Tulip Dreadyowl of the Horntooth goblin clan watched the snuffler take another heedless step towards the trap her hunting party had laid for it. Its piggy eyes were focused on the ground, its long, prehensile snout rooting in the mud for crawlers. Just one step further into the curly fenfronds and they’d have it. About time, too, Tulip fumed. They’d been due back to the caves by high sun, over an hour ago. Ma Snaggl would give them an earful for that, but they couldn’t afford to return empty-handed—not when the clan’s honor was at stake. Better to keep their guests waiting than fail to provide them with fresh meat.
Tulip resisted the urge to tap her fingers against her maul’s smooth-worn grip. Neegosh’s balls, this was taking forever. If she started towards the snuffler now, yelling and screeching, could she make it move into the trap?
No, Mags had done a good job hiding it. Better to wait. Tulip glanced left, to where the tiny green goblin lay curled so tight and still she appeared to be just another moss-covered rock. Clever. Mags might be puny, but she was smart, useful. The same could not be said for Tulip’s other cagemates.
At least they knew how to hide. To her right, Isabog was crouched behind a tree, and opposite Tulip, Surzl had obscured herself inside a well-picked-over bogberry bush. The four goblins had the stupid snuffler nearly surrounded now. Maybe they should just attack?
The snap of a branch sounded from Isabog’s direction and the snuffler’s head jerked up, ears pricked in alarm. It gathered its haunches to spring away.
Bellowing a war cry, Tulip launched herself from her hidey hole, swerving into the snuffler’s path. If she could just stun the stupid beast long enough for the group to take it down, this could still work. At the same time that she moved, Isabog and Surzl both exploded from cover, a jet of flame shooting from Surzl’s outstretched hands as one of Isabog’s iron-colored tentacles whipped out at the panicked snuffler, missing it entirely but nearly hitting Mags.
Mags yelped as she dodged the spine-tipped tentacle, the dagger she’d been poised to throw clattering harmlessly against a boulder.
In mid-leap, her maul already sweeping towards the snuffler’s head, Tulip saw Surzl’s flames arcing towards her and managed to deftly twist in the air to avoid the searing blast. Then she landed with a breath-whooshing thud, her maul cracking sharply against her foot. Tulip howled in fury at the pain, at her worthless cagemates’ inability to catch a shitting snuffler, at the sight of the beast’s fat rear end as it darted away—unharmed—into the swamp and disappeared.
“Now look what you did!” Isabog cried, rounding on Tulip. “You attacked too soon and it got away.”
“Me?” Tulip hobbled upright. “You think this is my fault? If you hadn’t scared it, it’d be in the trap by now! And you,” Tulip turned to glare at Surzl. “Even with Isabog clomping around like a drunken troll, I would have had it if you hadn’t nearly incinerated me!”
Surzl’s mad eyes gleamed, her sharp-toothed mouth curving into a grin. “You should be so lucky,” she said, “as to taste Her purifying flames!”
Tulip growled and took a menacing step towards Surzl, gaining the satisfaction of seeing the flame acolyte take a step back. As the biggest and strongest of her cagemates, Tulip was used to throwing her weight around. The effect of her might on her lesser companions never got old.
Tulip grinned, baring two rows of sharp teeth as she loomed over Surzl and tapped the acolyte’s midsection with the business end of the maul. “Try it sometime, ashtender. I’d love an excuse to pound you into paste.”
“Ugh.” Isabog stood glaring at the two of them, hands on her hips. “If you two are done measuring teeth, can we get out of here? Some of us have more important things to do right now, like figuring out what to wear tonight.”
As usual, Tulip ignored the tentacled freak. Then there was a tug at the studded leather fringe of her armored skirt. Mags stood there, barely knee-high to Tulip, wordlessly offering up a pouch full of fist-sized mucksquawk eggs.
