Minotaur breathed heavily.
“No. She’s growing bolder. I should crush her. But if I do, the Raskghar might revolt. I need her to challenge me. That is their custom. This is—provocation. The next time she does that, blast her with magic.”
“I was going to, but she’s quick!”
“Do it faster next time. This is an affront on my honor. On my reputation! I have to make a reply, demonstrate—”
Calruz broke off, muttering to himself. Ceria eyed him and sidled away a step.
“Lick me and I’ll punch you.”
The Minotaur glanced at Ceria. Then he snorted. Ceria laughed and Calruz joined in. The Raskghar looked back at them, and Nokha’s smile vanished for a moment in annoyed confusion. The two adventurers laughed louder, and Ceria felt a bit of madness herself take over. Every day it felt like the old Calruz again. And not. Here they were, fighting to keep him Chieftain of a Raskghar camp. And being licked! She laughed and laughed.
And knew it would be over soon.
Evening fell on Liscor. Not that you could tell in the rain. Relc Grasstongue grumbled as he stood on the walls.
“When’s it going to stop? Next week? The week after next? It should end soon, right? It has to! There’s not enough water in the sky for all this. And why do I have to stand guard duty right now? For the sixth straight day? I wanna patrol, but no…I’m too high-level to patrol in a nice warm tavern for an hour or two. Captain Z makes me stand here because I’m the highest-level [Guardsman] in the city. Which is true. I’m awesome. But still.”
His griping went unheard by the other [Guardspeople] who were actually patrolling the walls. It was a slippery, wet beat and Relc was standing beneath a temporary awning out of the rain. Occasionally one of them would shoot him a dirty glance or make a comment, but they generally left Relc alone. Because if a monster or Raskghar attacked, he’d be the first one into the fight and everyone knew it.
Still, that didn’t meant they had to stand near him. Relc stood alone, leaning on the battlements and yawning while scratching his tail until a pair of crisp footfalls made him look around. He blinked and waved as a Drake with red scales marched towards him. Wing Commander Embria’s armor was polished and she walked swiftly with her enchanted spear in hand. A helmet was on her head and her posture was perfect. Relc waved at her as he leaned on his spear and the wall.
“Hey kid. What’s up?”
Embria stopped in front of Relc. She turned to face him and stared down at Relc, which was a trick since he was taller than she was. Her voice was cold.
“Senior Guardsman Relc.”
“Senior Guardsman Relc.”
A note in Embria’s voice made Relc pause. Embria stared at him without a trace of affection.
“We are on duty. You will address me by my rank.”
The Drake paused. He looked at Embria and then straightened and gave her a grudging salute. He looked past her head as he spoke.
“Yes. Wing Commander Embria.”
His voice was hurt. Embria colored, making her red scales turn a darker shade. She nodded and Relc went back to leaning on the battlements, not looking at her. Embria looked around quickly and hissed.
“Stand up straight! You’re on duty!”
Relc looked back at Embria, clearly upset. His tail swept the wet stones beneath his feet as he replied.
“I’m not in the army anymore. The Watch doesn’t make us keep perfect posture except when we’re talking to Captain Z.”
Embria hissed at her father, keeping an eye out for passing [Guardsman] or her [Soldiers]. A few had been assigned to man the walls at regular intervals.
“You’re a former [Sergeant]! You should remember how to stand at least!”
“My former commander never made me stand at attention. He was cool.”
Relc folded his arms, looking peeved. Embria hesitated.
“Wing Commander Weillmet? He’s dead.”
The big Drake froze. He stared at Embria.
The Wing Commander had to think. She shook her head.
“About a year ago. During a holding action at Shivering Straits. His flank was exposed—a division from Oteslia’s Second Infantry overwhelmed his position.”
“Damn. I didn’t know.”
Relc turned away. He stared at the water surrounding Liscor in silence. Embria stared at his back. Her tail moved restlessly.
“You didn’t hear? The army sends back regular reports—”
“I don’t read them. Too many names I recognize and a lot I don’t. Plus, it’s always about where we’re fighting next, who’s paying us. It’s always the same stuff.”
“I’m…sorry. Wing Commander Weillmet was a good officer. I served with him for a few months. He taught me a few spear techniques.”
“Yeah. He always was good with the spear. Nearly as good as I was, but he was a better leader than a soldier. Man…so why are you up here, Wing Commander?”
Embria colored again. She stepped up and stood next to Relc. After a moment she relaxed her posture a tiny bit.
“I…wanted to talk with you.”
“You can find me at my home. I’m on duty. Can’t casually chat and all that.”
“You’ve been pulling double shifts all week.”
“That’s Captain Z’s fault, not mine. I just follow orders.”
Embria bit her tongue. She stared at Relc’s side. The Drake was staring into the waters, his expression bleak. After a moment, Embria went on.
“It’s about the Human.”
“Yes. I have…questions. You know I’m here for more than just defense of the city, don’t you?”
“Yeah, yeah. Making sure we’re not getting eaten by the Antinium, prodding the Council in the tails, all that. How’s that going?”
Embria ignored the question.
“One of the things I was instructed to look into were the Antinium. I know what you think—but they’re acting oddly. And the other Hives have been…irregular of late. When Xrn, the Small Queen was sighted in Liscor, the High Command was alarmed.”
“Oh, so that’s why they sent you? Not because of the Goblin Lord running about?”
“It was one of their concerns. Father, you know this is an issue. And the Small Queen and the Slayer—”
“—They both went to her inn. The Human’s.”
“Erin’s. They have names, you know.”
Relc paused. He stared across Liscor’s lake and then responded slowly.
“Well, you know, back in the old days, I guess people were tired of saying ‘hey you’, all the time. So they invented this thing called names, and most people—”
Embria stomped on Relc’s tail. He bit back a shout and whirled. She glared at him.
“Don’t evade the question!”
“I don’t know, okay? Erin’s special! Klb likes her and that blue Antinium likes her too, I guess! She plays chess with Workers!”
“But why? Why do you and everyone else listen to her?”
Embria raked her claws across the spines on the back of her neck, clearly frustrated. She gripped her spear and twirled it.
“Every time something happens, not only does Watch Captain Zevara listen to her, but Wall Lord Ilvriss—a Wall Lord—listens to her! And your [Strategist]! And everyone else! They listen to her opinion even when she says the most idiotic things! And apparently Zel Shivertail himself stayed at her inn! Why?”
“Because she’s Erin.”
This time Relc pulled his tail out of the way of Embria’s foot. He cradled it protectively as she stared at him.
“I don’t know, kid. All I know is that Erin has something. But I have no idea what that is. She likes Goblins, she plays a mean game of chess apparently…and she’s just different. But I can’t say why. I just go to her inn because I like the food. And because she called me a Dragon.”
The Wing Commander snorted and turned away. Relc stared at her back for a while, and then let go of his tail. It curled up a bit, and then he sidled a bit closer to her. He leaned on the battlements.
“You know, I think it’s because people like her. They didn’t at first, but Erin grows on you. Like a mushroom.”
“And what? They don’t like me? Is that why I have to request to join every planning session and why Watch Captain Zevara keeps forgetting to notify me of important events?”
Embria clenched her claws into fists.
“I came here to defend Liscor!”
“Too late. And the army’s never here. And you came in the wrong way, kid. You strode in and expected to take command. That’s not how it works.”
