Previous: Episode 2
As the four dejected goblins trudged along the rock-strewn path from the caves, Tulip stared at the iron band around her forearm, her heart guttering like a slowly blown out candle flame.
She was clanless. No home. No tribe. No future.
Ma Snaggl might as well have killed the four of them on the spot. How would they ever reach the Bouldermaws, much less steal their enemies’ greatest treasure? They’d never traveled so far from the caves before. Could they even find their way there?
But it was the only way—not just to save themselves, but the clan. They had to try.
“Mags,” she called the little rogue over. “You know how to get to the Bouldermaws’ lands. Right?”
Mags moved closer, her eyes scanning the tree-studded swamp beyond for threats. This part of the path, so close to the Chokewater, made Tulip nervous as well. Wander too far off the trail and even the plants would try to eat you out here.
“I’ve seen maps,” Mags offered. “They live far. Farthest. Past the swamp, past the Fangreavers’ forest. Up in the hills past Rockbreaker Mountain.”
“Good.” Tulip hid her relief behind a sneer. “I knew that,” she lied, “but better for two of us to know. Uh, how many days to get there, you think?”
Mags scrunched up her face. “Four? Maybe three, if we hurry.” She raised her eyes to Tulip’s. “If we don’t find trouble on the way.”
Tulip nodded vigorously. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Good.”
Mags seemed to want to say more, but she hesitated.
“What?” Tulip barked. “Go on.”
“The shamans are only one day ahead of us,” Mags said. “If we catch up and wait for Smung and his acolyte to split off, we could lay an ambush. Take them hostage and who knows? Maybe their clan would trade the Shiny for them.”
Tulip stopped short, staring down at Mags. That could work. That could actually work!
“Any plan that ends with me not watching Smung fry isn’t good enough,” Surzl broke in. “I say we walk right in and burn the whole place to the ground.”
“Try that and we’ll die,” Tulip said. “Worse, you’ll have declared war between the Horntooths and the Bouldermaws. They’ll wipe us all out!”
“Wake up, Tulip!” Surzl yelled, waving her iron-banded arm under the bigger goblin’s nose. “There is no us anymore! We’re clanless.” A wide grin lit up her face. “Do what you want afterwards. I’m only going there to watch them burn.”
Tulip growled, her anger rising.
“You guys are nuts!” Isabog yelled, stopping up ahead and spinning around to glare back at them. “You’ll only get yourselves killed.” The warlock yanked at the band on her arm and Tulip saw the flesh there was already raw with scratch marks. “As soon as I figure out how to get this thing off,” Isa said, “I’m finding a new clan and putting this whole mess behind me.”
“You can’t get it off, numbwit,” Surzl said. “Not without Ma’s magic stone. If you actually understood anything about magic, you’d know that.”
“Oorn can do anything,” Isabog countered. “He’ll find a way.”
“Enough!” Tulip shouted. “I’m not happy about it either, but look around. We’re all we’ve got now. And if it stays that way, we won’t last long out here. So we’re going to go as fast as we can to the Bouldermaws and get this done. Somehow.” She shifted uncomfortably. “I like my idea of capturing Smung and bargaining for the Shiny, but if we think of something better along the way—”
“That was Mags’ plan,” Surzl interrupted. “Not yours.”
“What’s mine is what I say is mine,” Tulip growled, baring her teeth. “Right, Mags?” There was a moment’s silence. Tulip swung her head down to glare at the little rogue for not backing her up, but the spot where she’d been standing moments ago was empty.
Mags was gone.
“Mags?” Tulip called, trying to hide the sudden panic gnawing at her guts. Could something have dragged the tiny goblin off when Tulip wasn’t looking? Great Holvrgoshrr. They needed her. “Mags!”
The only answer was the buzz of insects from the fetid swamp beyond.
Oornthcthullon sighed, lamenting for perhaps the thousandth time that it had come to this. The Devourer, he’d been called once. The Endless Chasm. The Maw of Madness. Why, he’d struck terror into a hundred thousand hearts, twisted and broken the minds of mortal princes, giants, and archmages alike.
