Ptolus: Blood in the Streets
Not Blood, but Choice
Great Stalker, I am getting far too used this the gnoll thought as he felt his heart stop. At first he was just weakened, his muscles full of a dark lethargy. He tried to push himself forward, but everything was slow, muted, lifeless. Then there was the seizure. He could feel nothing; his body was no longer connected to his mind. Then there came the end. He felt his heart beat and then beat no more. His lungs could not draw breath. It was falling asleep, falling asleep while drowning.
It honestly stopped bothering the gnoll. Each death brought him closer to home; each time was a beautiful reminder that she was waiting. He could smell her in the air, knew she was just beyond the next horizon of shattered obsidian, knew she was there with open arms.
But this time he was not in the Shadowfell, not in the open fields that he loved, not in the hunter’s paradise that he remembered. It was someplace else, a strange city that he did not remember. A city he had never visited. But she was there. She wore her hair in raven black curls, soft earth skin, shining yellow eyes, and a human body. He knew it was here; her scent was undeniable. She was still the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen.
“Where am I?” The gnoll asked, watching an empty city buzz with activity of ghosts to the dead.
“My home. My city.” She responded.
“I do not like cities, but I am used to them by now.” The gnoll said as he moved to embrace her. She stepped back. The nameless gnoll felt everything in him fall away.
“You cannot be here with me.”
“Why? I have lived by the hunt, lived by my pack!”
“That is the problem.” She said. The nameless gnoll looked at his mate, a ghost, and oddly thought of Vennman. Oh please no, I am becoming the wizard the gnoll thought. “You are demon blood. You do not belong here with me. You will have your own city.”
“I don’t want a city, or a plain, or an endless hunt! I want you.” The gnoll cried out. She shifted her form into a bluish creature of scale, spines, and wicked teeth.
“Then do not be what you are. The hunt will not bring you here. Your blood will not bring you here.”
“Then what? What will? Please tell me.” The gnoll pleaded. And she told him. She told him many things, many ideals that the gnoll had never heard, never ponder. She told him of words that gnolls did not see as she saw, did not fathom as she fathomed.
“Do not be what you are; be what you choose to be.” She said. She shifted again into her gnoll form, nuzzling her snout against the nameless gnoll, playfully licking his ear, smiling with pity at the ruined and empty features of the gnoll’s demonic nature. She let her own eyes swim with tears as she looked into the gravedoors that we were now the gnolls. She kissed him deeply and fell away into sand as the nameless gnoll felt his heart beat again.
He opened his eyes to see his pack. He still smelled Draz on his fur. He would see her again. He was not a gnoll anymore, and he was not yet a demon. He only cared about being a mate once again.
The Hunger Growing
The nameless gnoll’s teeth punctured boiled leather and iron to find the sweet metallic taste of blood. The man, supposedly calling himself a Sword of Leska, could not even scream as the gnoll began to eat. The gnoll was hungry. He was reckless tooth and ravenous claw. It was beyond such a paltry word as hunger. There was no language for it, no system of speech or writing that could express it. It was a hunter’s thrill, a beast’s revelry, a beautiful death and the life it gave. In the months since his resurrection, if it could even be called that, the gnoll’s hunger only grew. The taste of the man’s flesh, his blood, the very divine spark that fueled movement and motion rushed into the gnoll, and the gnoll knew that there was no going back.
He spent many a night in his room, staring at the small potted flower that he had bought. The gnoll had died, yet he did not remember. He was free of the curse by paying the price, yet he was still there. He was not fashioned from clay, magic, and will but rather he was grown, piece by piece. The gnoll looked at the flower and pondered their kinship. Both grew slowly. Both were once something else and now were not. The gnoll was once animal but animals are born. The gnoll knew, somewhere deep in the forgotten places that he was not the same. He wasn’t a plant, but that was not exceedingly comforting.
It started with the dreams.
The gnoll was home in the Shadowfell. The sky was made of silver rain that formed into daggers before crashing to the hollow earth as empty bones. He saw a pack, not his pack, but a pack of gnoll’s giving an offering. They were all made of twisted branches of violet and green with eyes of rivers that melted into the rain around them. The black and blue fire in the center leapt and marched around them, forming into winking imps and eddies of smoldering ash. The gnolls raised their voices together in the old tongue and the world around them cried out to both damn and praise their blasphemy. One by one, they reached inside themselves and pulled out hearts of brackish water and rotting flesh before throwing themselves into one another. They scattered along the wind that moved only them. The world grew silent except for a voice. It made no sound and every sound, the world born and ending. The nameless gnoll did not know what it said, only that it was speaking to him.
The nameless gnoll stood on air and watched his shadow weep. There was no sun or light to cast it, yet it reached out to the gnoll with talons that warped and distorted, reaching miles ahead but never far enough. The gnoll reached down, desperately trying to fall down to reach what was once his. Shadowdancer. Shadowhunter. Damned still-born runt from a birth-dead mother. The gnoll screamed but his shadow had no ears to hear. The gnoll buried his claws into his stomach, pulling out each muscle until he was nothing, only eyes and claws and teeth and snout and anger and fear and pain and hunger. The shadow smiled deeper than the oceans and began to climb up the floating drops of blood and flesh. The shadow whispered in a mother’s forgotten voice that the gnoll would be whole and hollow forever.
Then came the games.
The gnoll did not like the dreams much, so he stared to make games to pass the quiet nights and days. He focused on his talons, always his talons, and imagined how they used to hold shadow as firm as it was steel. He would conjure thin wisps of darkness, no more than smoke, and he would stare until they began to stare back. He would stare for as long as he could for the moment he blinked, they would be gone. He stared until the world around him blurred and all that existed were the shadows and their marionette theater. After a while, they began to dance. After longer, they began to come attached to strings. After even longer, they did not leave when he blinked.
The gnoll began to itch in the sun. He would let his left arm sit in the sunlight, watch as the fur began to grow thin, the grey skin underneath turn red. He would hold his arm as long as he could before he was forced to remove it. Each day, it was harder. Each day, it itched less and burned more. Each day, the gnoll wore his cloak around him tighter. The day of the attack from the ghosts of Leska, his skin and fur simply began to melt away, revealing only bone for a brief moment.
Then came the hunger.
The gnoll would never be called a creature of slight appetite. But the cow was not enough. He could eat an entire ribcage, bones and all, and he would still feel hungry. It did not matter the meat; raw or cooked, it was never enough. The hunger was deeper. It was more honest. It was malicious. Flesh did not satisfy. Death satisfied. At night, the gnoll trapped mice, greedily chewing. Each one seemed more a meal than a dozen dead cows. When the hunger seemed more than he could take, when what memories of loyalty and family became hazy, the gnoll would sneak out of the Inn to hunt. Always the thieves, ruffians, and villains of Ptolus. Always the hunt. Each kill and ravenous feast was a celebration of the gnoll’s continued existence. Each kill’s effect lasted less and less. The hunger only grew.
Then came the questions.
The nameless gnoll could no longer walk in the daylight. He never used to hide what he was, who he was, but now he kept his cloak around him at all times that the garish light of the sun rained down. Everything was too bright; too thin. It was only at night did the world bloom. Darkness hid nothing; shadow obeyed his command yet again. The gnoll could no longer watch the subtle movement of muscle in an enemy, no longer strike with an unfailing precision at a creature’s weak point. He no longer could infest souls with shadow, but he could do so much more. He saw creatures only as outlines of heat, energy, and death. He could smell them the same, but his vision was a blur of outlines and faded periphery. But the darkness hid nothing.
The gnoll followed his nose. The priest, if you could call him that, was not easy to find. Night after night, the gnoll stalked the temples of Ptolus, asking questions and breathing the perfumed and sanctified air in. A priest of Pelor was inviting at first, but once she came close enough, she began to pray. The chants and invocations of the sun god were a chorus of breaking glass and screeching metal. The gnoll fled and spent the better of the night in the darkest alley, wrapping shadows around him to soothe the sounds in his head.
The priest found him. They talked for many hours in abyssal. It was a welcome relief to not mimic , to speak with a true tongue. The gnoll looked up at the thin man and despite the hunger felt a keen sense of kin and loyalty. The priest was his friend. This was a profound abstract concept to the gnoll. In his mind, there were only pack, enemy, prey, and stranger. There were no friends in life. Yet, the nameless gnoll looked at the priest and felt calm.
“This is not right at all.” The priest said as he conjured a small orb of burning light. The gnoll watched as its mere presence began to eat away at his exposed arm. In the priest’s other hand, he had conjured a ball of necromantic fire. The gnoll’s other arm laid comfortably in the flames, the hairs not even growing warm. “This really is not right at all.”
“I sorta figured that out already.” The gnoll responded. He had learned well from the Bard and Vennmen, their subtle arts of being difficult.
“You are not dead, that much I can surmise.” The priest said again.
“Again, I sorta figured that out already.”
“To be frank, I have never performed that ritual with a gnoll. I knew that there could be side effects, but not like this.” The priest sighed. The gnoll began to grow impatient. The gnoll began to grow scared.
“What am I?” The gnoll breathed out, painfully aware that the sun would rise soon.
“It is hard to say. Your kind is both demon and animal, the cross breeding of ancient creatures and feral beasts.” The priest began. The gnoll tried to remember that to humans, gnolls were feral and beasts, but humans never bothered to ask what gnolls thought of themselves. “It is impossible to say how any resurrection ritual would affect you. You have died before, yes?”
“Yes. It wasn’t much fun.”
“And you lost your, um shadows, as you called it?”
“Yes. They didn’t listen as they used to. It was hard to make them dance with me.”
“But now, the shadows are back. Different, but back?” The priest asked. The gnoll nodded and continued to make the shadows of the alley turn and swirl. The gnoll even managed to turn slightly incorporeal for a moment. But it was not the same. It was not that his heart was in the Shadowfell and he was returning, it was as if he was simply shadow. “I have felt this energy before, seen your powers, heard of your hunger. I was younger then, still learning, still rash. I ventured to the Shadowfell to learn more of necromancy and shadow magic, and I met a creature. It was shadow given form, malice and hate for eyes. It was a shadow demon, a spawn of Rhyxali, Queen of the Dark. It nearly killed me, and it did in fact kill 4 of my party, but before it passed, it told me many things.”
The name echoed in the gnoll’s head. Broken dreams and dead memories. The gnoll remembered, or did he imagine, the blessing given to him at his birth. His father, Alpha, raised the child up, still covered in the blood of his mother: To Rhyxali, grandmother of our tribe, whose shadow blood is a gift to us all, we thank you for this pup!
“How long since the transformation began?” The priest asked, holding one of the gnoll’s massive claws and examining the subtle changes.
“A few months. Dreams first, then the shadows, then the hunger.”
“Have you fed?”
