When she woke up, it was like any ordinary day. But Mrsha knew it was special because she could smell the crepes.
She liked crepes. They were hot and chewy, and sometimes burned when Lyonette made them. Other time they were still runny, but they were always good because they came with honey.
The small Gnoll with white fur sat up in Lyonette’s empty bed; wriggling out of the covers she’d stolen again last night. Her short, bushy tail beat the ground hard, and in a few moments she raced downstairs.
Food! It wasn’t at all like the bloody meat she used to eat in her tribe’s camp, or the hot and filling stews. Those were spiced and tasted good, but they were made for everyone and sometimes there wasn’t enough. But here, in this inn that smelled of new wood and strange bug-men, Mrsha could always eat as much as she wanted.
And she could eat honey! The Gnoll drooled as she ran downstairs on all fours. She slipped near the bottom on one of the steps, though. Mrsha made a small sound of alarm, tried to catch her balance, failed, and tumbled down the stairs.
It was the first word of the day, and it was hers. Mrsha uncurled from the protective ball she’d made and looked up. Hurrying across the big, empty room was a familiar face. The Human girl known as Lyonette rushed over to the Gnoll, already fretting out loud.
“Are you hurt? Are you okay? I told you not to run down the stairs! Oh, let me check—”
Mrsha turned her face up so Lyonette could see she was well. It was an odd thing the Human girl did, the Gnoll had found. She had to inspect Mrsha all over to see she was well. A Gnoll would have just sniffed to make sure there was no blood—Mrsha had fallen many times over the course of her young life and learned quickly not to cry over small things.
But Lyonette cared. She cared so much that it made Mrsha feel fuzzy inside sometimes. Already the Gnoll knew she’d get extra honey on her crepes—more than she usually got, which was already a lot. Because Lyon was a nice person. She took care of Mrsha. She took care of the inn while Ryoka and Erin were away.
That was what Mrsha understood. This was Ryoka’s home, and the home of the girl who made delicious things. Erin. But it was also Lyonette’s home, and she took care of it while they were gone.
It wasn’t Mrsha’s home. It wasn’t. But it was a good place, and it made Mrsha feel happy most of the time. And Lyonette always fed her here, although some of the things she made tasted bad.
She wasn’t a good cook. And she fussed about things like the cold and bugs and washing. And she couldn’t smell, at least, not like Mrsha could.
But she was kind. She fed Mrsha every day and she always asked Mrsha how she was feeling. She hugged Mrsha often and sometimes cried, but never when she knew Mrsha was around. She smelled of guilt and her hands had blisters from scrubbing and working now.
She was almost as good as a mother. But Mrsha’s mother was dead. And her father. And her tribe was dead too, every last one.
She was alone.
The black thoughts broke through Mrsha’s happiness suddenly. She sat at one of the tables as Lyonette fussed over her, suddenly filled with emptiness. She remembered.
Perhaps Lyonette noticed Mrsha’s suddenly drooping tail and ears, and the way she stared at her white fur. Maybe she didn’t. But in the next moment she had—
Mrsha forgot about what she’d been thinking on purpose. Her stomach rumbled and she wagged her tail and panted as the crepes came on a big plate next to a bowl filled with sweet honey. She reached for the first steaming one, but Lyonette grabbed her paw.
“Ah, ah! You know what to do first, Mrsha.”
The Gnoll child hesitated, and then saw another empty plate. She pulled it towards her, and Lyonette nodded encouragingly.
“And the silverware?”
Mrsha found a fork and knife as well. She put it next to her plate. Then she looked at Lyonette pleadingly. The girl smiled and nodded.
Instantly, the Gnoll grabbed a crepe off the plate. Ignoring the silverware and her own plate, she bit into it happily. Then she took the bowl of honey and poured some over her plate. She wiped some of the honey onto her crepe, took another bite. Sweetness and the electric rush of energy made her practically vibrate on her seat.
Sitting next to her, Lyonette laughed and tried to make Mrsha eat ‘civilized’, which was to say, slower, and with a knife and fork. But Mrsha was too hungry and why should she use a fork? Paws were faster.
That was breakfast, on a day like any other. But it was a good breakfast, and special because she wasn’t in the city. It had been nearly a week since Mrsha had left the Drake who made all the rules, Selys. She had come here, to a better place. She might have called it a home, but how could it be?
After she was done, Mrsha sat on her chair, snuffling at Lyonette’s plate, wondering if she had room to lick up crumbs or whether Lyonette would let her lick the plate clean. What would happen next?
It was a mystery. Some days Lyonette was busy and she’d go around cleaning up dust or cooking more food. But other days she’d play with Mrsha, or bathe her, or groom her hair. Mrsha had toys now. They were hers; the bossy Drake had given it to her. She wanted to play with the ball outside if Lyonette would throw it. Or maybe she could look at the wriggling thing? It was still sitting in the bowl; Mrsha could smell it. Maybe Lyonette wanted to play in the snow?
But then Mrsha smelled something different. Her head turned towards the stairs, and she went still in sudden fright.
It wasn’t a normal day after all. Because coming down the stairs, yawning, was a Drake. Not the bossy Drake, or the one who played chess.
Instantly, Mrsha was out of her chair and hiding behind Lyonette. But the girl only stroked her head and smiled at the strange Drake.
“Oh! Mister Shivertail. You’re up early.”
Shivertail? Mrsha’s ears perked up at the words. She looked at the Drake, and remembered that he was the one who’d come last night!
Zel? Mrsha remembered it because she’d never heard of anyone with a ‘z’ in their name before. Cautiously, she padded around the table and circled Zel Shivertail warily.
“Mrsha! Don’t be rude to a guest!”
Lyonette tried to chase Mrsha away, but she was slow. The Drake only laughed though, as he took a seat.
“I don’t mind, Mistress. Gnoll cubs are far easier to deal with than Drake hatchlings. Do I smell breakfast?”
“Oh! Let me get you a plate. I’ve made crepes—unless you’d like something else? I can do eggs and bacon…”
Mrsha perked up at the words, although she still felt full.
“Crepes will be fine.”
Lyonette hurried into the kitchen. When she came back with crepes and a glass she hovered around Zel while he ate, making contented sounds and Mrsha padded under the tables and chairs nearby, still watching the Drake and sniffing at him with keen interest.
She remembered something about him, didn’t she? He smelled like the sheets of the inn of course, and she could tell he’d travelled for a while because the odor of dried sweat emanated from his clothes. But there was something else, something familiar…
“I’m sorry, we don’t have anything to drink but milk and water. Um. Are Drake children really so hard to manage?”
“Water is fine—milk would be quite nice if you have it.”
Zel waited until Lyonette came back with a cooled pitcher of milk. Sneaking up on the Drake from behind, Mrsha listened to him talk to Lyonette with one ear as she kept sniffing.
“Children? They’re awful. I’ve never had any, but Drakes at a young age are temperamental and they bite. Of course, I hear Gnolls do to, but I’ve never had one of them bite my tail.”