And just look at him now.
Diminished to the barest fraction of his former glorious self. Trapped and bound into the flesh of one of the most vile and base creatures across all the planes—a goblin, for Stars’ sake.
Oorn, Isabog’s mental voice, hesitant and fearful, broke through his ruminations. We are going to be okay, right?
He sighed, careful to keep any hint of contempt out of his tone. Of course. It’s an unfortunate setback to our plans, but you know I would never let anything untoward happen. I have grown quite fond of you, my clever little pupil.
Oorn felt a touch of smug pride color his warlock’s thoughts. There. That was better. A judicious level of fear was needed to keep Isabog in check, but he couldn’t have her panicking on him. Not when the only other thing currently standing between him and certain death was her worthless cagemates. An odd relationship, that. He’d learned more than he ever cared to about goblins in recent months, including their peculiar practice of tossing their live young into a cage with others born near the same time. There the young ones stayed until they matured enough to be useful . . . if they survived. Among this group, Mags was the only one with a lick of sense.
Where was the little wretch? He couldn’t perceive the mix of roiling phobias and crafty cunning that characterized the little rogue’s mental signature anywhere nearby. No new minds had come within range of his telepathy either, though, so she must have simply wandered off.
For the umpteenth time, he pondered what it might have been like if clever Mags had been the one to open the ceramic urn that day—the vessel that had contained this long dormant fragment of his being. Bah. He was likely better off here. For all her faults, Isabog was easily manipulated and possessed a natural (if surprising) knack for the arcane. She had been useful enough to him so far, and since he didn’t really have a choice in the matter . . . he would abide. For now.
“Mags!” Tulip called again, panic coloring the warrior’s thoughts. Oorn breathed in the scent of her fear. Delicious.
“You see? Even your loyal toady has deserted you,” Surzl crowed. “The cowardly beast.”
A flash of indignance and mild hurt blossomed fifty feet into the swamp. Ah ha! There she was.
“Didn’t,” Mags said, emerging from the shadows along the pathway.
Surprised, the goblins turned and stared at her.
“Just where did you run off to?” Tulip said.
Mags shrugged. “Saw tracks. Scouted ahead. Coupla Toadcrunchers camped in the trees a few hundred yards that way.” She pointed down toward the shores of the Chokewater. “They had food,” the rogue said, smiling as she hefted a small sack from which issued a rich, earthy smell.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Isabog said, whisking out a tentacle and snatching the bag from Mags. “I’m starving!”
As his warlock opened the sack and the scent hit him, a familiar floating sensation began to build within Oorn. Oh no. No, no!
Ignoring him, she crammed a generous fistful of mushrooms into her mouth and began to chew.
What? She asked. It’s good!
Oorn groaned. Spit that out. Spit it out this instant!
No! Isabog huffed. I’m hungry.
“Greedy pig! Share with the rest of us.” Surzl snatched the sack out of Isabog’s reach and gobbled up two fistfuls of the wizened, dried bits. The sack was ripped just as quickly out of her hands, as Tulip tipped her head back and poured the rest of its contents into her wide open maw.
The fools! They really were going to get him killed.
“Zheesh mushrooms tashte funny,” Tulip said around a chewy mouthful, tossing the empty sack on the ground.
Mags picked it up and peered inside, looking disappointed. “Would have liked some too.”
Isabog spun in a lazy circle, arms thrown out. “Too bad. So sad,” she sang.
Oorn chuckled. The floating sensation deepened, dulling his senses and easing his burdens. What had he been so upset about just now? Hmm. He couldn’t remember. He also couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so delightfully and wonderfully free. Waving his tentacles from side to side as Isabog spun around, Oorn recalled for the first time in perhaps centuries the gently shifting tides of the sea. What was this called again?
Dancing was good. He should do this more often.