“I eat all the time, everybody does. How is that not normal? The Bard eats 7 times a day!”
“Listen to me, listen carefully: Have you fed on living creatures?”
“Yes. 4 humans, 1 tiefling, 1 halfing, 4 deer, 16 cats, and a few dozen rats.” The gnoll responded obediently. The priest dropped the claw and took a step back.
“Then there is nothing to be done.” The priest sighed. The gnoll could smell fear, for the first time the priest feared the gnoll, but the gnoll could also smell failure, sorrow, and pity. “You are more demon than beast now. Perhaps if I had known that besides some form of feral canine that Rhyxali was at least part of your heritage, I could have adjusted. I could have made greater efforts to minimize your demonic heritage. But as it stands, the change is permanent.”
“What does that mean? Am I a demon?”
“Yes and no. I do not know what you are, but I do know that is monstrous. You would do well to hide this from others; they will not understand. Go creature, and be safe. Do not let the hunger win.” The priest turned and walked towards the rapidly approaching sunrise. The nameless gnoll draped his cloak around him tightly and made his way back to the Ghostly Minstrel. He slept under his bed and dreamed of dark places that seemed more and more like home.
The Sword of Leska’s blood rained down the gnoll’s maw. It was more than the thrill of the hunt, the simple joy in stalking prey. It was not survival, it was existence, purpose, pleasure, and meaning. A beast kills to eat when it is hungry, but a beast could be sated. The gnoll knew only a moment’s peace from the hunger. The man’s body had not even began to grow cold before the gnoll felt the stab of the void in his chest. There was no going back. The gnoll, if he even was a gnoll anymore, felt the shadows rise into him, and he felt oddly complete. He watched as his pack continued the battle, and with a gleeful, almost childlike enthusiasm, he rushed in to find his next meal.
The Quiet Night
The nameless gnoll stood in the room. He was quiet; he took in the perfumed air; he let the rippling waves of sound collect into his ears. He could see nothing in the room but the luxury, the crutches of weak people with weak flesh. He could smell nothing but the over scented air that felt like a fog. The room of the tattoo man was beautiful, soft, and spiteful. The nameless gnoll was not used to such things. Soft earth and grass, warm summer nights, and a full belly were all the niceties of life that the gnoll was accustomed, all he wanted in life. It was the quiet moments. He hated the quiet moments because there was nothing to distract from the wounds that would never heal.
The feathered bed: Laying against the soft fur of Draz. Her breasts the only pillow the nameless gnoll could ever want. He took in her heat with his body, took in the sound of her heartbeat with his hands, the scent of her femininity with every part of him. They would lie together for hours, gluttons after a successful hunt, hungry for each other over and over. She would whisper into his ears, telling him of how gnoll’s have lived, how they have died, and how they have scarred the world with their lives and victories. He would sing to her songs that had no names, songs that lived only in his love for her. They were living loud lives with quiet dignity. And she died quiet. She died alone. And the nameless gnoll knew that he died with her. She would call him many things and never would he be called those names again. His name had died with her, the only bed that he ever wanted, and she was gone.
The bookshelf: The wizard and the smell of his dusty paper, crushed tree and ugly inks. Vennman laughed loud and shouted heavy. He and the nameless gnoll would talk, lessons on how a dog could learn to be something more. The wizard never stopped for a moment to degrade the gnoll, never laughed at his ignorance of a cruel world that seemed so easy, so soft, and so destructive. The gnoll had only two people in his life that were ever more than pack. He had lover. And the wizard was teacher. The gnoll looked at the books that he could not read, the stories he would never know, the meanings and answers to the questions that he did not even know to ask, and there was nothing but emptiness of knowing the wizard was gone.
The empty mug: The goliath and his empty mugs. He understood pack. Beyond even the shifter, the Goliath understood what mattered in life. His mate, his pups, and his packs. The goliath never stopped putting himself under the pack. It was often the goliath and the gnoll, the lines of the enemy pouring forward. But the goliath was the oak in the field, the center of the storm who held back the tide. The goliath never faltered to protect his pack, let his body bear the pain of his love for those that he fought with. The goliath died to defend the pack, died for even the chance to save another. The goliath sang, battled, and raged for the pack, and he was gone.
The mirror: The gnoll watched his reflection and counted the scars on his body. Soon enough, he would no longer be a silky jet black. He was already striped with the soft white of heavy scars. He had died. He was home in the Shadowfell, following the songs of those that he loved but never knew. His shadows were gone. There was only a bare strip of his home left burning in his blood. He had forced himself to be a creature of movement, of grace, of talon and dance. But he used to be a creature of shadow, a creature that could fill in the spaces of the world between worlds. The nameless gnoll was once shadow and blood, and it was gone. The gnoll was gone, and he was not sure what he had left.
It is so easy to be silent. They hear with their eyes, see with their noses. She was supposed to be the strongest of us. The nameless gnoll stepped carefully through the crowded bar. His nose burned from the scent of cheap ale and cheaper thrills. The Bard did what he needed to do. His buffoonery, easy to mistake him for such but the gnoll knew was always a ploy, kept the Shifter unaware. She was seeing with her heart, her anger. She was irritated and it made her eyes weak. It made her ears hear only the Bard. She is angry. She is made of buzzing fireflies, glowing with her anger. She reeks of it. But she is not alone. The fireflies are not humming together. There are weeds in her soul, and they sway to a breeze that is not hers.
The gnoll let each foot fall in perfect harmony. Do they know the ropes of their body? Can they feel each knot as it pulls? Do they know to hold only one rope before letting the other fall. The gnoll made no sound, not even the talons of his bare feet made noise as they slid across the wooden floors. The gnoll did not walk in the heavy march of the others. He watched as the patrons of the bar stomped and crushed their way through the world. The gnoll’s muscles rolled into one another, perfect movement. Stealth was not moving slow; it was allowing the foot to not step but roll in one motion. The gnoll crossed the busy bar and despite being the tallest creature in the room, the only gnoll, no one seemed to notice. They cannot hunt by night and they cannot hunt by moon. They hunt only by lust and regretful loon. The gnoll snickered in his mind. Draz used to sing such things to him. She said it was true; the summer world’s inhabitants were blind.
The air is burning. The wind is coughing. She will not hear me. The gnoll convinced himself as his talon slowly lifted the sword from the Shifter. The gnoll did not breathe lest she smell him. His heart beat only twice. Everything inside his was slow, calm. Thievery was slow. Thievery was a serene lake, gentle in its few waves. The gnoll was water, a pool of quicksilver that would capture the straining starlight of the Shadowfell dawn. The blade rested in the talon of the gnoll and suddenly there was cold air, the waiting plum of the hat, and running to find a way to free the Shifter. But then there were the thoughts.
I am the carrion eater. The worm that blooms in a stronger hunter’s kill. I am the pup that is born still. I am the bringer of the sickness in the air. My pack is dead. My mate is dead. My friends are dead. My pack is weakening. I raised claw and skill against pack. I have stolen against family. I will die and forever be prey. I will be hunted by my betters until the Gods themselves die. And I will do it gladly so that my pack lives. I will not let her die from the inside, even if she kills me for it.
The nameless gnoll could not smell much. To him, the broken building was packed with bodies. Old bodies, decayed and broken. Bodies that died bloody. His eyes and ears told him that it was only the navigator and the bard with in him in the room and the shifter at the bottom of the street. He saw the three ghouls rush her, and his first instinct was to leap down into the middle of them. Yet, his ears warned him of the three moving from the hallway behind the group. The decision had to happen fast. He immediately moved back, not bothering to tell the others. He would have hoped that they noticed, but they did not. He met the three as the were nearing the door. He saw the broken window that led to the street on the other side of the building. He charged and took one ghoul into his left arm, formerly a small child, he took another with his right claw, a larger man that looked as if he had died hard. The last he let latch on to his body, chewing furiously through the gnoll’s armor. The gnoll forced his legs to push, and he carried all three out of the window and into the street below. The impact jarred his body, but the ghouls fared far worse. The gnoll shakily stood and saw another pack of ghouls turn in his direction. He could not win, and the longer he fought, the more he would attract. He ran.
Death had taken much of the shadows from the gnoll’s heart. He had lost them as the mage broke natural law to pull him from the Winter Queen’s realm. But, the gnoll had forced his body to become harder. A hunter adapts. He was faster than he had ever been, and in a full sprint he could rival most horses. He ran as fast as he could, and the ghouls could not keep up. The gnoll was also a keen climber. He lunged into buildings and climbed his way up through shattered side to shattered rooftop. The ghouls were fast, and the ghouls could jump, but they could not match the gnoll’s speed. The gnoll pulled himself into a darkened corner of the ceiling of a small building, once a jeweler’s shop judging by the shinies on the ground. The gnoll forced his muscles to hold him up, a trio of ghouls scanning the room but unable to find their quarry. The gnoll did his best not to smile. The whiteness of his teeth would catch the dim light in the room and give his position away. The ghouls wandered off, and the gnoll waited another moment before slowly lowering himself onto the floor. He took several minutes to just breath, let his body prepare for whatever would come next.
It took him several hours to simply find the trail of his companions. The city was quiet, but ears could not smell the thin wisps of his pack. The buildings blocked his view. The bone dust and decay blocked most of his primary sense. He took each step carefully, knowing that he could not handle more than two ghouls at a time. He could not kill them quietly enough to survive the reinforcements. He was alone, but the gnoll was a creature built to be alone. He made a neat grid in his movements. North for 10 buildings, east for 3, south for 10, east again. It was methodical, precise. He often came within arm’s length of ghouls, but he did not engage unless there was no other option. On occasion, he would simply place a claw to the throat while his other pushed through the shoulder blades. One motion, a swipe and a shove, and the ghoul would fall silent. He would have liked to use his teeth, but the necrotic flesh would sicken him. Death had weakened his body’s ability to survive such poisons. The gnoll did not take time to mourn this. He knew that his limbs were stronger because of it. His stomach may have been weaker, but his ability to kill was stronger than ever. This was all the hunter needed.
He found the scent, a distant memory of his pack running. He followed it closely, hopefully he could catch them before they found trouble. He could smell their blood and knew he was wrong. And the blood was getting heavier. It was the goliath. Somehow the goliath had found them. This was good. But the blood was too heavy, too much of the heart in it, and the gnoll knew to be worried. He was right.