Mrsha stared at Zel’s tail. It was curled around a chair leg. She wondered what it would taste like…
“Oh, well I wouldn’t know. I’m new here. I mean…”
“It’s quite unusual to see any Humans here. I’m sorry, but I didn’t get the full story last night. You said this inn is run by a Human [Innkeeper] who settled here, didn’t you? But how did you come to be here? Did you move from one of the Human cities?”
Mrsha could hear Lyon hesitate as she crept closer one step at a time. Slowly, stealthily—like she was hunting butterflies. She crept along, towards the Drake’s back so he wouldn’t see her, still smelling something so familiar it hurt…
“It’s a long story.”
“If you have time, I’d like to hear it.”
“You’re not busy?”
“I don’t have anything I have to do right away. My…companion is probably still hungover from last night. I heard him say he’d be drinking the cold away and I’m not that keen on meeting him in any case. These crepes are quite good with this honey! Are there beehives around Liscor that have popped up in the last few years? I didn’t hear of that.”
“Oh, well, the bees are…um…it’s part of the long story, you see…”
Mrsha rolled her eyes silently; she didn’t want to hear a story she already knew! She wanted to hear Ryoka’s stories. But it meant both adults weren’t paying attention to her. Finally, Mrsha could crawl right behind the Drake’s chair.
There it was. The smell. She sniffed very quietly at the Drake’s claws. Something was lurking past the ordinary smells of unwashed scale, dirt, sweat, and so on.
Then she smelled the blood, faint and old on his claws and the deeper scents of oil and steel. And she remembered.
He runs out of the swirling snow, armor battered, unarmed. But he runs like a giant, and the Goblins attacking Ryoka and the Gnolls hesitate when they see him. And at his back, an army of Drakes appears as if by magic, howling and shouting with fury as they race towards the Goblins.
The Drake slashes out with his claws and tears through a Goblin wearing black armor as if the Goblin had worn nothing at all. He cuts down another Goblin—a Hob with a battleaxe—and charges onwards. At his side, a Drake with a sword that shines with magic cuts down two Goblins with one slash.
They run past Mrsha, and for a moment her heart leaps in her chest. But the Goblins are everywhere, and then a group of Hobs charges towards them. And she hides in the snow, cowering, wishing everything would go away. She is afraid, paralyzed by terror. Afraid, afraid—
She shook, and then realized Lyonette was staring down at her. For a second Mrsha was still afraid, but then she realized she was in the inn. She felt exhausted, and she stared up at Lyon as the girl looked anxiously at her.
“You were shaking. Are you alright? Why were you hiding underneath the table? You should sit with me.”
She reached for Mrsha, but the small Gnoll suddenly lashed out in anger. She nipped at Lyonette’s hand and the girl pulled back with a cry of pain.
Filled with hot shame, Mrsha retreated back from the Human girl. She hid by another table. So tired. So afraid! She remembered, and looked past Mrsha to stare at the Drake who was eying her.
He was there. He had been there when she had lost her tribe. He—
He didn’t recognize her. At all. Why?
Because of her fur. Mrsha stared down at her white paws as Lyonette stepped back, looking hurt.
“Sorry about that. I guess Mrsha’s just a bit grumpy today.”
“So I see. I might have upset her—Gnolls can be very territorial. It’s strange though. I’ve never seen a Gnoll with white fur before.”
“Oh? But you’ve heard of Gnolls with white fur? I thought Mrsha was unique.”
The Gnoll backed slowly away from the two as Lyonette turned to Zel eagerly. Her heart was beating too fast and she still felt—he had been there. And because he had been there, Mrsha felt like she was back there, too.
“I’ve heard of it. It’s more of rumors than anything else, but the Gnolls believe certain colors have meaning. White, for instance, is not a natural color for Gnolls of any tribe.”
“But it means something? Ryoka was saying that she thought it had a meaning, but none of the Gnolls would tell her what it meant.”
“I can tell you what I know, but it’s just rumors…”
Mrsha turned away. She covered her floppy ears with her paws. She did not want to hear. She knew what her fur meant.
It meant her tribe was gone. And it meant it was her fault. Mrsha knew that. She couldn’t deny it, no matter how much she wanted to.
[Last Survivor]. Level 8. That was what the voice had told her. It had told her she was the last.
There was no one left.
The knowledge crushed Mrsha, pressed down on her heart until it seemed like there was no air to breathe, no place to exist. They were dead. Her tribe—the Stone Spears—
Because of her.
It felt like suddenly the world was darker, the ceiling lower. And Mrsha was smaller, and it was hard to breathe. She gasped and trembled underneath her table as voices echoed overhead, weirdly distant.
She had to leave. She had to get out. Mrsha stared towards the door, and then ran for it.
“Mrsha! Where are you going?”
Lyonette turned to the Gnoll as she reached up for the handle. Mrsha froze guiltily, but the girl went on.
“Going to the outhouse? Alright, but come back quickly! And don’t try to crawl down there! Remember last time?”
Mrsha didn’t turn. She just opened the door and escaped into the powdery snow. Immediately the world turned bright and white, and cold. Mrsha with all her fur felt cold, but she didn’t care. At this moment she couldn’t bear to be in the inn, not near the Drake who smelled of death and reminded her of what she’d lost. Mrsha looked around the snowy landscape.
There was only one place to go, really. The city. As young as she was, Mrsha still knew the dangers of being alone in the wilderness. So she began to run through the snow, barely visible in the morning light. She was a white patch of color amid a scene dedicated to the very same color.
So perhaps it was no wonder the Drake on guard on the southern gate didn’t notice her. He was standing at attention, but idly. And he didn’t have the nose of a Gnoll, so Mrsha slipped past him with no effort.
And then she was in the streets, staring around at the building curiously, and at the many Drakes and Gnolls—and the few Humans—walking down the streets. A thousand scents assaulted Mrsha’s nose at once, and she breathed out slowly.
Better. She could forget. Only—after a few seconds, Mrsha realized she couldn’t forget. Here too was a bad place that drove her backwards in time. Because of the staring.
They stared at her. Drakes and Gnolls. But while the Drakes did it idly, wondering perhaps whose child Mrsha was, or at her odd fur coloring, the Gnolls were different. They stared and they knew.
It was too much to bear, so Mrsha ran again. She ran through the sea of legs, turned down the first alley she came to.
Quiet. Alone. That was what she wanted. She didn’t want—
Mrsha’s claws pulled at her fur. She pulled at it, as if she could get rid of it. Some hairs came out, and she felt pain, but she pulled more out, biting at her fur, savage, angry.
It wasn’t fair! It wasn’t her fault!
But it was. And as the despair flooded over Mrsha again, she thought of home. But home was gone. And the inn wasn’t her home. Ryoka wasn’t there, and she—
She wanted to go back.
Again and again. It felt like Mrsha was turning in circles, and she chased her tail in the wet alleyway, turning about until she was dizzy and wanted to throw up. But it was better than remembering. Anything was.
What now? She couldn’t stay here. Last time she’d run away from Selys, the Watch had found her because she’d tried to hide in alleyways. Mrsha had to go somewhere.
But where? Inn? No. So…
Something swirled on the breeze and Mrsha’s nose twitched as she caught a scent. Gnolls had powerful noses, but their children had far stronger tracking abilities. And so what Mrsha smelled was faint, mixed with a thousand scents, but she still caught it.