Embria sagged. She leaned on the battlements, looking dispirited.
“I know. I just—I’m trying to do my job, Dad. Why is it so hard?”
Relc eyed Embria in alarm. His tail hesitated, and then nearly went over to touch Embria’s. At the last moment it stopped. He cleared his throat and looked around uncertainly.
“I think it’s because people don’t know you. But I’m sure they’d like you. I mean, you’re my kid. So why don’t we go and say hi to some people? Get your face out there? Buy some people some drinks?”
The young female Drake stared into the lake. Then she turned her head.
“That was your best idea?”
The two stood there for a while. Then Embria raised her head. She turned it and stared. Relc looked around as well. Both Drakes heard a loud, familiar voice.
“Yeah, I know it’s off limits! I need to speak with whoever’s up there! Is it Captain Zevara? No? Where is she? Okay, who’s up there? I know it’s someone important? Olesm? Embria? Okay, well then let me talk to her! Excuse me! Excuse me!”
They saw Erin push her way up the steps. The Gnoll [Guardsman] tried to stop her, but not very hard. He stepped to one side as Erin spotted Embria and Relc.
“Great! You’re on my list! Hi, Embria right?”
“What are you doing up here?”
Embria barked at Erin. The young woman paused. Embria grabbed her spear and pointed it at Erin.
“Are you insane? We are under martial law! Access to the ramparts is forbidden! I could execute you here and now!”
“Yeah, yeah. Look, I need to talk to you. Now.”
To the female Drake’s shock, Erin reached out and pushed the spearhead away from her chest. She advanced and Embria stared at her.
“I’ve got a plan. Relc, can you tell Zevara I need to speak with her? And Klbkch! I definitely need Klbkch. Get them to meet me in the inn in like, five minutes. Be there or be square. Got it?”
Relc covered a laugh as Embria spluttered.
“You can’t just order a Watch Captain—I’m a Wing Commander! What are you talking about? A plan?”
“That’s right. And you should be there. Bring a few [Captains] so they can listen if you want. I’m getting Ilvriss and Olesm now. Relc?”
“On it! Is this plan going to be awesome?”
“So awesome. Or we die.”
Erin gave Relc a thumbs up. He grinned. Erin turned to go, but Embria’s spear shot out.
Both Erin and Relc looked at Embria. The Wing Commander looked beyond peeved. She stared at Erin, anger written all over her face.
“This is insane! Da—Senior Guardsman Relc, get back to your post! You, Human. Why should we listen to you or follow your orders?”
“That’s right. You’re no [Leader]. You run an inn! What gives you the right to order anyone about?”
Erin gave Embria the blankest look the Drake had ever seen on someone who wasn’t a corpse. She thought for a second, and then shrugged.
“You don’t have to follow my orders. I just thought you’d want to be part of my plan. I don’t need you. I could use your help, but you need me more than I need you. So…see you maybe?”
The Wing Commander gaped at Erin. The young woman went to push aside her spear, but it didn’t budge. Relc coughed. He lifted the spear up and Erin ducked under it.
“Five minutes! Or ten! I can’t run that fast. All the Gold-ranks are going to be there! I’ll tell everyone my plan, then we have to hurry and get ready! Find Zevara and Klbkch!”
She ran down the battlements. The Gnoll [Guardsman] stared at Embria and then decided he needed to follow Erin. Relc and his daughter stood together. Embria looked at Relc. He grinned.
“See that? That’s why. You coming?”
“Yes, I don’t think Pallass can commit any more adventurers. It’s not a question of cost—they’re not willing to empty their city and they’ve sent two thirds of their Gold-ranks to Liscor already. They do have a Named Adventurer, but they can’t force him to comply. Yes, I’ve tried to approach him directly. But I’m banned from entering the city as you know—”
Ilvriss was speaking into his personal scrying orb to someone in Salazsar. He and Olesm sat in the meeting room usually used by the Council in their infrequent meetings. Now it was a war room complete with a map of the dungeon. Olesm was poring over the transcripts of the Gnoll prisoner’s accounts of the dungeon. He was trying to piece together an image of the Raskghar camps. And he was succeeding, much to his chagrin.
“Too many Raskghar. If we fill the corridors like this and this—we can’t complete the encirclement. But without more adventurers, we can’t hold these positions. Especially against the awakened. If they can beat a Hob—what’s Headscratcher’s level?”
Olesm was muttering to himself as he did calculations. Each time he studied the numbers of the Raskghar his heart sank. Just too many to take on with all the Gold-ranks. If they were defending it was doable. But the objective was to free prisoners and the Raskghar could run or encircle the Gold-ranks. They had to do something other than a full-scale assault. Use subterfuge. Unfortunately, even the best Gold-ranks like Seborn had flatly refused to try and infiltrate the Raskghar camp.
“We must do something. Some of the Gnolls are free, but the rest will be sacrificed. Can you hire a Courier to send an artifact—yes, it’s worth the risk! No, the Heartflame Breastplate can’t solve this issue! The Selphid wearing it can fight a hundred Raskghar in it, and there are thousands in the dungeon! I don’t care about the cost! Give me a solution! Salazsar has—”
Ilvriss was arguing passionately with his fellow Salaszarian Wall Lords and Ladies. He had really committed all he could to the dungeon. Olesm had to admire that. But his fellow nobility from Salazsar were removed from Liscor’s situation. Ilvriss had been talking with them for the last hour and gotten nowhere. But Olesm had hopes. If he could get Salaszar to send some of their elites or adventurers of their own—or just one of the artifacts that the Walled Cities held in their vaults, maybe—
“Hey! Let me in!”
The Wall Lord glanced up with Olesm. They both heard the shout from below. Olesm closed his eyes. He recognized that voice.
“Hey Ilvriss! Hey! I know you’re up there! Your guards won’t let me in! Move aside! I need to talk with you!”
Olesm looked at Ilvriss. The Drake covered the scrying orb with one claw and motioned him towards the window. The [Strategist] looked outside. Sure enough, there was Erin. A pair of Drakes were trying to usher her away, but she was shouting up at the windows.
“I have a plan! I need you to come to my inn! Now! It’s about the Gnolls!”
Ilvriss paused. He looked at Olesm. The [Strategist] gave him a weak grin and shrug, but part of him stirred. Erin couldn’t have a plan. He had no plan and he was a [Strategist] now! But she played chess. And it was Erin…
“Hold on. I need to address this. Stay near the orb. We haven’t finished our discussion.”
Ilvriss snapped into the scrying orb and placed it on the table. He stalked over to the window and unlatched it. He shouted down at Erin as the two Drakes began to haul her back.
“Hold! Solstice, what are you talking about?”
Erin fought free of the Drakes and waved her arms up at Ilvriss.
“I have a plan! It involves you and Olesm and Zevara and Embria! They’re all coming to my inn! I think!”
Ilvriss glanced swiftly at Olesm. The [Strategist] whispered.
“I haven’t heard anything from Captain Zevara. But Erin probably talked to her just before this.”
The Wall Lord nodded. He called down at Erin.
“You can’t have a plan.”
“What? Why not?”
Ilvriss glared at Erin.
“There is no way you can resolve this situation. I’m sorry, but there isn’t. Not in this case. The Raskghar are a threat, not a stain on your inn’s floors you can wipe away. This is not something you can make a difference with, Solstice.”
