Previous: Episode 4
On her knees on the cave floor, Surzl lurched forward, her eyes finding the spot where Mags lay unmoving in her bedroll against the far wall. Still. Mags was far too still. Outside the cave, the wind howled and a heavy rain fell—the storm that covered their escape this morning still raging.
The large creature looming over the rogue’s body opened his mouth and snarled, hefting a spiked greatclub longer than Surzl was tall. An ogre, her brain supplied belatedly. It was one of the filthy, stinking ogres who lived in the hills. He’d probably been just about to eat Mags!
White-hot fury drove Surzl to her feet, flames sizzling at her fingertips. “Get away from her!” she spat, advancing on the ogre, her hands outstretched to cast.
The ogre moved forward and jutted out his chin, standing possessively over Mags’ inert form. He let out an angry bellow, but made no move to attack.
Behind Surzl and Isabog, Tulip heaved herself up out of the hole. “It’s coming,” she cried hoarsely. As if in answer, Surzl heard the horrible clickety-clack of the creature below, coming fast.
The ogre’s beady eyes slid from Surzl’s face to Tulip’s as the goblin warrior scrambled upright and backed away from the hole, yanking her maul free of its harness. Surzl saw Tulip glance frantically between the hole and the ogre, trying to decide which threat was more pressing.
Then a spindly leg arced up over the edge of the hole and the bone-white horror launched itself into their midst.
Isabog was the first to react, turning toward the insect-like monstrosity and hurling a purplish spear of arcane force at its segmented body. The spear impacted, but barely dented the thick armor covering the creature.
Tulip gave the ogre a piercing look, then turned and threw herself upon the many-legged monster. Her maul crashed down into it with enough force to crush two of its spindly legs. The creature reeled back, screeching, and slashed at Tulip with its claws just as Surzl turned to face it, whipping a sheet of flames at its unprotected flank. The creature raked its claw across Tulip’s shoulder, leaving a ragged wound, and somehow managed to flip itself up and away from the worst of Surzl’s flames.
Surzl cursed under her breath and Tulip grunted, blood flowing down her left pauldron. Then Tulip’s eyes went wide. “Watch out!” she yelled.
Surzl turned in time to see the ogre charging them. She shrunk back, but he barreled straight past her, slamming his greatclub down into the white-legged monster’s back in a blow so mighty it smashed one side of the creature flat. The thing gave an unearthly keen. Surzl stared in surprise at the black blood oozing from between its shattered armored plates, looking from it to the ogre.
Behind Surzl, Isabog growled and sent another force spear slamming into one of the now weak spots in the insect thing’s armor. Another spray of oily black blood splattered across the cave floor. Somehow still breathing, the creature lurched forward once more, slashing out at the ogre, but Tulip and Surzl both laid into it at the same time—the warrior’s maul slamming down even as Surzl’s flames cooked it inside its own broken shell.
The monster gave a final gasping wail, and fell over, its remaining legs curling in on itself as it shuddered once more and died. The cave fell silent.
The ogre made no further move towards the goblins, merely staring them down.
Tulip moved, interposing herself between him and her cagemates. “This is our cave,” she said. “Get out.”
Surzl moved for Mags’ bedroll. If that shitting ogre had hurt her, she’d roast his innards.
But the ogre moved between Surzl and Mags. “You no hurt small goblin!” he snarled, gesturing at Surzl with his greatclub.
“Of course not!” Surzl yelled. “She’s ours. Get out of my way or I’ll make you regret it!”
The ogre growled and didn’t budge.
Then a roll of thunder pealed outside, so loud it shook the ground under their feet.
The ogre whimpered, visibly trembling. While it was distracted, Surzl darted around the hulking creature’s legs.
“What the—?” she gasped. Two furry lumps were wrapped around Mags.
Surzl pulled her belt dagger free, ready to gut the furry forms threatening Mags, but the ogre dropped his club and wrapped one gangly fist around Surzl’s midsection, lifting her into the air.
“You no hurt friends either!” he said.
“Put her down!” Tulip yelled, advancing forward, her maul dripping black goo. “Right now!”
Surzl took a second look at the creatures in Mags’ bedroll. One was a squirrel, and the other bore the telltale striped coat and masked face of a raccoon. Both animals seemed simply curled up around Mags, making no move to harm her.
“What—what are they doing?” Surzl asked in surprise.
