Up ahead, she could see them. The creeping group of Gnomes covered themselves in blurry illusions that mimicked their surroundings, but she had seen it all before. She knew right where they were—low to the ground where the images were at their strongest. She could dive in right now and take one, maybe two of them down, but she knew better than to go after all six of them on her own.
She walked among tall savannah grass, her back blending in as she glided through it. Each step was made carefully, so as not to step on a twig or flick a rock, alerting the Gnomes of her presence.
The Gnomes stopped by a short, spindly tree with branches that stretched wide over the open field, creating an oasis of shade from the hot sun. They huddled around the far side of the base of the tree and began working on something, but Tigala couldn't figure out what. It looked they were making strange hand motions as some form of communication. A moment later, a circular glass pane appeared out of nowhere and sat floating above the ground. Tigala gasped as she realized what she had missed before.
She dove from the grass and began her charge toward the Gnomes, but it was too late. One of the Gnomes was already climbing the empty air beneath the glass pane. He pulled himself up and then sat on nothing, floating about five feet off of the ground. He moved his hands in a similar fashion to earlier, but this time Tigala knew it wasn't some sort of sign language.
The glass pane dropped, and settled in front of the Gnome's face, creating a window around his head and chest. Then with a loud whirring noise, the other Gnomes spread out around the one sitting on air, ready for Tigala. Around the floating Gnome, metal panels began appearing in the empty space between the floating Gnome and the ground. First, a metal arm three times the size of any of the Gnomes slammed into the ground. Then, another arm materialized on the opposite side. The mechanical hand grabbed a nearby rock. The rest of the machination sloughed off its invisibility when the two arms worked in tandem to pull the construct's body and legs underneath it.
A ten-foot-tall collection of metal and wood now stood in front of Tigala, with a single Gnome sitting at its apex. His hands continued to move quickly over the various buttons and levers inside of the glass dome.
Tigala faltered in her sprint as the machine stood. She remembered the times she had seen these in action before but shook off her fear. She had to rely on the others—on her pack.
Already transformed into her tiger form, Tigala dove at the closest Gnome standing around the construct's base. She caught him off guard and would have tackled him to the ground, but when her claws should have impacted the Gnomes body, she felt nothing instead. A moment later she crashed into the dry dirt. She looked back in search of the Gnome, and he was gone. "Aaghh," she snarled. It was a trick. She should have known better than to fall for that. The distraction of the machine must have given the Gnome a chance to create an illusion of himself.
Her jungle cat ears provided her with enhanced hearing compared to normal, allowing her to hear the patter of footsteps along dead grass behind her. She spun around to see a Gnome with black hair that came to a point. He charged her with two hands above his head with no weapon in sight, but Tigala knew that didn't mean he was without one. She ran at him, darted to the side, and dove from an angle at the last second, catching the Gnome off guard and pinning him down.
She held him down with one paw and raised the other to slash him, but before she could, an ear-splitting squeal rang out. She reared back in pain, trying to cover her ears with her paws, but couldn't suppress the noise. Her eyes watered and she felt as if her head was going to explode. She tried putting pressure on her head to relieve some of the pain, but it was no use. Then, all at once, the sound stopped.
She shook her head and blinked. The Gnome that she had pinned was gone, and the other Gnomes were running behind a large metal boot of the construct. She blinked again, clearing the tears that were blurring her vision, and saw the boot coming straight for her. She tried to dodge, but couldn't react quick enough. She was launched from the shade of the tree, disappearing once again among the savanna grass.
Her body hurt, but she had managed to brace for the impact enough to avoid any major injuries. Despite the pain, she stood on all fours, looked at the perimeter around the Gnomes and began another sprint after them. But this time she knew that things would play out differently.
She ran forward at the construct. The other Gnomes had piled onto it and began adding effects to it, to make it harder to fight. The construct looked like it had two new arms. As she ran, the machine seemed to shift position too, like she was looking at it through the reflection of rippling water.
One Gnome wearing a bright pink vest over a bare chest peaked his head up over the machine's shoulder and began muttering and moving his hands. A glow started to form on Tigala's nose. It was small and inconsequential at first, but it quickly grew to a blinding light. Tigala stopped in her tracks, afraid to get too close without being able to see. She stood with her eyes closed, confident that she'd be okay.