“I can with your help! Believe me!”
“She is quite good at strategy, Wall Lord.”
Ilvriss glanced at Olesm with irritation.
“Good at strategy doesn’t change facts, Swifttail! There are thousands of Raskghar! We’ve been racking our brains trying to figure out how to assist the Gold-ranks. What can she do that we can’t?”
“Hey! I heard that!”
In the streets, Erin raised a fist and shook it at Ilvriss. The volume of her shouting rose.
“You think I can’t help? I can’t fight, but I can think! And my plan needs you, Ilvriss! It needs you, and Klbkch, and Zevara—it needs everyone! Only I can pull it off. Because I’m me!”
The Drakes hesitated. Olesm stared down at Erin. He put down his papers and grabbed an ink pot, some fresh parchment and a quill. Ilvriss stared at him.
“What are you doing?”
“Going to her inn.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. Stay here. Swifttail! I command you!”
Ilvriss reached out. Olesm turned. He had a hand on the doorknob.
“Apologies, Wall Lord, but I believe Erin.”
“But she’s just—”
“Erin. She killed Skinner. And I believe she’s the best chess player in this world. Better than Niers Astoragon. She saved me from Liscor’s crypt. I’m going.”
Olesm threw the door open. He disappeared out it. Ilvriss turned back to the window. He stared down at Erin as Olesm hurried past her.
“You can’t do anything. If you could—what can you do that we cannot?”
The young woman stared up at him. Her voice echoed from the houses. The rain fell, but Erin shouted over the roar.
“I am Erin Solstice! I’m the craziest Human you know! And I have a plan! I can save the Gnolls! I can save Ceria! I can save Mrsha! Look me in the eye and tell me I can’t!”
She met Ilvriss’ gaze. The Wall Lord stared down at her. Then he turned. He strode down the steps and out the door. He folded his arms as he met Erin in the rain.
“Let’s hear it.”
She grinned. Erin was wet and sweaty. She was dirty from falling once. But her eyes were alight. And Ilvriss dared to hope.
“I’ll give you the cliff notes as we run to the inn. Come on!”
She ran with Ilvriss following her and cursing at his adjutants to keep up. By the time they got to the inn, Relc, Klbkch, Zevara, and Embria were there. So was Pisces, Yvlon, Klbkch, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords, and every Gold-rank captain. They stared as Erin ran inside. She turned to face them.
“I have a plan. It’s very simple. Ready? Here it is.”
She spoke. They listened for five minutes. Then they argued, and then agreed. Zevara, Embria, Ilvriss, and Klbkch raced out of the inn. The Gold-rank Captains were hot on her heels. They ran into the city. Erin stood in her suddenly empty inn. She turned and looked at those remaining. Lyonette was staring at Erin with hope. Olesm was smacking himself on the forehead. Relc just grinned. Erin smiled at them all.
“Let’s do this thing. Come on, we need to get ready. Get those tables out of the way! Move, move, move! Time is running out!”
It was early nightfall when the Raskghar finished restoring order to their camp. The dead Raskghar and Goblins were removed or processed into food. Two of the exits were fortified, sealed off in case Snatcher returned. Calruz had the Raskghar on high-alert. And the Cave Goblins were busy at work.
It always amazed Ceria how many there were. And how subservient they were. The Raskghar seemed to have a limitless supply of bodies—Cave Goblins were always moving in and out of the camp, bringing water, supplies from other spots, or fixing stuff up. Perfoming tasks the Raskghar wouldn’t. She saw a group of Goblins butchering a dead Raskghar, carefully removing the bones to be placed with the dead. And another group was constructing mobile barricades.
“We might be able to drag them into place if Snatcher returns. Or block the adventurers. We have a supply of metal and wood—but it’s limited. We have more metal than wood, actually. The Goblins occasionally go above to forage for wood, but Liscor is limited in that as well. Hide works best for most structures.”
Calruz grimaced as he pointed out the old and often moldy wood the Cave Goblins were lugging into place. They had crude nails and hammer and were creating metal sheets. Ceria saw the Raskghar supervising the task. They didn’t do any of the work themselves, but they made the Goblins work faster with calculated blows. She saw one small Goblin flinch as a Raskghar swung at her. She redoubled her pace, bringing nails to the Goblins making a large sheet of metal that could be used to block the tunnel entrance.
“It won’t stop Snatcher. You saw how strong he was.”
“Not if he fights. But you saw him. It. That thing only looked for heads. And it barely paid any notice to anything else, even when it was being attacked.”
“Because we did nothing to it! If it wanted to, I bet it could kill half your camp by itself. And you want to move locations with it hanging about?”
“Of course. The adventurers could have our location. We move again! We’ll take care on the trip, that’s all.”
He glanced around. Ceria folded her arms. The other Raksghar looked at each other. Some shook their heads. Nokha and a few of the awakened growled. She prefuctorily dipped her head.
“Dangerous, Chieftain. Would be better if we had more awakened. Stronger.”
“No. We keep the Gnolls as prisoners. Under watch. And I’ll question the small one now. I want to know how they got out.”
“Little white one used magic.”
“Impossible. Gnolls can’t—”
Ceria began to object, then remembered what Calvaron had told her once. She bit her lip and stared at Mrsha. Calruz raised his eyebrows.
“They can’t use magic, correct?”
Before Ceria could reply, Nokha jumped in.
“Can. This one is special. White fur. Must sacrifice. Tonight!”
“I said no.”
Calruz bared his teeth. Nokha’s hackles rose. She looked at her companions. Ceria saw the other Raskghar look up. The Goblins froze as they dragged the sheet of metal towards one of the walls, ready to be shoved into position. There were five entrances to the Raskghar camp. Two had been sealed, and now three metal barricades were in place. The Cave Goblins crept around them, reinforcing the solid slabs of metal. Watching the Raskghar.
They could sense it too. Calruz stared at Nokha.
“Are you questioning your Chieftain?”
The awakened Raskghar hesitated. She looked at the others and then looked back.
Calruz’s voice was calm, but a dangerous light had entered his eyes. Ceria looked from Nokha to the other Raskghar and backed up a step. They moved back as well. Calruz stood taller. He was still bigger than Nokha, but she was huge. The one-armed Minotaur and awakened Raskghar faced each other. Their voices grew louder. Now everyone was listening.
“I am in command. And I say that the ritual is performed when I desire. I will reward those I see fit.”
“When? Ritual makes Raskghar powerful now. And white one is special. Raskghar will sacrifice her. Grow even stronger. I will sacrifice her.”
Nokha licked her lips. Calruz stared down at her.
“You? And what would you do with all that power?”
“Lead Raskghar better. Grow. Sacrifice. Grow. Hunt more Gnolls. Grow. That is the purpose of the Raskghar.”
“Your purpose is what I decide it is.”
Calruz’s voice was cold. His eyes glinted as he looked around. The other Raskghar were silent, but they were watching Nokha. The Minotaur reached behind his back. He drew his axe and Nokha backed up a step. Calruz looked around, his axe’s head glowing in the faint light.
“I am your Chieftain. I, and no one else! You do not tell me what the Raskghar’s purpose is! I am in command! If you go against me, you are challenging me! My authority! Are you doing that Nokha? Because if it is a challenge, there is only one answer.”