Only a few ghouls were left, the body mostly gone. The gnoll could not stop himself. He charged in silently, killing two of them before they even knew the fight had started. The last two were greedy from the fresh kill, they charged without howling. It was claw against claw, tooth against tooth. The gnoll did not fight in his methodical nature, attacking knee and elbow. He fought like the animal that he tried often to pretend he was not. He fought out of rage and grief. He wanted to feel his blood flow. He wanted to feel his flesh tear as he tore flesh. When it was over, he was covered in his enemies and his own blood. The remains of the goliath watched him. The gnoll began to dig. His claws lifted up cobblestone to the soft earth underneath. He laid what was left of the goliath, barely a shadow of the mountain he was in life, into the hole. The gnoll restacked the stones, and then dragged pieces of mortar and wood on top. He could not spell the goliath’s name so he clawed in a crude picture of a large stick figure holding an axe. The gnoll softly mimicked the Goliath’s dwarven in song. The gnoll let his eyes sting with tears to water the grave.
The gnoll was tired of death. He had hoped that the goliath died hard. He died to save the pack. He died to serve those he fought and ate with. He died like a hunter. The gnoll hoped this. But it did not matter. The gnoll had lost another friend. He had few left. His pack was breaking. He was a weak alpha. One by one they were dying because he could not protect them all.
The gnoll set out to find the rest of his pack. He would not let them die without him. He would not be left alone again.
The nameless gnoll breathed deep, taking in as much as the salted air as he could manage. His chest rose and expanded, seemingly tripling in size as the normally hunched beast reared to full height. His nose chapping and his eyes watering, he continued to force more and more air into his body. The memories flooded in with the oxygen.
You really shouldn’t have eaten the dog" The wizard said. The two were camped beside the road on their way back to Ptolus. The wizard’s frame was thicker then: his monastic diet and self flagellation had yet to fully materialize. He was still not what the gnoll would have considered a fatted calf like so many other of the summer world dwellers, but when compared to the present, the wizard was rounder then.
“I was hungry. I didn’t realize such a thing was not meant for food.” The gnoll responded. He had genuinely been under the assumption that the highborn lady kept such a small, annoying creature purely for a well fed and tender snack. The gnoll only felt that after escorting her, the meal was better spent on him.
“No, it was her pet.” The wizard said. His voice was kind, more amused than angry. The gnoll noticed this. “People keep small, worthless animals around as a sign of status. You know, to show their level in the pack.”
“Oh. How odd.” The gnoll had nothing else to say. The wizard always knew how to explain the summer world to him. The gnoll knew much of the world now. The wizard always taught him. He was a different creature then. A gnoll dead and buried.
The sea air burned into the gnoll’s lungs. The fire inside ate at him, the smell of his own tears beginning to form in his eyes only weighing heavier on the gnoll as the air inside turned to lead.
“He’s not a dog!” The wizard yelled as a wave of thunder erupted from his hands. The mercenaries scattered as the spell caught them unprepared. The gnoll had been unprepared. The Citadel of Might was the closest place to a haven that the creature had in the city. He was still barely a pup, his body still healing from his escape from the dagger-ears, his heart still quietly beating for something he would not hold again in life. The gnoll had not seen the bottle of ale, not registered the sound of shoulder tensing against boiled leather armor, the sound of the glass traveling through the air, the smell of malice. It had crashed into the side of his head, the small amount of ale burning his eyes and drowning his sense of smell. He felt only the ground and his body’s natural defense mechanism of fading into shadow. The mercenaries were drunk. He had worked with several of them before. He had fought beside them to clear out a small goblin infestation outside of the city. He had patrolled with them around the docks, protecting a merchant’s goods. He had bled with them. And they did not care a single bit. He was still a dog.
“Crazy mage! Learn to fight like a real man!” The largest of the mercenaries called out. The wizard continued to walk forward with his chest out and his eyes locked. The mercenary was twice his size, a skilled brawler, a man of few kind words and many heavy fists. He turned and quietly left as the wizard watched. The wizard walked to the still prone gnoll; he extended a hand. No one ever shook the gnoll’s claws. They were massive, sharp, wicked things. Even among other gnolls, they were to be viewed only as weapons. But the wizard extended his hand. The gnoll felt his body return to a solid state and extended his left claw. The wizard gripped tight, ignoring that he cut his finger a bit, and helped the gnoll up. The wizard smiled. No one ever smiled at the gnoll. No one ever laughed with the gnoll.
“So I said, that’s not my wand baby, but it sure as hell gets the job done the same.” The wizard laughed out. The two other mercenaries laughed along. There had been 6 of them total but it was only the two mercenaries, the wizard, and the gnoll left. Cleaning the sewers of a shivel-addicted gang turned into a full scale melee. They were all that were left living, and in the dank, they celebrated their fortune.
“I don’t get it.” The gnoll said. The scent of annoyance, hatred, fear swelled up from the mercenaries.
“Stupid dog.” One said quietly under her breath.
“Um, I was explaining that my, uh, hmm, manhood?”
“My um, my baby stick.”
The gnoll shook his head.
“My junk.” The wizard motioned and took hold through his robe.
“Oh! Your penis! You were saying your penis is a feared and magical weapon!” The gnoll laughed loud. Not in his mimicked common, but in the heavy, rough sound of his natural tongue. It was his real voice, not spoken except for in his own ears. The wizard continued to laugh and slapped a bloody hand against the gnoll’s arm. The mercenaries just stared at each other, but it did not matter. The gnoll was laughing.
The gnoll coughed out the air, unable to force his body to sustain the intake. He immediately sucked it all back in, his nose slowly started to bleed from the sheer urgency in which he drew breath. His eyes watered, but only in small part to the discomfort. It was not the same. The wind over the water was too strong. The salt too much. The fire and ash too much. The gnoll breathed and tried to forever remember his friend’s scent. The gnoll breathed and smelled the scent of paper, old robes, ozone, fire, and alchemical components start to disappear from the world. The gnoll breathed until he could not longer find Vennman. The gnoll breathed and hoped that where ever his friend had gone, he found peace. The gnoll was proud to call the wizard his pack and idly dreamed that when the gnoll met his final death, the wizard would be just as proud of him.
The nameless gnoll ignored his own blood for the time. He followed the inquisitor’s heartbeat, watched the vibrations of its rhythm ripple through the veins in his neck and arms. The gnoll was happy. He lunged forward, twisting his torso to avoid the counter of the Inquisitor’s glowing blade and felt his lead claw find flesh. The gnoll’s left claw continued up with the creature’s weight behind it. The gnoll could smell the deep, vital blood that began to pour out. He could smell the inside of the Inquisitor. The gnoll could hear the man’s soul being ripped away to Lady of Winter. He would have enjoyed the sensations more, but suddenly a blinding light and the damned rasp of Leska’s voice filled the air. It did not hurt too much, but the gnoll was still startled. He was also starting to grow annoyed.
Against the Inquisitor, every breath, every drop of blood and instinct was focused on the gnoll’s quarry. But now that the Inquisitor lay broken on the ground, his last few retainers starting to reek of the realization that they were just as dead, the gnoll could hear the Bard
and the Shifter. He could smell their distrust, their growing animosity. But more importantly, he could smell the Shifter’s blood and yet felt nothing of the Bard’s healing magic.
“Don’t come near me!” The Shifter barked. “I want none of your help.”
The gnoll heard this as he ducked under the sweep of the Ragesian’s blow. The gnoll darted behind the man and slashed with his left claw. The gnoll let his senses relax, taking in more of the scene. His eyes were focused on the two soldiers before him as well as the Goliath who
had spent more time stunned by the Inquisitor than anything else. His body was poised to react to everything near him, to duck under blows, to leap behind the goliath’s sweeping attacks to gain a brief moment’s respite before lunging back into the fray, to slide low through the
ground only to spin up in a slashing motion. But his ears were everywhere, listening to the Wizard’s incantations, the Dagger-Ear’s silence, the Shifter’s swordplay, and the Bard’s acceptance of the Shifter’s decree. The nameless gnoll knew where all of his pack were,
what they were feeling, and he was furious.
“Fine! Help your own self.” The Barb retorted as he moved away from the Shifter. The gnoll felt only a cold, sick iron in his stomach. How could anyone refuse to help the pack? How could the Bard, the blessedly kind and dedicated Bard fail to help a packmate? It did not matter what she said: Packmates aid pack, regardless. The Shifter was hurt, more than her pride would allow her to reveal, and she needed the aid. The gnoll trusted the Bard. The gnoll trusted his entire
pack, but he held the Bard in a special esteem. The Bard was the heart; he kept the pack fighting when nothing else would. He kept the low nights full with music and story. For the first time, the gnoll was angry at his pack. He could hear the Shifter muttering her hate.
He wanted to pounce, to make her whine like a pup. The gnoll knew that the Bard was quick to take what was not well guarded, but he never thought the Bard would honestly steal from the pack. He may borrow, but for a reason, for a cause. The Shifter returned her suspicion with her own blatant act. Neither would back down and pride began to eat at everything. The pack fails when the hunter thinks himself more important. The gnoll could not lose his pack. The gnoll
could not lose those he loved. He would not allow it. Never again.
The end of the battle was quiet. The gnoll took his trophy from the Inquisitor while the pack began to salvage what they could from the slaughtered Ragesians. The nameless gnoll took the Shifter aside:
“Show throat. I will not have you and the Bard like this. You will both show throat. Or you will challenge in the true way and one willdie.”
“He has to apologize to me!” The Shifter protested. The gnoll felt something in him fall; he felt something in him give way.
“You will defend the pack, that means any packmate. Otherwise: You are not pack.” Th gnoll hated himself. He did not want to say such a thing. The Shifter knew what it meant. She was raised in the true way. To be expelled from a pack is exile at best, death more than anything.
“I will show throat if he does.” The Shifter responded. The gnoll walked away, not content with the response. He worried what it would mean. The Bard was even less open to it.
“I didn’t do anything wrong! I never stole from anyone and she tried to steal from me! I shouldn’t have to apologize for anything!” The Bard yelled. The gnoll knew he was right, mostly. While the Bard did probably lightly rummage through the Shifter’s possessions, the gnoll
did not doubt that it was not at all malicious. The gnoll could not help it; he could not have his pack refusing to aid each other.
“I do not care. You will be show throat…err..apologize. I will not have this happen.” The gnoll said as he walked away, content to remind them both at any opportunity. The gnoll thought to himself for a moment:
Who would he choose if it came to a challenge? And in his mind, the gnoll knew he’d rather die than have to choose between either. He wasn’t an alpha. He just wanted to have his pack. The gnoll wanted to whine, but he knew his blood pack was listening. He knew she was listening. The wizard had called him an alpha; this scared the gnoll more than anything.
The nameless gnoll gorged on his meal; his body weighed down by trauma and the blessedly sweet taste of fresh meat. He had not eaten a full meal since his death and rather rocky resurrection. He found that his hunger did not return as quickly as it used to; each time he tasted fresh blood, it only reminded him of his own blood in his mouth. But the gnoll was cursed and blessed with a short memory, at least a willful short memory. He forced himself to chew and swallow, to remember that he was a hunter, and hunters eat and grow strong. He also remembered his mate’s constant creed when the gnoll was barely more than a pup: Fortune favors the bold, and Disaster hunts the melancholic.
