As we approached, carefully, one of the nohai snuck up behind the one that was obviously the leader, only to get his throat grabbed in the leader's jaws. There was some whimpering and some baring of the neck as he backed down.
Sorqutani, the only one of us who spoke nohai, lead the approach and bowed to them. The chief (pack-leader, whatever) bowed back, perfectly mimicing her stance and motions, clearly trying to be polite despite not understanding the greeting, and introduced himself as Chinua, formerly of Dust...
Now, that last part matters, so let me explain a few things about Nohai. First off, pack membership is super important to them. Secondly, there is no such thing as a "former pack". The pack is the pack. You belong to the pack you are in. Claiming identity with a previous pack is sacrilege, blasphemy.
So, Chinua introduces himself in a way that makes his packmates cringe, then Sorq introduced herself as "Sorqutani of No Pack" (which of course, was just as blasphemous as the chief's statement). Sorq then asked about his 'current pack' (as opposed to the former, Dust), and he was of "not no pack", "nothing", "the empty circle", the "void fillers" -- all of which sounded disturbingly like some kind of theism. Now, the fact that these two statements didn't cause them to throw down immediately is something of a miracle and an oddity, but nothing like what followed next.
Barruk accepted, of course. He rose up from behind a big rock where he had been trying, quite unsuccessfully, to take cover. His eyes were blazing with light, his horns shone like gold, and the ground shook with every step of his big hooves. Clearly Chin thought this was just as creepy as I did, for he nearly peed himself. But, he kept a kind of fanatical gleam in his eye, snarled and charged.
Chin slammed into Barruk, but the malik held his ground, his hooves digging deep into the shale of the escarpment. The two wrestled, spear to axe, for a while, horns stabbing and jaws snapping. Finally Chin cast his spear aside, lunged, and caught Barruk's axe handle in his jaws. The two of them went down, with Barruk hanging half-way off the cliff.
Meanwhile up on the hill-top, the surly nohai lieutenant tried to make his move, drawing a knife and indicating to the others that they should attack us. Ado, who had been rocking out on an odd little flute, tossed his instrument across the nose of the rogue nohai, producing a shrill and weird whistling noise. The lieutenant apparently thought that this was the most hilarious thing ever, as he immediately fell to the ground laughing like the cackle-beast that he so resembled.
Khadagan then stepped in and tore out the lieutenant's throat with his tusks. The lieutenant just kept laughing and laughing through the whole thing, and, having somehow survived to bare his throat apologetically to Khadagan, shall forever after be known as "Giggles".
I pulled out a rope, maneuvered around closer to them, and tied it off, ready to jump and grab Barruk should he fall. Instead. Chinua released the axe and snapped at Barruk again, his jaws crushing the chainlink shirt that Barruk wore and 'accidentally' flipped Barruk over, away from the cliff. I say 'accidentally' because it was a very well conceived bluff. From my close vantage it was clear that Chinua had deliberately saved the life of our curly-horned friend. Barruk then repaid the nohai's kindness by slamming the flat of his axe-blade into his opponent's face, dislocating Chin's jaw with a horrendous cracking sound and knocking the nohai out.
Barruk hauled the unconscious Chinua up the hill, where the other nohai immediately recognized him as their new pack leader (with Khadagan as the obvious lieutenant pack leader, having taken out their lieutenant's throat). So, after applying some healing, we new had five nohai in our "pack".
While everyone else was making nice with our new pack-mates, I spotted a couple of rustles in the grass in the ravine below. Two "somethings" were coming from the general direction of the fire-starters encampment. I fired off one of the black-fletched warbler arrows, which let out a hideous death-shriek as it flew through the air, bringing everyone else running down to look. I pointed out the waves in the grass and Sorq lit it up, setting the grass on fire and revealing a quartet of nohai, looking far too wounded to be coming at us so fast (almost to the point of being dead).
Well, dead, or undead, or whatever, we had the high ground, and bows. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Fish that got back up and kept walking whenever you shot them that is. Still, I'm a fairly good shot sometimes: nailed three of them to the ground, and nailed the hand of the last one to its forehead. This last one charged Barruk, only to lose that last hand, and its head, in the offing.
