ShinyQuest, by Julia Watson. Episode 4

Previous: Episode 3

Pinned under Tulip, Mags watched the hulking monster charge straight for them. With the desperation of a trapped animal, she squirmed under the bigger warrior’s unmoving bulk, trying to find the leverage she needed to wriggle out.

“I’m popped,” Tulip groaned above her. Then she giggled. “Swirly.”

“Tulip! Get off!” Mags cried. “Or we’re all going to die!” There was another groggy mumble and a lurch as Tulip tried to stumble to her knees, but she was so tangled in the rope linking her to Mags and Surzl that she could hardly move.

Even so, the slight shift in weight was enough that Mags managed to twist, wrenching herself free.

The monster was still coming fast. Mags grabbed the dagger Isabog had dropped and moved to cut the rope linking her to her cagemates. They were dead weight. She had to save herself.

She paused, the dagger’s blade poised to sever the rope.

Mags wasn’t sure they could complete the quest they’d been assigned, but she was sure of one thing: there was no way she could do this without them. And she would die out here alone.

Sheathing the dagger, Mags took quick stock of the situation. Isabog (was she covered in . . . scales?) was ten feet to the right, cowering and screaming in the monster’s direct path. Tulip was still hopelessly tangled in the rope. And Surzl, having risen groggily to her hands and knees, was staring at the approaching monster with a familiar mad glint in her eye. Mags knew too well what this meant: Surzl wanted to watch it burn.

Right. Well, first things first. Mags moved towards Tulip to give the rope some slack and pointed left. “Tulip!” she shouted. “Bet you can squash Surzl if you roll that way!”

Tulip laughed and spun herself towards the flame acolyte. Scowling, Surzl managed to just dodge out of the way, but the effort cost her the chance to loose whatever spell she was about to cast at the monster. Good. To make it through this, they needed to run, not fight. Mags scampered after them, but saw the huge, shaggy creature was still barreling straight for Isabog, about to trample the warlock underfoot. Mags gulped and hoped those scales were as hard as they looked. Or better yet—

“Oorn!” Mags called. “If you can hear me, make her move!

Isabog kept on screaming, but just before one of the monster’s stumpy feet would have stomped down on her, her body jerked out of the way like a puppet pulled by its strings. The monster skidded to a halt between them, cutting off Mags’ view of Isabog. Then its tusk-studded muzzle swung in Mags’ direction, one baleful red eye fixing on her. It took a step towards her.

Uh oh.

Mags heard a whistling sound. Seeing something flashing towards her, she dove out of the way. She looked up just as the monster roared in pain, another Toadcruncher javelin quivering from its shaggy hide, perilously close to Mags’ face. Had the Toadcruncher been aiming for the monster or for her?

No time to worry about that. They had to get out of here. If this beast could just keep the Toadcrunchers occupied long enough for her and her cagemates to get away . . .

As if on cue, the monster lumbered forward to confront the Toadcruncher who’d thrown the javelin.

Right. Good! Tulip was sitting up now. Mags grabbed hold of the warrior’s shoulders, spun her around twice, and lifted the rope over Tulip’s head to release her from its tangles. Finally freed, Tulip lurched to her feet. With a fierce grin, she pulled her maul from its harness, her eyes fixed on the monster.

“No!” Mags shouted, grabbing Tulip’s arm. “Tulip, we have to go while we still can!”

Nearby, Surzl cackled. The flame acolyte’s hands moved in a swirling motion, conjuring a whip made of fire that floated in midair. The whip lashed out at the monster, leaving an angry red weal in its wake. There was another bellow of fury, and the reek of burning fur filled Mags’ nostrils.

“Are you kidding me?!” Mags yelled.

Ignoring Mags and loosing one of her characteristic battle yowls, Tulip charged straight at the monster, dragging Surzl and Mags with her by the rope linking them. Tulip swung her maul into one of the monster’s hind legs, and Mags heard a horrific cracking sound. The creature’s scream of agony shook the birds from the nearby treetops. Deeper into the swamp, somewhere behind them and to the south, an answering wail sounded.

At this, the Toadcrunchers began to frenzy. “She calls!” they shrieked, then threw another flurry of javelins. Most missed the monster, but a few struck true. One landed at Tulip’s feet, making her jump aside. But already, the warrior was hauling back her maul for another strike at the monster.

For the second time in as many days, Mags found her feet moving of their own volition as she ran to Tulip’s side. “Tulip!” she shouted.