He held his axe up. Nokha bared her teeth.
“You are weak. Chieftain. You are soft! You do not understand Raskghar. You are weak. One armed. And you trust her.”
She pointed at Ceria. The half-Elf’s breath caught. Calruz turned his head. Raskghar were moving. The awakened moved behind Nokha. Calruz looked around. No one had come to stand behind him. He bared his teeth in a terrible grin.
“It seems I should. Ceria, to me.”
Ceria moved forwards a bit. Nokha laughed. She looked from Ceria to Calruz. The awakened were at her back. Eighteen versus two. Calruz muttered to Ceria.
“Keep the others back. I’ll kill Nokha and put an end to their challenge.”
“Oh, thanks. Sure you don’t want me to take on the entire tribe?”
Ceria eyed the awakened. They were spreading out. But she could raise a wall of ice, box herself and Calruz and Nokha in. If they were fast. She tapped Calruz on the arm, drew a circle in his fur. He nodded. He’d clear the area with his axe while she worked. Nokha noticed the motion and bared her teeth.
“You trust her. But she is traitor. You said so yourself.”
“Not as traitorous as you, apparently.”
Calruz stared at Nokha. His eyes were turning red. The muscles in his arm bulged as he lifted his axe. Ceria braced herself. She knew he had Skills she hadn’t seen. And judging from the way the awakened Raskghar eyed him, they knew some of them. The tension grew deadly. But Nokha still wasn’t done. She looked at Ceria and the half-Elf saw her grin grow wide.
“But she told them everything. With a spell.”
A deathly silence fell over the room. Ceria gulped. She saw Calruz freeze. And then, slowly, the Minotaur turned towards her. And when he stared at her, his eyes were red. And oh, so very mad.
Mrsha saw it all. The end. Her body hurt so much. Her head spun. But she was not alone. The Gnolls held her. The remaining ones sat together, waiting. They watched the standoff between Calruz and the awakened.
Around the room, the Raskghar were standing, forming a large, rough circle. They watched Calruz, their Chieftain, face off against Nokha and her awakened. Behind them the Cave Goblins scurried to and fro. They were watching too. They kept their heads low, not daring to make a sound. Mrsha saw the Goblins working on the large metal sheets propped up against the walls. Others were building more cages. She saw a tiny Goblin run past them with a few nails and a piece of unshaped metal. She began hammering it into one of the metal sheets. The sound was background noise, though. The center of the room was silent. Calruz had just turned to Ceria.
“Fire. A bit of little magic. It flies up and vanishes.”
Nokha grinned. Her awakened were spreading out around Calruz and Ceria. They didn’t have their weapons in hand, but they were tensed. But the Minotaur wasn’t looking at them. He stared at Ceria.
“A spell. A fiery—you told me you didn’t know [Message].”
“I don’t. I told you that.”
Ceria backed up. Mrsha could see her grinning desperately, holding up her hands. Calruz turned. His grip on his axe shifted.
“But you know other spells. Spells from Wistram. Didn’t you tell me once that you knew a spell to talk with an old friend? With him? The [Necromancer]?”
Calruz looked like he was growing larger. Mrsha felt the madness rolling off him. She stared at him, at Nokha. If he won she wouldn’t go free. If Nokha won—they’d die tonight. Mrsha wished she had Ceria’s wand, but it had been taken. She wished Ceria had her wand.
“Look, Calruz. Nokha’s making all this up. She’s trying to divide us! We have to work together!”
Ceria’s smile was frozen as she tried to desperately talk down Calruz. But now the Minotaur was focused on her.
“The attack. You swore to me that it wasn’t your fault. But you were lying. Did you send them another message after that? Have you told them about the city? Did you tell them about the secrets?”
For a second Ceria wavered. She hadn’t expected that question.
“No—what? I would never—”
Calruz let go of his axe. He reached out and grabbed Ceria’s arm. She tried to twist away.
“Calruz, listen—I never did anything to hurt you. The Raskghar are going to attack you! Remember?”
“I trusted you. I called you my friend. I told you my secrets. Even when you tried to kill me, I trusted you. And this is how you repay me? With treachery? With this?”
Ceria’s smile was still on her face. She twisted. Calruz stared at her. His voice grew louder.
“Betrayal! I am surrounded by it! Betrayal! Treachery! You will be first, then the Raskghar!”
He let go of Ceria. Then his arm swung. He backhanded her. The blow spun the half-Elf. Ceria heard a crack. It sounded like bone breaking. Ceria’s head jerked. Her head snapped back. She fell. Mrsha made a tiny sound. No.
Ceria lay on the ground. Her face was shattered. Mrsha saw a piece of skin lying on the ground. The half-Elf jerked, looked up. Calruz stared at her.
Ceria’s face was broken. But something wasn’t right. There was no blood. And her smile was still there. But—crooked. Ceria’s smile was frozen on her face. Frozen on her face. No. It was her face. And as Ceria rose, the mask of ice broke. And beneath it she was scowling.
“I’m getting tired of being hit in the face.”
Calruz stared at Ceria. The mask of ice fell to pieces, colored water landing on the ground and melting. The Raskghar stared. Mrsha stared. Even she hadn’t smelled the mask! Had Ceria made it out of her sweat?
And now the half-Elf’s body was changing. Frost vapor poured from her arms, her hands. It formed a layer of ice over her robes, her skin. Her skeletal hand. Ceria’s voice was cold as a glacier.
“Frost armor. Illphres always said her masks were tougher than steel. You want to hit me Calruz, give it your best shot. But watch out for spikes.”
The Minotaur stared at his hand. It was bleeding. Ceria’s ice mask had torn his skin. He looked at Ceria. She grinned at him.
“Yeah, I cast a spell. So what? You kidnapped me. You kidnapped the Gnolls. What was I supposed to do? But guess what? Right here, right now, I’m not your enemy. They are.”
She pointed with a gauntlet made of ice. The awakened stared at Ceria. They smelled wary. Mrsha saw them look at Nokha. The female Raskghar bared her teeth. She had a hand on her sword.
“Your treachery is unforgivable.”
“Probably. But you have bigger problems.”
Ceria shrugged. She stared at Calruz and narrowed her eyes. The Minotaur looked at the other awakened. He stared at her uncertainly.
“Give me one reason why I could trust you.”
The room was silent. The Raskghar waited. Mrsha waited. The Cave Goblins moved and watched. Ceria looked around. She closed her eyes, then spoke.
“Death before dishonor. I’ve lied. I’ve betrayed you. But I haven’t compromised my honor.”
Calruz froze. Ceria pointed at him. The half-Elf stared at the Minotaur.
“What do you have to give them, Calruz? Glory? I don’t have that. But I do have honor. So if you’re coming, come. The Horns of Hammerad don’t run.”
She spread her arms. The Raskghar tensed. Calruz stared at Ceria. He looked at his axe. He bent and lifted it. He and Ceria charged. The Raskghar leapt forwards. Ceria ran at Calruz, her frost armor covering her body. He raised his axe and swung. She ducked.
The Minotaur roared. He swung his axe and the glowing green edge extended. His arm flashed and he spun. Three of the Raskghar jumping at him were caught by the enchanted axe. Calruz cut through them all. Blood splattered Ceria’s armor. She rose and shot an [Ice Spike]. A Raskghar howled in pain as it pierced his shoulder. Ceria conjured a wall of ice, blocking two more. She and Calruz stood back-to-back. Nokha and the other awakened snarled.