A familiar smell. Someone she knew. Instantly, Mrsha padded out of the alleyway and onto the streets. But she paused then, realizing one thing was giving her away.
She was on all fours. It was faster, but in her tribe Urksh had been teaching her to walk on two legs. Mrsha did this now. It was hard—and slower! But she had to blend in, at least a bit. A Drake [Guardsman] would stop a Gnoll child who was alone and on all fours, but if she walked like this, they would think she was older.
No one stopped Mrsha as she walked hesitantly down the street, pausing to sniff or steady herself against a wall or passing object. Perhaps the patrolling Watch members she saw would have paid attention to her, but they were too busy eying the Humans.
There were a lot of them in Liscor, or rather, Mrsha saw at least one Human down every street she walked. But that was many for the citizens of Liscor, and Mrsha saw how the pedestrians avoided walking near the Humans, especially the adventurers who walked in groups of their own.
Down the street. And then left—sticking close to a wall to avoid the rumbling wagons that went down the middle. The smell grew stronger the more Mrsha followed it, and soon she was able to identify what it was.
In Mrsha’s mind an image of a taciturn Human, sitting in a corner of the inn while Erin chatted to him, surfaced. She blinked in surprise and nearly fell forwards.
She knew him! He was the grumpy Human, the one who smelled like leather and alcohol and arrow glue! Mrsha knew what that smelled like. She’d always hung around [Fletchers] as they made arrows—until they chased her away, that was. But this man was different than the [Hunters] of her tribe. He didn’t smell like dead animals, but other things. He killed strange creatures Mrsha could not dream of.
The smell was coming from a big building in front of her. Mrsha blinked up at it. It was an inn, like Erin’s but very full of people—all of them seemingly Drakes. But Halrac’s scent was coming from within, along with the smells of alcohol and food. Mrsha hesitated. Should she go elsewhere?
But she had nowhere else to go. And she liked the grumpy Human. So Mrsha fearlessly entered the inn full of Drakes. She looked around and immediately found the Humans because they were sitting in a corner of the room, and most of the Drakes had their backs to them.
Mrsha glanced around, but none of the Drakes were looking at her. It was because she had a Skill. [Natural Concealment]. Carefully, she crept over to the table where he sat, arguing with three other Humans.
“—I’m telling you, we shouldn’t stand for it!”
He sounded angry. Halrac’s voice rasped as he argued with a big man in armor—Mrsha stared his bulging arms—and a young woman who smelled like cotton and cloth and an old man with a staff who smelled of magic. Magic to Mrsha was the smell of burned ozone, the sharp tang of electricity, and a whiff of something else that defied explanation.
“We paid good coin for those rooms. I don’t care if that damned [Innkeeper] is offering us another set of rooms. How do we know he won’t kick us out of those as well?”
“Because, Halrac, we pay more than any of his other customers.”
That came from the girl with stiches around her wrists. She smelled of magic too, but it was the cloth scent that came strongly from her that intrigued Mrsha. The Gnoll stared at her as she edged closer to the table, sniffing to see if there were any scraps. Was her entire body made of cotton? That couldn’t be right, but that’s what it smelled like.
A man with a big, gray beard leaned across the table to pull a plate of the spicy flat cakes the Drakes loved to eat towards him. He took one and ate it as he spoke, sounding wise and calm, or like how Mrsha imagined wise and calm people spoke.
“It cannot be helped. The Drake who came by is a Lord of the Wall. To Drakes, that would be the equivalent of a major [Lord] or one of the Five Families turning up. We should count ourselves fortunate that he didn’t reserve the entire inn.”
“Arrogant bastard. I recognize him—he’s a commander as well. Did you see his arms and weapons? We don’t have enchantments of that quality. If it came to a fight, though—”
“We’re not at war, Halrac.”
That was all the big man said. Mrsha saw the [Scout] slowly nod, although he still looked angry.
“I say we should leave. It’s not worth the coin we’re paying to stay here.”
The girl with stitches and dark skin drawled as she sat back in her chair.
“Say I agree with you. I’m getting tired of being sneered at behind my back too, but where would we go? There aren’t any inns not full to bursting in this city and we can’t kick anyone out, unless we’re willing to pay more than we are now.”
Was she a [Mage]? Mrsha crept a bit further under the table, hiding under Halrac’s chair. She wondered if any of the adventurers would drop some food by accident, or if she could steal a snack. Probably not.
“There’s one inn that’s empty. I told you about it before.”
“Your little watering hole. Right. Well, it can’t be worse than waiting thirty minutes for food to arrive.”
The Stitch-girl made a face. The big man exchanged glances with the man with the beard, and then leaned forwards.
“You told us the [Innkeeper] vanished a while back. Has she returned?”
“I don’t think so. But there’s still a girl in the inn. A [Barmaid].”
The man with the beard looked amused. Mrsha wondered if it got in his way. Gnolls had fur, but not beards. Wouldn’t it get messy when he drank soup or ate food?
“An inn without an [Innkeeper]. Still fancy moving, Revi?”
Revi, the girl, frowned.
“Maybe. It’s empty, you said?”
Halrac nodded. The big man looked unconvinced.
“If the beds are empty, it’s probably for a good reason.”
The [Scout] rolled his eyes expressively. He jerked a thumb at a passing [Barmaid]—who glared at him behind his back.
“A place to sleep—even if it does mean we don’t get waited on hand and foot—is still better than paying ten times as much to be stared at like we’re pariahs.”
Revi sighed. She looked at the man with the beard.
Beard man paused and stroke said beard.
“I wouldn’t mind a bit more inconvenience if it means cheaper rates. If we’re planning to stay for as long as I fear we are, we should attempt to conserve our coin.”
Revi and Halrac nodded all eyes turned towards the big man.
“I don’t really care.”
His voice was deep. Mrsha could smell blood on him—not a fresh wound, but the traces of it. She knew this because she was staring right at one amazingly muscled calf. She longed to poke it, but she knew she had to be quiet.
And then—noise! Footsteps approaching. And silence—an audible drop in the background babble of the inn. Mrsha peeked out from her table and immediately hid when she saw the other three beings approaching. She didn’t think they were Human.
“Ulrien. Is there room at your table for us to sit?”
Mrsha, curled tightly around the center of the table, heard Ulrien reply after a moment of hesitation.
“I don’t see why not. We’ll have to grab chairs and move—”
“Watch the Gnoll cub or you’ll squish her.”
Mrsha froze in surprise. She heard a rustle, and then Halrac’s glaring face peeked below the edge of the table with the other three adventurers. They all looked surprised, and the…woman…named Ivirith laughed.
“You didn’t notice the Gnoll child? You’re losing your touch, Halrac.”
“I didn’t think we’d be spied upon. You there…Gnoll! Come on out!”
Cautiously, Mrsha did just that. She stared up and immediately shrank back when she saw the newcomers. But they didn’t look angry…
“Halrac, you know this Gnoll?”
“She’s from the inn. I don’t know why she’s here.”
“Perhaps she’s grown attached to you. I have heard of stranger things.”