Isabog began crooning a sing-song tune about braining squirrels with a very large spoon. Humming along, quite enchanted, Oorn spun and laughed and spun some more.
Still holding the empty sack, Mags took a whiff of its interior, eyeing her cagemates warily. Something was definitely off about how they were acting. What in the Nine Hells had been in those mushrooms?
“Your face is all pink and puffy” Isabog tittered mid-spin, pointing at Mags.
Mags bared her teeth at the warlock. “Is not!”
“It is,” Tulip laughed. “You’re like a bubble with legs.”
Surzl cackled and sang, also spinning. “But will she pop? Come here, Bubble. And pop!” The flame acolyte lanced out a single finger as she spun close to Mags, and a lick of flames sizzled between her and the little rogue.
“Ow!” Mags growled up at Surzl. “Quit it!”
Isabog howled with laughter, whipping a tentacle in Mags’ direction and zapping her with a mild electric charge.
Mags backed away from her companions, balling up her fists in anger. “I mean it! Knock it off!”
A keening cry from the direction of the Chokewater cut through the goblins’ singsongy voices, far behind them and to the south, drowning out their laughter.
Mags froze, the hair rising up on the back of her neck. “What was that?” she asked, taking a step further down the path, away from the wailing. “We should go. We should go now.”
Isabog, Tulip, and Surzl all looked at one another, blank-faced, and then burst out laughing again.
A flash of movement between trees down by the water caught Mags’ eye. Then another, off to one side.
A distant, whispery voice sang out from that direction. “Horrrrntoooooths.”
Oh no. Oh no no no no.
“Ooooh!” Surzl called. “Come out, come out where ever you are. Come and play!” She sent up a shower of sparks from her upturned hands, still spinning.
“Shhh!” Mags rushed to Surzl’s side and grabbed her by the elbow, trying to pull her along. “Surzl, Isabog, we have to go. Tulip, help me!”
But Tulip was staring intently at her own hands. “Heh,” she said. “Bubble fingers.” She waved them in front of her mouth, making a show of snarling. “Heh heh. Bubble teeths. Pop!”
The voice was getting closer. “Oh, Hooooorrrrntooooths!”
They had to get out of here. Fast. Panicking, Mags pulled a coil of rope from her pack and tied it around her waist, affixing it to Surzl, Tulip, and Isabog in the same way, chaining the four of them together.
Shadows loomed in the mist, starting to flank them. Then a familiar figure emerged into the hazy morning light off the path behind them. Balls. It was one of the Toadcruncher goblins Mags had stolen the mushrooms from. Her face was smeared with a ghastly white paste, and over that the Toadcruncher’s eyes and mouth were outlined in blue, giving her the appearance of having great beady eyes and a single row of blocky, square teeth. There had been only two of them sleeping by the water’s edge, but judging by the number of shadows beginning to circle around, the first two had been joined by several of their clan.
“Hoorrrrrrntoooooths,” the Toadcrunchers called again, their whisper-soft voices carrying, one by one, through the mists.
Tying the last knot into place, Mags gave it a yank to check her work and then bolted, trying to drag the group forward. “Come on!” she cried, gritting her teeth and pulling. But it was no use. The others weren’t budging, and tiny Mags lacked the strength to force them onward.
“Is this a game, Bubble?” Isabog asked, blinking down at Mags as the smaller goblin tied her to the end of the line. “I like games.”
“Yes, yes! It’s a game,” Mags said. “We’re going to play chase. Ready? Everybody chase me.” She pulled against the ropes again, her boots digging into the dirt path.
“So we can pop you, Bubble!” Surzl giggled, one finger poking Mags in the face.
“Sure. Whatever,” Mags growled. “Just move!”
“Not even Horntooths anymore,” a new voice called from the trees. “Lookee look! They bear the mark. They are for Her!”
“Her who?” Surzl called into the trees, still trying to spin and getting caught up in the rope.