Tulip grunted, taking the pouch and nodding an acknowledgment. The eggs smelled too fresh to be much good, but it was something at least. Still, it wouldn’t spare them Ma Snaggl’s wrath. Or another week on latrine duty. Blast and smash! How was Tulip ever going to prove herself worthy to lead the clan one day with Isabog and Surzl dragging her down at every turn? Carefully tucking the pouch into her carrying sack, Tulip gave Surzl a final warning glare and growled for Mags to gather up the trap. Maybe they’d be able to scrounge something more on their way back. They couldn’t afford to stay here any longer.
“You’re taking too long, Mags,” Surzl snapped. “Let me do it.”
Tulip felt a stab of alarm at Surzl’s words—that clodfoot had no business messing with Mags’ work. Before Tulip had time to snarl a warning, Surzl stepped forward, one foot finding a slick pile of fresh snuffler shit. With a loud cry, her arms flailing, Surzl slipped, tripping face-first into Mags’ trap, instantly triggering it.
The noose caught around Surzl’s neck as the counterweight fell, yanking her upright and lifting her off her feet, her face already purpling as her air was cut off. Lightning fast, Mags slashed forward with a dagger, trying to cut the rope, but struck Surzl in the shoulder instead. Surzl gave a startled, strangled shriek as she flew up into the air, choking and now also bleeding on Mags, who scrambled frantically to release the counterweight.
Surzl seemed less inclined to rely on Mags’ help. With her last squeak of breath, she uttered an arcane command and a small bolt of flames sizzled up the rope holding her secured to the branch overhead, turning both to crumbling ash.
Surzl fell to the ground, retching. Isabog howled with laughter—until Tulip shot her a murderous look.
Rushing forward, Mags reached to help Surzl up but stopped short as the flame acolyte rose to her knees, fixed the tiny rogue with a death glare, and raised her hands for another casting.
“Razt-fierda!” Surzl spat. Mags yelped as a second flamebolt struck her in the arm, scorching her threadbare leather armor. Already Surzl was rising, rearing back to throw another one.
“Surzl, knock it off,” Tulip yelled. “She didn’t mean to, and you’re the one who—”
But Mags was already running, dodging as Surzl summoned forth another angry bead of fire and sent it streaking off into the trees after the fleeing rogue. The bolt went wide, though, missing Mags altogether as it sped right past her.
Tulip rocked on her feet as a sudden loud BOOM shook the ground, accompanied by screams. She ran through the brush towards the sound, Surzl and Isabog quick on her heels.
The sight that greeted them behind the screen of trees all but made Tulip’s stomach drop into her boots.
Of course the group of Horntooths assigned to steal a cask of ale from the ogres in the nearby hills would be passing by just as Surzl’s stray firebolt went wide. Mags was sprawled nearby, stunned and blinking at the three keg-bearers, who lay half-conscious, blistered and moaning amidst the ruined and charred splinters of the ale barrel.
Tulip turned. Behind her, Isabog covered her eyes with her tentacles, head in her hands, and groaned. For once, Surzl had the good grace to gulp and turn wide, frightened eyes to Tulip.
Tulip only stared back, horrorstruck, looking at each of her cagemates in turn. They’d been entrusted with the clan’s one shot at making tonight’s feast a success, and they’d blown it.
Well, at least they wouldn’t have to worry about suffering Ma Snaggl’s wrath for the next year. Since they’d likely be dead before morning.
Adorned in her best finery—a manky old shirt studded with hundreds of buttons and half a broken crockery pot as a hat—Isabog Irontongue preened, fluffing her carefully arranged cloud of hair. No matter that she and her cagemates had been made to sit so far from the high table where Ma Snaggl entertained the clan’s guests. From here, Isabog had a perfect view of Dzok Greatstench two tables over, who occasionally leered up at her from over his mug of watered-down ale. Of the clan’s few remaining warriors, he seemed the least put off by her tentacles, and he was handsome enough—boasting not one or two, but three of the tusk-like, snaggle hornteeth for which their clan was named.
She gave Dzok a wink and he bared his teeth at her seductively. But then his lone remaining cagemate leaned in and began to whisper to him. His bulbous head still bent, Dzok frowned at Isabog, shrugged, and turned his attention elsewhere.