“Horns of Hammerad!”
Calruz roared. Ceria laughed.
They spun, taking on the Raskghar, blade and spell. Mrsha saw the lesser Raskghar watching. The awakened advanced slowly, spreading out. The Gnolls clung to the bars, watching, hoping.
And the Cave Goblins backed away. They saw the fighting between Chieftain and awakened. They scurried towards the exits of the Raskghar camp. They disappeared past the metal sheets lying against the walls. Mrsha saw them streaming out, breaking into a dead run. None of the Raskghar noticed. Their eyes were on the battle. But Mrsha caught something as the Goblins moved and stirred the stale dungeon air into a breeze. It blew at her and she smelled something.
Oil. Salt. A warm room and a young woman. The scent of floorboards, of a crackling fire. A place where good food was always there and where she was safe. A loving mother.
And then Mrsha saw the Goblin who was the source of the scent. She was standing by one of the metal sheets. She had a hammer in hand. She’d pounded something into the sheet. A piece of unshaped metal. A round, crude little thing. On the flat piece of metal it was an irregularity. Excess. But as Mrsha stared at it she noticed something. The round bit of metal was at the right spot. If you looked at it just right, it looked almost like a door—
And then Pebblesnatch reached into her pocket. She pulled something out. A shimmering stone that glowed bright purple. It shone with magic. The stone was small, slightly rounded. A mana stone to be precise. But if you wanted to, you could call it a pebble. And she placed it on the door.
And Mrsha howled. The fighting Raskghar froze. Calruz turned his head as he swung his axe with a snarl. Ceria turned, her finger raised, tracking Nokha. The awakened Raskghar growled in fury. She looked at Mrsha and stopped. Because the Gnoll was pointing.
Every head turned. Raskghar. Gnoll. Minotaur. And Ceria’s. The others frowned as they saw Pebblesnatch standing by the sheet of metal with the crude bit of metal attached. They stared at the glowing mana stone. Ceria’s eyes widened. Nokha stared at her and barked an order, pointing at Pebblesnatch. But it was too late.
The Cave Goblin grabbed the doorknob and heaved on it. The piece of metal the Cave Goblins had built was thick. It was propped up against the wall, just a sheet of metal. There was nothing but dungeon stone behind it. But as Pebblesnatch dragged the door open, light shone through. The Raskghar flinched back, snarling in confusion. They shaded their eyes, and then stared.
There was a room on the other side of the door. A room filled with warm light. Rich, hardwood floorboards filled the common room of the Wandering Inn. A merry fire burned in the fireplace. The air smelled of good food, and the inn was warm and pleasant. But in that moment, what everyone’s eye was really drawn to were the people.
They stood in ranks. Gold-rank adventurers, lined up. The Horns of Hammerad minus one, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Wings of Pallass, the Flamewardens. Every Gold-rank team in the city and Silver-rank ones behind. And behind them were the Watch. Ranks of Drakes and Gnolls stood side-by-side with armored [Soldiers] led by Embria. Relc and Klbkch stood behind Zevara. Ilvriss and Olesm stood to one side with the Wall Lord’s personal retinue. Ilvriss’ sword was bared.
And behind them were the Antinium. The Painted Soldiers stood in ranks, led by Pawn, Anand, and Belgrade. Bird sat on a table, bow in hand. The adventurers, guardsmen, soldiers, and Antinium stared at the Raskghar in silence. The Raskghar were frozen.
And then a young woman stepped into view. Erin Solstice stood in the doorway, a broad smile on her face. She had a frying pan in one hand. She waved at the Raskghar with the other. She spoke in the silence.
“Hey. Welcome to my inn.”
The Raskghar stared at her in horror. Erin’s smile widened. Then she stepped out of the way. Jelaqua Ivirith strode forwards. She pointed, her golden-red armor burning with magical fire.
She leapt through the door, her two-handed flail already swinging. The adventurers roared and surged through the door. Jelaqua bore down on the nearest Raskghar, her flail smashing into the beast-woman’s head. The Gold-rank adventurers charged past her, throwing spells and loosing arrows. Bevussa flew over the heads of the others, slashing at the Raskghar from overhead.
Ylawes ran forwards with Dawil and Falene at his back. He crashed into a Raskghar, ramming the stunned beast man with his shield. Dawil swung his hammer into the Raskghar’s side and Falene blasted another with a shower of fire arrows.
The Raskghar broke out of their stupefaction. They howled and tried to fight. But the wave of Gold-rank adventurers overwhelmed the first row of Raskghar, and the second. The Raskghar found themselves engaged in a melee as the [Warriors] pressed them from the front. The [Mages] and [Archers] held the back around the door. They poured through as the awakened Raskghar howled in alarm. Calruz spun, shouting orders as he and the other Raskghar tried to stem the onslaught.
There were over a hundred adventurers. But there were at least ten, no, maybe twenty Raskghar for each adventurer. The Raskghar formed a line, rushing forwards. The adventurers held their ground, shouting. Mrsha scrambled to see as the Gnolls howled. Where were the others? But the door was blank. Erin’s inn had vanished. Vanished?
And then Mrsha saw the light.
The last adventurer charged through. Erin slammed the door. She ripped the purple mana stone off and grabbed another one from the tray beside the door. She heard Zevara and Embria shouting as she fumbled with the dark brown mana stone.
“Guardsman! Follow Wing Commander Embria’s soldiers!”
“Captains! Prepare the charge!”
A row of Drakes in colored armor marched forwards. They stood in front of the door as Erin slapped the mana stone into place. The [Captains] shouted, their voices overlapping.
Wing Commander Embria raised her spear. Erin reached for the door handle and yanked open the door. The Raskghar’s camp appeared in front of them. But from a different angle. The Raskghar were all clustered on the other side of the room and the Gold-rank adventurers were facing the doorway. They turned in disbelief as the light from the inn poured towards their backs.
“Now! [Blades of Glory]! Charge!”
She raced through the doorway towards the Raskghar. The Drake [Captains] were next. Then the [Sergeants]. Then the [Soldiers]. The 4th Company of Liscor’s finest crashed into the Raskghar like a wave from behind.
“Men! After me!”
Zevara ran through next, Relc and Klbkch hot on their heels. The [Guardsman] of Liscor followed, screaming war cries. Their blades glowed and they threw themselves at the larger Raskghar without hesitation. Erin saw Ilvriss run through with his retinue of personal Drakes. The Wall Lord pointed his sword and shouted.
“To me! Cut them down! Leave none of these monsters alive!”
Olesm ran with him, sword held aloft. Erin waited until the last Drake was out the door and then slammed her door again. This time she heard the Antinium move forwards.
“Soldiers, prepare yourself. We enter combat.”
Anand’s voice rang out as the Painted Soldiers tensed in front of the door. The two [Tacticians] stood to one side, as did Pawn. Yellow Splatter’s fists were raised. He and Purple Smile waited as Erin nearly dropped the black mana stone. She slapped it on the door and looked at the Antinium.
Belgrade and Anand nodded.
“We have already applied our Skills. Proceed!”
Erin threw open the door. Again, the Raskghar camp appeared in front of her. Again, the perspective was different.