The weird-echoing voice came from one of the new adventurers. He looked like he was part crab or part…Mrsha had never seen anything like him before. She stared wide-eyed at the man, before looking up at the giant whose head was nearly touching the rafters.
“What do we do with her? I don’t suppose the [Innkeeper] would summon the Watch to bring her home.”
Revi frowned at Mrsha, and then smiled. Mrsha glared at her; she could tell when adults were pretending to be nice!
“Where are you from, little one? Shouldn’t you be going home?”
“She’s mute, Revi.”
The Stitch-Girl drew back and sighed.
“Oh, let her sit here. Where are those chairs? Oh, thank you, Moore.”
The half-Giant casually lifted the chairs over. Mrsha blinked at her seat, but then sat in it. Her head barely peeked over the table. She stared, wide-eyed at the one who had spoken.
A woman with dead-white skin stared back at her, lips turned upwards in a smile. But Mrsha didn’t smile back.
The woman was dead. Mrsha could smell it on her. She was dead, but something lived inside her. It was frightening, and Mrsha edged away from the dead woman as she reached out to pet Mrsha on the head.
“Keep away from her, Jelaqua. You’ll scare her.”
Halrac said this irritably, catching Jelaqua’s hand. She glanced at him in annoyance, then looked at Mrsha’s wide eyes.
Jelaqua stopped, sighed, and withdrew her hand. She smelled like death, but she still moved as if she were alive. Mrsha’s fur stood up on end as she scooted her chair away towards Halrac’s seat.
“Aw, don’t be like that little Gnoll. You’re the only one of your kind who hasn’t walked twenty paces wide of me since I’ve been here.”
The woman pulled the plate of snacks across the table and pushed it gently towards Mrsha. The Gnoll hesitated, and then grabbed one greedily. Breakfast seemed an age ago.
“Here. Have one of these. And—[Barmaid]! Drinks for the table, if you would! Ale!”
The pale woman turned and called out to a passing Drake, who nodded, eyes wide as she stared at the woman. Unperturbed, Jelaqua turned back and nodded to Ulrien.
“We’ll pay for what we order, don’t worry.”
Ulrien waved a big hand.
“Forget it. Coin for food and drink is hardly something Gold-rank adventurers need to worry about.”
Jelaqua paused, and then nodded her head to him with a wry smile.
“We’re used to arguments over it. And with how much Moore can drink, well, it’s good to get that out of the way, especially when we’re trying to negotiate.”
“Negotiate? About what?”
Halrac stared suspiciously at the three adventurers. Typhenous rolled his eyes and stroked his beard with one hand.
“There can be only one thing. The dungeon.”
“If you think we’ll give up our claim—”
Ulrien’s word silenced the [Scout]. Jelaqua shook her head.
“We’re not here for that. Rather, we’d like to team up.”
The adventurers on Halrac’s side seemed surprised, although Mrsha didn’t understand what was actually happening.
“It’s only practical. It’s too dangerous by ourselves.”
That came from the huge giant, Moore. He had a surprisingly soft voice and he nibbled at one of the doughy discs very carefully.
“We’ve gotten scratched up twice going in there. Both times we didn’t have the numbers for a clean fight. And I’ve heard every other team that’s gone in has run into all sorts of hellish traps, same as us. Those that make it out, that is. If we want to make real progress, we need to work together.”
“Seborn is right.”
Jelaqua took a mug from the tray the Drake [Barmaid] was carrying, ignoring the way the Drake flinched as she stared at the Selphid. Jelaqua took a drink, grimaced.
“Dead gods. This isn’t good stuff. How much do you pay to stay at this inn? Anyways, the last time we went into the dungeon we ran into a pit trap the length of the entire corridor and fifty feet down. If Moore hadn’t cast a spell we’d be dead. But after we landed—guess what was at the bottom of the pit? A colony of Metalbite Slimes.”
Halrac and the other adventurers made noises of dismay. Ulrien shook his head.
Jelaqua drained the rest of her mug, grimacing. She did not call for a refill.
“Right? But I’ll bet you ran into just as bad a trap. Did you see what chased the last group of adventurers out? The Children. There are entire colonies of monsters in that dungeon, branching pathways that seem to change each time we go in, and traps both magical and mundane—we can’t handle it alone. The Halfseekers are already understrength, but we thought if we combined forces we might stand a chance of getting somewhere in this dungeon. What do you think?”
The team of Griffin Hunt turned and conferred silently. After a moment, Ulrien nodded.
“We could use the extra help.”
Typhenous and Revi both nodded. All eyes turned to Halrac, including Mrsha’s. Revi frowned at him; the [Scout] did not look happy as he shifted his attention between the three half-Humans.
“I have no reason to object. My [Dangersense] is screaming at me every step I take inside that place. Someone else to check for traps would help.”
All the adventurers relaxed. Jelaqua smiled, and Seborn nodded at Halrac soberly.
“Even together, I fear that we will not progress quickly. But it will be reassuring to work with another expert.”
“A team, then. We can haggle over distribution of spoils later—”
“No need. We’ll split it evenly.”
Jelaqua’s brows rose in surprise, but then she was smiling as she clasped hands with Ulrien over the table. She looked around the inn and sighed.
“I’m relieved. If I’d known you would be so open to the idea I would have come earlier. A team. It’s been a long time since our group joined forces with any other party. On that note—do you know if this inn has any openings? We just got kicked out of ours.”
“You have to ask?”
All three Halfseekers smiled crookedly. Mrsha wriggled in her seat. She was getting bored! She watched Jelaqua’s pale lips moving, wondering why she didn’t rot when she was dead.
“Selphids aren’t popular on Izril—less so than Baleros, incredibly. All the rumors about my kind lead to suspicion and paranoia. As for Moore…someone with a quarter of a Giant’s blood in him is hard to feed, let alone find a bed for. Oh, and apparently Seborn smells like fish.”
“Untrue. But arguing doesn’t help matters.”
Mrsha’s stomach rumbled. She probably shouldn’t have eaten so much. But it was so tasty! She looked around as the adventurers spoke about boring things.
“We just got kicked out of the best rooms in this inn too. No help here, I’m afraid. But Halrac’s been telling us to visit another inn—you know, the one outside the city where we had that—”
“Really? Do you think it’s still empty? I was wary of being outside, especially since it seemed like there was some drama to do with the Gnolls. And that skeleton! But if we’ve no other choice—it would be good to work under the same roof…”
Mrsha was powerfully curious about the Halfseekers, it was true. She’d love nothing more than to sniff at Seborn and Moore, but she knew it wouldn’t be polite. She could sit here and eat more food maybe, but—she didn’t want to sit here! Now that she’d been caught, the fun was over. Mrsha wriggled in her seat, and looked towards the open doors. Time to go. She grabbed another spicy, doughy treat and slipped off her chair.
“Hey now. Where are you going young Miss?”
The big half-Giant, Moore, turned to Mrsha and she froze. But he looked concerned rather than angry. Mrsha edged away from him, ready to bolt, but Halrac stopped Moore as the half-Giant moved to rise.
“Leave her. The last thing we need to be accused of is harassing a child. The inn’s not far from here and the streets are safe.”