Well, Isabog fumed. Maybe he wasn’t that handsome. But it wasn’t like she could afford to be as choosy as she liked anymore either. The clan had suffered one misfortune after another these past several months—a rockfall had destroyed part of their cave system, a series of disastrously failed raids had decimated their warrior caste, and finally, a plague of slugpox had killed off most of the clan’s elders and younglings. The sea of empty seats here tonight was proof enough of their losses. It was a terrible shame, too; there was hardly anyone left to flirt with. It had made things around here very dull lately.
Bah, Oorn’s mellifluous voice said inside Isabog’s head. What need have you for foolish young males when there’s better fun to be had? One of her tentacles moved of its own accord, under his control, and patted her right hand.
Instantly, her foul mood lightened to eager excitement. Ooh! she said silently. Does that mean you’re ready to teach me that new spell you’ve been promising? She had been waiting—ever so patiently—for weeks to see what Oorn might show her next. And he wasn’t entirely wrong. Magic was certainly the most interesting thing that had ever happened to her, and she owed that all to him. But what good was it to have such powers with no appreciative males around to admire her arcane prowess?
Soon, my dear. His voice dripped with unspoken apology. Soon enough.
Frustrated, she shook off the caressing tentacle and reasserted control over it, mentally shoving Oorn out of the way. He could only control parts of the body they shared when she wasn’t paying attention. It didn’t hurt to remind of that from time to time.
A loud belch sounded from her left, where Tulip was cramming live beetles tossed with fiery hot little chilies into her mouth in still-squirming handfuls. Across the table, Surzl glared around at the rest of them, her plate untouched, while Mags slunk lower in her seat, until she was barely visible over the top of the table except for her beady red eyes and knobby nose. Isa sighed. Why couldn’t she have been caged with a more lively bunch as a youngling? These three were so boring. And even after they’d outgrown that deliciously musty old cage, there was never any escaping one’s cagemates.
Well, mused Oorn. Not while they live.
Ooh, Oorn! You’re so naughty. Isabog laughed out loud, earning a disturbed glance from Tulip. At least tell me what the new spell does, she wheedled. Just a hint?
Hmmm, Oorn said. Well, it will help you to be more . . . adaptable to your surroundings.
Isabog squealed happily, drawing a furtive look from Mags this time as well as Tulip. Oh, that sounds wonderful! Although if I get any more adoraptable than I am now I pity that poor, stupid Dboz. Even he won’t be able to resist me then.
Ah. . . Yes, Oorn said. Yes, indeed.
Isa turned in her seat to brag to Surzl about the new spell Oorn was going to teach her, only Surzl was no longer at their table.
Hmmph! Probably off having fun without her, the sneaky wretch.
Well. Isabog would just see about that. Ignoring the raised eyebrow puny little Mags favored her with, Isa waited until Tulip’s back was turned and then crept away from the table. Surzl had to be around here somewhere.
From her hiding place in a rock crevice on the chieftain’s dais, Surzl Belchblaze craned her neck, trying to better hear the conversation at the high table. Char those stupid no-castes for placing the table so near the edge of the dais tonight; usually this was the bestest spot for spying and eaves-dropping. Though Surzl hadn’t had to use it in months—not since addled old Knazg, the Horntooth shaman, had declared her fire-touched and named her his acolyte.
The empty place on the bench next to that old fool rankled her. Char and blast! She belonged in a place of honor, like the other acolytes here with their shamans, not down at the lowest end of the cavern with those incompetents she’d had the misfortune of being born around the same time as. Someday when Surzl was in charge, the first thing she’d change was the clan’s insufferably inflexible rules about cagemate unity. Hers had been an iron weight around her neck long enough.
A bark of harsh laughter from the high table drew Surzl’s attention back. If she listened well, perhaps the opportunity would arise tonight to reinsert herself into Ma Snaggl’s good graces and reclaim her place. As tradition demanded, all five clans were represented tonight by their shamans and acolytes, guests of Ma Snaggl and the rest of the Horntooths to celebrate the feast of Fool’s Triumph. The Fangreavers, Rockbreakers, Toadcrunchers, and even the hated Bouldermaws had traveled here especially for the occasion.