With the nohai zombies dealt with, we decided to make a strategic withdrawal, putting a few more miles of distance between ourselves and the fire camp. So we hoofed it, and I doubled back a few times to cover our tracks and spread some false ones, a right merry chase should any more zomb-nohai try to follow.
Once we were a safe distance, we pitched camp and settled in. Our new nohai packmates had taken the dead nohai with them, and, once settled, made a great feast of their slain fellows. They had some tradition about eating the dead as a show of respect and to take on their strength and speed. As a show of solidarity with our "pack", I helped myself to some rotten nohai spleen, and suffered some horrible cramps as my reward.
The nohai were still in a pretty bad state. Ado used his magic to wake Chinua up. Then Khad made a paste from poppy pods, which he rubbed on the ex-chief's gums to dull the pain as I popped his jawbone back into its socket. Barruk then finished by laying on hands to make the jaw set, leaving Chin's chin looking much better. (Ha!) Sorq then took one of the beads out of her hair and wove it into Chin's mane (which is apparently some kind of sign of victory or strength or the like among nohai...or maybe a courtship ritual, it's hard to say).
Once we had settled in, the nohai told us about the "Void Fillers" -- the mix-matched clan of nohai, zombies, and nohai zombies down in the valley. Apparently the fires were part of some grand scheme on the part of the Void Fillers, which basically amounted to 'KILL EVERYTHING'. They start fires, then go around collecting the various refugees who may have survived the fire but were separated from their own clans. These refugees got conscripted into 'fire camps', like the one nearby, given the choice to either join up willingly, or get killed and turned into a zombie (and thus forced to join that way). Most of the nohai in the camp were formerly from the "Blades of Earth" pack, but Chinua and his crew were a small hunting party that got separated from their larger pack (Dust) by the fires are recruited in the manner described.
After a bit of a chat, Chinua implied that he had other things to share with his "pack leader", Taking the hint, Khad, Ado, and I took the remaining nohai (Giggles, Fletcher, Kitty, and Hooch) and went out to see if any game had survived the fires. Barruk (as leader) and Sorq (as translator) stayed behind and discussed with Chin how we might go about divesting the nearby fire-camp of some of the other broken and conscripted packs to add to our own.
First point of business for the hunting party was to get me back on my feet, as I was still feeling very ill from eating uncooked, rotten nohai meat (note to self for the future -- fuck pack solidarity). Khad found a weird-looking root that he called "badberry" (because it is what you should eat when you've had a bad berry). He cut it into small strips and said I should chew and swallow them. Which I did. After which it felt like I was dying. My throat burned, my stomach heaved, and everything I had eaten for the last three days came spewing out with the force of a geyser. Afterwards, though, I felt much better.
While I might have hoped for something easier to kill, the only meat we found was a herd of gorgons, maybe thirteen of them, including a pair of bulls. Now, hunting gorgons just because you are hungry might seem like a bad idea, but I was still a little light-headed from puking my guts out, and I there was one cow who was partly burned and half-lame who looked like she might be easy enough to pick off. That is, of course, if Khad hadn't stumbled around making as much noise as a drunken hornbeast, and I hadn't, in trying to coax the wounded cow away from the herd, gotten the attention of the largest of the two bulls.
Ado used his magic to mimic the cry of a thunderbird, which are known to prey on gorgons, hoping to scare the bull off. Instead of becoming frightened, though, the bull took the cry as a challenge and came running towards the sound (which is probably why there are as few gorgons as there are). Well, as I learned from cattle-rustling with Vadim, if a plan goes sour, just make up a new one. Oh, and run, definitely also run.
So, we ran, but, seeing the light of the fire-camp not more than a mile away, we decided we'd run for the camp, figuring that an angry gorgon bull would work wonders for disorienting, demoralizing, destabilizing, and decimating the camp of our enemies. Ado, Khad, and I booked it for the camp, heading down the steep shale slopes into the ravine, shouting, waving torches, and firing arrows all the way to the cliff to urge the gorgon to keep after us.