Poised to attack again, her teeth bared in a primal battle snarl, Tulip’s head swung down in Mags’ direction.

Fear and fury fueling her, Mags raised her hand and slapped the big warrior hard across the face. “Snap out of it!” she yelled. “You’re gonna get us killed!”

Tulip froze, blinking at the little rogue in stunned disbelief. The slight impression of a tiny hand lingered on Tulip’s face as her expression of rage gave way to confusion. As if coming out of a trance, the warrior’s gaze clarified on the rampaging monster and the swiftly closing in Toadcrunchers.

“Blast and smash,” Tulip muttered in alarm.

“Grab Isabog and let’s go,” Mags said, pulling Tulip in the warlock’s direction. But as they turned, Mags saw the lead Toadcruncher’s painted face sneer in her direction just as she threw another javelin. There was a whistling sound and Mags’ arm went numb.

Then there was pain—lots of it, like a star exploding in Mags’ shoulder. A long javelin protruded from her like a needle from a pincushion. Mags stumbled and nearly went down, but Tulip swept her up under one arm and broke into a run towards Isabog. At the other end of the rope, Surzl bobbed along behind them, hurling firebolts and insults at the Toadcrunchers.

“You tinderlings!” Surzl screeched. “You fireless sons of sheep!”

The monster roared, trying to gore Tulip with its jagged tusks as she rushed past. The warrior managed to dodge out of its reach and the beast took a faltering step after the Horntooths, but its injured leg gave out beneath it. Half-blinded with pain, Mags saw flashes of the still-raging battle as Tulip ran: the creature snaking its long neck around to face the Toadcrunchers now swarming it, the glow of its ember-red eyes seeming to darken, four of the nearest Toadcrunchers keeling over, their strangely hollow faces now webs of blackened, bulging veins.

Mags pulled frantically at Tulip’s leather sleeve, trying to warn her of this new danger, but her breath seemed to come only in shallow, hissing gasps. She couldn’t get the words out. Mags turned to see Isabog just ahead, still hunkered down and screaming. Tulip plowed on, scooping Isabog up under her other arm without even breaking her stride. Mags couldn’t see Surzl, but judging by the continued stream of insults that originated from nearby, she was still tied on and had joined the retreat.

Mags sighed in relief—too soon. Out of nowhere, the painted face of the Toadcruncher leader loomed, somehow already ahead of them. She held a shortsword, poised to cut them down as they fled past.

“Surzl,” Mags managed to croak out, hoping the acolyte would understand. “The rope.”

Sure enough, as Tulip dodged right around the Toadcruncher, Surzl split off and dodged the other way around, going into a low roll. Just as one of the shortswords stabbed towards the acolyte, the rope that connected Surzl to Tulip caught the painted Toadcruncher at ankle level, tripping her. The shortsword went flying.

Mags chuckled as Surzl popped back up without missing a beat, leaving the sprawled and oath-spewing Toadcruncher in their wake. Then the little rogue’s laugh turned into a hacking cough. She felt something warm and wet bubble from her lips and the pain in her shoulder seemed to pulse, a cold sensation radiating from the wound.

As Surzl ran alongside them, Mags saw the acolyte cast a worried look in her direction. A spark of warmth blooming in her chest, Mags smiled.

Then everything went dark.

***

Leaning over Mags’ sweat-sheened, pale face, Surzl checked the unconscious rogue’s pulse again. Still too fast, and growing weaker. Surzl sighed in frustration. Stupid Toadcrunchers. The one simple healing spell she knew seemed no match for the poison the javelin had been dipped in. She’d cleaned and bandaged the wound as best she could, but the flesh around it was spiderwebbed with black veins that pushed slowly and steadily towards Mags’ chest. If that march continued unchecked, Surzl didn’t like the little rogue’s chances.

Gah. Why hadn’t Surzl paid more attention to dusty old Knazg during his lectures on healing? Because learning to incinerate things was so much more fun. Obviously. At the time, curative magics had seemed dull by comparison. But now . . .  now Mags needed help that Surzl couldn’t give. It made her feel so . . . she couldn’t even put a name to this squirming, sinking sensation in her chest. It was so unfamiliar, so totally the opposite of the usual heated haze of devotion to her goddess that allowed Surzl to approach almost any situation with righteous surety and conviction. She felt so . . .  what was the word?

Inadequate.

Ugh. Dumb Mags. Why’d she have to go and get poisoned anyway?