The ogre grunted, looking down at her warily. “Keep small goblin warm. She sick. You not hurt them.”
“Fine,” Surzl snapped. “But you’re killing her by keeping me from her.”
“You not hurt friends!” His chin jutted out with a stubborn set. “Promise.”
“Seriously?” She stared at him, incredulous.
His grip tightened around Surzl as he raised her to his eye level, staring her down.
“Fine,” she wheezed, struggling for breath and glaring back at him. “I promise not to hurt your friends.”
“Good,” he said. “You help.” With surprising gentleness, he set Surzl down next to Mags.
Surzl knelt and reached to check Mags’ pulse with shaking fingers. The little rogue’s chest was eerily still, but there—so weak as to barely be felt—she still had a pulse.
“She’s alive,” Surzl said. “Just barely. Tulip, bring me the potions we found.”
But Tulip didn’t move. Surzl turned to glare at the warrior, finding her still squared off with the ogre, glaring angrily up at him.
Tulip growled, baring her teeth at the ogre. He backed off a few steps, but remained nearby, watching every move the three of them made. Still wary, Tulip moved to Surzl’s side and set down her knapsack. It clinked gently as she laid it on the ground.
Her hands quick and sure, Surzl opened the knapsack and pulled out the vials they’d found, quickly scanning the haul. She lacked Knazg’s skill in potion-making, but he’d taught her to identify various alchemical concoctions by sight, smell, and taste. Curative brews were reddish in color, and three of the six vials seemed likely prospects. Two of these she quickly identified as potions of healing. These were handy to have, if useless against poison—no better than the healing spell Surzl had tried earlier. She paused to sniff and then dip a finger in the third red potion. This one’s color was much deeper than the other two. But as a drop of the crimson liquid hit her tongue, she recognized it as another healing potion—more powerful than the first two, and incredibly valuable, but equally ineffective against the toxin killing Mags.
“Gods dammit!” Surzl recorked the potion and shoved it back into the knapsack.
The ogre grunted again, glaring down at Surzl. “Goblins smart. You help,” he said again.
Surzl whirled around. “I can’t!” she shouted up at him. “I would if I could, but I can’t! I don’t know how.”
“But the potions—” Isabog started.
“Will heal wounds, but not poison,” Surzl said.
“I’ll go to the Toadcrunchers,” Tulip said, already starting for the cave entrance. “I’ll sneak in and find an antidote.”
“It’s too late,” Surzl said, shaking her head. “She doesn’t have that long. Even if you succeed—which, let’s face it, is unlikely—by the time you got back, she’d be—” Surzl stopped. Her throat seemed to close up, holding the word in.
“But . . . but she can’t—” Isabog said.
Surzl heard a shifting movement behind her, and a heavy hand settled on her shoulder. She heard Isabog’s startled intake of breath, saw Tulip take a quick step in her direction.
“Small goblin your friend,” the ogre said. She was dimly aware of him kneeling behind her
“She is not,” Surzl snarled, shrugging out of the ogre’s gentle grasp. “I don’t need friends.” She spat the word like curse. “We’re just—stuck with each other. I need her help. That’s all.”
The ogre grunted. One thick finger gestured towards the animals nestled into Mags, though he made no further move to touch Surzl. “These Dreg’s friends. They try help too.”
The raccoon blinked sleepily up them, and the squirrel gave Surzl’s hand a curious sniff as she laid it against Mags’ forehead. The rogue’s skin felt cold and clammy, and her breath was so shallow Surzl could barely detect it.
Surzl thought of the smarmy look on old Smung’s face as the Bouldermaw shaman had sneered at her, at them all. At the way he and the other shamans had filed out of the Horntooth caverns, turning their backs on the entire tribe . . . like they were nothing. Once again, she saw little Mags sprinting for the dais, her eyes burning with fury, fixed on a point just behind Surzl, as the rogue’s sharp blades flicked into her hands.
All of it can’t have been for nothing, Surzl thought. Such grave insults could not go unavenged.
Surzl laid one hand on Mags’ chest, the other reaching to grasp her holy symbol. Please, she prayed. Please hear me. She said it over and over again in her mind, pleading.
Something bright and fiery shifted at the far reaches of Surzl’s awareness, a vast and unknowable consciousness stirring awake. Surzl balked. She’d prayed to Ruznabiyug a thousand times, but never had she felt this.