The gnoll did his best not to feel melancholic. While he never grew up surrounded by a litter, never had to worry about the anxiety and shame of being picked last in any organized or disorganized game, the gnoll did understand that he had in fact been ditched. The rotund bard often forgot how astute the gnoll’s hearing actually was, and the gnoll knew that the constant influx of fresh meat was a ploy to keep the him in one place. Part of the gnoll was outraged for the insult of a hunter not being taken on a hunt, but the gnoll was also a pragmatic creature. He had yet to really test his body and his powers against any true foe; he had no idea if the heavy wounds that wracked his body would simply make him a liability. The gnoll knew that his body could no longer sustain the damage it once could. The shadows no longer fed him as he struck a fresh creature, drew those ruby drops of first blood, and even the bone and flesh of his body felt frailer, weaker. But his muscles were denser. The gnoll would never think to try and match his strength against his goliath brother, but the gnoll thought he could easily best most others. He moved even faster on the ground and his natural balance and flexibility was still intact. It would have to be enough, even if the shadows were slowly deserting him. The nameless gnoll knew that he would never see his mate or his blood pack again if he failed his spirit pack in combat. He would have to get stronger. He would have to be ready.
The gnoll settled in with the growing pile of bones and raw meat. His stomach was full to the brim, but he continued to chew tendon and muscle. The gnoll breathed deep and focused on the smoldering ember of the Shadowfell inside his soul; he felt it burst into an obsidian flame that burned its way through his bloodstream. As it receded, the deep chill giving way as the shadows retreated, the gnoll felt his hunger return. He felt his body slowly stitch itself back together; he felt himself starting to become whole. The gnoll reached into the carcass and snapped off another rib, slicing all of the meat off with a few motions of his talons into his mouth. He did not so much chew and shred the meat before letting it fall down his throat into his suddenly empty stomach. The gnoll cracked the bone and drained the marrow from the center. Two marsh dagger-ears stopped in their tracks to observe the scene; the small room looked like a charnal pit straight from the deepest of the nine hells. What was more disconcerning was the large gnoll in the center, happily chewing away with all the glee of a small child with a cupcake (or the rotund bard with a cupcake). The pair walked away quietly, more out of fear the gnoll would suddenly decide even fresher meat was necessary. The gnoll ignored them even though he could smell their disgust and their judgment. It didn’t matter. The gnoll was used to it. He also afforded the marsh dagger-ears more good will than he would any other fey creature. Despite his best efforts, he liked them. They were simple folk, simple in their kindness and their faith. It reminded him of the rituals that his mate once described to him. The nameless gnoll knew few of his tribe’s practices, relying on his sometimes inconsistent memory of his mate’s lectures. The nameless gnoll did not why his mate seemed so encloypedic about any people’s culture they would come across, but he assumed that it was a necessity for her survival. She was a hunter among skin, studying the subtle and quiet machinations of a culture as vital to her as studying an enemies movements would be to the gnoll. He also liked to think of her in this way; it made him smile. He missed her. He missed her scent, her warmth, the sound of her voice when she told him that he’d never be alone again. He missed how she would overcook his meals, the juices running clear and the flesh darkened. He missed how she would make him sing. As the gnoll sent another claw into the carcass, harvesting whatever he could, he had a simple thought: He was missing something. He assumed it was part of the Shadowfell, his waning powers an indication of such, but then the thought occured to him: He was missing her. It had spent more time away from her than with her, he had not smelled that thin, nearly intangible scent of her in so long, he had forgotten it. But now he remembered. He had bathed in when he was in the Shadowfell. She was gone and the gnoll had to accept that. He had often dreamed that she was still alive somewhere, deceiving even the nameless gnoll. Yet, the gnoll knew she was in the Winter Lands, never to walk anyother place. But the gnoll knew he’d see her again, so long as is spirit pack stopped leaving him behind. The gnoll idly wondered if hitting the bard with another gold bar would damage his chances of getting to go back to his mate…
The nameless gnoll felt his breath slowly pass through his snout. He took the next breath in even slower, stopping to taste it in his mouth before letting it settle into his lungs. He detected the sweet, sharp iron of fear. The deer knew death was close. It could not see the gnoll; it could not hear the gnoll; it could only feel the gnoll’s eyes on its throat. The deer knew not to run; if it chose the wrong direction, its death was assured. It could only scan, place its muscle into their ready position, and wait. The gnoll made it wait. He was busy slowly infecting the frozen blood of the Shadowfell into the animal, and the gnoll was upset. He could only will half as much of the shadow into the creature as he could before. The part of his soul forever pledged to the Cold Realm was thinner than it had ever been, but the gnoll would not be melancholic. He was a hunter; hunters adapt.
The gnoll’s faded and dirty yellow eyes, the color of a waning harvest moon, watched each muscle tick and tense as the deer prepared to play its part in the oldest performance. He studied how the energy and blood of the creature’s life pulsed beneath the skin, predicting its movement. The gnoll knew what the deer would do before the creature had any inkling of its own action. When the gnoll could predict each twitch, each spasm of muscle, he moved. His left claw, once only a shield, broke through the earth that the gnoll had buried himself under and caught the gossamer thin sinew of the deer’s hind leg. The gnoll smiled as the deer began to collapse to the ground, its natural motion to begin its escape failing as the limb could not longer function as nature had determined. The gnoll’s right claw, barely a breath behind the left slashed into the deer’s throat, severing air and vitae. The gnoll smiled, his teeth wet and freshly sharpened; this kill had gone far better than the rabbits.
The gnoll had waited in the shadows, his body cloaked in the growing shade of the late dusk. He saw the rabbit patrolling carefully, guiding his mates to their burrow for the evening. The gnoll was too far to make the sprint; he was faster than he had ever been, stronger, but the rabbit would have time to make it to safety. The gnoll needed surprise. He felt the shadows around him, their cold embrace somewhat more faded than he was used to. This honestly unnerved him; it made the gnoll feel alone. The gnoll focused everything in his mind on the slim shadow of the rabbit, felt the waves of energy that collected in it, and the gnoll threw himself forward. To the crow watching from the tree, completely unafraid of the gnoll below and interested in any left overs, the scene was comical. In the nameless gnoll’s mind, he was simply diving into a pool of thick water, only to emerge from a separate pool some feet away. But in reality, the gnoll jumped straight up into the air, his body reacting rather than his soul, and gravity took its vengeance. The crow laughed its simple laugh as the gnoll landed squarely on his own head, a small “meep” escaping his mouth. The rabbits were already inside their burrow, snickering to themselves. The gnoll crept away, not out of stealth or desire to hunt, purely out of the desire to hide from any eyes. He hoped that his mate and pack in the Shadow could not see that.
The nameless gnoll knew that his ability to walk through shadows was thin; it was no longer instinct. Despite the beatings and burning of his death, resurrection, and torture, he felt even more fresh pains after his many falls through the trees. While his pack slept, he hid in the trees and attempted to step from shadow to shadow. He mostly learned that falling through tree limbs hurts. But the gnoll thought that through instinct, the thrill of the hunt, the sweet lust of battle he might be able to draw upon the shadows he loved. Sometimes they came, sometimes not. He was still able to draw them about like a noose, he was still able to force his body to shift into the shadow realm for a time, but some of his most trusted abilities were gone. But hunters adapt.
The gnoll watched his sleeping packmates. He watched their movements, the ignored patterns of muscle to their simplest gestures. It disgusted him, made him hate and doubt himself, but he killed them a dozen times in his own mind. He remembered watching them battle, cleaving through foes, tumbling away from harm, or channeling arcane energy. He remembered how they moved and where they were weak. The Goliath’s knees and elbow joints; the shifter’s calves and heel, the bard’s stomach and throat, the mage and dagger-ear anywhere close. He forced himself to imagine, down to the scent, of battling them over and over again, how he would win or how he would lose. It was a morose feeling, even for the gnoll. But it was necessary. The pack has no use for a lame hunter, so the hunter must become strong.
He heard the dagger-ear shift about on her patrol route, smelled the soft tinge of mischief and curiosity on the air, and quietly followed. He watched her bend down to touch the sleeping girl’s anklet, stumble back, and then quickly and gracelessly escape. The gnoll smelled embarrassment, pain, and fear. All good scents when coming from a dagger-ear. But then he went back to his training. The smile felt good, but there was work to be done. The gnoll would get stronger. The gnoll would get faster. And the gnoll would never, ever, let anyone seem him land on his head again; he was pretty sure hunters do not faceplant.
(A bit lengthy)
The nameless gnoll twisted his body to avoid the heavy spear, the Ragesian soldier cursing in frustration. The gnoll was surrounded by the soldiers, all of them clad in the ill-fitting armor and heraldry of the Dassen military. The creature towered over them all, over a foot taller than the largest man sent against him, but more importantly, he was faster than them all. He did not fight to kill nor to maim; he fought only to ensure that the chubby bard and the lithe shifter had all the time they needed to make it back to camp. The gnoll cloaked himself in shadow and escaped the growing scrum of soldiers, their numbers starting to negate the gnoll’s speed. The nameless hunter knew he was bleeding. He knew that death was watching him closely, judging his performance. The gnoll moved into full sprint, moving to the north while his pack mates moved to the south, well out of sight and out of harm’s way.
But the gnoll was not out of danger. He lowered himself to all fours, digging deep into the rich earth to make near impossible turns to avoid the closing pack of soldiers. He stared to the north, to the soft rolling hills and scattered trees, and he prayed that the bard and the shifter knew to keep moving back to camp without him. He prayed that they trusted him enough to know that he would always be able to find them; their scent a brilliant red dawn in the air to his senses. He was losing the soldiers; he was in the open. He felt the tears in his side, the blood that soaked his fur, and the heavy weight of his body’s awareness that his wounds were nearing fatal. But he only saw the open country and its safety. He could hear the frantic footsteps of the soldiers moving farther away. He could no longer smell their anger and frustration as clearly. He was losing them. He heard the shift of earth, the change in the rhythm of their pursuit, and the sound of armor tensing against motion. The gnoll only ran, pushing himself to a full gallop. But he could not outrun the spears. The first pierced high through his left thigh, immediately stopping his gait and freezing his momentum. The second found his lower back, piercing through and shutting down his mind’s control over anything below the protruding spear point. The third found his right lung. The gnoll crashed and rolled into the earth, shattering the spears that pierced through his flesh and ripping the wounds to even larger proportions. The gnoll did not howl; his lungs could not take in the air. The gnoll did not cry; he had long since been bereft of the ability. The gnoll only whimpered his dying breath, mewing softly. He died wishing only that this pack mates could smell his death in the air and run as fast as they could, never to come back.