“But is the inn safe? I would hate for a child to be put in danger. The monsters around the city can be dangerous, especially if some escape from the dungeon. It is waking up.”
“The Watch patrols, and they’re as good as—better than teams of Silver-rank adventurers. I saw one of them—a Drake. He knows how to fight!”
Seborn frowned at Jelaqua, although only the fleshy half of his face moved.
“They patrol within the city. But if you’re really suggesting we sleep outside of it—are there any guards in this inn, any enchantments? Or will we be sleeping with one ear to the ground?”
Mrsha scampered out of the inn as the adventurers continued to argue. She didn’t know what they were talking about. Mrsha seldom did. But they were busy and Halrac seemed sad. He always seemed sad, which is why Mrsha felt a bit drawn to him.
Maybe he knew what like being alone was like.
Disappointed and lonely, Mrsha wandered back onto the street. There she remembered why she’d gone inside. The Gnolls stared at her. A passing trio of Drakes—a child and mother and father slowed as they saw Mrsha. The child pointed to her.
“Why is her fur white?”
Because she was the last. Mrsha turned and ran down the street. Where now? Back?
No—there was someone else. The bossy Drake. She would be nice to Mrsha. The Gnoll raised her nose to the air and sniffed.
There? No—there? It was hard to pick out her smell on the streets. Mrsha would have to search to find her.
But something else smelled familiar to her. Mrsha looked up and saw a familiar person.
Pawn! The Antinium was walking down the street. Mrsha immediately ran after him, but he had a lead on her and it was hard for her to follow through the crowds of people. When she did catch up with him, she found herself on an abandoned street—
And staring down into a hole in the ground. That was what it looked like. Suddenly, an entire street just…vanished. The cobblestones ended, and a sloping path of dirt led down into darkness. Mrsha halted on the edge of it, uncertain. Strange smells were coming from below—the same smells as that of the huge Soldiers who’d come from the inn.
But Pawn had gone down there, she knew. And the Soldiers were nice! So, bold and unafraid, Mrsha ran down the dirt tunnel, into the darkness.
It wasn’t fully dark. Glowing patches of moss lit up the tunnel immediately, but it was still far too dark for a Human to see. Mrsha could see just fine though. She ran forwards eagerly, but froze when she realized she was surrounded.
Standing in the walls, huge, silent, were Soldiers. They stepped out as one, clenching their fists in a clear sign of aggression. Mrsha backed up as she saw more Soldiers appearing behind her! It was a trap!
The Soldiers were ready to kill, but not ready for the sight of a small Gnoll. They stared at her. But then they started forwards again, hostile, and so Mrsha ran.
She ran. The wrong way, as it turned out. In order to get away from the looming Soldiers Mrsha had to race into the dark tunnels. They chased after her, but while they could have blocked a Human, Drake, or any other species quite easily, Mrsha was too small and slipped between their legs. She dashed forwards—
And found herself in a huge network of tunnels, filled with shadows in the dim illumination. Crisscrossing openings, paths leading up and down—
And Antinium. Hundreds of them, all marching in an unending current. Mrsha froze as they all turned and stared at her. A group of Soldiers turned towards her, and she heard the ones behind her running. Mrsha dashed forwards, unthinking, and hurtled down a tunnel, past Workers who stood aside from her.
Where was she going? Away! Mrsha had no idea where she was, she just ran from all the Antinium she could see, especially the soldiers.
Left, left, right! A dark shadow came out of a side passage—Mrsha turned the other way.
She ran downwards, then right, took another right, and another—but she wasn’t where she’d started when she turned right again. Instead, she found a opening at the end of the passageway. Mrsha ran through it, too frightened to stop—
And found herself in a gargantuan room, staring up at the Queen of the Free Antinium under Liscor. The massive Antinium—more insectile than humanoid—paused as she lifted a morsel of what might have been food to her mouth with feelers.
“What is this?”
Soldiers. They appeared next to Mrsha. They’d been guarding the doorway! She turned to run, but they were blocking the entrance, boxing her in! Their hands were raised to bludgeon her to death, but a deep feminine voice rumbled.
The Soldiers froze instantly. Mrsha raised her head cautiously; she’d been cowering on the ground. She turned to the Queen, and heard a rumble like a sigh.
“Child of Gnolls. You should not be here.”
Carefully, Mrsha padded forwards. The Queen’s full body was obscured in the partial darkness. Mrsha only had the impression of a bulbous, huge abdomen and…body parts that were feelers and antennae rather than arms and legs.
“So now the people living here are fearless enough to let their young intrude into the Hive? I should feel glad—but I do not. Only death awaits trespassers here. You should know that child, or your parents should.”
Mrsha could only hold still as the massive presence regarded her.
“White fur? How intriguing.”
She knew. Mrsha bowed her head. In this place, she couldn’t run. Her ears perked up as she heard hammering footsteps, and then another Antinium ran into the room. He had to pause—the Soldiers barred his way, but after the Queen gestured, they moved aside smoothly. She recognized Klbkch on sight.
“My Queen! I arrived as soon as I heard of the intrusion. Where is—”
He stopped when he saw Mrsha.
“You know this Gnoll, Klbkch?”
“She belongs at the inn, my Queen.”
“The one with the girl Erin Solstice.”
Another sigh echoed throughout the room. Mrsha saw Klbkch staring at her. He slowly walked in front of Mrsha as if shielding her.
“It seems this innkeeper causes trouble even when she is not here.”
“This child does not know the rules of Liscor, my Queen. I am sure her trespass was accidental.”
“Perhaps. But the rules must be kept. Make sure other visitors to the city are aware of this. And this Gnoll…”
Again, Mrsha felt the Queen staring at her, and this time it was with more than hint of malice. She trembled, hiding behind Klbkch, feeling the need to pee.
“I am sure the citizens of Liscor would be greatly disturbed if she were to be harmed.”
“I am not a fool, Klbkchhezeim. Very well, take the Gnoll cub away. But while you are here—tell me, what do the others do?”
Klbkch relaxed slightly. He bowed his head towards the Queen.
“Nothing, as of yet. They are resting. It has been a long journey; some marched for over a week with little rest.”
“Hm. You are attending to their needs?”
“…Xrn is here.”
The name meant nothing to Mrsha, but she saw how Klbkch’s posture changed when he heard it. He nodded.
“Her presence is extraordinary. But perhaps it is a sign that the Grand Queen is open to your ideas at last?”
“Or perhaps she has directed her attention here for another reason. Perhaps she seeks you, Klbkchhezeim.”
Silence from the Antinium in front of Mrsha. She saw the Antinium Queen shift posture, heard her voice deepen ominously.
“She cannot have you. The Grand Queen will not take you from me, Klbkch. My Slayer.”
“I am loyal.”
That was all Klbkch said, but it was not enough. Mrsha felt so. The Queen’s voice was almost hesitant as she addressed the Revalantor of her hive.
“Ah, Klbkch. You say that, but…do you regret it? Do you regret that we fled while the others stayed and fought? Do you think we wasted the lives of your brothers and sisters, that we have failed in the long years since arriving here?”