Little better than heathens, the lot of them. None but Surzl worshipped bright Ruznabiyug as they ought. And for the Fiery Lady’s lone fire-touched acolyte to be so dishonored tonight of all nights added insult to existing injury. Fool’s Triumph, after all, commemorated the victory of Neegosh, the goblin god of scavenging and trickery, over his surviving cagemates: mighty Holvrgoshrr, the Horseslayer, and ever-burning Ruznabiyug, the Dancer in the Flames. Through guile and scheming, Neegosh had won the Great Chieftain’s Boomstick and become king of the goblin pantheon, deposing Holvrgoshrr and humiliating Ruznabiyug.
Someday, Surzl thought, her thoughts weltering with heat and fervent devotion. Someday She will be restored to Her rightful place.
Surzl watched as the Fangreaver shaman picked disdainfully at his plate and then turned and murmured something to his counterpart from the Bouldermaws. What they’d been served was no doubt better than what those gathered below the dais were eating, but she knew it wasn’t much—likely no better than hastily reconstituted jerky for the stew, and dried beetles prepared a dozen different ways as an accompaniment.
A gasp from the Rockbreaker acolyte brought Surzl’s head up sharp.
“What is that?” he spluttered, pointing, his eyes tracking something moving below the dais. A few heads at the high table turned. “The one passing by there. With the . . . ah, tentacles?”
“Oh, that?” old Smung, the Bouldermaw shaman grinned, showing his many sharp teeth. “Have you not seen the Horntooth’s little aberration before, youngling? Really, Snaggl. I would have thought you’d have exiled that thing by now.”
Shame burned on Surzl’s cheeks. Isabog may be a freak of nature and horrible nuisance, but what ought to be done with her or not wasn’t any business of Smung’s.
“Isabog has shown great talent for the arcane since her . . . accident,” Ma Snaggl said with a shrug. “Why just the other day, I saw her blast a stone the size of your head to dust with a simple spell.” She flicked her gaze idly in the Bouldermaw shaman’s direction, violent glee making her eyes shine in the dimly lit cavern. “Most promising.”
Flames danced across Surzl’s vision. About the only thing worse than being denied her place at that table was having to listen to Ma Snaggl sing Isabog’s praises to Smung and the others. The flame acolyte felt her hands grow hot and gritted her teeth, tamping down her anger.
In the resulting awkward silence, Tbosk, the Fangreaver shaman, poked disappointedly at the food on his plate.
Smung asked, “Is your dinner not to your liking, Tbosk?”
Tbosk looked up sharply, glancing from Smung to Ma Snaggl. Instead of answering, he nervously cleared his throat.
The Horntooth matron favored Smung with a smile that wasn’t much more than a baring of her pointed teeth. “Don’t worry, Tbosk,” she growled smoothly. “We saved the best course for last.” At that Surzl had to smile. By the steel in the old matriarch’s tone, her idea of a perfect dessert involved Smung’s eyeballs stewed in a pudding.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Snaggl,” Smung said, gesturing to his acolyte, a snivelly-faced goblin with a pattern of crisscrossing scars on both cheeks. Snivelly reached under the table for a large leather satchel, which he handed to Smung.
Casually, the Bouldermaw shaman reached inside and produced a large, slightly green-tinged ham and offered it to Tbosk. “Here. Perhaps this is more to your liking?”
There was a sudden hush as all nearby conversation and laughter ground to a halt. Even the dreamy-eyed Toadcruncher acolyte did an ale spit-take.
Smung’s words rang in Surzl’s ears as she stared aghast at the ham. How dare he?
To bring your own food to a feast held by another clan was insult enough, but to offer it to a fellow guest was tantamount to pissing all over your host—and by extension, the entire host clan.
At the head of the table, Ma Snaggl gripped the wide stone slab with both hands, her eyes lowered, face still impassive but already coloring. And there was Smung, still holding out the ham to Tbosk, his crooked, slug-shaped teeth bared in a malevolent smile.
Staring at his fat, stupid face, Surzl’s indignation and shame for her clan blossomed into a blaze of white-hot fury. As she strode forth from her hiding place, the flames at her command answered.