Three metal sheets. Each one had been placed at one of the entrances to the Raskghar camp. Each one at a different spot. Erin didn’t know how Pebblesnatch had managed it, but the logic had been simple. Why attack from one spot if you could attack from three?
The instant the door opened Yellow Splatters thundered through. He spoke not a word. And neither did the other Soldiers. They charged silently.
A wall of black bodies smashed into the Raskghar from the side. They were so preoccupied with the Watch and Embria’s Soldiers and the adventurers that they didn’t hear the Antinium. Their only warning was the sight of Yellow Splatters running towards the nearest Raskghar. The beast man turned, eyes wide, and brought up his shield. Yellow Splatter’s fist punched through it and then the Antinium knocked the Raskghar to the ground. He pounded the Raskghar with all four fists as the Antinium streamed forwards, a tide of them—
“We go in too. Pawn, stay with us.”
Belgrade and Anand strode forwards. Pawn walked after them, swinging his censer. Erin wanted to stop them, but the Antinium walked behind the lines of Soldiers. And then it was just Erin. She looked around. Her inn was empty. Her chairs and tables were piled up at the dais in the back. Even so, her inn had been packed. Now there was only her, Bird, Lyonette, and Apista left. Erin stared at Bird. He had his bow out and was aiming it.
“Do I have permission to shoot, Miss Erin?”
Erin stepped back from the door. Bird nodded. He knelt and drew an arrow. He took aim and loosed in a fraction of a second. His arrow shot past a group of fighting Soldiers, so close to one that it nearly grazed the Soldier’s eye. The Soldier didn’t flinch. The Raskghar that Bird’s arrow struck did. Bird drew another arrow and loosed it. And another. And another. His four hands moved so fast Erin couldn’t keep track. He loosed one arrow and then used his other hands to loose another. The arrows flew in a steady stream, as if Bird didn’t have to aim.
And he didn’t, in a sense. The Raskghar were everywhere. And there were so many of them! More than all the people fighting. But they were boxed in from three sides. And their opponents had been waiting for this moment.
Guardsman. Soldiers. Adventurers. Antinium. One side alone couldn’t beat the Raskghar. The adventurers couldn’t take the fight to them in the dungeon. The Antinium couldn’t bypass the traps. The soldiers and guardsman couldn’t abandon Liscor. People like Ilvriss could fight, but couldn’t handle the dungeon’s confines. But a fight? In a fight it was different.
Erin stared through the door. The Raskghar were disorganized, afraid. They had never expected their enemy to commit so much to one assault. If Liscor’s defenders died here, the city was lost. But that was the thing about strategy. You went all in. And this was all Erin had.
“Bird, I’m changing the door back to the adventurer’s side. They need support.”
“Yes, Erin. The pretty bird lady should not die.”
Erin slammed the door. Bird leaned out of the way as she plucked the mana stone off and slapped the purple one into place. She opened the door and Bird began loosing arrows. The Raskghar howled. Some of them pointed at Erin’s door. She gritted her teeth.
“Yeah, come on. Try getting in here. Bird, you get ready to move back if they rush us. Lyonette?”
Erin looked around. She looked for the [Princess]. Lyonette was staring into the door. She had a sword in her hands. Erin stared at her. Apista buzzed up in front of Erin’s face.
“Lyonette? What are you—”
Chaos. The battle in the Raskghar’s camp was utter chaos. The three sides tried to hem the Raskghar in, but there were so many! The organized battle line began to fracture in places. But the Gold-ranks pressed ahead. The Silver Swords fought back-to-back. The Flamewardens incinerated patches of Raskghar while Bevussa’s team flew above. But they weren’t the tip of the spear breaking into Raskghar lines.
“There. You. Are!”
Jelaqua howled as she spotted the Raskghar in enchanted armor. The Raskghar turned and she crashed into him. The Selphid battered on his helmet with her flail as he struck her armor with his axe. The two cleared a space as they swung at each other. Raskghar tried to come to the armored Raskghar’s aid, but arrows cut them down. Halrac advanced, loosing arrows at point-blank range.
“Halrac! You’re in too far!”
Revi shouted at the [Scout] as he covered Jelaqua from behind. Her summoned warriors were clearing the left flank for the adventurers. Her giant Face-Eater Moth was causing havoc among the Raskghar and Typhenous was blowing apart their ranks with spells. But Halrac was surrounded. The Raskghar charged at the archers.
Halrac loosed an enchanted arrow, blowing two Raskghar apart, and then turned as one with an axe bore down on him. He dropped his bow, and drew his shortsword. He stabbed the Raskghar through the hide armor on its chest and turned. He cut at the Raskghar charging him from the right, dodging backwards, blade flashing. The Raskghar howled in dismay.
The [Scout] flung himself down. He grabbed his bow and rolled, sheathing his shortsword as an adventurer heaved a trip vine bag at the Raskghar. It exploded, wrapping them in vines as Halrac leapt back. Jelaqua and the armored Raskghar fought on, heedless of the vines. Halrac turned, raising his bow, and an awakened Raskghar charged him. The first arrow Halrac loosed froze the Raskghar’s shield arm and raised buckler, but the awakened Raskghar just hurled the shield down. It charged Halrac, stone axe swinging. Halrac reached for his sword, narrowing his eyes—
And a hand grabbed the awakened. It twisted as Moore lifted it. The half-Giant roared at the Raskghar.
“Where is Mrsha?”
The Raskghar bit and clawed at Moore. In response, the giant threw the Raskghar into a clump of the others. The awakened Raskghar’s body cracked as it landed among the other Raskghar. They fell down, screaming in pain and then looked up as Moore swung his staff. The half-Giant punched and Raskghar disappeared. His body rose above the others as he threw Raskghar to the ground.
Raskghar tried to fight him. But a shadow moved behind Moore. Seborn stabbed a Raskghar in the back, leapt, rolled, and cut another one before vanishing again. To his right, Relc grappled with an awakened Raskghar.
“Gah! You’re pretty strong!”
The former [Sergeant] grunted, his muscles straining as he fought with the Raskghar for possession of his spear. The awakened Raskghar’s eyes widened in disbelief as Relc forced the spear tip towards its chest. It backed up, arms straining—
And Klbkch’s blades pierced its chest. The Antinium twisted his swords and the Raskghar collapsed. Klbkch withdrew his blades and looked at Relc. The Drake blinked at him.
“I had him.”
Klbkch turned, blades flashing. Relc grinned and spun his spear. The Raskghar backed away as the two charged forwards.
“Hold the line! Let the [Mages] cut them down! Hold!”
Zevara fought in her section as the Watch strove to keep the Raskghar pinned. While the Senior Guardsmen moved independently, the rest of the Watch fought shoulder-to-shoulder, not budging an inch. Zevara spat fire and cut with her sword. She saw the Raskghar charging on her left and ran to reinforce that spot. But before she got there she heard a voice.
“On the left!”
Embria charged with the [Soldiers] under her command. The [Captains] effortlessly cleaved into the Raskghar as the lower-level [Soldiers] rushed to follow. Embria whirled her spear, stabbed a Raskghar through the throat, and cut another across the face. She turned and saluted Zevara. The Watch Captain returned the salute.
“Salazsar! To me!”