Because she was busy saving all of your lives, a small voice said inside. While the rest of you were too gorked out of your minds to notice the danger you were in.

Surzl growled. There had to be some way out of this. She just had to think.

Tulip stepped back into the small cave they’d found and shook herself like a dog, flinging rain in every direction. A sudden godsend of a storm had blown down from the hills during their flight from the Toadcrunchers. The blasting winds and pelting rain had obscured the Horntooths’ passage and slowed down their pursuers just long enough for the group to get away and find this hideout. Tulip had erected a screen of branches to hide the cave mouth and continued to patrol outside every now and then to check for signs of further pursuit. “Any change?” she asked.

Tight-lipped, Surzl shook her head. Tulip sighed.

Further back into the cave, Isabog paced, muttering to herself or to Oorn. Surzl grunted in irritation. She’d gone so far as to ask the useless excuse of a warlock to seek Oorn’s advice, to see if he knew anything that might help Mags. But they’d come up empty there, too. This was so frustrating! Surzl wasn’t used to encountering problems she couldn’t threaten or char her way out of.

Tulip came closer, frowning down at Mags as the rogue thrashed in her sleep. “Maybe . . . maybe I should try to sneak into a Toadcruncher camp,” she said. “See if I can find some medicine. They’re bound to keep some around, right?”

Surzl considered this with some reluctance. “That’s not a bad idea,” she offered. “Except Mags is the only one of us I’d trust to get in and out unseen.”

“Well we have to do something!” Tulip spluttered, her face flushing. “We can’t just sit here and watch her—auggh!” Tulip drew her maul and slammed it into a nearby rotting log. The log squelched unpleasantly, splitting in two. Tulip kicked at one of the pieces, breaking it into even smaller ones.

“Stupid! Log!” She punctuated each word with another kick. “Stupid. Blasted. Toadcrunchers!”

Surzl glared. She understood Tulip’s frustration all too well, but breaking things wasn’t going to solve their current dilemma.

Then something under the log caught the light of the small, smokeless campfire they’d built. Something shiny. Like metal.

“Tulip,” Surzl said, moving closer, her eyes on the telltale gleam. “Stop for a minute.”

But the warrior ignored her. “AAAAHHHH!” Tulip yelled, slamming her maul down again—this time straight through the iron-bound, rotting wood planks in the floor that the log had obscured. With a loud crash, the floor dropped out beneath the warrior and she tumbled out of sight into darkness.

Tulip’s scream of fright was quickly cut short by a thud and an “Oof!” as the breath was knocked from the warrior’s lungs.

Surzl rushed to the edge of hole in the now shattered, hidden trapdoor in the cave floor and peered down. “Whoa!” she said. “Are you okay?”

Ten feet below, Tulip rose shakily to her feet, hefting her maul from the spot where it had fallen next to her. She looked around herself, blinking. “Yeah. I think so.”

Surzl followed Tulip’s gaze. A dark, dusty tunnel lay before the warrior, leading down.

Isabog came rushing up. “Ooh! What’s this? Where does it go?”

Surzl turned, favoring the warlock with a sour look. “How should we know?” she said. But she’d heard of hidey holes like this from Knazg, ruins and secret places from ages past. Who knew what might be down there? It could be something useful—a supply cache, or even a tunnel leading into a Toadcruncher camp . . . or a warren of monsters that would eat them alive.

“Well, let’s go see! I’m bored,” the warlock pouted.

“We can’t just leave Mags alone,” Tulip said.

Surzl looked back to the bedroll where they’d laid the rogue down. Her limbs still thrashed every few moments, as the poison worked itself deeper into her system.

“There’s nothing more I can do for her right now,” Surzl said. “But maybe . . . maybe there’s something down there that can help.”

Tulip glared. “You don’t know that.”

“I don’t,” Surzl agreed bitterly. “And I won’t unless we go and see. But we can’t move her, and anything’s better than sitting here and watching Mags die.”

Isabog blanched. “She’s not really going to die, is she?”

“Are you blind?” Surzl shouted. “Yes. She’s going to die.” Yet she regretted the words as soon as they left her lips. It’s not like she actually cared about Mags, but the rogue was very useful, in her own pesty way. And it would be a terrible inconvenience if she were gone.

“Oh.” Isabog shuffled her feet uncomfortably. “Well. Then are we going to see what’s down there or what?”