The ham in Smung’s grip burst into raging flames. With a cry of dismay, he dropped it on the table. Rancid, flaming fat splattered against the stone table, singeing Smung, Tbosk, and the nearby Toadcrunchers.
The four of them shrieked, leaping from their seats and turning to recoil from Surzl’s approach. A clamor of shouts arose as the other shamans and their acolytes leapt to their feet, drawing blades, totems, and gnarled wands of warpwood, all pointed at the advancing flame acolyte.
The roar of the flames crackled all around her, the fire-madness singing in her blood. Facing her attackers, Surzl laughed and raised her flaming hands.
As she approached, Knazg look up at her, the old fool’s eyes going wide with shock.
“Surzl?! What are you doing?” he cried. “These are our guests.”
But it was the cold fury in Ma Snaggl’s eyes that halted Surzl mid-step. The old Horntooth matriarch had stopped glaring at Smung, the Bouldermaw shaman, and had turned her icy gaze on Surzl.
“What is the meaning of this?” Tbosk pointed his wand at Surzl, his eyes darting from her face to Knazg’s. “Your acolyte just attacked us!”
Smung swept out one arm in a fury, sending his sad bowl of stew flying from the table as he wheeled around to glare at Ma Snaggl. “How low the Horntooth clan has fallen. Can’t feed your guests. Can’t even control your acolyte.” Smung’s eyes raked distastefully over Surzl.
Surzl ground her teeth and curled her hands to fists, the banked flames there burning hotter still.
Smung went on. “It’s no wonder your ranks have thinned. I hear that more and more of your clanspeople leave here every moonswell, seeking better fortune elsewhere.”
“That’s not true!” came a familiar voice from the lower end of the cavern. Surzl saw Tulip stand angrily, swinging her maul up over one shoulder. Next to her, stupid little Mags looked frightened but furious . . . and worried.
“You go too far, Smung.” Ma Snaggl’s voice was cold and deadly, but she made no move towards him.
“I’ve had enough of your insults,” said the shaman, beckoning curtly to his acolyte. “We’re leaving. And any Horntooth who can no longer bear the shame of allegiance to this pisspoor excuse for a clan is welcome to come with us. The Bouldermaws welcome you.”
Surzl sneered and spat. Who did Smung think he was? Like anyone here would take him up on his loathsome offer. The Bouldermaws hated the Horntooths, and the reverse was equally true. Life under them would be a misery. Why, no Horntooth in their right mind would choose such a future. They’d be lower than no-castes.
“Good riddance,” she hissed as the Bouldermaws turned and began to march down through the great cavern. Surzl turned to Knazg, about to demand permission to send the Bouldermaws fleeing from her wrath, but a collective intake of breath all around the cavern her brought her up short.
Surzl looked up.
Shame-faced, several Horntooth goblins were stepping away from their feast tables and following the Bouldermaws out. A few cast sheepish looks over their shoulders at Ma Snaggl, who stared down at them unblinking, her face as expressionless as the surface of the stone table her gnarled hands rested upon.
Others rose, likewise following, until half the meager population of the clan was walking out the entrance to the cavern after the Horntooth’s sworn rivals. Even as the flames danced in her blood, filling her head with delicious fury, Surzl felt a stab of panic. Too many were leaving. How would the clan defend its lands with so few of them left?
Sharing a wordless look, the remaining shamans nodded to each other and likewise began to file out.
Surzl saw Mags staring up at her with wide, horrified eyes. In a blur of motion, the little trapsmith began to run towards the dais, blades flicking into her hands. Surzl blinked, confused. The silly runt couldn’t possibly mean to attack her? Puzzled, she turned and caught a look passing between Ma Snaggl and someone standing behind Surzl.
A sudden dull pain exploded in the back of Surzl’s head as a previously unseen guard slammed down with his cudgel. Her last thought as she crumpled to the stone floor, Mags’ curiously angry protests ringing in her ears, was indignation and regret that she hadn’t even had the satisfaction of immolating those miserable wretches from the other clans.
“You’ll all burn,” she promised, as darkness claimed her.
Next Episode: February 25