The Shadowfell was more beautiful than the gnoll remembered. The sky was empty and black, the moon and stars hidden behind the richest velvet of emptiness. The razor grass was the only light as the thin glow of the horizon, the dawn that never came, reflected off the metal blades of the tall, thin plants. When the wind gusted, the entire plain shimmered like water. The gnoll smiled to see his home. He could hear the the howls of the Bloodtalon tribe in the distance, a welcome home. The gnoll let loose his own cry and relished the return. He knew he was dead. He could hear the Lady of Winter’s words in the air, pulling him closer and closer to his judgment. He would meet his father, alpha of a fallen pack, and declare his victories. He would admit his failures. He would lie on his back with his throat ready. The gnoll did not doubt he would be found worthy to eternally hunt with his blood pack. The nameless creature’s only doubt was for the welfare of his spirit pack; he hoped they were well on their way south with the case. He hoped that they were safe. He wished them ale, sweet pastries, never returning ex-mates, and calm memories. The gnoll howled once more. Baffin, Vennman, Moog, Snow, and even for good measure in the hope that she kept them as safe as he did, Ophelia. The gnoll sprinted into the open plain of the Shadowfell, taking in the chilled air for the scent of his own kind and his waiting eternity.
The gnoll moved through the razorgrass, passing through the silver mist of a pack of Shadar-Kai. He knew they were still alive and he was simply a breath of the dead. The gnoll ran on all fours and felt his soul sing. He was shadow and darkness. He danced upon the darkness and his songs only caused them to rise and fall in unison. The gnoll felt the Shadowfell beat within him in harmony. Every piece of him was home. A solitary raven, a heavy call and violent wing guided him forward. The gnoll could hear the sound of claws in earth. He knew his long dead brothers and sisters ran with him. He knew that he would meet his father and in the chorus of a pack reunited, he would be given his name. He idly pondered what it would be. He had no true idea of what names his pack favored. And then it came to the gnoll. He felt ashamed he had not thought of her sooner. He had no idea if she would even be waiting, if her own kind had their own special place in the End World. But he smelled her on the air, the light and thin shine that wafted in on the breeze. The gnoll ran even faster, howling out her name over and over. His ears rang with the chime of her voice, just in the distance, waiting. The gnoll ran faster than it would ever be possible; every living creature in his path being knocked down by a sudden torrent of air. The nameless gnoll howled out for his mate and declared his love so that all Bloodtalons would sing of it. The nameless gnoll howled into the unending night of his home and knew only contentment. The nameless gnoll was whole.
The pain was beyond physical sensation. It hurt in the parts of the gnoll that there were no words for, a pain with no earthly name. It was the pain of a first breath when there should have been nothing. It was the pain of a heart beating when it had no more beats to give. The gnoll could feel his blood burn and twist; thick to thin. The gnoll was being born in the most hateful of ways. His eyes burned from the garish light of the human’s torches; his nose was clogged with dry blood and the scent of his own death. The gnoll could feel where the deathblows came but he was still whole. The gnoll whimpered and whined as the human looked on with a sick smile. His skin was soft, perfumed. His breath reeked of wine and cooked meat. His hands smelled of herbs and regents. His soul smelled of hatred and a deep lust for pain.
“For a creature like you, death should never be that quick.” The mage said. The gnoll did not even have the energy to turn his head, survey the scene and plot his escape. Each breath in was a battle, and each time the gnoll breathed out, he hoped it would be his last. The mage took the gnoll’s snout and moved it from side to side, reveling in the pain as the gnoll continued to whimper at the simple movement. It felt as if each bone in his neck broke against each other. “You tried to steal our gold. We cannot have that, can we?” The gnoll could not gather the energy to retort. “I am going to start asking questions, and you are going to answer them. Simple enough for a brute like you I hope.”
The gnoll had no answers to give. He would not betray his pack, even in the quasi-death in which he found himself. The gnoll took delight in the game. “What is your name you stubborn furball?”
“I am nameless.” The gnoll coughed out between the gasps of air and pain. The mage sent bolts of electricity into the gnoll in response. He had a pattern. First was the electricity. It kept the senses alive. Then came the fire. Then the electricity again. Finally the vulgar cutting and twisting. Last was always the ice. The gnoll knew they would cut him again. They had started in his lowest wound, the shattered muscle of his thigh. They were still working on his stomach.
“Tell me who you are.” The mage continued as he buried his hand into the fresh wound. He sent wave after wave of fire into the gnoll’s stomach with a sick smile.
“I am the gnoll with no name.” The gnoll managed to laugh. It quickly died as fresh pain started to pour through him once more.
“What is your name?!” The mage yelled. The gnoll knew the mage was starting to lose his temper. The mage would cut deeper, faster, and sloppier in his anger. This comforted the gnoll; it meant he would die soon. The mage would get reckless. It meant that the gnoll would go back.
“I am without a name.” The gnoll managed, mimicking the mage’s voice and intonation. The mage found it a disturbing sight and fought hard to suppress a shudder. The gnoll saw it and smiled.
“You believe you are quite humorous, do you not?” The mage asked, reaching for a short sword that suddenly glowed red. “The men say you fight like a devil. Your right claw is quite powerful.” The mage touched the glowing red to the steel of the gnoll’s claw. The nameless creature smiled as he felt nothing. He smiled even more when he saw one of the soldier’s he had nearly killed in the battle. The man was still limping and his armor was even more ill-fitting with layers of bandages on his stomach and chest. “You are an oddity to be sure.”
“You are quite the idiot.” The gnoll said in Baffin’s voice. The mage shook off the insult and spoke in low tones to one of the soldiers. The younger man saluted and returned with a heavy woodcutter’s axe. The gnoll’s smile did not fade for a moment.
“I also heard you favor your left arm as a shield.” The mage mused as he lifted the gnoll’s arm. “I have heard of your species being able to develop natural defenses, but this is quite interesting. I think a sample would be wonderfully helpful.” The soldier buried the axe into the gnoll’s left arm. Sparks and bone chips flew with each strike, the nameless gnoll howling into the night. “Who sent you? Do you work for Dassen?”
“I. I work for. I work for Leska!” The gnoll screamed out. The soldier took a step back and the gnoll shivered in pain, unable even to reach his shattered left arm and cradle it. The gnoll was only restrained by a single leather strap; he should have easily been able to disperse his form and slip into the shadows. But there was nothing. He did not have the energy or the will to reach into himself. He also felt an emptiness through the pain; a hollow feeling in his core that used to be full of the cold, uncaring spark of the Shadowfell.
“You are an agent of Leska, dog?” The mage sneered. “Or are you willing to dedicate your worthless existence to her glorious service?”
“I work for her. I am her consort. She calls for me since you humans simply cannot satisfy any woman. You don’t have the bite.” The gnoll laughed. The mage turned the gnoll’s arm and the soldier continued his work. The gnoll howled into the night and after an hour of work, the gnoll’s left arm was mangled. The plates that had been his shield were gone, splintered on the ground. The gnoll looked at his arm and hoped his death would be cleaner.
“You are a stubborn, stubborn creature. If you were not such a disgusting, worthless animal, you would deserve a bit of respect.” The mage mocked as he continued to alternate waves of electricity, fire, and ice into the gnoll. “You were so fast not so long ago, what happened?”
“I died. You should try it.” The gnoll responded glibly. The mage went back to work.
The gnoll came back to his senses at the sound of a bellowing goliath. He could hear the sound of metal against metal and the sweeter tone of metal on flesh. He forced his body to take air in, despite the urge to vomit from the pain of breathing. He could smell stale bread, heavy ale, the permanent perfume of dusty tomes and paper, and the spring rain of Fey. The gnoll smelled his pack and howled in abyssal. In his pain and the broken splinters of his body, the gnoll forgot that none of them spoke his mother tongue. He wanted them to run. He wanted them to disappear and live. The hunter does not risk the pack. The gnoll screamed out in his mind as his body was unable to carry the sound: the hunter does not risk the pack!
The nameless creature could not remember much of the battle. The gnoll forced his body to walk. He was free. His pack had slaughtered the soldiers. He could not run. He could not stalk, but he could walk. He followed the bard and the shifter as they chased the last survivors of the Ragesians. He gathered all his energy to enter the Shadowfell, to move swiftly and silently. There was nothing. The gnoll walked and found that more of his home was taken from him. The gnoll stopped and waited for the bard and shifter to return. He looked at his broken body and prayed for his broken soul. The shadows were leaving him. Everything was leaving him. The gnoll took a deep breath and watched the stars burn; he watched the night sky and tried to remember what home felt like; the gnoll watched the world and knew that no matter what, more could always be taken from him.
The nameless gnoll could smell the distrust and fear emanating from the soldiers. He had been in Dassen only a short time and already the soldiers hated him. The gnoll had bled with them, spilled blood, and protected those who were not his pack. Yet, they hated him. The gnoll was used to this. If he had been a more introspective creature, it would have bothered him. Some nights, it did. But as the soldiers continued to reek of fear and the sweet anticipation of violence, the gnoll felt only the need to escape.
The lieutenant smelled only of a bitter mistrust, a deep and unwavering contempt for anyone that had not passed his test of loyalty. He had no fear like the others; his eyes were stone and his gait was that of a man that killed comfortably and easily. The gnoll watched as he leaned slightly to his right, an old wound that carried a harsh lesson. But it did not the slow the lieutenant, the gnoll could see it clearly. The gnoll could see a few dozen soldiers, smelled the other ten or so, and heard them all tighten their grips and let their hearts beat faster. All but the lieutenant.
The pack talked. The wizard threw down his gear in disgust and defeat. The wizard was tired of the battle. The gnoll only plotted his escape. He evaluated each option.
Kill the lieutenant. If the gnoll focused, he could infect the man with the taint of the Shadowfell several times before he was discovered. One clean blow would probably fell the man. The gnoll thought back to the first time he tried this tactic. The Shadar-Kai was haughty, a cruel look in her eye as she let the burning iron hover only a few inches from the gnoll’s throat. She had alabaster skin; the gnoll could see the nearly invisible lines of the scars she healed often and thoroughly. She was a warrior. The other Shadar-Kai kept their distance from her. The gnoll noticed when she shifted, the guards shifted. He smelled their fear. Not of him, that was a prey’s fear of a predator, sweet and harsh. Their fear was metallic, cold, a dog beaten into loyalty by a master. The gnoll had been in the Shadar-Kai camp for a week. His legs were tired and cut. His left eye was swollen shut. He had lost half of his teeth (and for his own luck, the gnoll was grateful he would grow a new set within a month), and the growth on his left arm that was his shield was splintered in half and useless. But the chains were getting weak, the gnoll slowly filing a link. He could snap them. The Shadar-Kai couldn’t feel the taint in her soul. She was drunk on the pain and the sound of the gnoll’s howl as she pierced his skin. The gnoll struck fast and clean, pulling the taint from her soul as the gnoll’s right claw moved into her skin into beyond the sticky parts of her biology. She was dead without a scream. The gnoll took a taste of her flesh and howled in victory. The other Shadar-Kai fled, their fear that of sweet honey of a prey seeing their hunter. The escape cost him blood, but it paid him in freedom.