Ilvriss stood on another part of the front lines. The Wall Lord fought with his small retinue of Drakes, not budging an inch. The Raskghar fell back in front of him—the Wall Lord’s fury was a physical thing, pressing at them, beating down like invisible fists. He turned and pointed.
“There! Someone stop those Raskghar!”
A group was headed towards Erin’s open door. The Antinium charged to intercept. Purple Smiles swayed as he jabbed, punching and fighting two Raskghar with his four arms at once. The other Soldiers overwhelmed the group of Raskghar with their bodies, throwing themselves on the Raskghar with a fury even the beast people couldn’t match. But some of the Raskghar escaped. They ran for Erin’s inn, ignoring Bird’s arrows that pierced their hides. One charged at Erin, howling—
And she slammed the door in his face. The warrior collided with the stone wall full-force. He lay there, stunned, until one of the Gold-rank adventurers stabbed him in the back. Light flashed from the other side of the room as Erin opened her door behind the Watch.
The battle was going one way. The Raskghar fell back, howling in fear as they were pressed from every side. They were strong. Cunning! Larger than their opponents! But these other races had magic. They blew apart the Raskghar from afar, and when they were injured they pulled back and used healing potions. The Raskghar, for all their numbers, didn’t have nearly as many healing potions. They had artifacts, but not enough.
And the Cave Goblins were gone. It was only Raskghar who fell and died. The awakened tried to rally them, but the Raskgahr were breaking. Nokha, snarling, turned, and howled for her bretheren. But she heard only three answering howls in the chaos. The awakened were dying! She felt fear run through her and looked around.
They had to flee. This battle was lost. But before they could go, they had to take the special one.
Mrsha. The fighting had kept clear of the cages. Nokha cut with her enchanted sword, killing the [Soldier] who was rushing at her and bounded through the fighting. She leapt towards Mrsha’s cage. The Gnolls inside cried out as Nokha tore the bars open. One tried to tackle her—she ran him through.
Mrsha fought as Nokha reached into the cage. But the Raskghar ignored her biting. She bared her teeth and turned. Flee! She looked towards the exits and then saw someone standing in front of her.
“Put her down.”
Lyonette held a sword in her hands. Nokha stared at her and grinned. She lashed out, her glowing sword cutting at Lyonette’s head. Mrsha screamed. And Lyonette parried.
It was a perfect moment. All the weight behind Nokha’s thrust vanished. Her blade missed Lyonette and the young woman stabbed. Nokha felt a burst of pain radiating from one shoulder. She turned, wrenching the blade out of her shoulder. She swung again, knocking Lyonette’s blade away. The sword tore loose from Lyonette’s hand and went flying. The young woman stared up as Nokha lifted her sword.
“Bee attack! Go Apista!”
Nokha heard the voice, but it made no sense. She turned her head and Apista jammed her stinger into Nokha’s cheek. The Raskghar howled and tried to tear the Ashfire Bee off. Apista flew up as Lyonette scrambled for her sword. The Raskghar whirled. Enough! She turned, eyes blazing—
And saw Moore. The half-Giant’s arms bled, but the thorns and vines covering his body were bloodier still. With Raskghar blood. Nokha’s ears flattened. She sliced at his arm, cutting deep—
Moore picked her up, broke the arm holding Mrsha like a twig, and threw Nokha. She slammed into a far wall, screaming, and vanished in the melee. Moore bent. Mrsha stared up at him. The half-Giant rasped.
“Mrsha. Are you alright?”
She nodded. Moore’s bloody face turned into a smile. He sat with a groan, bleeding. The Gnoll heard pounding footsteps.
And then Lyonette was holding her. The [Princess] clutched the Gnoll and Mrsha clung to her chest. The two stood like that for a moment as the fighting continued around them. And then Seborn appeared.
“To the door! Now!”
They turned. Erin was standing at the door. She waved at them and threw her frying pan. It clocked a Raskghar bearing down on them. Erin waved them into the inn and then saw a Raskghar coming from behind. Bird looked for an arrow.
“I am out of arrows. Oh dear.”
“Out of the way! [Minotaur Punch]!”
The Raskghar’s head snapped back. It snarled—and Erin slammed the door in its face again. She yanked the mana stone off and turned. Lyonette was holding Mrsha. Erin smiled. Then she saw Moore collapse. Seborn yanked a potion off his belt as the half-giant lay on the floor.
“Tend to Moore! This isn’t over yet! Bird, get more arrows!”
“I will find more. Are any shops open?”
Erin ignored him. She yanked open the door. The Raskghar were beginning to break. But now she had only one question left.
“Ceria? Where’s Ceria?”
Calruz stood in the center of the Raskghar ranks. He shouted, ordering them forwards. They struggled to obey. But the adventurers cut them down. They were using [Fireballs], blasting the Raskghar apart. Calruz roared in fury. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be! If the Raskghar could pull back, if they could fight in choke points—
But something in him knew the truth. It was too late. They’d been taken by surprise. It was over. The Raskghar began to break, fleeing for the three exits, some trying to remove the barricades they’d painstakingly erected. Their morale was broken. Some fought on, but too many were fleeing.
“So this is it.”
The Minotaur stared around. His axe was heavy in his hand. He turned, staring at the three sides as they closed in. Despair made Calruz close his eyes. He had been so close! So close—
But some part of him was glad. It was a whisper, but it rejoiced. At last. Let this be an end. Calruz turned. Which side should he throw himself on? The people of Liscor, outraged over the Raskghar’s crimes? The adventurers, conquering the dungeon? The Antinium, the faceless, numberless foe? Each one was fitting. But before he could decide, a voice called his name.
He turned. Ceria stood behind him. Her armor of ice was cracked. Blood ran down her head. But she was alive. He was glad of that. But then three others moved to join her. Calruz paused.
An Antinium stood in front of Ceria, wearing a cloak, holding a dagger and shortsword and magical buckler in his three hands. Next to him stood Yvlon Byres, her armor bloody, gripping a sword with both hands. Beside Ceria stood Pisces, holding a rapier in one hand, his other hand glowing with magic. A creature of bone loomed behind him, a horrific spider of jagged edges. Calruz stared.
“This is it, Calruz. You lose.”
Ceria looked tired. Her hand trembled with exhaustion as it pointed at Calruz’s chest. But her eyes were steady. The Minotaur stared at her.
“So this is your new team. They aren’t worthy. Not of the Horns of Hammerad.”
“That is quite debatable—”
“Shut up, Pisces.”
Ceria turned her head to address the [Necromancer]. When she looked back at Calruz, she was smiling slightly.
“So you say. But here we are. The Horns died in the crypt, Calruz. All but you and I. But here we are.”
Calruz felt his heart beating as he stared at the four Horns of Hammerad. He looked around, laughed, and raised his axe.
“Fitting! Then let’s make an end of it! Come! Show me what the Horns can do! Grant me death! For honor! For glory!”
He charged. The Horns spread out. Calruz’s first swing was blocked by the Antinium. His buckler emitted a field of energy that blocked the swing. The Antinium swung with his dagger and shortsword. Calruz knocked away both blades. He turned and Yvlon swung her sword.
The impact nearly threw Calruz back as he blocked. The sword was enchanted! He struck her, and Yvlon’s arms buckled as she blocked the blow with her sword. But her arms did not falter. They did not break. She swung her sword and Calruz stumbled back—
And an [Ice Spike] struck his chest. The tip broke off in Calruz’s skin. His toughened hide resisted the force of the blow, but Calruz turned towards Ceria. And Pisces stabbed him from behind.