Meanwhile, Ado sent up the alarm through his warbler buddies, alerting Barruk and Sorq to the situation. Quick thinkers that they were, they figured that a herd of gorgons was better than one, and immediately ran out to where we'd been hunting and started lighting fires to frighten the rest of the herd towards the fire-camp. If there is one thing that a band of rustlers knows how to do, it is start a stampede.
So, with much running and screaming, we hit the scree. Khad went sliding down first, hitting the grasslands below running flat-out. Ado did less well with it, losing his perch on the cackle he was riding and tumbling down the slope. With the bull just on my heels, I ran out wide, tied a knot in the end of my last rope, hooked it on a jagged outcropping, and leaped. I swung across the gorgon's path and, sure enough, he got his feet tangled on the rope and went barreling head-first down the slope (that out to make him mad). To add insult to injury, when he landed, Ado hit him with some vicious mockery.
Even the best plans have their consequences, and tripping a gorgon down a cliff was not one of my best plans. Short version, I got a good whiff of its breath on the way down. On the plus side, my hands half-froze holding onto the rope, so I didn't follow it down.
Of course, then Sorq and Barruk came running, just ahead of a wall of fire and a herd of stampeding gorgons. Despite the limited mobility provided by my calcifying limbs, I managed to avoid getting trampled as the beasts came down the slope. The same cannot be said of Ado, still dismounted at the bottom of the slope, who was beaten to a fine bloody pulp by the gorgons' hooves.
But, I didn't really have time to worry about Ado, as my limbs started returning to normal just in time for the fire to hit the crest of the scree ... and set fire to the rope I was hanging from. I let go the rope, pulled out my knives, and jammed them into cracks in the slate, holding on for dear life. There was fire above, and more fire and a herd crazed iron-hided cattle below. So I clung to the cliff and waited for the fires to burn out.
While I clung to the hillside, everyone else ran headlong towards the camp, gorgons on their heels. Khad, who had been in the lead the whole time, screamed and leaped, hitting the wooden fence around the camp at a full run and launching himself over the heads of the defenders, just moments before near two dozen tons of iron-scaled oxen smashed into the camp.
The gorgons raged through the camp, statues spreading like wildfire from their breath, and the actual wildfire spreading in an identical manner behind them. Khad raced through the camp, not even pausing as he passed the malik sorcerer who was standing in the center of the camp with blood-soaked horns, a bloody snout, an evil altar, and the rest of the whole evil necromancer schtik. Nor did Khad stop when that same malik nailed him with a clearly quite painful curse. He took the blast and kept running, hurling himself out the far side of the encampment, then circling around to meet up with our nohai, who were laughing uproariously as they fired arrows at stragglers trying to escape the gorgon-wrought carnage within.
Sorq, meanwhile, spotting the malik sorcerer, decided that it was a good idea to sneak into the camp, apparently with the goal of robbing his tent in the chaos. She somehow managed to make it to the tent without getting stabbed, trampled, or petrified, only to find the tent occupied by an undead nohai. She dodged the zombie's strike, letting it knock out the tent poles instead, grabbed the nearest loose object, cut a hole in the collapsed tent, and ran for it holding ... an iron teakettle (a tremendous waste of metal if ever I'd seen one).
With the fires finally moved on, I dislodged my knives and surfed down the slope, landing on my feet, and ran flat out to where I'd last seen Ado go down under the gorgon stampede. Barruk was already there, trying, unsuccessfully, to bandage the warbler's wounds. Rather than waste any more time, I bundled Ado up tight in a sheet to at least staunch the bleeding a little, and Barruk and I ran to meet up with Khad, Chinua, and the rest of our pack.
Sorq caught up to us shortly thereafter and we all booked it. Behind us, the grass was a smoking black wasteland and the camp was a full of statues, burned and trampled tents, greenish fog, and the gorgons grazing on their food stores. Undercutting the noises of lowing gorgons and crackling fires were the enraged screams of the malik necromancer who's day we had just ruined.