But the gnoll had his pack. The goliath was broken inside. He would let himself die. The bard could not manage against so many foes, and the wizard would be overcome too quickly to use the enemy’s numbers and enclosed space against them. The shifter was a fighter, a warrior that few could match. But her skill was in the duel, isolation. They would all die. The gnoll would not risk it. The hunter never risks the pack; the pack risks the hunter.
Dissipate and run. The gnoll could slip his body back into the Shadowfell. The arrows and bolts would matter nothing to him as he ran as fast he could into the forest outside of the city. The humans would matter nothing there. It had worked before. He had made it to the portals into the Dark Dream, the place that humans called the Feydark. It was almost entirely dagger-ear territory, but it was the only way the gnoll knew to make it to the Summer World and a city called Ptolus. He had been caught sleeping. The dagger-ears were not the kin of the tyrant and his murdered boy. But the gnoll was an easy slave. The cell was beautiful in the way the dagger-ears found malice enchanting. The walls were covered in a thick, dense mold that radiated water. Not enough to drink. Not enough to drown. It only made his fur wet, his body slick, caused his temperature to fall. The gnoll was a creature of the Shadowfell; it was the first time he ever felt cold. It sickened him. The dagger-ears took turns cloaking the cell in shadow so thick that even the gnoll felt tinges of unease sink into him. Other times they would create a massive orb of light above him, a light so blinding that no matter what he did, he felt the hated rays scarring his eyes. They awoke him with charms and illusions of serpents and spiders. They kept him awake for days. The gnoll was not sure how long he was in the cell. He smashed his own teeth out of his mouth to keep count. One and a half growth. He would fight in their games. He would kill their beasts for sport. He would devour their enemies for their pleasure. After his battles, the guards would pour their liquor down onto him to burn his wounds and laugh as he howled. But always the cell. Until the night he began to climb. It took him much time to find the only footholds in the smooth and rounded walls at the only slight corner that existed in the hole. He could not reach the grate above him, it was still too far. But he climbed until the slight shadow of one of the guards was in reach. He threw the part of him inside forward, the fragment of his soul dedicated only to the cold eternal night of the Shadowfell and emerged from the dagger-ear’s shadow. He did not even kill. He dissipated and ran. He was too far gone before the mages were sent for him. He was free.
But the reality was that he could only guarantee his survival. The pack would be on their own. It was the greatest shame of the hunter. The nameless gnoll took a skin-changer for a mate. The gnoll fought for a master. The gnoll was caged. But none of these mattered in the face of the greatest sin. The gnoll could never abandon his pack.
Follow the pack. The gnoll had done this many times with his hunter-kindred. He often deferred to their plans. It was the hunter’s way. He would save them somehow when the door was shut and hope was dead. He would kill all the humans. He would adorn his pack with trophies of their hearts and sing the hunter’s song. But as the fey-creature stepped into the light, the gnoll felt for once luck was on his side.
He slept well that night, despite the sleeping girl’s power. The snow was gentle; the air was clean; there were no walls to contain him. He was free. He did not mind the scent of the bard’s latest meal and the remnants of cooked wheat hidden in his clothing. He did not mind the fey-creatures scent, so damned close to that of the dagger-ears. He did not mind the shifter’s ever-changing scent, as if she was constantly raging within herself. He did not mind the wizard’s night terrors and constant murmurs. They all slept against each other in the true way. They were all pack. The gnoll missed the goliath, he wanted to welcome his hunter-kin. He wanted the goliath to be whole once more. But it all did not matter. The gnoll slept beside his pack, all of them occasionally fighting to reposition his arm as they would a blanket. He held them close and tried to hide the smile. He held them close and dreamed of running free in the eternal night once more, the howls (or for his pack, singing or yelling), filling the empty night sky with stars.
The nameless gnoll stared up into the eyes of the goliath; they were the funeral pyres for a better world. The broken old man was behind the goliath, immobilized by the heavy soot in his lungs. Everything was a shade of orange. The lake of fire bathed every piece of the gnoll in heat and lethargy. His fur was burnt, his sense of smell completely eradicated, and even his hearing seemed dulled by the constant hiss of air almost on fire. The gnoll crouched low, aware of the massive axe the goliath wielded with confident hands.
“She took my family from me, so I will take hers.” The goliath spoke in a hard tone, the type of edge a man carries when there is nothing left of him to break. The goliath was only pieces of memories that were more akin to dreams. The gnoll could understand; the gnoll was made of the same things.
“I do not want to fight.” The gnoll said flatly. He kept his body steady despite the heat, he kept his legs taunt and ready to dodge, and he kept his mind blank. It would be too easy to think and join with the goliath. It would be too easy to ponder his situation and find the only just course was to punish the little girl for her sin. She broke a pack. She broke a strong hunter from his mate and his pups. There could be no forgiveness; there could be no redemption. The nameless gnoll was all too aware that if he let his mind travel down those roads, he would only further break his own pack. The gnoll looked at the split rope, his attempt to take the old man through the trail and back to his daughter. He thought the goliath simply did not care for the old man’s life, another sentiment the gnoll shared, but when the goliath raised his axe and split the rope, it was all too clear what the goliath had in mind.
“I will explain in words you will understand: She took me from my mate, from my pups! I want to go back!” The goliath bellowed. The gnoll more than understood already. If it was within his power, he would find a way to send the goliath back to his pack, back to his own blood. The gnoll could hear the chubby bard fighting against heat, trying desperately to dissuade the golaith. The gnoll could hear the rebel woman making her way over with the shifter to take the old man. The pack wanted the useless old fool alive. The pack calls, the hunter answers. The gnoll fought to keep his mind blank, his being focused only on reaching the old man in one piece. But it was too late, the goliath sent the gnoll back.
“You have to leave my mate. They are surrounding us! Go, please!” The she-gnoll cried. The nameless gnoll had never seen one of his kind weep, it was a horrid and ugly thing that made his own eyes feel as though they were being pushed out from his skull.
“I will take them all.” The nameless gnoll said as he shifted his body into shadow. “They will not take us. No dagger ear shall ever take what is mine again.”
“They will kill us both. You have a chance, let me give you some time.” The she-gnoll pleaded. Her wound was deep, two heavy bolts tearing flesh and vitae onto the dull gray earth. “I can lead them away from you. You are too cunning and too quiet, they will not find you if you have more time.”
“I will die with you then. Either they all go to the Lady of Winter, or we go together.” The nameless gnoll said. He was young, she knew that. He was barely a full turn of the blood moon, a year by most reasonings, but a gnoll grown. He had hunted and killed. He had mated. He was the leader of his own, tiny pack. He was a hated and hunted creature among the drow, a growing tale to scare children into obedience. His foes cursed him and his pack, even if it was only her, sang of him. But he was young. He would not understand. He would not leave.
“Take this note, give it to the man at the front desk of a place called the Citadel of Might in a city called Ptolus.” The she-gnoll said as she threw the note into the immaterial form of the other gnoll. “Find your way there. They will have gold for you, you can find work. You will be safe from the drow. If you love me, you will go.”
“No. I will fight and die here, with you.” The shadow gnoll said. His ears already heard the footsteps of the hunting party. They were quiet; they were skilled. But they were not the gnoll. He could smell their anticipation, their lust. He could hear the sound of their crossbows rocking against the boiled leather of their armor. They were a few minutes away. They would die first. The hundred others that followed a mile behind, they would take the gnoll. But he would take many of them.
“My mate, please go.” The she-gnoll said. Her body fell away. Her legs turned in, faded from a ruddy brown to a pale white. Her fangs became square and smooth. Her eyes went from a haunting harvest moon to sapphire. Her ragged hide armor of bone and sinew melted into a tight leather chestplate. Only her spear remained the same. For the first time in his life, the nameless gnoll saw his mate. The nameless gnoll found his body solid and his air gone. He stared at the changling and felt his body shake.
“…what are you?” The gnoll managed.
“A fool, and your mate.”
“Drazz…” The nameless gnoll whispered.
“Take the letter, find your way to Ptolus. The Shadowfell cannot be your home until the drow lord is dead. Run. Hide. Hunt. Live.” The changling commanded. The gnoll moved to the letter and tucked it under his armor. He looked back and now a severely wounded drow returned his stare. “I will tell them you went east. Go north to the portals. Please just go.”
“I…I cannot leave you. I will carry you.” Even seeing her true form, the gnoll did not stop in his affections. He was dedicated to her, to the only pack he had ever known. This ate at the changling more than any curse he could have thrown at her.
“You will leave because I’ve asked this of you, and because you love me.” The changling said. Part of her wanted to scream at the gnoll, turn his love into hate. She could not bear it. The gnoll drew the shadows around him and disappeared. The bleakness of the Shadowfell was his home, his element. The changling knew that each creature was dominated by an element. Somewhere in them, a spark of fire or water or light or earth whispered to their soul. The nameless gnoll was the only creature she had ever met in her long travels that was only shadow. The gnoll ran for half a mile before finding a bone tree to climb. He looked out and saw the changling, still in her position. She was talking to five of the dagger ears. She pointed to the east frantically. She screamed high and piercing as the drow laughed. The gnoll was too far to count the crossbow bolts they sent into her; he did not want to know. He climbed down and began to run. As it had before, it all faded into nothing and the gnoll could no longer feel the sweet, cool kiss of the dead breeze in the Shadowfell. He only felt the heat of the fire and the eyes of the goliath.
“ She deserves to die!” The goliath roared.
“ She does. And we may yet take her life. But not now.” The gnoll said as he slid into the shadow of the old man, moving behind the goliath before the massive creature could ever think to raise his weapon. The gnoll could see the goliath’s anger; it floated along the waves of heat with a steady beat. The gnoll pitied him. His mate was gone. His pups were gone. But more importantly, his pack was gone. But the gnoll’s pack was still there, the goliath’s pack once as well, and so the gnoll pitied the goliath even more for not seeing what he still had. “The pack calls, the hunter answers.” The nameless gnoll of shadow and memory lifted the old man onto his shoulders and prepared to dodge.