For a long while he was silent. Klbkch looked down at his feet, and then up at his Queen. When he replied, it was softly.
“You have done well, my Queen. You and the others. You rebuilt with what you had; I cannot begrudge that. I only regret that I was too weak to finish the battle on Rhir. It is myself I blame.”
Then he turned, and walked out of the vast room. Mrsha turned to look back just once; she saw the Queen had her head bowed. Then she walked faster to catch up with Klbkch. Mrsha had a bad feeling in her stomach. She wondered exactly how much trouble she was in.
“She was lucky she was not killed.”
Klbkch said that to Krshia as the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] glared at Mrsha. The Gnoll cub had tears in her eyes; a spanking did that to her, and Gnolls didn’t believe in light punishments. Now Krshia was letting Mrsha lie on her front while she and Klbkch sat around her table on two couches.
“I am grateful, yes, that you were here, Klbkch. I shudder to think what would have happened otherwise.”
The Gnoll bowed her head deeply and poked Mrsha hard. Mrsha sat up and bowed her head too, rubbing at her stinging bottom.
“I have brought her to you so that you may impress upon her that venturing into the Hive is dangerous. I do not know if she fully understands me.”
“She understands. And if she does not understand fully how foolish she was, she will remember the spanking, yes?”
Krshia glared at Mrsha and the Gnoll immediately nodded her head. Klbkch stared at her, and then looked at Krshia.
“I have noticed her unique coloration. I have also noticed how other Gnolls react to her fur. What does it mean?”
Antinium did not do small talk. Nor did they care about feelings. Or rather, they found them hard to understand sometimes. Mrsha froze, but it was Krshia who put a gentle hand on Mrsha’s head. She stroked Mrsha gently, and the Gnoll relaxed, feeling a familiar presence of a Gnoll adult reassuring her. But it still hurt because it was not the same.
“You ask about things which are not easy to discuss, Klbkch.”
“Hr. Well then. The white fur is a mark of fate, dire fate, to Gnolls. Some claim it is a curse. Others—a sign of disaster. Those who look so bring misfortune to their tribes and all they encounter, or so it is said, yes?”
“I see. And is it true?”
Krshia shrugged. Mrsha stirred, looking at her face, but the Gnoll’s expression was calm, if slightly troubled.
“How can we know? Some, a few, are born with the fur, and others…others lose their color after terrible things occur. Like Mrsha. Did they cause it or not? I do not know, but my people fear such individuals regardless.”
Klbkch ate a cube of raw meat and said little else. Krshia eyed him, and then muttered.
“Myself, I think it is just superstition. The Stone Spears tribe were doomed the instant a Goblin Lord led his army upon them, regardless of fate. Young Mrsha should know this as well, but other, more foolish Gnolls will say differently.”
“It is well that she stays outside the city then. Can you ensure no one tries to attack Mrsha, or is this a matter for the Watch?”
“I will ensure it. No Gnoll will slay another Gnoll while I live.”
Krshia growled the words and Mrsha felt better. Klbkch nodded, and they fell silent again. She sensed that the two of them weren’t losing track of the conversation as much as understanding things silently.
“How is business?”
“I rebuild. Slowly.”
“But I gather from your words that your authority among the Gnolls within Liscor is lessened due to recent events. Is this so?”
“I wait for Ryoka Griffin to return. She has something promised to me, and until it arrives I remain…antsy. As do the Gnolls who listen to me. But I have my paws full in the meantime. I must run a shop regardless if it is smaller, and I have a worthless nephew to take care of.”
“Yes. I wonder, since you are here. Would you be willing to take a look at him? He is suffering, and it may be the Antinium can provide aid.”
“It may be so. Is he here?”
Krshia raised her voice and called out. Mrsha went very, very still when she heard the name. She hadn’t seen the Gnoll—Krshia’s cousin and warrior of the Silverfang tribe—since…
A door opened slowly in Krshia’s apartment. Mrsha immediately smelled something bad. She tried to get up, but Krshia gently held her on the couch. Klbkch turned as Brunkr entered the room.
The Gnoll warrior was tall, powerful, a classic tribal warrior. Or at least, he had been. The sweaty, unkempt figure that reeked of rot was foreign to Mrsha, and as he stumbled into the room, she heard Krshia snort. Because Brunkr reeked, and the odor was not pleasant.
“Ah. You are injured.”
He smelled like sweat and pain, and something worse. Mrsha backed away as she located the source of the foul odor. Brunkr clutched at his hand, oozing, raw, a foul odor coming from beneath the layers of bandages wrapped around it.
“Aunt. Who is this?”
“A [Guardsman] of the Watch and warrior of the Antinium. He is important, yes? Be respectful.”
Brunkr focused on Klbkch. He nodded slowly.
“I am Brunkr. And I am injured. My hand was bitten. Now…”
He raised his infected hand.
“If I had a quality healing potion—or if my Aunt would buy me one—I would be able to test you in battle, Antinium.”
“Fool! A healing potion will do you no good, no. Rest and cleansing is all we can do now, unless the [Healer] I have asked for will brave the roads.”
Brunkr made a disgusted noise. He was clearly sick. His eyes were unfocused—he didn’t seem to have noticed Mrsha yet.
In his seat, Klbkch nodded at Brunkr.
“A healing potion cannot heal an infection. Miss Krshia is correct. It will only exacerbate the symptoms.”
“Can you help him?”
Krshia looked concerned, for all she snapped at Brunkr to sit and stop messing about. The male Gnoll did so, collapsing onto his seat and grimacing as he held his hand again. Klbkch hesitated, and then shook his head in regret.
“There are serums and substances the Antinium use, but they do not have the same effect on other species. Would a [Healer] not—”
“There are none. None who can help me. The first I brought my hand to said I should burn the wound. I did. But it grew worse, and the others—they tell me it is too late.”
Brunkr gritted his teeth. His eyes refocused, and he stared around, and finally saw Mrsha. His face twisted into a snarl and he surged to his feet.
“You. Doombringer! See what you’ve done?”
Mrsha tore away from Krshia in a panic as Brunkr lurched towards her. Instantly, Krshia and Klbkch were on their feet. Both held Brunkr down and made him sit.
“Nephew. You forget yourself! She is a child!”
“Please calm yourself, Brunkr.”
“She did this! She! She has taken my hand, just like she took her tribe. Cursed one! Deathbringer! Calamity!”
The words broke something deep in Mrsha’s heart. She had felt it all day, but hearing it now was too much. It was all true. She couldn’t run from it no matter how hard she tried.
But she did try. Mrsha turned and leapt off the couch. Krshia grabbed for her, but the Gnoll was too slow. Mrsha dodged around her and the Antinium, who spun and tried to scoop her up. She ran between his legs and though he turned and nearly had her, he wasn’t ready for her to leap off of Krshia’s balcony.
Mrsha landed heavily on all fours. It hurt, but she raced off, ignoring Krshia’s shouts for her to come back. She ran and ran. But she could not outrun the truth.
Mrsha cried as she left the city behind. Brunkr’s words cut at her. The Gnoll’s stares pierced her. And the words haunted her.
[Lone Survivor]. Level 8. As if she’d asked for this. As if it was a reward.