Please help me, Surzl continued shakily. I need this stupid trapmaker to avenge the insult that was given you. If she dies, I fear I will fail you.
A great burning eye seemed to open, its molten gaze piercing the core of everything Surzl was, flaying her open, demanding the deeper truth.
Surzl hesitated, confusion and reticence gnawing at her guts. The fiery presence began to recede, fading back into darkness.
If we fail—if she dies, Surzl gulped. It will hurt. I don’t want her to go.
Surzl heard mirthless laughter echoing across the divide between where she ended and something greater began.
When the time comes, bright one, sang a voice in Surzl’s mind, as sweet as honey and as gritty and dry as ash, you too will burn for me. The voice paused, amusement coloring its tone. And for her. Perhaps.
A wave of hope hit Surzl. Then a column of blinding, searing pain slammed into her. Her limbs, her hands, her face—from the inside out, her whole body was burning. Wracked with agony, Surzl bit down into her bottom lip to hold in a scream, keeping one hand wrapped around the blazing ember that was her holy symbol and the other spread flat against Mags’ unmoving chest.
That torrent of heat flowed from Surzl into Mags. The flame acolyte opened her eyes and saw the black, webbed lines of corruption wrapping Mags’ skin all across her shoulder and chest start to burn away. Fading, one by one, the lines receded towards the rogue’s wound and then disappeared, leaving only a ragged line of parted flesh—a wound that would heal.
The poison was gone.
Just as quickly as they’d come, the white-hot flames consuming Surzl from the inside winked out. The terrible pain vanished, leaving her shaking and weak.
She heard a sharp intake of breath behind her and a stream of curses that could only be coming from Tulip. But Surzl had eyes and ears only for one thing—the rise and fall of Mags’ chest under her hand, and the deep, even breath that came with it. Mags slept, her limbs relaxed—peaceful.
She’d done it. Ruznabiyug had healed Mags.
Thank you, Surzl said silently across the divide. There was no response this time, but that was almost a relief. Right. Back to normal. Everything as it should be.
“Surzl?” Isabog’s voice sounded strangely far away.
Surzl was tired—more tired than she’d ever been in her life.
But now . . . now their enemies would pay. Ruznabiyug Herself would see to it. The Toadcrunchers. The Rockbreakers. Even the Fangreavers. And most especially, arrogant old Smung and his stupid Bouldermaws.
“Everything will be fine now,” Surzl wheezed, exhaustion overtaking her. Then without another word, she lay down next to Mags and closed her eyes.
She dreamed of flames and screams. And as she slept, Surzl smiled.
Mags awoke to unexpected warmth and comfort. To the little rogue’s surprise, Surzl was curled against her, asleep, one of the acolyte’s arms flung over Mags. A blush crept to Mags’ cheeks at the contact, at Surzl’s closeness. Then an impossibly loud snore just beyond the sleeping flame acolyte blew Mags’ hair back.
Behind Surzl, curled into a giant ball under a badly tanned and reeking bearskin, was an ogre.
Mags bolted upright, only now realizing that she wasn’t alone in her bedroll. Something small and furry clung to her shoulder with a surprised cheep, and another, larger lump of stripy fur—was that a racoon?!—tumbled to the ground, chittering up at her in a scolding tone.
Eyes on the ogre, Mags went for her daggers, but they were gone; she’d been stripped of her armor and weapons. She panicked, her breath hitching. Surzl mumbled something and blinked awake, slapping groggily at the raccoon. Then the acolyte’s gaze flicked up to Mags. For a moment, something like relief washed over Surzl’s face. Then her expression went stony, hard as flint.
“About time you were awake,” Surzl growled. “Not that I would’ve cared one whit if you’d died. One less mouth to feed on this shit show to nowhere.”
Surzl’s words hit Mags like a slap across the face. But even so—
“O—ogre!” Mags squeaked, pointing.
“It’s okay,” Tulip said, from somewhere in the darkness up ahead.
Mags took in their surroundings in a rush. The sound of rainfall and heavy winds came from nearby—outside? Where were they? Some sort of cave? With an ogre?!
“What—? Who?” Mags backed away from the sleeping giant. Isabog was curled up on the other side of a banked fire, wrapped so tight in her bedroll that only her eyes and nose, and the tip of one tentacle, were visible. She and Surzl both seemed okay . . .