Surzl looked to Tulip, who only shrugged sadly. The flame acolyte nodded, gestured for Isabog to hop down into the tunnel. Then she went to check Mags one last time. The rogue’s thrashing had thrown off the blankets they’d wrapped her in. Scowling, Surzl tucked Mags back in, securing the covers as best she could. “And you,” she said crossly. “Don’t even think about it.”

Surzl grasped the holy amulet at her throat and gave it a squeeze. Great Burning Ruznabiyug, she prayed. Please watch over this stupid, annoying trapmaker until I get back. And let there be something down there worth finding. Something that can help us.

Mags coughed weakly in her sleep.

Something that can help her, Surzl amended. With a final glare at Mags, the acolyte turned to follow her cagemates down into the darkness.

***

Tulip watched Surzl secure a rope up at the ground level of the cave floor before she slid down it to join them and grunted her approval. That’s the kind of thing Mags would think to do, Tulip thought, and then grimaced. They’d better find something good down here. They couldn’t afford to lose her.

As soon as Surzl’s feet hit the dirt floor of the tunnel, Isabog started forward up ahead.

“Get back here and get behind me!” Tulip growled. “We don’t know what’s down here, so don’t. Touch. Anything. Got that?”

Isabog obeyed, but stuck out her tongue and made a face as she passed by Tulip, mimicking her. “Don’t. Touch. Anyth—”

Tulip grabbed ahold of the warlock’s tongue and yanked.

“Auuggghh!” Isa squawked.

“I bet it would be pretty hard to cast spells without a tongue, huh?” Tulip drawled.

Isabog trembled in Tulip’s grasp, her arms and tentacles all falling limp at her sides. The warlock’s eyes darted back to where Surzl stood behind her, as if beseeching her for aid. But Surzl only gave a gloating smile.

“I asked you a question, worm!” Tulip edged her face closer to Isa’s, showing more teeth. “Can you cast without a tongue?”

“Mmnnnno!” The warlock managed to say, shaking her head carefully back and forth.

“Right. So shut up and maybe you’ll keep yours.” Tulip released Isa and tossed her backwards into Surzl, earning glares from both of them. Tulip grinned, made sure her maul was secure in its harness, and headed on down the tunnel, watching carefully where she put her feet. She heard her cagemates step lightly after her, finally quiet. That was more like it.

This first corridor was little more than a dusty earthen tunnel. As they walked, Tulip noticed Surzl examining the dirt floor and looked down herself. Other than the dust, she saw only the footprints their group was leaving.

“Do you think anyone else might be down here?” Tulip asked Surzl.

Surzl shook her head. “Seems like no one has been here for a long time. I think whoever built or last used this place put that log over the trapdoor to hide it and never came back.”

Tulip grunted and continued on. Twenty feet to the east, the path curved sharply south, opening into a worked stone hallway that went on for thirty feet or so, then curved right. Halfway towards the next bend, Tulip heard a slight exhalation of breath from Isabog that sounded like amusement. Instinctively, the warrior paused mid-step, her keen eyes piercing the gloom, searching for any sign of danger.

She shrugged. The path forward seemed safe enough. But as Tulip’s foot came down on the next flagstone, there was a bright flash of light in the shape of an arcane rune and a puff of displaced dust. Blue light expanded out from that spot, and Tulip felt every muscle in her body lock up, leaving her unable to move.

Judging by the strangled noise behind her, the magic blast had hit Isabog too. Served her right, the little wretch.

Looking alarmed, Surzl edged forward and peered critically up at Tulip’s face.

“Ccn’t mmmvv,” Tulip ground out between clenched teeth.

There came a sound up around the bend like dirt scattering across stone. Surzl jumped, her eyes darting around, hands raised, ready to cast if anything leapt into view. Tulip swore silently. If they all died because Isa thought it would be funny to watch Tulip set off a magic trap, she’d kill her.

Surzl peered cautiously around the corner, but didn’t seem to see anything alarming. “I think it’s just this place settling,” she whispered.

After a few moments, the magical paralysis wore off. The second Tulip could move again, she turned and grabbed Isa by the front of her robes. “You saw that thing, didn’t you? And you didn’t tell me.”

“I—No! I didn’t. I swear!” Isa tried to back away, but Tulip held her fast.

“Yeah?” Tulip sneered. “Then what was so funny a minute ago?”

“I, uh. Oorn told me a joke. That’s all.”

“Oh? I like jokes.” Tulip smiled wide. “Let’s hear it.”