She just wanted to go back. Back to the inn, where Ryoka would be waiting. Then the girl could tell her a story and Mrsha could—could—
Could pretend she was back home. Her real home, where the fires burned bright every night and where she knew everyone. Where she could run about with the other children and play until Urksh yelled at her. If she could go back, she never would have gone to help gather herbs. She would have stayed in the camp forever, and the Goblins would never have found her. They would never have come and everything would be fine.
Her vision was blurry, but it didn’t matter. Mrsha could smell where she was going. She ran up the hill, towards the inn.
And then away from it. Not there either. She couldn’t be near the Drake, or Lyon with her concern and caring.
The past tugged at Mrsha. Seeing other Gnolls reminded her of the people she’d never see again. So she ran far from them, into the snowy landscape, up hills and down valleys, heedless of the danger.
It was a long time before Mrsha finally collapsed, too tired to move any more. She lay in the snow, panting.
No home. Nowhere to go back to. The inn? It wasn’t—Mrsha’s heart hurt. Lyonette wasn’t—
Those who cared about Mrsha got hurt. Or died. Like Ryoka. She’d lost her fingers. She’d gotten hurt for Mrsha and the tribe had died because she’d fallen. Mrsha knew it.
Everyone who tried to help Mrsha died. That was why Ryoka had left. She had left so she wouldn’t die. Because Mrsha wasn’t worth saving.
The Gnoll curled up in the snow, still crying. It was all her fault. All hers.
She barely heard the crunching of snow before the sound was right on top of her. Mrsha uncurled and stared around as she heard the faltering footsteps approaching. She looked around, bewildered, seeing nothing against the white snow.
Then she saw him. Slowly tripping towards her. Stumbling, faltering. Almost falling down. But still in one piece. Still alive.
The skeleton looked almost like Brunkr in the way he moved. It was as if he was exhausted, if a undead being could be tired. He seemed as if he would fall apart at any moment.
But the purple flames in his eyes still burned in their sockets. The fire was weak, guttering. But it burned brighter when Toren saw Mrsha. And it was hatred that filled the young Gnoll with terror.
She turned to run. She heard the skeleton rush forwards, but she was dashing away as fast as she could. She raced up a hill and knew the skeleton was in hot pursuit.
Run, run. As fast as you can. But Mrsha had run so far today, and she was exhausted. She slipped going over the crest of a hill, and tumbled down. She scrambled to her feet, and ran forwards—
And nearly fell into the rift in the earth. It was dark, a gaping fissure made nearly invisible by the slight incline in the snow. Mrsha scrambled away from it—
But Toren was right behind her. The skeleton had a bared sword in his hands. He advanced towards her, swinging the sword menacingly. Mrsha backed up, the chasm behind her. She tried to watch Toren and the opening, but he was moving too quick. Mrsha backed up another step and her back paw slipped.
She slid backwards. Mrsha grabbed desperately, and her paws latched onto something beneath the powdered snow. Toren halted, sword in hand, staring at Mrsha as she dangled over the abyss.
Mrsha’s eyes were wide, her arms straining as she tried to hold on. She could barely keep her grip, let alone haul herself up. And the skeleton was just standing there. Just watching her.
He had lowered the sword in his hands. He walked forwards, until he stood right above Mrsha. She waited for him to stab her, but the skeleton just stared down at her.
As if thinking.
And Mrsha wished Ryoka were here. But she knew the girl had left. Gone, far away.
Just like everyone else.
She wanted to go home. But home was gone. And she was alone.
Maybe it was fate. Mrsha felt her claws loosening their grip as the snow fell around her. The skeleton was just staring at her, sword in hand. He took a step forwards.
Chased by bad things. Falling. It was how it had happened last time. But there was no Ryoka anymore. She’d left Mrsha too. And that was a good thing. Because she could not suffer because of Mrsha.
All her fault. White fur. Cursed one. Doombringer. [Last Survivor]. Mrsha sighed. She looked up at the sky.
And then she let go. For a moment she saw the skeleton staring at her, the flames in its purple eyes flickering. It reached out—
But too slowly. The world dropped away from Mrsha and she was tumbling, down, down, into the darkness. The air whistled around her and she closed her eyes.
Lyon searched the inn, but she couldn’t find the Gnoll. She tried the outhouse, but Mrsha’s tracks led away from there. She ran through the snow. She went to the gates—tried to get in. But Mrsha had left the city. She’d disappeared.
The girl searched. Mrsha was gone. But Lyonette kept searching. She went out into the wilderness and called for the Gnoll until she’d lost her voice. As the cold numbed her, Lyonette kept looking.
“Mrsha? Mrsha! Are you there?”
“Where are you?”
It was dark when Mrsha woke up. Dark. Hot. Everything hurt.
She cried out. It was the first sound she’d made in a long time. She couldn’t move. She hurt.
And someone was calling for her. Mrsha heard the voice, carried by the wind. A familiar voice.
She wanted to call to it. But something stopped her.
Fear. If she called out the voice would die.
She couldn’t do that. Better to die here.
But it hurt. Mrsha cried. She tried to move. Something was around her. Bad things lurked in the darkness. They were coming.
She had to run. But the voice. Only the voice could save her.
Mrsha looked up. The light was so far away. It seemed like a memory. But she believed the light, the sky was still there.
She wanted to be saved. Mrsha wept. Even if it meant—she just wanted to live.
So she raised her head. Mrsha took a breath and howled. The sound was wordless. It echoed in the dark place she’d fallen into, the dungeon. It went through the skeleton who stood in the darkness, watching her. It travelled up through the rift in the earth and went into the sky.
And Lyonette heard her. Mrsha knew that. She howled and howled, calling out. For salvation. For forgiveness. For another chance.
For life instead of death.
And then she ran, because the things were chasing her. But Mrsha believed she would be saved. She clung to it. That word she barely understood. That feeling in her that was all that stood between her and despair, her and the darkness.
They stopped her at the gates, a Gnoll and a Drake. But she battered at them with her hands, screamed.
“You have to let me in! I need adventurers! I need help!”
But they held her back. The Gnoll’s face was openly hostile, the Drake’s put upon. They spoke to her, but Lyonette didn’t care.
“Please! Mrsha—she’s down there!”
They didn’t understand. They tried to take her away, force her back. Lyonette hit them. She bit and struggled—even when the Gnoll unsheathed his sword. She would have taken it through her heart if it meant someone would listen.
But the hand that closed over the Gnoll’s arm and pulled the sword away required no sacrifice. Zel Shivertail looked down at Lyon as the Drake [Guardsman] gaped in awe.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
The Drake [General] strode through the streets when he heard what had happened. He brought Lyon into the city and summoned the Watch. She ran to the Adventurer’s Guild.
No one there would help her. No one, but a [Scout] who raised his head when he heard her plea. He left his group, and someone came with him.
The Watch called out for aid. They found it. Klbkch walked down into his Hive and spoke to someone waiting there. She and he walked towards the surface.
Lyonette was hurrying towards the gates when the Gnolls appeared. She was afraid, but one of them walked towards her. Krshia had no love for Lyon, but the bow in her hands was not meant for the girl.