Mags startled as Tulip walked out of the gloom, coming to stand by Mags’ side. The big warrior scowled down at the ogre. “I’ve been wondering all night if I should cut his throat and be done with it. But then again,” she said begrudgingly, “he helped us fight off that.” She gestured to the other corner of the cave, where an enormous white-armored insect, or what was left of it, lay half-smashed into the ground. “Even tried to help you, before Surzl . . . did . . . whatever the hells that was.”
“Why?” Mags panted. “What happened?”
“You nearly died.” Tulip grunted. “Toadcruncher poison.” She gestured to a shiny line on Mags’ shoulder.
Mags remembered a sharp pain, a thrown javelin.
“Surzl . . . saved me?” Mags turned to find the flame acolyte still glaring up at her. There was that disconcerting warmth again in the center of Mags’ chest. A foolish smile began to creep to her lips.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Surzl snarled, rising and dusting herself off. “I saved the mission, not you.”
Mags gulped and lowered her eyes, the warm feeling guttering out. “Oh,” she said. “Right.”
“Anyway,” Tulip continued, “How’s your arm? I fed you a healing potion last night after Surzl dealt with the poison.”
“Waste of resources,” Surzl groused, earning a warning glare from Tulip.
Mags steeled herself, resisting the urge to shuffle her feet and, instead, tested her shoulder with a rotating movement. The muscles felt a little tight and sore, but that was all. “Seems okay,” she said to Tulip. “Thanks.”
“We found some supplies under this cave, when we found that thing,” Tulip said. She gestured again at the crumpled monster in the corner. “Not bad eating though. You hungry?”
Mags’ stomach gave a betraying gurgle as Tulip walked over to the giant insect, breaking off part of one of its front claws and presenting it to the little rogue.
The meat inside smelled like it had been pickled in strong spirits, but was surprisingly delicious, rather like roasted shellfish. While Mags ate and Surzl packed her things, ignoring them, Tulip related what had happened over the past day. The mad flight from the Toadcrunchers and the quadruped monster that felled their pursuers four at a time with only its dark gaze; finding this cave in the storm; exploring the warrens and rooms below; the bone-white horror’s attack; finding the ogre in the cave standing over Mags as they rushed back up and out of the hole; and Surzl praying over Mags’ as she lay dying.
She had almost died. But Surzl had saved her. Somehow.
“Magic,” Tulip said and spat on the dirt floor, making a warding sign against evil.
“Magic,” Mags agreed.
Magic had always made Tulip nervous, and this Mags understood. Sharp steel, the evenly-spaced spokes on a cog, quick reflexes—these were things one could rely on. But magic? It was capricious. Unpredictable. Unreliable. And yet . . .
Surzl had saved her. Or the mission. Whatever.
“Small goblin better!” A rough voice said nearby. Mags looked over to see the ogre sitting up, grinning down at her like a very large small child through a mouth of jagged, broken, and terrifyingly huge teeth. Mags shrank back as he yawned mightily and stretched. Neegosh’s balls. Even seated, he loomed much taller than Tulip—easily three or four times Mags’ height, she figured, if he stood upright.
“Uh . . . yeah,” Mags said, her eyes on her dagger sheaths in the corner, measuring how many steps it would take to reach them, how many breaths before the ogre could have her and Tulip in his strong fists, the better to smash them to bits. Internally, she kicked herself. Why hadn’t she strapped them on first thing when she’d woken up?
“Dreg happy,” the ogre said, rocking back and forth where he sat. “Small goblin better now. Dreg and friends alone many days. Now not alone. Stay with small goblin and her friends.”
Mags blinked. What was happening? This thing . . . liked her? As in not to eat? She looked to Tulip, confused.
“Stay?” Tulip said, frowning. “What do you mean, stay?”
The ogre stood, ducking his head so as not to hit it on a low section of ceiling as he walked over to the dead monster and broke off two long legs. Then he settled down not far from Tulip and Mags to join their meal, like this was the most natural thing in the world. Her own meal forgotten, Mags just stared.
An ogre. As an ally? Her head spun with the possibilities.
Around a mouthful of food, the ogre finally answered Tulip. “Goblins smart. Dreg? Strong.” He thumped his chest once in emphasis, then swallowed another hunk of meat. “Stronger together. Dreg stay.”