“Ah. I don’t, ah,” Isa stammered. “I mean. Sure. He said, ‘Why do elves have pointy ears?’”

“I dunno,” Tulip drawled. “Why?”

Isa smiled a little too brightly. “Because there has to be some point to them.”

Tulip gave a hearty laugh and let go of the warlock. Isa sighed, seeming to relax and laughing along. Until Tulip punched her in the shoulder. Hard.

“Ow!” Isa cried.

“Next time,” Tulip said, giving the warlock a strong poke in the sore spot where she’d punched her. “Speak up if you see something dangerous. Remember, we’re in this together. You jerk.”

With that, they continued on past the bend, where the only path forward descended into a rough stairway of long, blocky steps. Now on high alert as they started down, Tulip noticed one flagstone just ahead that seemed set higher into the surrounding stonework than the others.

“Hold up,” she said.

They all backed up to the top of the stairs and Tulip grabbed a nearby chunk of loose rock. Winding back her arm, she threw it at the raised flagstone. It hit with a thunk and the flagstone sank into the floor. With a ratcheting click, the surface of each step suddenly rotated, forming a steep chute that would have dropped all three of the goblins into a spiked pit that opened up at the bottom.

Using more rope, they made their way carefully down the chute. Isa turned a little green looking into the pit trap. Each of its spikes was longer than the three goblins were tall, and a single, twisted humanoid skeleton was impaled on several of them, the skull’s jaws wrenched apart in a permanent grimace of horror.

Tulip caught Isa’s eye. “You’re welcome,” she said.

The warlock only colored a deeper shade of green and lowered her gaze.

Past the pit, the corridor turned south again and ended near a heavy wooden door set into the eastern wall.

Tulip put her ear against the door and listened, not hearing anything on the other side. Satisfied that it seemed safe enough, she tried the handle, but it was stuck. Backing up, she rushed the door, trying to force it open. It held fast, her shoulder smarting from the blow. With a growl, Tulip drew her maul and swung at the door instead, Isabog and Surzl both taking a hasty step back. The first two licks partially splintered the door, and the third one knocked it entirely off its hinges as it shattered inwards.

Inside, Tulip caught a brief impression of bare stone walls as a sudden explosion of flapping wings and glowing yellow eyes cascaded down from the room’s high ceiling. With a shriek like high storm winds, an enormous  swarm of bats erupted into the hallway, tearing at the three goblins with their claws as they wheeled around in a frenzy.

Bleeding from multiple scratches, Tulip swung her maul awkwardly in the tight quarters of the hallway. She managed to sideswipe one or two, but she had to forego the follow-through of her swing to avoid hitting Surzl.

“I got this,” the acolyte yelled, swatting at a bat that got too close to her face. “Everybody down!”

Knowing what was coming, Tulip hit the floor the same time Isabog did. A fifteen-foot jet of flames shot from Surzl’s raised hands, instantly incinerating more than half the bats and leaving the rest shrieking and on fire. Within seconds, the last few dropped, reduced to charred lumps of reeking, burned fur.

Still on the stone floor, Tulip was surprised when Surzl offered her a hand up. She took it, careful not to unbalance the acolyte as she rose to her feet.

“Nice job,” Tulip grunted, and headed into the room. The middle of the floor was heaped knee-high with bat dung, steeping the room in an acrid funk. Other than the bat shit and a colorful mural painted on the bare stone of the southern wall, though, the room was empty.

“Seriously?” Isabog groused. “All those traps, and there’s nothing actually here?”

Tulip scowled and kicked the wall. “Stupid!”

Ow. That hurt.

She welcomed the pain, though. It slightly offset her dashed hopes. If there was nothing here to help Mags, she’d have to either let the rogue die or risk trying to sneak into a Toadcruncher encampment to look for an antidote. Tulip didn’t like her odds with that plan, but there was no way the three of them were getting to the Bouldermaws’ lands without Mags’ help. And she didn’t trust Surzl and Isabog enough to send them to find an antidote, much less to return in one piece with it—if they bothered coming back at all.

Tulip noticed Surzl gazing thoughtfully at the mural, and took a second look herself. Painted in bright colors, it depicted some sort of laboratory. A series of wooden shelves were lined with bottles and jars containing all manner of oddities, and a desk tucked into the corner was littered with scrolls and parchments.

