Up ahead, she could see them. The creeping 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 snuck below the tall savannah grass, her back blending into the environment as she glided through it. She took careful steps, so as not to alert the Gnomes. She watched each footfall, making sure to dodge the scattered twigs and rocks that would certainly make her presence known.
The Gnomes stopped by a short, spindly tree, with branches that stretched wide over the open field. It was a shade from the hot sun. They huddled around the far side of the tree and began working on something. Tigala couldn’t figure out what. Strange hand motions were thrown out, maybe as some form of communication. A moment later, a circular glass pane appeared out of nowhere and floated 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, sitting himself five feet off of the ground, in midair. He moved his hands once more, but this time Tigala knew it wasn’t some sort of sign language.
The glass pane slowly settled in front of the Gnome’s face, creating a window around his head and chest. The other Gnomes took formation around the one suspended in midair. Metal panels began appearing in the empty space. First, a metal arm, three times the size of any Gnome, slammed into the ground. Then, another arm materialized on the opposite side. 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 contraption 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 ran.
Tigala faltered in her sprint as the machine stood upright. She remembered the times she had last seen these in action, but she shook off her fear. She had to rely on the others—on her pack.
Already in her tiger form, Tigala dove at the closest Gnome standing around the construct’s base. She pulled her claws forward, ready to impact the Gnome’s body, but somehow crashed into the dirt instead. She looked back and watched as the Gnome dissipated. An illusion. She should have known better than to fall for that. The distraction of the machine must have given the Gnome a chance to create the illusion of himself.
In tiger form, her hearing was enhanced, allowing her to hear the pitter-patter of footsteps in the dead grass behind her. She spun around to find a Gnome with black hair that came to a point above his scalp. He charged forward, but there was no weapon in his hands. Tigala knew that didn’t mean he was without one; she was not going to fall for the same trick twice. She darted to the side and dove from an angle, catching the Gnome off guard and pinning him down by the weight of her paws.
Stuck between her weight, Tigala lifted her paw to strike him as the other kept him down. Before she could, an ear-splitting squeal rang out. She reared back in pain, trying to cover her ears with her paws, but even that 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.
But then the ringing stopped.
Tigala shook her head and blinked. The Gnome she had pinned was gone, and the other Gnomes were behind the large metal boot of the construct. She blinked again, clearing the tears that were blurring her vision. The boot came straight for her. She tried to dodge, but couldn’t react fast enough. She was kicked away, launched into the sea of tall grasses.
Her whole body ached, but luckily there were no major injuries, as far as Tigala could tell. Despite the pain, she stood back up 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.
First, the construct. The other Gnomes had piled onto it and began adding effects to it, to make it harder to fight. The construct was equipped with two new illusionary arms now. As she ran, the machine shifted in position too, like she was seeing it as a reflection on rippling water.
One Gnome, wearing a bright pink vest, 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 into a blinding light. Tigala stopped in her tracks, afraid to get too close without being able to see. She shut her eyes, but even while closed the light shined through her eyelids.
The light finally faded when Tigala heard a single yelp from a Gnome. She opened her eyes and saw the Gnomes on the ground at the base of the construct. They were each pinned down by jungle cats like herself. A lion, a jaguar, a black panther, and a cheetah, each pinning down Gnomes beneath their paws. The black panther held down two.
That leaves the construct to me, thought Tigala.
She gritted her teeth before charging once more. The Gnome in the machine looked at her with wide eyes as all of his visual enhancements faded. He peered from side to side and then his face contorted with fury. The construct lumbered toward Tigala as its arms reached for the sword across its back. With large mechanical limbs, its body twisted. It wound so far that the driver had his back turned to Tigala. A loud clanging of chains and pulleys rang as the body swung back with a speed that Tigala didn’t know was possible. Then came the blade.
She jumped up and let the sword swipe just below her, slicing a few hairs as she rolled with the jump. Tigala landed, pounced on the construct’s forearm, and clawed her way up the machine and onto its shoulder. One of its large hands tried to grab her, but she stayed close enough to the dome that a reckless swing might break the glass. The Gnome couldn’t risk it. The machine swiped instead and Tigala ducked under the hand. With two claws, she pried at the glass, pulling with all her might. The glass cracked before the locking mechanisms protecting its driver 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. Tigala struck him across the face before he could do anything with it, knocking him out cold.