And so Lyonette ran through the snow, followed by six people. Five. She prayed it was enough, but there was no time to ask for others. She ran desperately, heart pounding out of her chest. Iron was in her mouth; she seemed to breathe fire each time she inhaled. But she ran faster so that she would be fast enough.
She almost cried as she pointed down into the crevice. Zel stared at it grimly.
“Deep. That’s at least a hundred feet down—”
Halrac stared into the darkness, face grim. He turned to Lyonette.
“Are you sure you heard her down there? If she fell—”
“I’m sure. Please, you have to help!”
“The dungeon is down there.”
Klbkch said the words flatly. Halrac and Zel stared at him, one in alarm, the other confused.
“The dungeon? Are you sure?”
“Yes. This place—the location matches a part of the dungeon. And I believe it goes straight down into the heart of it.”
“We can’t go down there unprepared. It would be suicide.”
Halrac bit his lip hard enough to draw blood as he said it. Lyonette stared at him in desperation. But the woman standing next to Halrac gritted her teeth.
“The hell we can’t. I’m going, if you can tie that rope to something secure. No—don’t bother. Just hold it as I go down, Halrac.”
Jelaqua Ivirith hefted the two-handed flail in her hands as she stared at the dungeon grimly. Zel eyed her.
“Aren’t you a Selphid?”
She glanced at him challengingly.
“I have a soft spot for children, and those shunned by others. And it seems like this young Gnoll is both. Let me help find her; I’m a Level 33 [Iron Tempest].”
“What class is that?”
“It’s a class derived from [Flailmaster]. I have the Skills to fight a pack of foes at once, if that’s what’s lurking down there. Are you coming or not?”
“I will go.”
Zel nodded at once. Lyonette was nearly in tears—he gripped her hands reassuringly.
“I will enter as well.”
“As will I.”
Two Antinium said that. Klbkch, and an azure one Lyonette had never seen before. She held a staff in her hands and watched Zel as carefully as he ignored her. She inclined her head to him.
“Zel Shivertail. Will you permit me to lend my aid here?”
“Just this once, I will accept your help.”
He said the words coldly as he stared into the darkness. Zel turned.
“Can we anchor the rope to something? Let’s move! Mrsha could be in danger as we speak.”
Krshia was helping Halrac fix anchors in the ground for the rope they’d brought. She stood up, bow in hand, and nodded to the rope.
“We will have to hold on, very tightly, going down. Or else we will fall.”
“No need for that. I will cast a [Featherfall] spell and slow us.”
The mysterious Antinium said that. The others looked at her in surprise; none of the others had realized she was a mage.
“Going up will be slower, then.”
“Up can be slow as it must. Down is most important. So let us hurry, no?”
Klbkch hesitated as he looked at Krshia.
“Are you sure you wish to risk this, Miss Krshia? The danger—”
She bared her teeth at him and he shut up.
“She is in danger, and my responsibility. At least in part. I will go.”
“Gather around me.”
Zel, Jelaqua, Klbkch, and Krshia did as Xrn ordered. Jelaqua glanced sideways, and grinned at Halrac.
“Change of heart?”
He just shrugged, face grim.
“If I’d have known we were going into the dungeon, I would have brought everyone. Girl, go back into the city and tell them what’s happened.”
“I will. Thank you! Please—bring her back!”
Several of them said it at the same time. The group looked around and Zel had to bare his teeth ruefully.
“It occurs to me I don’t know who any of you are. Well, the non-Antinium at any rate.”
“Indeed. I hesitate to suggest this, but some of us are more capable than others.”
Klbkch nodded at Zel. Jelaqua just laughed.
“Don’t worry about me fighting in close quarters. I can handle myself.”
Halrac grunted. He eyed Xrn as the Antinium whispered and raised her staff. No lights flashed, but magic was done.
Slowly, the group walked over to the abyss. They spoke as they stood staring at each other.
“Klbkch the Slayer.”
“Xrn the Small Queen.”
They leapt, and dropped slowly into the crevasse. Mage light bloomed around them, lighting up the rocky walls as they fell further down.
Lyonette watched them go. She prayed, although the gods were dead. She prayed to nothing and everything that Mrsha would be safe. Then she ran towards the city.
She heard the call echo in the darkness. Mrsha raised her head, nearly banging her head on the small alcove she was hiding in. Then she howled, as loudly as she could. She heard the answering howl, and then hid herself, curling up to hide from the bad things.
They found her an eternity later. Mrsha flinched when the face moved downwards, but the Drake only smiled wearily when he saw her.
“There you are. Come on, Mrsha. It’s alright.”
She was out of the alcove and in his arms in a second. Zel Shivertail held her as she cried wordlessly into his scales.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
She was fine. Oh, Mrsha had bruised herself all over and cracked bones bouncing down, but she was alive. [Lesser Toughness] had saved her life.
They carried her out of that place. That was all Mrsha knew as she clung to Zel. They were all around her, strangers and friends. Halrac stood with his back to an Antinium whose staff glowed blue. He drew an arrow that glowed with the light of sunset and fired it into the distance. A thump and the roar of an explosion matched the lightning that thundered from her staff.
Jelaqua fought the shadows, flail whirling, striking as she created a deadly curtain of spinning spikes around her. Beside her, Klbkch was a dancing whirlwind of silver blades. Krshia loosed her own arrows, snarling.
And Zel? He carried her past a huge, red worm-like monstrosity. It was dead. It had been torn apart and he walked through the blood as the others fought. And then there was a rope, and a platform conjured out of magic. Zel stood on that, helping Krshia to haul the platform up as Xrn held it in place. Below, Klbkch, Halrac, and Jelaqua climbed rapidly, Halrac pausing to occasionally shoot at something below.
When they saw the light, Mrsha heard a scream. She felt Zel step onto the snow, and then Lyonette was hugging her. The girl crushed Mrsha to her chest, squeezing the breath out of the Gnoll. Hugging, kissing, scolding. Then the others came up and Lyonette prostrated herself before them.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you…”
Mrsha stared up at the faces. Adventurers stood outside the rift in the snow, along with the Watch. Many people were gathered here. Some pointed to the abyss and screamed about danger. Others said it was a way in, a chance.
And many were mad at Mrsha. Some scolded her. Krshia boxed Mrsha’s ears as she checked to make sure the Gnoll was alright and called for another healing potion. And Lyonette was telling Mrsha she’d never, ever let her go out of her sight.
Selys arrived late with Olesm, almost out of her mind with worry. And some people recognized Zel and exclaimed. The strange blue Antinium left in the chaos, and Jelaqua stood alone except for when the others praised her. Lyonette told her to stay at the inn and Jelaqua just smiled. So did Halrac, awkwardly, as if it hurt.
And Mrsha? She looked around and saw many people, happy and sad. But no one was dead. No one.
Not even her.
Lyonette hugged Mrsha again, crying. Mrsha stared at her, and felt something break in her heart. But it wasn’t a bad thing. The thing that broke was a wall, or maybe it was fear itself. She hugged Lyonette back and felt hot tears trickle into her fur. And Mrsha cried too. Because she was safe.
She was finally home.