She could still make out the bright light through the backs of her eyelids. There was no noise except a single yelp of a Gnome when the light faded. She opened her eyes and saw the Gnomes on the ground at the base of the construct, each pinned down by jungle cats like herself. There was a lion, a jaguar, a black panther, and a cheetah, pinning down Gnomes beneath their paws. The black panther held down two.
That leaves the construct to me, thought Tigala.
She gritted her teeth and ran at the machine. Her movements were smooth like a boat gliding across the water. The Gnome in the machine looked at her with wide eyes as all of his visual enhancements faded. He looked from side to side and then his face contorted with fury. The construct lumbered toward Tigala pulling a sword from its back. With large mechanical arms, its body twisted, winding up so far that the driver had his back turned to Tigala. A loud clanging sound of chains and pulleys rang out as the body swung back with a speed that even Tigala didn't know was possible for those giant machines.
She jumped up and let the blade swipe just below her, slicing a few hairs as she rolled with the jump. Tigala landed, pounced on the arm, and clawed her way up the machine onto its shoulder. An over-sized hand reached up to grab her, but she stayed close enough to the dome that a reckless swing at her might break the glass. The Gnome wouldn't risk it. The machine swiped instead and Tigala ducked under the hand. With two tiger claws, she pried at the glass, pulling with all her might. The glass cracked before the locking mechanisms of the construct gave way. She brought one of her paws up and slammed it down on the glass, shattering it all over the Gnome below. He screamed and began emitting a purple glow from his hands, but Tigala struck him across the face before he could do anything with it, knocking him out cold.
The construct slumped and toppled to the ground, with the unconscious Gnome still buckled inside.
Her group was already questioning the other Gnomes when she joined them, carrying the unconscious machine driver. She brought with her the straps she had cut from the cockpit and used them to tie up the unconscious Gnome and lay him near his allies.
"How did you know we were here?" growled Gatooli. She had transformed back from her black panther form into a tall dark-furred, cat-like Beastfolk. "How did you find us?"
The Gnome gave nothing in response and Gatooli struck him across the face. The Gnome took it and smiled back at her with bloody teeth, letting out a quiet giggle.
"Tell me!" said Gatooli and struck him again. This time the Gnome stopped laughing but his smile remained.
Tigala approached. "Anything?" she asked Gatooli.
Gatooli looked at the rest of her team that was spread out under the shade of the tree. Each one pinned a Gnome similar to Gatooli and were trying in their own ways to get information. "What do we know?" she asked.
"Nothing yet, Commander," responded Katan, the Beastfolk that had been a lion. He was now back in his usual cat-like Beastfolk form with golden fur.
Gatooli let out a sigh and looked back at Tigala. "We'll get it out of them. One way or another."
"Not in time though," the bloody Gnome taunted.
"In time for what?" said Gatooli. She pushed her face close to the Gnome's, accentuating each syllable so that her sharp teeth were visible.
The Gnome began his forced chuckle once again. It was creepy and Tigala had always hated the Gnomes anyway. Their magic was cheap. All about lies and gimmicks. It wasn't useful like transformation magic.
All of a sudden, the Gnome's laughter was drowned out by a loud crash in the distance. Tigala looked up and saw smoke starting to billow out of the gates of their encampment.
"Tie them up!" shouted Gatooli and she handed the laughing Gnome to Tigala. She sprinted forward, morphing into her previous black panther form and disappeared in the tall grass.
Tigala and the rest of her pack arrived at the base to find a large circular hole in the gate. Smoke billowed out, joining a long trail in the sky above them. The gate was made to blend in with the surrounding savanna with planks of lightly colored wood and a camouflaging enchantment that wouldn't go away. It was situated among a small grouping of trees that contained a pool of water alongside an old wooden factory. Tigala crept forward, wary of any Gnomes that may be hiding nearby.
She and the others stalked over the small hill overlooking the factory and stared down at it. The entrance to the building looked clear, but Tigala saw movement and heard shouts coming from inside of the factory.