“You don’t know anything about us,” Tulip spluttered. “And we don’t know anything about you. Why would we let you stay with us? Why would you even want to?”
“Stronger together,” he said again, as if the matter was settled.
Mags exchanged a look with Tulip. From the arch of Tulip’s eyebrow, Mags knew just what she was thinking: Let him think what he liked. They could ditch him later.
Mags said nothing.
Dreg grunted happily, smacking his lips. “Darkcrawler good. Not had in long time. Angry goblin cook with fire magic. Very good.”
“You’ve eaten one of these things before? Fought them before?” Tulip looked surprised.
Dreg nodded. “Ogres live in caves too. Darkcrawlers live deep. Too bad this one not have eggs. Make new friend.”
“Friend?” Surzl scoffed. “With one of those things?”
Tulip raised another eyebrow. “You are one crazy ogre.”
Dreg grinned. “Big goblin not first to say.” Then he looked down at the lidded ceramic pot hanging from a leather thong around his neck. “Friend hungry too.”
He removed the lid, reached two fingers into the pot, and fished out what looked like several lumpy gray slugs fused together, setting the thing down next to him on a section of darkcrawler leg. The many-slug-thing slithered, wrapping itself around the armored leg, which started to sizzle and smoke.
Tulip scooted back even as Mags scooted forward, curious. “What—what is that?” she asked.
“It’s an ooze!” Tulip said, leaping upright.
Mags gaped. She’d heard of the creatures, but never seen one in person. Living blobs of acidic glop, oozes could eat through any organic material except bone. Apparently darkcrawler exoskeleton was no match for it. Within seconds, it had eaten its way through the hard shell to the soft meat within.
“You have a pet ooze?” Mags said to the ogre, incredulous. This was getting better and better.
“Not pet. Friend. Nibbles.”
“I bet it nibbles alright,” Surzl said, with a nasty laugh.
Tulip just stared down at the ooze in fear and disgust.
Just then, the racoon roused itself from Mags’ bedroll and trundled over. She hadn’t noticed how fat it was before. As it ambled up to Dreg, chittering at him, he tossed it a section of his darkcrawler leg and it plopped down, clutching the spindly piece in its paws and gnawing at it.
“Nermie,” Dreg said, pointing at the raccoon. “Zip,” he added, craning his neck to find the squirrel, which had gone back to sleep in Mags’ bedroll. Then he pointed at the ooze. “Nibbles. Dreg’s friends. Dreg protect.”
Mags studied the ogre as he watched his “friends” eat, occasionally tossing them another piece. She’d never seen one of his kind up close, though she’d heard plenty of stories about the clan’s dealings with them. Ogrekind were notoriously stupid, violent, and cruel. It seemed impossible that this guy was for real, but equally impossible that he was smart enough to deceive them this convincingly. And in Mags’ experience, the simplest answer was usually the correct one.
A kind ogre. Huh.
Even so, he was so big and clumsy it would be impossible to effectively sneak with him around—if he didn’t accidentally squash them all first. Tulip was probably right; they should ditch him. It seemed a shame, though. Having someone that big and strong at their back might be worth the risk—if they could really trust him, that is.
Before long, Surzl kicked Isabog awake. The warlock yelped and lashed out at Surzl with a tentacle, its spine leaving a bleeding scratch on Surzl’s leg.
“Ow!” Surzl screeched. “You fool. Look what you did!”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t kick people,” Isa said, glaring back.
While they continued to squabble, Tulip and Mags finished breaking down the camp, keeping a close eye on Dreg. By the time they were done, the howling of the wind outside had abated and the rain had tapered off to a misty drizzle.
“Time to go,” Tulip said.
Dreg scooped “Nibbles” back in the ceramic pot and put the squirrel up on his shoulder while the raccoon climbed into the ogre’s crude carrysack. Then he stood. “Dreg ready,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Don’t you even want to know where we’re going?” Tulip asked suspiciously.
The ogre shrugged. “Going to ogre territory?”
Tulip grunted. “No.”
“Then doesn’t matter where. Dreg ready.”
Tulip and Mags exchanged another look. Mags shrugged.
“Alright then,” Tulip said and scowled. “Storm’s blown itself out. Let’s move.”