The construct slumped over and toppled to the ground, the unconscious Gnome still buckled inside.
Her group was questioning the other Gnomes when she joined them. Tigala had transformed back and carried with her the unconscious driver. She brought the straps she had cut from the cockpit and used them to tie up her captive, before laying him down near his allies.
“How did you get past Gakambo?” growled Gatooli. She had transformed back from her black panther form into her tall dark-furred, cat-like Beastfolk form. “Why did you come here?”
The Gnome said nothing. 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 as she struck him again. His smile remained.
Tigala approached. “Anything?” she asked Gatooli.
Gatooli looked at the rest of her team, which was spread out under the shade of the tree. Each one had their own Gnome to play with, as did Gatooli. Each was trying in their own way to get information. “What do we know?” she asked.
“Nothing yet, Commander,” answered Katan, the lion Beastfolk. He was now back in his usual cat-like Beastfolk form, covered in golden fur. Gatooli let out a sigh and looked back at Tigala.
“We’ll get it out of them, one way or another,” said Tigala. She could tell that her sister was on edge.
“Not in time though,” the bloody Gnome taunted.
“In time for what?” said Gatooli. She forced 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 the factory.
“Tie them up, then help me secure the factory!” shouted Gatooli as she handed the laughing Gnome to Tigala. Gatooli sprinted forward, morphing into her previous black panther form. She disappeared, far into the tall grass.
Tigala and the rest of her pack arrived at the base to find a large circular hole in the gate. Smoke rose out, joining the long trail of smoke above. The gate was made to blend in with the surrounding savanna, with planks of lightly colored wood and a camouflaging enchantment. 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 through the building’s windows.
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 through the gates and down the hill to the building’s entrance. They reached the clearing by the front door and began to creep forward.
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 in time.
The thought was useless now. As the rest of her pack stepped out of cover, two more Gnomish machines appeared out of thin air. They barred the entrance to the factory.
Stupid! Gatooli would have known better than to do something so stupid.
The machines had their 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 before rolling at the last second, reaching out to mark an orange glow on the golem’s sword arm. A large growth formed on it, 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 glass dome, his weight making the machine backstep to keep its balance. Duma charged its metal-plated legs, digging his teeth in to the gaps. He scraped at the more vulnerable tendon-like hydraulics on the back of the golem’s legs.
Tigala went 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. 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 pried at the glass while Tigala added her claws to the effort. The dome cracked and popped off, leaving the terrified Gnome defenseless.
A stream of copies of the driver flooded out from the cockpit in every direction, dissipating into purple clouds as they moved outward. Tigala tried to snatch the Gnome at the base of the illusions, but could only find 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. The female Gnome they had captured 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 Gnome’s face turned to terror as he looked up at Jaku.
Tigala looked at Katan and Duma and said, “Gatooli needs us. Come on.” They ran to the side of the building, leaving Jaku behind to deal with the Gnomes.
They crept around the outer edge to peak in a window, but they couldn’t have predicted what they saw. Inside wasn’t a warzone, but an army preparing for war. A hundred or so 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 were in the shadows in the far corner of the room. They contained 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, with various pieces of them scattered about the floor below. Groups of Gnomes surrounded the partial machines working to put them back together.
Gatooli was probably somewhere 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 Wadu, the horse-like Beastfolk. Blood ran down his chest, caked into his fur. He wasn’t moving.
“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 squinted 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 yelled. 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 the worse part was yet to come.
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 the room erupted into bright, endless light, Tigala saw Gatooli trying to escape. Their eyes met one last time. The bright light filled Tigala’s eyes, and then everything went dark.
“Wh—what do you mean?” said Tigala, still groggy.
“She’s dead,” snapped Lobo. His fur was disheveled. He seethed with anger.
“No,” Tigala said more to herself than anyone else. She choked on the word and 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 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 togeth—” 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 to 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 hand, and eventually an arm wrapped in bandages hit her face. The pain was immense. Tigala used her other hand to try and understand what was happening. A bandaged stump was all that remained of her other hand.
“What happened to my hand?” Tigala asked.
“Yeah, you lost that too,” said Lobo. He 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 felt 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 her. Tigala tried to pull his arm away but in her weakened state, there was nothing 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 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.”