Duma, the Beastfolk in cheetah form, had arrived first. He crept to Tigala's side and said, "It's all clear. The fighting is all inside."
Tigala looked to the rest of the team and whispered, "Let's go."
As a unit, they glided down the hill to the entrance. They reached the clearing around the front door and began to creep from their cover toward the door.
Would they really leave the exit open? thought Tigala. The Gnomes already knew her team was there. They had created a distraction specifically for them. They couldn't be stupid enough to think they wouldn't catch up.
It was too late for the thought to help. As the rest of her pack stepped out of cover two more Gnomish machines stepped forward from in front of the weathered wooden walls of the factory, appearing out of thin air.
Stupid! Gatooli would have known better than to do something so stupid.
The machines stepped forward with oversized weapons drawn. The one on the left swung at Jaku, who was transforming back from her jaguar form as she charged the machine. She dove and rolled at the last second and then reached out, creating an orange glow on the golem's sword arm. A large growth formed on the arm, making it heavy and more difficult for the simple Gnomish hydraulics to move.
The other machine charged Duma and Katan in their cheetah and lion forms. Katan dove at the machine's glass dome, his weight making the machine backstep to keep its balance. Duma charged it's metal-plated legs, digging his teeth in and scraping at the more vulnerable tendon-like hydraulics on the backs of the golem's legs.
Tigala charged forward to help Jaku who was single-handedly facing down one of the machines. Jaku was backing up and working on another growth on the machine's back while Tigala charged forward, mimicking the tactic Katan had just used. She dove onto the machine's front, and with the added weight of the back growth, the golem toppled.
Knocking it down was the first step. Removing the driver was the next.
Jaku ran to the glass and pried at the glass while Tigala added her claws to the effort. The dome cracked and popped off, leaving the terrified Gnome without any protection.
A stream of copies of the driver flooded out from the cockpit in every direction, dissipating into purple clouds after about ten feet. Tigala tried to snatch the Gnome at the center of the illusions but only hit air. Then she spotted one of the illusions that didn't vanish like the rest. She charged it and pinned it to the ground.
She looked up to see the others had the second driver in a similar state, except that the female Gnome they had captured looked wasn't moving—unconscious, maybe dead.
"Jaku, keep him here. Kill him if he's too much trouble." Tigala said nudging her head toward the pinned, conscious Gnome. The Gnomes wore an expression of terror as he looked up at Jaku.
Tigala looked at Katan and Duma and said, "Gatooli needs us. Come on." They ran to the edge of the building leaving Jaku behind with the Gnomes.
They crept around the outer edge to peak in a window and didn't see what they were expecting. Inside wasn't a warzone, but an army preparing for war. A hundred or more Gnomes filled the musty factory. Tigala could see five other Gnomish machines standing tall above the crowd of the small devils. A few tall vats stood in shadow in the far corner of the room, containing chemicals the Gnomes had used to make their machines easier to enchant back before the Beastfolk captured the factory years ago.
More golems hung from chains around the room with various pieces of them scattered about the floor below. Groups of Gnomes surrounded the partial machines working to put them back together quickly.
Tigala looked around the room. Gatooli was probably in there, and the researchers too. But where were they? Between the shuffling Gnomes, she spotted the body of a researcher slumped against the wall. It was a Wadu, the horse-like Beastfolk. Blood ran down his chest and he laid there, unmoving.
"Those demons," Tigala growled under her breath.
Her eyes darted around the room looking for Gatooli. She feared the worst, but she failed to find her slumped body like Wadu's. Then a glint of light caught Tigala's eyes. It came from the vats. Tigala looked, squinting her tiger eyes, and saw the dark shadow of Gatooli by one of the vat's legs. She placed a loose bolt on the ground and looked up. Her yellow eyes met Tigala's for a brief moment.
Tigala knew Gatooli too well. They were sisters, after all, growing up with only each other to rely on, until they joined the military at least. Then they had their pack to rely on. Still, Tigala knew that face. It was a face of sadness. It was the same face she had used before when getting them out of similar situations. It was remorse.
Tigala scanned the floor near the vats and saw several other loose bolts on the ground. She looked back up and saw Gatooli sneak back behind the vats.