As morning wore on to afternoon and the party trudged through the mud ahead of her, Isabog finally gave up trying to figure where best to put her feet. It didn’t matter where she stepped or how many dozens of times she cast a simple cantrip to wipe her boots clean—the muck and dirt and wet only seeped back in. It was making for a miserable trek to who even knew where they were headed.
This can’t be right, she said silently to Oorn. I mean . . . I thought going on an adventure would be fun. So far it’s mostly just walking forever and trying not to die.
Oorn chuckled in her head. That is an unusually apt description of questing, my dear. Though to be fair, we did pick up some choice goodies in that cave.
That much was true. In addition to the healing potions, they’d found three other potions—of growth, invisibility, and charming, respectively. Isabog had wheedled the charming potion, though Tulip had claimed the growth one and given the invisibility one to boot-licking lackey Mags. The smoke-filled bottle Oorn had noticed turned out to have a minor enchantment upon it: once you uncorked it, there was a seemingly endless supply of that smoke. It poured out of the bottle, creating a huge cloud of obscuring mist. Isa had played at corking and uncorking it along their way, using her tentacles and a different cantrip to make funny shapes of the mist as they walked, until Tulip yelled at her for leaving a trail.
Hmmph. As usual, Tulip ruined all Isa’s fun.
Oh well. One of the two scrolls Surzl had found contained a ritual Isa had been able to copy into her grimoire, with Oorn’s help of course. Who knew if the ability to locate specific plants or animals would ever be useful. Still, it was a new bit of magic at her fingertips. That made for a welcome smidgeon of good cheer on this otherwise miserable day.
There, Oorn said. That’s the spirit. Just a few more sunrises and sunsets and we’ll arrive at our destination, where we will retrieve something of great importance. It will be wondrous. Just wait and see.
Isa sighed. If you say so.
Privately, she hoped the Great Shiny would be something she could wield, something that would make all who looked upon her fall on their knees and worship her, as they ought. When she was in charge, she’d have loyal servants to carry her in a palanquin and she’d never have to trudge knee-deep in mud like this ever again.
Up ahead, Mags was in the lead, followed closely by that ridiculous ogre, and then Surzl, and then Tulip, with Isa taking up the rear. Isabog was surprised Tulip’s eyes hadn’t burned a hole through the ogre’s back by now; the warrior goblin hadn’t stopped watching him since they’d left the cave that morning, constantly alert for any sign of trouble from Dreg.
Stupid Tulip. If the ogre’d had any intention of harming them, he would have done so already. For Neegosh’s sake, he was following Mags around like an oversized puppy. “Small goblin” this, and “small goblin” that was all they’d heard all morning. Isabog didn’t see what was so great about puny little Mags, but if Dreg’s fascination with the rogue meant having an ogre as the party’s new bodyguard, Isabog wasn’t going to complain.
“Hey!” Surzl growled up ahead, as a glob of muck flew from Dreg’s foot to Surzl’s robes. “Watch where you’re spraying that mess.”
“Dreg sorry, angry goblin,” the ogre replied, his shoulders drooping. He stopped picking up his feet altogether at that point, simply sliding each leg through the mud like a sulky youngling.
Mags caught the ogre’s eye, grinned, and tried sliding her feet too, though this quickly caused her to become stuck.
Dreg laughed and swooped Mags up, swinging her out by her arms.
Mags chortled with glee. “You mind putting me up on your shoulders for a minute, so I can get a better look around?” she asked.
Only too happy to comply, the ogre set Mags onto his free shoulder. The squirrel was still taking up the other one.
“This is great,” Mags said. “I can keep a better eye out from up here if you don’t mind carrying me for a bit.”
The ogre beamed with pride. “Dreg happy to carry small goblin,” he said.
Isabog ground her teeth. Here she was sloshing through the mud, and useless Mags was the one getting carried above the mess and muck? Not fair!
Isa was just about to insist that she get a ride too, when she noted the glare Tulip was directing not at Dreg now, but at Mags. Isa smirked. The big warrior had tried to ditch the ogre twice already today, but each time Mags had surreptitiously left signs for the ogre to follow, finding his way back to them. Isa hadn’t noticed the first time until Oorn had remarked on this. But it was easy enough to see it after that. That Tulip hadn’t noticed was just more proof that the big warrior was far too stupid to be leading them. Hmmph.
Up ahead, Dreg stopped as Mags muttered something to him and held up a warning hand to the others.
