"We need a plan," I said. "I imagine this male ogre body is far from ... perfect?" To make a solid plan, I needed solid information.

Estra snorted in response, almost choking on our lunch. None of the young got scared off by her sudden noise, it seemed they had grown to trust us.

"You told me that you didn't die, and that you were a human before this happened?" I hoped that Estra and I had built up some trust and camaraderie so she'd finally answer some questions.

Her face scrunched up in worry as she slowed her chewing.

"How do we go about fixing this?" I pointed a finger to our chest. We were taking the rest of the day off, on account of low mana and health, plus we had more injured to heal, and a council meeting to attend.

She placed the clay plate of mushrooms on the fur rug we were sitting on -- given to us by Mahda in return for saving the young. "It is complicated. It took a great deal of time and magic, and it all went wrong. I told you, I was betrayed."

"So you're okay with being an ogre for the rest of your life?"

"No ... of course not! But ..." Estra sighed. "We cannot fix this. We would need an army to take on Artoreus."

"That's your brother? he's at that place we ran from?"

"No. Artoreus is the head of the Academy, a powerful magus."

"Was it some experiment that went wrong?"

"Something ... like that. The place we ran from was Fort Sumner."

"And he's there? This Artoreus guy?"

She shook her head. "The Academy is in the capital of Belspring, but he travels to Sumner on occasion." She stared forward, gnawing angrily on her big lower lip.

"If we need an army, let's get one."

Estra scoffed, chuckling. "Are you serious? Where are you going to get an army? Do you have any idea?"

"What do you suggest? Live out our lives stuck like this together? Is that it?"

"No ... I don't know." She groaned, shaking her head from side to side. "And I wasn't serious about an army. I am not suggesting we invade Sumner and kidnap the most powerful magus alive. That is ridiculous."

"Fine. What about Arthur? He seemed to know how to jump between bodies."

"Or he's lying. He is dangerous and I do not trust him one bit. Or his methods."

"But you trusted that Artoreus guy who betrayed you?"

"No. It was my brother that made him do it, I am certain."

"Arthur may be dangerous, but it's the best we got right now," I said.

"Even if he tells us, I doubt his method is all that simple and easy, and besides where would we get a spare human body or two? Huh?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, but for now we get some beer and a good steak, then we talk to Arthur about helping with the harvest and body jumping."

She scoffed. "It is called soul shifting," she said in a lecturing tone.

"Thanks," I said, and our eyes met for a moment of connection, but she abruptly looked away.

The council meeting began with a status report on food, supplies, enemy movements, and defenses -- describing just how fucked the clan's situation really was.

The six of the council sat in a circle on weathered rugs, seven if you counted Estra and I as two. Across from us was Mahda, Lan, and Kuuz -- the smith with a pelican chin. Zoey and a kobold I hadn't seen before sat next to us on either side. All that was missing was a peace pipe, or something to pass around to get high, or denote the speaker.

For them, surviving until summer in a malnourished state was a great outcome -- that's if we got that far. The enemy was numerous, better geared, and had higher essence troops. We had desperation of a cornered rat -- not something I'd downplay, but still, I would had preferred switching teams.

"Why not wall off every entrance going into the settlement?" I asked.

"We already did that, and I wish it was that simple," Lan said. "They didn't come in through any known tunnels. You probably don't understand it as an ogre, but us kobolds, we're good at tunneling."

"And how did you not hear them tunneling? This place is dead quiet, you would have heard someone breaking through solid rock."

"Oh, it's not all solid rock, not this mountain ridge anyways. And like I said, us kobolds are good at tunneling, and without making a sound."

Perhaps they can upgrade their mining skills, just like I can upgrade my shield skills? I recalled reading about all the tunneling that happened under trenches in WWI, but that was dirt and clay.

"What about traps?"

"Waste of time. As good as we are at placing them, we are even better at smelling them out." Lan had lost his irritated tone with me, which made me feel more respected and welcome.

I didn't know how to help, the situation seemed hopeless. They had considered and put into play pretty much everything I would have done personally, if not better. I made a mental note to ask Arthur about guns and gunpowder when I got the chance.

"And if we could get the mushrooms harvested?" Estra asked.

"Then we could hire a friendly clan to help us." At least we had hope, but I wasn't about start mentioning a certain fella who's been stealing food from them, whom we had in mind asking for help.

"Why not just give them what they want?" Estra asked.

"It took us over a year of searching and tunneling to find it. We worked too hard to just give up on our prize without a fight," Lan said.