The nameless gnoll knew the scent: surprise. Even with the decay, the old death that stained the air with haunted memories, he could smell the musk coming from his pack. They did not expect the gnoll to be able to reason with anyone, let alone a necromancer. But part of the gnoll knew that it was always best to be thought of as less than what one was. It was survival and camouflage in a world that the creature rarely understood on its own terms. He knew he was a beast, a hunter, and a killer, but he was also observant, calculating, and cunning. The hunter needs to be strong and fast of limb and mind. The gnoll knew what the necromancer wanted; the gnoll would want it too if their situations were reversed. Hunters hunt.
“Don’t you want more things to play with? Don’t you want a real hunt? Send us back, and you’ll get it.” The gnoll said in his best common. It was a clumsy tongue to the gnoll, but he could mimic almost any sound and any voice he had heard. He could have sounded as jovial as the bard or as bombastic as the wizard, but he chose the even tone in which he had become accustomed. The gnoll was hunting but in the ethereal and make believe rules and customs of the soft folk. It did not matter; the hunt was the hunt. Make the prey move to where you want them. The gnoll could see the lust in the necromancer’s eyes. It was the lust of the hunt. The gnoll held no illusions; he was damning himself. He did not hate necromancers like the wizard, but he knew to be wary of them. In the Shadowfell, there were far darker magics, and the gnoll was a master of the worst of it. He feared neither death nor enslavement. He was afraid of something much more hateful. The missing bard only fueled the fear.
“We can’t do this.” The shifter said. The nameless gnoll was unsure if it was through her voice or her scent, but he knew her objections. He could taste her rage, barely controlled. He could hear her madness, the building fury. The gnoll pondered if she would ever forgive him. The Pack does not forget, and only through atonement may the Pack forgive. The gnoll knew that his atonement would be his death. It did not matter at the moment. The hunter cannot focus on the next moon; he must focus only on the night’s hunt. The gnoll was the first to offer his blood for the pact. He would have bore the burden himself if it was possible. He would have spent his life in that moment if it meant the pack would survive. The necromancer smiled and drew blood for them all. For a moment, the gnoll was back home.
“Have you ever stopped to think that your voice could be used for song? For glory and joy?” The she-gnoll said once as the two crouched low in the razor grass of the Shadowfell. It was a question the nameless gnoll would never have thought to ask. His voice was a hunter’s tool, nothing more.
“Songs are sung when the hunt is good. There can be no singing unless the hunt succeeds.” The gnoll answered before sending his voice floating along the breeze, a gentle snicker that perked the pointed ears of a drow sentry far from his post.
“There is more to the world than death.” The she-gnoll said flatly. The nameless gnoll committed the great sin of removing his eyes from his prey. He looked at his mate.
“You taught me when songs are sung. Why do you question?” The gnoll said, perhaps louder than he meant. He snapped back to tracking the drow. The gods were kind and the drow was still slowly moving through the grass, crossbow in hand.
“I have seen more of the world than you can imagine. You are a strong mate, a strong hunter, but we could have even more. We could sing songs devoid of blood and shadow in places of light and warmth.” The she-gnoll sighed. The nameless gnoll took a deep breath of her scent, he smelled her burden, her longing. It was never right. He remembered the scent of gnolls. He remembered their anger, their lust, their curiosity. She was never right. It was thin. It was too much air. It did not matter. The nameless gnoll was a devoted mate. Perhaps her tribe was simply born to a different scent. The nameless hunter knew that each tribe was born of a different demon and beast. He was a shadow wolf. She was hyena blood. It made sense to him that she would smell different, that they would have difficulty having pups of their own. It did not matter. He was a devoted mate.
“Quiet. Let us finish this over our meal.” The nameless gnoll said, his voice thrown from ten yards away as he had already slipped into the shadows and moved behind his prey. The drow’s death was quick. The blood was sweet. It was a good hunt. He sang to his mate that night until the heavy black moon scarred the dawn.
The gnoll snapped back as the statues began to shift. He smelled the sweetest rage and deepest fear from the shifter. He smelled his own fear. It filled him with a terrible rage as he charged forward to meet one of the Hell Knights. The gnoll’s body was heavy with wounds and scars. He was a shadow-dancer; he was meant to strike fast and disappear, but more and more he found himself in protracted battles of rage and endurance. He slipped into darkness more times than he cared. Each time it was to the places he never wanted to be. Each time it felt like more than he could ever bear.
The child gnoll could not lament in any language. He knew words of affirmation and negation. He knew words for meat and milk. But there were no words for what he saw. The bodies were broken. His pack was gone. His tribe was gone. He was alone.
“No.” The child spoke. “No. No. No No. No No No No.” He pawed at his father, a pile of fur and blood. The blood of the pointed ears surrounded the Alpha’s corpse, but it did nothing to spare the large gnoll from death. It was empty. “No. No. No.” The child continued at each body. The world was cold. It was empty. The child was made of nothing. The child could only whine. The child could only feel the terrible knowledge that it was truly alone, the realization making the gnoll feel as if his blood was lead and his eyes were glass.
Life surged back into the gnoll, and only the fear of going back pushed it towards the Hell Knight again. The gnoll would not go back to the red camp. The gnoll would not be reminded again that anything he loved would be taken from him in blood and hate. The gnoll would burn the world and the gods with it if it meant he never had to go back. He could not keep track of the goliath, wizard, and shifter at once with his eyes, but he could always smell them. The shifter was terrified. He knew why. He forced her into a pack with her most hated enemy. She was afraid her goddess would punish accordingly. The gnoll knew it was his fault, but he knew he would make it right. He would find a way to kill the necromancer. If he needed to, he would find a way to kill the Raven Queen and make the shifter the newest Lady of the Winter. He would make it right. He just needed to kill. He just needed his pack, whole and strong.
The gnoll remembered little after ripping the throat from a Hell Knight’s horse. He awoke to ash. It was better than stale death. He searched for the bard and found him intact. He looked at his pack, their madness rising, their sorrow for what they had done. The gnoll felt shame. But the gnoll did not feel alone. The gnoll would never feel that way again. He would free the necromancer. He would unleash the darkest gods if it meant he would never be alone again.
The nameless gnoll had not felt the sensation before;nothing had ever pierced through his talons. It was a sharp sort of pain, precise and exact in its roar and whimper. Then there was the ice. It moved so fast that the gnoll was not sure it was even cold. He felt every vein and artery in his body; they were burning with the freeze of the toxin. The gnoll was strong; his body forged in a litany of survival. He had eaten the flesh of the dead, gray meat and maggot. He did not care for the little girl. He would have preferred it’d be her. The gnoll did not want to die. But the pack demanded that something be done. The wizard Vennman had tried to be the one to experiment, tried to be the hero. The gnoll cared not for heroes, not in the pathetic bright-world way that so many of the creatures he met believed in. He did not want to Vennman to die. If the Raven Lady was going to take someone, he rather it be him. It did not matter. Nothing mattered as the gnoll felt his heart slow, too heavy with poison to keep beating. It was the endless sleep.
The gnoll awoke the sound of battle. Not a hunt, a battle. He was small, his claws still proportionate to his frame, the talons yet to hardened into their steel. It was warm nuzzled with the other pups. A matron was curled around them, her reflexs slowed from the hungry brood feeding from her. She was on fire. Her coat was a shifting tapestry of ash and orange. The gnoll saw her blow away on the wind of the crossbow bolts as they passed through her. Instinct. The nameless gnoll and his nameless brothers and sisters let out weak mews and barks. The nameless gnoll was the first to be silent, his black coat already coming in well ahead of his age. A part of him, the grown gnoll, watched his child self and mused: My coat came in so young, I couldn’t have been more than most of a moon. The grown gnoll howled in rage as the red clad figures crashed through the nursery lean-to. They did bother to wield the crossbows in their hands. Their eyes floated several feet ahead of their faces, seeing all, hating all. Their heavy square feet, blocks of ice and bone, crashed down into the now rolling ball of pup-fur and barks. They laughed daggers that impaled those that ran. They cheered each other on until there was nothing, save for the single black pup that was made of nothing but crushed blood and whispered shadow. It was reflex. It was the alpha’s voice.
“Ha! I told you there was strength!” The alpha barked. He was made of layers. Bone then flesh. Flesh then bone. A great demon’s skull sat atop his head, the hollow eyes raining down pregnant tears of worms onto the ground.
“It is an ill sign for a child to be born of the dead!” The shaman growled. She was made of snakes. They fell onto the ground and when there was nothing left of her, they slithered together to give her back her body.
“My pups are always strong! You challenge me?” The alpha returned, cradling the small, blind pup in his arms. A dead mother, her life spent in birth. The grown gnoll, standing beside himself at the beginning, had no image of a mother. It ate at him that this would be it. She was small. Her coat was black. Her body was thin.
“She was a shadow dancer! They are not for breeding, only killing our enemies!” The shaman continued.
“She was a fine warrior. She killed dozens of the sharp ears a moon ago! It is only Winter Queen’s demand that such a child be born with a sacrifice!” The alpha said before placing the pup on the ground, more amused than frightened as it constantly shifted between shadow and form. Still wet in his mother’s blood and the pup managed to turn into nothing but mist.
But that was all that was left. The pup wandered the camp site. It was all mist. The bodies were only sand. Each one he touched, nuzzled for heat or milk, disappeared and crumpled. Their ghosts watched him move between each, glaring in their outrage. The nameless pup, last of the blood talon clan, whimpering softly as none of the sand bodies would stand. The grown gnoll tried to carry the pup but he just shimmered with each step closer. He could only think: “I have died and Torog takes me as punishment.”
The sky above, the land of Shadow, is empty. It simply ends. The twisted peaks of the mountains, the barbed and warped veins of the blade grass, they simply end at the sky. It was not even black. There was no color as dark as that sky. Both the nameless pup and the grown gnoll howled together. The sound ended above them, swallowed and forgotten. All that was left were left were the footprints of the sharp ears, the few bodies of their fallen kin, ignored in the dust. The pup crawled to one of the corpses, his face frozen in death’s surprise. The pup began to chew, to eat. It was his first solid food. It was the first step. The pup, barely able to speak but a hand full of words, mimicking back the gnarled speech of his kin, started to think. The first thought of a nameless child: “I will hide and I will eat.”
The world turned warm. It was full, too full. Busy. The nameless gnoll heard the sound of battle. Not a hunt, battle. Her heard the Bard’s war cries, his rotund form clanging in armor yet fighting with a zeal one could not expect from such a frame. The gnoll smelled the scent of fresh blood drawn by the Shifter’s treasured blade. The gnoll saw the Wizard throwing himself forward, his spells distorting everything for a moment. The gnoll felt his heart beat. Instinct. His back still against the snow of the streets of Gate Pass, the gnoll threw out the shadows from inside himself and the noose wrapped itself around the weakling with the crossbow on the building above him. He did not know who he was. He did not care. Instinct. Kill. The gnoll felt the satisfaction of the neck snapping as he pulled the man to the ground. He pulled himself to his feet, the world still dim and his body still weak. He pulled himself up and prepared to kill. His only thought: “I will not hide and I will eat.”