The tip of his rapier penetrated Calruz’s back. But like the spell, it didn’t go through Calruz’s flesh. The Minotaur turned, swinging his axe and Pisces blurred out of the way. Yvlon blocked another swing and stumbled back. The Bone Horror slashed Calruz across the chest. He roared.
He cleaved through the thing’s head. It fell, lifeless. Ceria raised a wall of ice as Calruz rushed her. His axe smashed through the thick ice. Calruz turned. Yvlon was trying to flank him. The [Necromancer] was blasting him with electricity. Where was—
Ksmvr stabbed Calruz in the leg with his dagger. The Flamecoat Dagger sparked. And Calruz’s flesh ignited. The Minotaur screamed, his entire body aflame. He swung wildly and Yvlon’s blade cut a wide gash down his front. Pisces hit Calruz with a blast of air that knocked the Minotaur back. He tried to see. But the flames—
Cold. Something struck Calruz. It smothered the flames, put him out. Calruz groaned, pain wracking his body. He looked at what had hit him.
Snow. He looked up. Ceria Springwalker smiled at him. She lifted her skeletal finger and pointed at Calruz’s forehead. The Minotaur met her gaze. And smiled. He dropped his axe—
And the [Ice Spice] struck him between the eyes. The Minotaur fell. Ceria walked towards him. She knelt, her eyes filled with tears. Calruz stared up, his eyes wide and blank. Ceria bent.
“Stupid Minotaur. You always did have a hard head.”
Blood ran down Calruz’s head. The Minotaur laughed weakly.
“I suppose I did.”
He stared up at Ceria and reached out. She caught his hand.
In the end, they stood and counted the dead. Of the Raskghar, there were too many to number. Of the attackers, well…
Erin watched as Halrac knelt and closed a Gnoll’s eyes. Nailren bowed his head, weeping. The Watch stood around their fallen, as did Embria’s [Soldiers]. The Antinium stared down at the broken bodies of their own. The symbols of the fallen soldiers would appear on the Hive’s walls.
The dead. Was it selfish that Erin had only known a few of them? Her friends had lived. It had been the low-level ones, the brave adventurers and guards who had volunteered to fight the Raskghar that had paid the price.
And yet, the mood wasn’t depressed. It wasn’t joyous either. It was…relieved. The Raskghar had fled. But only a few hundred. Their camps were still there, and perhaps some of the awakened lived. But this attack had shattered them. They would not menace Liscor again.
Zevara leaned on her sword panting and coughing exhaustedly. Keldrass was doing the same. He offered her a jar and Zevara eyed it before lifting it up. The air blowing from the magical artifact dried the blood on her face until she held it to her mouth and breathed from it. When she lowered it, she was breathing easier.
“We have lost good Drakes and Gnolls this day. And Humans as well. But this was a victory. A triumph.”
Ilvriss stood straight, although he looked as tired as anyone else. He bore a scratch on one cheek and he had buried two of his followers. But his gaze was clear.
“We saved the people of Liscor. We crushed the Raskghar in their homes. Was it worth the price? I think it was.”
“Not to mention the captured artifacts.”
Embria pointed at the dead Raskghar. The armored Raskghar that Jelaqua had finally killed, the Raskghar with the invisible bow—and far more. They had fallen with their brethren, and the adventurers had dragged their bodies out. Ilvriss nodded tiredly as the Gold-ranks looked at each other.
“We will take custody of the artifacts. We can divide it later according to each group’s contributions. And I will pay the full bounty for the freed Gnolls. Although—”
He brightened up a bit.
“—I suppose that Liscor’s involvement will mean that a portion of the bounty is rendered null.”
“Actually Wall Lord, I think that Liscor would like to claim whatever portion of the bounty possible. If only to provide the Watch pay for exceptional service and compensate the dead.”
Zevara cleared her throat, clearly embarrassed. Ilvriss sighed.
“Of course. But later. We will leave the dead here, I take it. Let the monsters have the Raskghar. We’ll destroy the doors—”
“And the prisoner?”
Everyone fell silent. Erin looked over at Anand. He and six Soldiers stood around Calruz. The Minotaur knelt, shackled, his head bowed. He did not look up, though his body was badly burned and he bled from two wounds. Zevara hissed.
“Take him to the Watch’s prison. We’ll begin the trial as soon as we can figure out all that he’s done.”
Ilvriss nodded coldly. Embria looked at her [Soldiers] and the Antinium made way. The Drakes yanked Calruz to his feet and forced him through the magic doorway. A few of the adventurers stirred. Erin saw Ksmvr, Pisces, and Yvlon look at Ceria. But the half-Elf just shook her head. Her eyes were pained as she watched Calruz go.
“He has to pay for what he’s done. Madness or not. I’ll…be there to testify.”
The other adventurers looked at the Horns. Ilvriss turned and nodded.
“We will look forwards to a full report. But later. For now—”
He wobbled and caught himself. The Wall Lord looked around. At Antinium, Drakes, Gnolls, a Selphid, Humans…for once there was no scorn in Ilvriss’ eyes as he met Erin’s.
“This was a victory. We accomplished it working together. Perhaps…no, let us say no more than that. All races came together in Liscor’s hour of need. Dwarf. Human. Drake. Gnoll. Selphid. Drowned Man. Half-Giant. Garuda.”
Ilvriss looked at Erin. The young woman looked around. The exhausted warriors looked at her. Erin raised her voice.
“And Goblins. You may not like it. You don’t have to change your mind. But this was all thanks to Goblins. They fought for this. And it was a Goblin who opened the way.”
She pointed to Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin was staring at a dead Raskghar. She touched her former master and then looked up. She flinched as all the eyes found her. Erin nodded.
“You all fought. I’ll never forget that. But give the Goblins their due. They helped. And that is the truth. And the truth does not change. All of you saved the people I love. And Goblins.”
Ilvriss looked at Zevara and Embria. He wavered, then nodded curtly.
“So be it. And Goblins. And now—and now I think it is time. People of Liscor. Let us return home.”
And they did. The tired adventurers, the Watch, the soldiers and Antinium left the dungeon. The Raskghar camp lay abandoned. The dead remained where they had fallen. In time, monsters crept along. They devoured. And a lone figure walked, collecting heads. A skeleton danced around, giddy, laughing without a voice. But that was the dungeon.
Erin walked back into her inn and saw off every last person, thanking each one she could. She saw Lyonette go upstairs, still holding Mrsha and refusing to let go. She looked at Ceria and saw the half-Elf had changed. But she spoke little of it. She watched as all her friends went to their beds, and then slowly walked into her kitchen. She lay down on the floor in her nest of blankets and sighed. She closed her eyes.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 36!]
[Skill – Natural Allies: Goblins obtained!]
[Inn – Local Landmark: Liscor obtained!]
Erin smiled for just a moment. Then she fell asleep in truth. And in a cave not far from her inn, a group of five Goblins stood in silence. They stared into the dungeon and then looked at each other. The Cave Goblins watched. The Raskghar were dead. But it was not their new masters that stood in front of them now. The Redfang Goblins turned, their red eyes flashing, and the Cave Goblins watched. They listened, and the ones below looked up. They felt it.