“What’s wrong now?” Surzl asked, as grumpy now as she’d been when she’d first awoken that morning. “Why are we stopped?”
“Fangreavers,” Mags said.
Isabog looked around, alarmed.
“Not here,” Mags said, gesturing for Dreg to put her down. He did so, moving with exaggerated caution. “But maybe close. Fangreaver totem up ahead. Marks the start of their territory.”
Isa gulped. The Fangreavers were the most bloodthirsty and warlike of all the goblin tribes.
Tulip frowned. “If we skirt around their woods, it adds what, another day to the trip?”
Mags nodded. “At least.”
“Blast,” Tulip said and sighed. “We’ll lose all hope of catching up with the shamans if we do that. They’ll go straight through ahead and we’ll miss our chance to capture Smung.”
“They don’t have to worry about being torn to bits by the Fangreavers’ worgs,” Surzl said. “Unlike us clanless wretches.” Surzl spit angrily on the ground.
Isa sighed, fingering the iron band around her forearm. It still itched where the spikes had dug themselves into her flesh, but at least it didn’t hurt anymore.
Isa watched Dreg walked a ways off from the goblins, backed up against a tall tree, and began to scratch an itch on his back against the rough bark. His usual goofy grin devolved into an expression of drooling contentment. Mags grinned over at the ogre.
“You can’t possibly mean to keep that around,” Surzl snapped at the rogue. “He’ll turn on us the first chance he gets and gobble us up.”
“I don’t believe so,” Mags said coolly.
“Well excuse me if I don’t care to wager my life on whatever it is you believe,” Surzl said.
“The plan hasn’t changed,” Tulip whispered, leaning in closer. “We leave him. When we can.”
Mags opened her mouth as if to protest.
Isa caught Mags’ eye and raised an eyebrow, a cruel smile playing at her lips. Mags colored slightly, seeming ruffled. She shut her mouth and shrugged.
“Well, we do need to go around,” the little rogue said. “Better we get there later than we’d hoped than not at all.”
Tulip sighed, resigned. “Okay. You lead the way, Mags.”
Mags nodded and turned to head of through the trees, angling away from the pathway they’d been following. Dreg loped after the group, quickly reclaiming his spot next to Mags.
The goblins cut their way through the woods, angling westward for another few hours. They saw no further sign of the Fangreaver tribe, which privately disappointed Isabog. Sure they were dangerous, but at least another mad chase through the woods would be less boring than this endless tromping about.
As the sun sank lower in the sky overhead, the party finally hit a break in the trees where the woods gave way to a flat plain of tall grass so high it went over even Tulip’s head. The goblins moved closer together so as not to lose each other in it. Surzl and Tulip exchanged a look at the ogre, then each other.
Tulip gestured to Isabog to hurry after them and keep quiet, keep low.
Mags hesitated, but Tulip grabbed her roughly by the shoulder, hissing at her to be quiet and come along. Isa watched them, curious if Mags would have the temerity to defy Tulip openly.
Mags glared at Tulip, tossing a worried look back. But she stayed quiet and did as she was told.
“Hey,” Dreg’s voice boomed out from where to the right. “Goblins play hiding game again? Oh goodie. Dreg find you.”
Mags’ steps slowed, but Surzl gave her a vicious pinch, egging her onward.
Mags hissed in pain, and Isa caught the scowl the rogue fired back at the acolyte. The puny rogue looked surprised and a little hurt—from more than just the pinch. Surzl had certainly been much meaner to Mags today than usual. That said, it was nice to see someone else get the lion’s share of Surzl’s wrath for once, since usually this was reserved for Isabog. She smirked, watching Mags sulk after Surzl and Tulip.
Dreg called out a few more times, but the goblins quickly outpaced him, all but invisible in the tall grass. The ogre’s cries became more distant and plaintive as twenty or more minutes passed—until finally, they couldn’t hear him at all.
Mags sulked openly, occasionally glaring between Tulip and Surzl, but she didn’t say anything.
Isabog didn’t care anymore one way or the other if the ogre stuck around. If he was stupid enough to fawn over pathetic little Mags instead of a powerful and beautiful warlock like Isa, they were better off without him.
Scowling, Mags kicked a rock, and as it disappeared through the grass, there came a surprising plunk, as if something about its size had splashed into deep water.