The New Year battle of Gate’s Pass:
The nameless gnoll watched as the city burned around him, the heavy ash and heavier scent of war clouding the senses he relied on the most. He could not hear sharply as the screams of the battle and the dying blanketed everything. He could not smell malicious intent or the perfumed bodies of the Ragesian soldiers. He had only his eyes, sharp as they were, but it made him uncomfortable. He felt detached from his own body, unable to ground himself in the perceptions that reassured him that he was still alive.
“We need to help her!” One of his packmates called out. It irritated the gnoll to no end that he could not tell which had said it. He knew all of them by their smell, their sounds, the way they walked and the way their bodies could lie to him. But in the middle of the war, he could not tell them apart save for when he looked directly at them. The gnoll looked to the fiery buildings and plotted his ascent. He knew exactly where he could climb, jump, and twist up the sides of the soon to be ruined buildings. He knew he could get to the top before even the goliath packmate could reach the second floor. He did not want to save the woman; it did not matter. She was not pack. She was prey. She was meaningless. He wished her no ill will as a wolf wishes no ill will to the hare. The wolf cares not for the hare unless hunger is involved. The nameless gnoll was not hungry, but his pack wanted to help. If the pack wills, the hunter answers. This was the law of all gnolls. This was the only law that the creature understood to be true.
The pack did not him see break off. They did not see him dig his claws, each talon as long and sharp as a short sword, into the weakening wood. They did not see him scale the side of the building with the speed only a true hunter could manage. His black fur melded into the deep shadows thrown by the flames. His body trained to avoid the touch of the light, constantly twisting and moving to ensure that his form was always cloaked in the darkness. This was how the creature survived. Months of solitude in the dark realm, too young to fight, too young to even have a name, the shadows were home. The shadows were safe. The nameless gnoll continued to leap from wall to wall, timber to timber, beam to beam. He would reach the roof of the adjacent building, leap over, and take the woman down the way he came. But it could not be that simple. The fire was spreading; he had to duck into one of the buildings to find a new way up. It was smoke filled, dead, empty. But it was not right. He could hear the muffled sounds of battle. He could feel in the floor and the walls the gentle shake of armored feet. But his senses were dull. He was disconnected from the world he knew. He saw them before they saw him, but only by a moment. Had the fires been gone, had the air been clear, and had the panicked screams of the weak not clouded everything that a hunter needed, the gnoll would never have let the Ragesians come within 100 feet. But he looked up to see five of them, four lessers and their alpha, a tall human with a solemn black cloak and hateful blue eyes.
The gnoll had to force his muscles to change his body’s direction; it made him slow and he knew it. The Ragesians raised their weapons, heavy crossbows that were a weak hunter’s crutch. The nameless gnoll knew he could not make it through the hole in the ceiling before their first volley. He pulled into himself, the small and frozen shard in his heart that would always be home, always be connected to the place of shadow. It felt as if he pulled his entire physical being into one point on his chest; he pushed until the world turned from orange and red to nothing but an even, lifeless and lightless gray. His body became shadow, dust, and nothing more. Three of the heavy bolts would have missed anyway; they did not lead the gnoll far enough, doubting his speed. But one passed right through his stomach, the mundane metal passing harmlessly through. Two smaller bolts passed through his head, distorting the world slightly as his form shimmered and took shape again. The inquisitor only smirked; the sight of shadow magic fueled his hatred. The gnoll was above them before any could think to reload, but he heard the order clearly: “Fan out. The creature will come to us.”
The hunt. It thrilled the gnoll, filled him with a purpose that was written into his people’s very blood. He quietly circled back around the Ragesians, above them only in the physical sense. Only his will kept him above; if he wished it, all he had to do was melt through the floorboards and into the waiting humans. It would not have been wise. The hunter does not attack the center for he knows to attack the flanks. He wanted to enjoy it. He wanted to smell the fear of them; he wanted to taste the life of them. The gnoll quietly crept through the building, everything in him focused on the sounds of his prey below. They were spreading out: alpha in the center, lessers taking sweeping positions. They were going to wait for him, wait for the fire above to drive the gnoll to them. The lower floor was not quite ablaze so there would be shadows. If there were shadows, the gnoll would win. He knew this. He knew the inquisitor to be a hard creature, an alpha deserving of a predator’s respect. But the inquisitor was a hunter of mages, not a hunter of a shadow.
The nameless gnoll silently lowered himself through the floorboards, one of the lessers oblivious to the snout and burning eyes that watched. The smoke had risen; the nameless gnoll held his breath as it blended together with his shadowed form. He raised himself back up, quietly approached a small hole above the lesser, and smiled the fanged smile of his people. His body returned to the world; his clawed feet silently scratching against the wood. He drew the shadow from within himself and the world around. The noose found the lesser’s throat with ease, tightened despite having no weight, no mass, and the human was silently pulled up to the waiting gnoll. The gnoll was impressed by the human’s training: he did not drop his weapon. It did not matter. The gnoll’s index talon entered through the back of the human’s neck and emerged through his throat. The scent of fresh blood, blood spilled by his own hand, intoxicated the gnoll. It only pushed him for more. He could hear the others as they called for their missing man. The inquisitor silenced them but it was too late. The gnoll knew where they were. He could hear them clumsily trying to change positions, the scrapes of their boots like a beacon.
The second lesser found the noose as well; it threw him through a broken window and into the waiting streets. He looked too thin to be a worthy meal. The third lesser did not nice the world grow slightly darker, nor did he notice the chill. He did notice the gnoll dig his lead claw into the soldier’s back, the shrouds of death being torn through his soul in the process. The gnoll took his time, savoring each kill. He would always get within just a few feet, make the strike perfect. He breathed deep to know their scent, know what they felt. He loved every moment of it. He took his time before it was only the alpha and the last of his hunting pack. They kept close, fully aware that the gnoll had no other choice but to target them. Prey always believed in safety in numbers. It was not safety, only probability. The more prey, the less chance the individual is taken. But the gnoll was not hunting for food, he was hunting for blood. He would take them both. They knew this, but their minds betrayed them. Had they ran, each taken a different direction, perhaps one would have survived. The nameless gnoll knew that his pack would be expecting him; he did not have all day to toy with these collections of meat and weapons. The gnoll was so close to them, but they could not tell. They were all in the same room. The gnoll was crouched in the darkness, his body as much part of the shadows as they were the physical plane. He took a breath and pushed the air out, his throat contorting silently as the air reached the last lesser.
“Speak nothing. Move back, eyes on the left doorway. I can hear the beast coming.” The voice said, an almost perfect mimic of the inquisitor, a whisper only the last soldier could hear. He slowly made his way back towards the corner, back to the waiting gnoll and his hungry claws. The alpha was alpha for a reason. He heard the slow footsteps of his last soldier and turned to see the gnoll appear from the shadows and sink his teeth into the sides of the soldier’s throat. The inquisitor fired both of his hand crossbows, but the gnoll moved the body of the last lesser to absorb them. The gnoll threw the corpse aside, infecting the inquisitor with death’s shrouds as he advanced. The inquisitor was fast for a human, a silver longsword in his hand to deflect the talons of the gnoll. The creature stalked and fought hunched, his body staying low to the ground, his powerful legs propelling him forward with each strike. He would knick, taking small droplets of blood through the inquisitor’s armor, but no death blow could be landed as the silver blade kept the creature back.
“I will send you to the abyss you damned monster!” The inquisitor roared as he attacked, his longsword elegantly moving from side to side, striking against the ironhard growth on the gnoll’s left forearm or finding nothing but air. The nameless gnoll continued to infect the inquisitor, each shroud making him a beacon of darkness that could never run far enough, fast enough to escape. The longer the fight went on, the greater would be the strike. But the inquisitor was not a simple man, he had hunted many a beast before. He fell back, flourishing his blade to keep the gnoll at bay. He withdrew a small orb and crushed the small fuse on top. The gnoll heard it hiss, smelled the wretched scent of firepowder and leapt away. The grenade was not meant to find him, only bring down the roof above him. The heavy wood caught the gnoll hard, splitting flesh and straining bone. The weight pinned the creature, his body trapped and slowly burning from the embers of the weakened building. He could hear the inquisitor’s mocking laugh. “You may be silent beast, but you are still only a beast.”
The gnoll felt his body giving way to the rubble, but his body was always in two places at once. He was still home, no matter how far he ran, he was the Shadowfell. Even through the rubble, he could see the outline of the nothingness of his shrouds and his prey. He smiled and felt himself back in the Shadowfell, back to the wicked cold and heavy gloom. His feet touched floor and he stood behind the inquisitor. The man had enough time to turn to see the gnoll at his full height, more than a foot taller than the man himself. He had enough time to feel his soul burn as the poisons inside of it were ripped through him. He had enough time to scream as the gnoll began to claw, tear, and eat.
When the meal was finished, the gnoll took the fine silk sash that was a treasured gift of his foe and tied it around his head. He took the soft padding under the heavy chainmail and placed it underneath the makeshift bandage. The gnoll winced at the pain but took solace in what it had earned him: A full belly and the full pride of a gnoll’s successful hunt. The nameless gnoll looked back to the street but found it empty of his pack. He could see signs of battle, signs that would lead him back. He kept to the buildings, the enclosed space and heavy shadows a comfort. He ran on all fours, making up as much time as he could. He would stop only to slaughter the Ragesians he found, often locked in combat with Gate Pass’s defenders. They were often too distracted to see the black shape appear from the darkness, the subtle glint of blood stained talons rising up. The gnoll mourned the chance to take trophies of his kills; he wanted to show them to the shifter of his pack and the giant. They were hunters, killers the same as he. They would enjoy the story. But he had no time. The pack was without him. A gnoll without a pack is nothing. The gnoll is the pack. The creature cracked a smile that was unfamiliar to him, a smile of warmth at the sight of his pack, fresh from battle. The gnoll burned with the memory of the last time he ever smiled like such, a mate that was nothing more than a lie, a mate taken from him none the less. The gnoll ached for her touch, her voice, even the scent of her. But the gnoll had greater things to attend. The gnoll had to rejoin his pack; he only hoped that they faired well without him.
He came upon them and fought the childish urge to bound. He had no real memory of ever bounding towards his first pack back in the Shadow, but he had dreams of it. He looked at his family and put the smile inside him. The half-elf singer who loved gold as much as he. The shifter blademaster who loved to kill as much as he. The giant guardian who loved his pack as much as he. The human mage who fought as fearlessly as he. He came to his pack, bloody and full, and pretended he was always there.
“Where have you been?”
“Killing Ragesians.” The gnoll answered truthfully.h1.