Excited whispers filled the air. Fear giving her a strange sort of boldness, Mags shoved Surzl into Tulip. “You’re supposed to chase me, remember?” She strained against the ropes again, silently praying to Neegosh for this to work.
As Surzl smacked into Tulip, the big warrior growled and started running toward Mags. Cackling, Surzl and Isabog followed. Mags pelted down the path just ahead of them, all but weeping in relief. Without the protection of the Horntooth clan, if the Toadcrunchers caught them here, that would be the end of all four of them.
“For Her!” the cry picked up all around them. “Bring them back to Her!”
And suddenly the path behind them was in motion, as a dozen or so Toadcrunchers wielding spears broke from the cover of the trees, barreling after the four fleeing outcasts.
“Run!” Mags screeched, pumping her tiny legs as fast as they would carry her. She didn’t know who or what Her was, and she really didn’t want to find out. As if in answer, that awful keening sound came from down by the water again, still somewhere behind them. Was it getting closer, though?
“She calls!” One of the Toadcrunchers sang out. “She hungers!”
Oh gods. Craning her head over her shoulder, Mags saw the lead Toadcrunchers were only fifteen feet behind Isabog.
“I like running,” Tulip yelled, an elated grin on her loopy face. “Running is good.”
“You’re the best runner, Tulip,” Mags yelled back, the wind whipping the words from her lips. “Bet you can run even faster.”
With a happy growl, Tulip picked up speed, streaking out in front and all but dragging the others along behind her. Stumbling and struggling to keep to her feet, Mags dared another look back again and saw they were starting to put more distance between themselves and the Toadcrunchers now. Good. Maybe they could get away.
That’s when the smell hit her—glorious, like rotting meat and hot garbage stuffed inside an enormous dead fish. But before she had time to savor it, what had looked like just another tree up ahead moved alarmingly, its “trunk” swinging down into the goblins’ path. The mist parted, revealing a hulking, quadrupedal creature, its shaggy, hillock shaped body sloping at one end down into a sinuous neck that ended in a wrinkled black muzzle studded with curved, yellowing tusks. Baleful red eyes stared down at Mags. Of more immediate concern was where the monster’s back haunches tapered into a long, branch-like tail, ending in spiky club of black bone the size of Mags’ entire body. As the cries of the pursuing Horntooths echoed in her ears, the monster’s club-like tail whistled through the air, slamming right towards Mags’ face.
From the moment they’d begun to run, Isabog was convinced this was a good game. Chasing bubble-headed Mags, and being chased in turn by giant chittering squirrels wielding spoons? Isa giggled. Maybe the best game ever.
There’s only one thing that would make this better, Oorn agreed, chucking mischievously inside her head.
Delight washed over Isa and she squealed out loud. Time for my new spell?
Yes, he answered. This one you can use to reshape parts of your body. You can grow claws, or horns, or gills and webbed hands and feet.
Isa guffawed. Antlers?
Sure, Oorn said. Why not? Almost anything you can imagine, but only one big change or a few small changes at once. Just think of the change you want, say mor’phazb, and wave your hand like this. He gave a sharp, curling motion with the tip of one tentacle. And remember to hold the spell. This one lasts.
Isa thought as hard as she could about antlers growing out of her head. “Mor’phazb,” she cried, curling her fingers. A strange tingling sensation shot up from the top of her head and her hands flew to the spot, finding a marvelously tall, pronged set of antlers there, just as she’d envisioned.
I did it! She laughed. Just wait until she caught up to Bubble Mags. She was going to pop the rogue with her antlers.
Well done! Oorn sounded so pleased. Isa beamed with pride.
Just then the others stopped short, digging their feet into the soft ground of the path. Her own motion still carrying her forward, Isa felt the rope around her waist go taut, and suddenly she was swinging through the air, right into . . . a giant spiky acorn made of stone? It was attached to a long tentacle, whipping towards her fast—too fast, hard enough to squash her flat.
“AAHHHH!” Isa screamed, covering her eyes with both hands and all five of her tentacles.