Everyone froze. Then Tulip strode forward, parting the grass just ahead of them. Isa moved behind Tulip and peered around the big warrior, taking in the scene that lay before them with a low whistle.
They stood at the edge of a long, winding river—at least a hundred yards or so across—snaking its way southward through this valley. In the distance rose the mountains the group had been seeking—that was Rockbreaker territory, and past that were the hills where the hated Bouldermaws made their home. But there were still miles and miles of grassland on the other side of this river before the party would reach those mountains, or the hills beyond. There was still a long way to go. And this river lay between them and their path.
“Blast!” Tulip said. “How are we going to get you weaklings across that?”
“Weaklings?!” Surzl snapped. “Who are you calling weaklings?”
“Can you swim?” Tulip asked pointedly.
“I don’t know,” Surzl sniffed. “Never tried.”
“That’s a ‘no’ then. How about I throw you in and see how you do?” Tulip grinned widely at Surzl, baring her teeth.
Surzl only hmmphed.
“We could build a raft,” Mags suggested.
“With what?!” Tulip said. “We go back to the woods and we’re liable to run into your friend again. Or is that what you want?”
“I never said he was my friend. I just don’t think he’s dangerous . . . to us.”
“To you, maybe,” Surzl said. “Because he wants to turn you into another one of his pets.”
Mags ignored her, gesturing down to the water’s edge. “Look,” she said. “There’s a log. If we can find enough driftwood here, we won’t have to go back.”
Mags scampered down the embankment toward the water’s edge, Tulip hopping down behind her. Surzl moved more slowly and deliberately, as Isabog used both arms and all five tentacles to crawl down. She quickly overtook Surzl, sparing the flame acolyte a haughty grin as she passed her by. Surzl only sniffed, pretending not to notice.
“I win!” Isa crowed, happy to have beaten someone down, especially Surzl.
As Isabog reached the sandy river bank, she turned just in time to see Tulip toss out a rope to haul the log the rest of the way in to shore. How were they even going to maneuver that thing once they got it to shore? It was enormous. Then the sun seemed to glint off something brightly colored as the huge log moved closer. A trick of the light, maybe?
“Tulip,” Isa called. “What is that?”
“Not now, Isa,” Tulip said.
But there it was again. Through a hole in the top of the log, Isa saw something orange. And there, at the other end, through another hole, something yellow. Something moving.
“Tulip, I really think—” Isa started.
“I said,” Tulip snarled over her shoulder, “not now.”
Just then, the log bumped into the shore and three tiny shapes, even shorter than Mags, leapt out from those holes. Two dozen more brightly colored bodies appeared out of hidey-holes in the ground nearby, each barely two feet high and brandishing primitive spears and nets.
They looked like frogs, but walked on their hindlegs, their oversized hands and heads almost too big for their small bodies.
Tulip leapt into a defensive position, drawing her maul, even as daggers appeared in Mags’ rogue’s hands. She and Tulip moved to stand back to back against the encircling horde of tiny frogmen.
Then an orangey-red frogman, taller than the others stepped forward, raised his gnarled staff, and cackled. A chirr-chirr-chirrup sound arose from him and several of the other frogmen, their throats puffing out and turning red as they echoed each other’s calls. At the noise, a strange buzzing began in Isa’s head.
Then she felt every muscle in her body lock up, freezing in place.
Oh no, Oorn said. Not again. Not now!
Oh no oh no oh no, Isa echoed silently, as three of the frogmen broke towards her, throwing a net over her and hauling her to the ground. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t struggle. Could only watch and listen in horror as her cagemates—paralyzed just as she was—were captured as well.
Then a bright blue frogman approached her. An awed expression on his face, he reached a tentative hand out to touch one of her limp tentacles.
Sting him, she wailed silently to Oorn. Help us!
I can’t, Oorn groaned.
A bright green frogman joined the bright blue one, kneeling down next to Isabog and chittering at him excitedly in a language she couldn’t understand. The blue one nodded vigorously in Isa’s direction, grinning. Then he pulled a long, hollow tube of bone from his belt and held it to his lips. Something flashed from the end of it.
Isa felt the prick of a sharp needle, her world a welter of terror, still unable to move or speak.
Oorn, she wailed silently.
Hang on, he called, sounding strangely far away. That wasn’t good. Don’t—
Then a tidal wave of sleepiness overtook her. And Isabog knew no more.
Next: Episode 6