"No!" Tigala said aloud. That face wasn't just a look of remorse this time. Gatooli was saying goodbye.
Tigala dove through the window hoping to reach the vats in time. Several Gnomes heard the shattering glass and looked her way, but there was no time for anyone to react. The vats were already falling. The metal creaked and groaned as they toppled to the floor. Bright yellow and pink liquids spilled out and the Gnomes screamed, setting into a panic. The liquid hit the crowd and screams of pain joined those of fear as the acid burned Gnome flesh, but Tigala knew that wasn't even what they were all most afraid of.
The pink liquid rolled over the crowd melting Gnomes along the way, as did the yellow acid. And then the two chemicals met.
There was a chain reaction.
In the moment before room erupted in the bright light of an explosion, Tigala saw Gatooli trying to escape and their eyes met one last time. Then everything turned a bright white before it turned to black.
"Wh—what do you mean?" said Tigala, still groggy.
"I mean she's dead," snapped Lobo. His fur was disheveled and he seethed with anger.
"No," Tigala said more to herself than anyone else. She choked on the word as her eyes began to fill with tears. As her face twisted in anguish she realized she only had one eye open. The other was covered by a bandage that wrapped around one side of her head.
"And it's your fault," added Lobo.
"No," she said. Is it my fault? she wondered. Gatooli made her choice. She knew what she was doing and she did it anyway. "She d—she died honorably. She chose to die to keep the Gnomes from recovering those—"
"She wouldn't have had to sacrifice herself if it wasn't for your stupidity. You fell for the Gnome's tricks and let them into the factory. You left the factory with very little protection." Lobo paused to draw in a deep breath, emphasizing his emotion behind it. "You knew better, and you let it happen anyway."
"We all chased them togethe—" Tigala started, her voice grew quieter as Lobo's grew louder.
"But you were second in command to her. You should have stopped them." Lobo yelled the words with such intensity that Tigala began to believe him. He was right. She should have known better. She could have prevented this if she were more cautious.
"You took her from me," Lobo said, quieter than before. That was somehow more terrifying than yelling.
Tigala reached up with her left arm wipe the tears from her eyes. Her sister was dead. Dead because of those little devils and their tricks. Dead because Tigala fell for their tricks. She would never have her back now.
At that moment Tigala realized her hand never hit her cheek. She kept moving her arm in toward it and eventually an arm wrapped in bandages hit her face and pain shot from the end of the arm. Tigala used her other hand to try and understand what was happening and felt a bandaged stump of an arm where her left hand once was.
"What happened to my hand?" Tigala asked.
"Yeah, you lost that too," said Lobo. "You were pinned under one of the golems after the explosion. Your pack had to amputate to get you out of there before the remaining Gnomes found you."
Lobo shook his head, looking at the arm. "A constant reminder of the mistakes you've made."
"It was an accident. She was my sister, you know. I loved her. I grew up with her. We all know you've made mistakes too." Tigala got a rush of anger for Lobo. She didn't need to take this.
"And putting you in charge of protecting a military resource and my love is the last one I'll ever make," Lobo shouted back. "You better be careful how you talk to your commanding officer."
"Screw you. I don't know why she ever fell for a hothead like you anyway," said Tigala.
Lobo jumped at her and squeezed her neck, choking. Tigala tried to pull his arm away but in her weakened and with one less arm, there wasn't much she could do.
"I could do it. I could end you right now and no one would ever know. They'd say you died of your wounds," said Lobo.
He let go, allowing Tigala to cough and catch her breath. Lobo glared at her as she recovered.
"Since you failed at the simple task you were given and since you've screwed up enough to get my own superiors upset, your pack is being sent to that new land everyone has been talking about, Daegal. You'll be starting a Beastfolk colony there. Something hopefully even you can't ruin."
"What about the factories?" asked Tigala.
"The one you were in charge of has been destroyed. At least Gatooli had the sense to fix your mistake. And the others are already guarded by other packs."
"When do we leave?" Tigala asked.
"Your pack is already on its way. You'll be joining them as soon as you've recovered enough to get on a ship over there."