“Something’s off about this thing,” Surzl said, her eyes scanning the mural. “The rest of this place is dusty and abandoned, but this . . . it looks like it could have been painted yesterday. I wonder—” The flame acolyte reached out a hand towards its surface.

Tulip leapt into action, knocking Surzl’s hand away before she could touch the wall.

“Don’t!” Tulip warned. “What if it’s like that rune back near the tunnel entrance?”

“If you’re scared,” Surzl said distastefully, “you can go cower back there.” She waved one hand absently to where Isabog was scooping bat guano into a flask. “With her.”

“Huh?” Isa said, looking up.

“I didn’t say I was scared,” Tulip growled. But she retreated ten paces just the same.

The flame acolyte reached for the mural again, and Tulip stared, surprised, as Surzl’s hand passed right through it.

Then the acolyte chortled with glee and jumped into the mural, disappearing.

“Surzl!” Tulip called after her, alarmed.

“It’s fine!” came Surzl’s voice, as through from the next room. “It’s just an illusion.”

Tulip and Isabog hesitated, exchanging a wary glance. Surzl’s voice came again. “Come on already!”

Tulip sighed and jumped through after her. Sure enough, the stone wall the mural seemed to be on simply wasn’t there. On the other side, she found herself in the very laboratory they’d seen painted there. Surzl was already rifling through shelves, pulling out vials and jars of everything from what looked like herbs, to incense, to the perfectly preserved skeleton of a mouse.

“I’ve seen stuff like this before!” Surzl said, excited. “These are alchemical reagents. Knazg uses this kind of stuff all the time!”

“Oof! Can you make a potion to make Mags better?” Isabog asked, picking herself up from where she’d tripped and fallen through the illusory entrance.

“No,” Surzl answered. “But there may be something already mixed up in here that will do the trick.” Already she’d set aside two flasks filled with strangely colored liquids. She held one up and showed it to Tulip and Isa. “Search the shelves. Anything with liquid in it, set aside over here. I’m gonna go through the desk.”

As Tulip moved to one of the far shelves, she saw collapsed stones that had fallen into this room from a tunnel that looked as though it had been chewed into the back wall. The opening was easily big enough for one of the goblins to walk into. And there was something filmy and dust-coated hanging down from there, wafting in a slight breeze. It looked like part of a very large spider’s web. And with a tunnel that size . . .

“Guys, let’s hurry,” she called quietly to the others. “I don’t like the look of this hole back here. And try to keep it down. Just in case . . . ”

Isabog and Surzl each gave her a nod and quickened their pace. Within ten minutes, they’d gathered half a dozen promising-looking flasks and two scrolls that Surzl seemed excited about.

“But can any of this help against poison?” Tulip asked, her eyes still darting to the tunnel in the back wall.

“Not sure yet,” Surzl said. “We’ll have to take a closer look at it all.”

“Maybe we should go back up to the cave for that,” Tulip suggested.

“You guys go ahead. I want to stay here and look around some more,” Isabog said. “Oorn is interested in this.” She picked up a translucent glass bottle that seemed full of mist and stuffed it into her carry sack. “Who knows what else is down here?”

“Isa, don’t be stupid,” Surzl said. “You can’t stay here by yourself.”

I’m never by myself,” Isa countered. “Oorn is with me.” She frowned pityingly at Surzl. “It must be dreary to always feel so distant from the deity who grants you your spells. But then I really wouldn’t know what that’s like.”

Surzl wheeled around to glare at her. “Oorn isn’t a god,” she spat. “He’s just a . . .  parasite.”

Tulip grimaced. Their voices were getting louder. If a giant spider was lurking somewhere in this new tunnel, it certainly knew they were here now.

“Will you. Two. Shut. Up?” she hissed, gathering up the flasks they’d found and carefully placing them in her knapsack. She jerked her head towards the back of the mural, gesturing for Surzl to grab the spell scrolls and head out. But Surzl’s eyes went wide, staring at something behind Tulip. There was a soft cough and a spinning sound, like a fishing line quickly unspooling. Then something sticky hit Tulip’s back and yanked. Instinctively, she shifted her weight, digging her boots into the cracks of the stone floor and grabbing to brace herself against the edge of a table.

Whatever had her in its grip pulled, hard, trying to reel her in, but Tulip pulled back with all her might. She felt whatever was holding her snap and release, looking down to see more of that strange, web-like filament wrapped around her waist, broken off at one end.