Scales? Oorn mused, sounding oddly calm. Scales would be good.
Huh? An image flashed through Isabog’s mind along the connection she shared with Oorn: her entire body covered in thick, hard scales. Scales!, she thought, just as the impact struck her along the length of her torso. Where she expected crushing pain, there was only an odd ringing sound met with a dull thud. Then she was bouncing back the way she’d come—right at her huddled, terrified cagemates. Isa careened into them, bowling them over. All four goblins went down in a tangle of rope and flailing limbs.
As she struggled to regain her feet, her legs tangled up with the rope around Tulip’s waist, Isabog realized two things. One, she was not in fact squashed flat, though her head was ringing like a struck bell from where it had smacked into the ground. And two, her entire body was covered in thick green scales.
“Ow!” She snarled, glaring up at the tentacle acorn. “That hurt!” Somewhere nearby, Surzl groaned.
And wait, did these scales mean that the spell had—? She felt atop her head. Dammit. Her fabulous antlers were gone. Stupid acorn!
“You!” Her eyes narrowed to angry slits as she stared the tentacle acorn down.
Behind her, the chittering squirrels pursuing them had also skidded to a stop. One of their big spoons sailed past Isa, clanging against the stony acorn and bouncing off it.
Then another spoon went flying at the acorn, and another. The acorn bellowed a challenge.
“They’re going to eat you,” Isa taunted, calling up to it. Served it right, too. Messing up her antlers. Smacking her into the ground. Just who did that acorn think it was?
“Bash your head and scoop your tongue!” The squirrels sang. “Pluck your toes off one by one!”
She wasn’t sure if acorns had toes, or tongues for that matter. But she was keen to see this one get what was coming to it.
Pluck your toes off one by one, Oorn echoed, his voice a teasing singsong in her mind.
Isa strained against the rope that anchored her to her cagemates. If she could just get loose and go help the squirrels catch that acorn . . .
Ah ha! That groaning, squirming thing under Tulip was Mags. And there in a sheath at her hip, almost within reach, was one of the rogue’s sharp daggers. Isa stretched, reaching for the blade.
Her arms pinned and squashed under Tulip’s weight, Mags looked from Isa to the approaching squirrels and back, her face a mask of horror.
“Isa, help,” Mags gasped. “They’re coming!”
Isa just laughed. Stupid flattened Mags. Tulip had popped her good. Isa stretched as hard and far as she could, still reaching. Almost . . . one of her tentacles wrapped around the dagger’s hilt and yanked it free. Got it!
Isa grinned. With a snick of the dagger, the rope linking her to Tulip and the others parted and fell away.
As she stood, brushing off the road dust, the dozen or so squirrels formed a half-circle behind her, Tulip, Surzl, and Mags. For just a second, the lead squirrel’s face looked like a goblin’s, painted white and blue, and the giant spoon it gripped was a spear. Isa frowned and squinted. Then it was a squirrel again, like the others. There. That was better.
Isa dropped the dagger. It was nothing compared to the magic at her command. The warlock grinned, shaking out her fingers and flexing them as she turned to face the tentacle acorn. With a wave of one hand, she conjured a floating purplish spear made of pure force energy. A second hurling motion sent the force spear flying into the acorn’s long, oddly shaggy tentacle.
The tentacle reared back and the acorn bellowed in pain and fury, lashing from side to side. Something big moved in the mist behind the tentacle. What was that? Was something attached to its other end?
No matter. It was just a stupid acorn. Isa cackled. “We’re all going to eat you,” she sang up at it. “Acorn pancakes. Acorn mush!”
Then the rest of the acorn’s bulk charged into view—a blur of shaggy fur, stumpy tree-like legs with hooves, furious red embers for eyes, and flashing tusks and sharp teeth—all barreling straight for Isabog, like an angry mountain on the move.
Isa blinked, confused. Someone close by was screaming. She wished they would stop.
Oh right. That was her. She shrugged, cowering, and kept on screaming.
Next: Episode 4