The rest of the meeting devolved into a heated argument about food supply, serious lack of coin and upcoming tribute to the top chief. Neither Estra nor I wanted to get involved, but we stayed and listened to the end.

"Beer or steak?" I whispered to Estra.

"I'd like to see the market."

Though she didn't trust anyone, she cared a bit too much for my taste. Perhaps she grew fond of the young lizards, or found a certain sense of home, in either case I didn't need to persuade her to see reason. This place would devolve into a war-zone and I feared everything it brought with it. The more allies we could muster the better off we'd be, so we stuck around after the council meeting to speak with Mahda about the market.

"So, it's just like the rule about not attacking the young during war?" I asked Mahda.

"Now you understand. Vrakon sets the rules, and his Blackclad Devils enforce them." Mahda said.

I took the trader pass from her and tied it to the leather belt holding up our new black pants, graciously sewn for us from the garments of the two we killed.

"They didn't seem all that tough to me."

"That was only the scouts. The worst is yet to come," Mahda said.

"He's the chief of the clan that's attacking you, and the top chief of the Nine?" I asked. This end of the mountain housed nine kobold clans, called the Nine (give or take one or two on occasion), and they have been around for centuries.

"Mhm." Mahda nodded.

"Welp, no conflict of interest there." I chuckled. "And these daggers should be enough to trade for a small barrel?"

"Should be."

Armed with an old, crudely drawn map we set out to the market the following morning with 1970/2040 health and 1124/1810 mana, even after healing half of the injured. An hour long journey through unlit labyrinthine ruins.

"I feel like we're spending more time and resources helping them, rather than helping ourselves. They have a slime dungeon around here, we could get essence and loot instead," I spoke quietly to Estra, but Zoey overheard.

"Nobody goes there, Okay? That dungeon is dangerous." Zoey tagged along because she needed the market as well, and could help with directions.

"Really? Why not? I would have thought that slimes were the bottom of the rung, the lowest of the low among creatures."

"They are, but it's not the slimes that are dangerous, but the dungeon core. It lures you in and then springs a trap even kobolds can't see. It's safer-"

A low grunt alerted us to company. We stopped in our tracks, Zoey vanished. Down the dim corridor, a bulbous creature dragged itself along the floor away from us. A slick trail of red followed after it.

"It looks injured," I said.

"We haven't got far, we could drag the corpse back for shrooming," Zoey said behind us.

"No ... ," Estra said. "Let's uh ... take a look."

We approached with caution and its moans and grunting got louder. It growled trying to stand, but failed and crashed with a desperate whimper, then stopped moving. As we got close the ball of light illuminated the hapless creature. Oozing gashes covered the deformed body.

[Race: [t1] Troll; Female]

I never seen a ginger troll before. As big as us, and I hate to say it, but equally as ugly, she had light red hair, and a pale complexion that would make a geisha envious. Also horns, mangled teeth, pot belly, and freckled sagging tits protruding out of a short leather apron strung up by thick rope.

"Maybe we should just put her out of her misery?" I asked.

"I am afraid if I heal her, she would attack us," Estra said.

"Globba," the creature groaned, reaching out with her hand to us.

"She can talk," Estra said excitedly.

"Maybe she's friendly, and we could use an ally. Let's heal her once, and see what she does," I said and dreaded the next part. It made good sense to use the 'Blood for Blood' heal upgrade, as we could heal ourselves normally after, but it's the price in pain that made me cringe in anticipation.

The heal appeared to have little affect on her behaviour, though many wounds closed up and the worst of the bleeding stopped. We waited.

The troll rolled over and rose to her feet, grunting and moaning every bit. With a toothy yellow smile, and beaming eyes, she rumbled deeply, "Globba, friend. Globba follow."

I introduced myself and Estra, and she repeated our names. So far so good. I scratched my forehead. "Zoey? What does the clan think of trolls?"

"The same way they see ogres, as a nuisance."

"Is that what you think of us?" Estra asked.

"You're different, okay? But I wouldn't go with her to the market, it's just asking for trouble." According to Zoey the troll was a known pest that lived in the mountain for decades, but hadn’t bothered the kobolds much.

“Globba, food,” she bellowed and left in a hurry, but I had a feeling she’d be back.

"Well, problem solved," I said. Nothing could go wrong now.


About the author

Lord Zaika

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Bio: Sonny, I've got a whooooole theme park full of red delights for you.

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