Already in motion towards the mural, Tulip waved the others through. “Go, go!” she yelled. Something big crashed through the shelf near the new tunnel entrance and Tulip resisted the urge to turn to get a look at it. There was no time. Instead, she flung the table and its contents backwards at whatever unseen horror had tried to ensnare her. She heard several crashes and a loud, satisfying thud, followed by a guttural wail of frustration and a series of clickety-clacking sounds. Just up ahead, Isabog disappeared after Surzl through the mural. Tulip was right behind them, leaping through. In a full sprint, she barreled after the others, past the splintered remains of the door she’d bashed in, down the corridor, and across the spike pit.

As she clambered up the rope they’d left dangling down the stone chute where the stairs had once been, Tulip heard the clickety-clackety noises getting closer. Above her, Isabog was staring wide-eyed at something behind Tulip. Unable to resist looking any longer, Tulip turned and beheld the most terrifying creature she’d ever seen. This was definitely not a giant spider, though it might be distantly related to one. Armored like a giant insect with eight needle-sharp legs, the monster sported vicious-looking front claws like a crab, a maw full of spiky teeth, and dozens of empty holes where it should have had eyes. Worst of all, it was bone white all over, like it had never seen the sun. Just like she wouldn’t again either, if that thing caught her.

With a hiss and a strange cough, the creature spat another line of its sticky filament at Tulip. This time she was ready for it and managed to swing aside using the rope. Having failed to ensnare her, the monster started to climb behind them. Tulip quickened her pace, but quickly found her progress blocked by Isabog and Surzl, who were slower climbers than she was.

“Let’s go! Move it!” she yelled.

“I’m trying!” Surzl called back. Then she growled and turned around. “Duck,” she said.

Trying like hell not to lose her grip on the rope, Tulip dodged to the side again, as Surzl raised her hands and lobbed a tiny ball of flames at the creature. The firebolt went wide, missing the thing entirely. Even so, it reared back away from the light and heat of the flames.

“Good! Again,” Tulip called up to Surzl. “It doesn’t like fire!”

Surzl threw another two bolts at the thing, causing it to retreat a few steps back down the chute.

“Keep tossing those, and don’t stop climbing!” Tulip ordered.

“Got it,” Surzl said. But just then Isabog slipped and nearly fell into Tulip. Surzl grabbed hold of the warlock, steadying her, and Tulip got under Isa, giving her a boost back up.

With the flame acolyte distracted, the bone white horror behind them leapt forward, one claw snapping perilously close to Tulip’s leg. Then it scrabbled against the stone and lost its footing, sliding back ten feet. Isabog stumbled upright again. Then Surzl was at the top, hauling against the rope to help the others climb faster.

As Tulip scrambled to the top of the chute, mere steps ahead of the creature, Isabog pulled a flask from her pack and threw it against the top of the chute. The flask smashed against the stone, spilling a slick of oil down the steep incline.

The creature lunged upwards, but when its many legs hit the oily patch, they lost their purchase, flailing. The creature slipped and started to slide back down.

Stunned that Isa of all people would have the foresight to do such a thing, Tulip simply picked the warlock up and made a run for it back to the top of the tunnel. She saw Surzl was already climbing back up into the cave.

When she reached the hole in the tunnel’s ceiling, Tulip simply tossed Isabog back up into the cave with a mighty throw. The warlock gave a muffled screech as she sailed through the air, but it cut off strangely around the time Isa should have hit the ground. No time to worry about that. Still looking over her shoulder for signs of the monster’s pursuit, Tulip reached for the rope and started to climb. Had there been anything in the cave other than the rotted log? Something they could throw across the hole where the trapdoor had been, to keep this thing out?

One hand finally hit the dirt floor of the cave, and Tulip hauled herself up and out of the hole, a wave of tentative relief washing over her. But it was short-lived. The first thing she saw was Surzl and Isabog frozen in horror a few steps ahead, both of them staring at the lumbering, shadowed form of some huge humanoid, at least ten feet tall. Tulip saw pale pinkish skin, furious golden eyes, and a mouth full of jagged teeth as the giant gave a bestial roar, looming over Mags’ unmoving body near the cave entrance.

Somewhere in the tunnels below, came a horribly familiar clickety-clack, clickety-clack. The bone-white horror was coming fast.

Tulip stared between the hole in the floor and the giant blocking the cave’s only exit.

Think, she thought desperately. Think!

But the only thing going through her head was oh shit oh shit oh shit.

Next: Episode 5

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