Previous: Episode 5
Isabog drifted toward consciousness, sighing in pleasure as her senses registered luxurious softness and warmth, along with the familiar smell of cold earth and stone, long untouched by the sun. For a moment, she thought she was back home in the Horntooth caverns, waking up in her own bed of straw and furs. But no, the texture of whatever she was lying on was much too silky smooth, and though she was warm and dry, the air here was heavy with moisture.
Definitely not home. But where, then?
Opening her eyes, she found herself burrowed into a nest of cushions and blankets made of rich fabrics—their quality finer than any she’d ever seen or felt. As she stirred, a muffled noise sounded close by.
“What—?” She mumbled sleepily, pulling away the blankets covering her face, and found herself nose-to-nose with a large set of round, black eyes.
The blue-skinned creature staring at her cocked its amphibious head and its mouth opened, revealing two rows of surprisingly sharp little teeth. “Rrrr-brrrr?” it said inquiringly, and blinked not one, but two sets of eyelids.
Startled, Isa shrieked and leapt back from the frogman, feeling something heavy weighing down her left foot. A metal shackle was locked around her ankle, attached to a coiled length of chain. Fury boiled in her belly. She turned on the frogman, raising her hands, the words that would summon her arcane spear already on her tongue.
But the strange blue creature went down on all fours before her, bowing deeply and averting its eyes from her gaze.
Isa stopped short of casting, peering down at the prostrate frogman. Well. That was a nice change. She smirked. Look at that, Oorn. Something that knows its place!
But he didn’t answer. Isa frowned. Just like him to be sleeping when she needed him. She prodded at the silent weight of his consciousness, tucked into the corner of her mind he occupied, but he didn’t stir. Hmmph. Lazybones.
As the blue frogman continued to grovel adoringly at her feet, Isa relaxed a bit and glanced around, taking in her surroundings. Her nest of pillows and blankets sat atop a stone dais in a good-sized cavern, roughly oval in shape. Two openings in the side walls suggested passageways leading from the room, and at the far end, the cavern opened up into a much larger space, where the waters of what looked like an underground lake lapped at the stone shore. Finding she was thirsty, she ambled over in that direction. The chain at her leg was just long enough to reach the shoreline, and the water was cool and refreshing, if a bit murky in the underground gloom of the cavern. She kept an eye on blue frogman as she slaked her thirst, but he only spun around so that his head was still pointed at her, his belly still scraping the ground.
As she rose from the water’s edge, a flash of movement caught Isa’s eye, and she turned to see another frogman enter the chamber. This one had red skin and wore a collar of worked stone encrusted with semi-precious gems. Isa froze, wary of him. But seeing her there, this new frogman followed the other fellow’s suit, getting down on the floor and bowing to her.
Neegosh’s balls, she could get used to this. Isa jutted out her chin imperiously. “I’m hungry,” she said, unsure of whether they could understand her. “Bring me some food!”
The red frogman looked up at her, an expression of confusion and consternation on his bulbous face.
Isa patted her stomach, then mimed bringing food to her mouth and taking a bite. “Food! You imbecile. I want something to eat!”
A look of understanding crossed the red one’s face, and he chattered something in his own language to the blue frogman behind her. Still on all fours and bowing, the blue one backed away several steps before getting up and hustling out one of the side passages. The red one stood, turned, and puffed its throat out, barking what sounded like some sort of command to someone unseen.
At once, three green frogmen entered the room, all smaller than the red one. Isa took a step back, but then saw that each of the newcomers bore a small chest of carved and polished wood. She wasn’t very happy about being chained up, but she was warm, dry, surprisingly and delightfully clean, and these creatures were not only showing her great deference, but seemed about to offer her presents. She supposed things could be worse.
The three green ones came forward, each bowing low as they set their chests down on the ground before her, opened the lids, and stepped back several paces, only then prostrating themselves like the others.
The red one made a gesture of encouragement, indicating the chests.
Curious, Isa moved closer and peered inside them. Each one was heaped high with sparkling gems, jewelry, and silks.
“Oh, yes,” Isa said, running one hand through a sea of rubies and sapphires. “Yes, indeed. These will do nicely.”
An hour later, Isa was dressed in silk robes and jewels, reclining on her cushioned dais. She’d chosen not one but two gem-studded tiaras, cramming both onto her head. She also wore a number of equally fine necklaces of gold, electrum, and silver, and had overlaid them all with her favorite: a silver pendant bearing a sapphire the size of her fist. There were so many bracelets on her arms she could hardly see the ugly clanless marker she’d been fitted with, and a number of fine rings for her fingers, too.
Next to her on the dais, one of the small green frogmen carefully hand-fed her bites of fruit, spiced meats, and some sort of pickled jelly she couldn’t get enough of. While she nibbled at a bite of sweet melon and admired one of her rings—a gold circlet worked to look like a dragon in mid-flight—she waved for the next frogman in the line to approach. She’d had a constant stream of admirers since she’d first awoken, bearing all manner of further gifts: a wyrmwood staff carved with tiny dragonflies, a set of fine bone dice, and all manner of additional gems, jewels, and bits and bobs.
Oorn still hadn’t woken up, but Isa was having so much fun that she didn’t mind. Just wait until he saw where they were and how marvelous things were here. These frog people seemed to have chosen her as their queen!
If only Surzl could see her now. Come to think of it, where were the others?
“Tulip!” Mags’ voice was tense and hushed, and the little rogue seemed curiously far away. “Tulip, wake up!”
Tulip didn’t want to wake up. She could tell she was sitting, propped against something pokey and unyielding. Her body was cold and wet, her limbs sluggish. Better to stay asleep and dream of warmth and comfort.
“Oh, for Ruznabiyug’s sake,” said Surzl. “Get out of the way.”
Sharp pain exploded in Tulip’s cheek as a hand slapped her hard across the face.
A roar burst from Tulip’s throat and her eyes opened to blurry darkness. Instinctively, she leapt to her feet and reached back for her maul. Only it wasn’t there. Water splashed, displaced by her sudden movement. Tulip blinked away the fuzziness clouding her vision, the images before her gradually resolving. Surzl was standing next to her, shaking out her hand as though it hurt and glaring up at Tulip. Mags stood just behind the flame acolyte, looking relieved. The reason why Tulip was cold and wet was immediately apparent: the three of them stood in almost a foot of water; it came up to little Mags’ waist. They were inside some sort of iron cage, suspended partway over a watery pit . . . inside some kind of cave? The nearest walls were dark, natural stone, dripping with water and covered in musty-smelling algae. Tulip and Mags were still wearing their armor, but their equipment and weapons were gone.
“Where—?” Tulip panted. “Where are we? What happened?”
Surzl snorted. “Does being captured and drugged by tiny frog people ring a bell?”
Tulip groaned. This was bad. This was very bad. “Where’s Isa?” Tulip said, stretching out a crick in her neck. “Where’s our stuff? What do they want with us?”
“Couldn’t say. We haven’t seen anyone since we woke up,” Surzl said, breathing heavily, her cheeks flushed with anger. “They must have taken Isabog somewhere else.”
“But I’m pretty sure our stuff is over there.” Mags pointed to a strip of dry sand along the water’s edge. A large wooden chest was propped up against the stone wall, near what looked like a tunnel entrance. The chest was closed, but the edge of a sack peeked out from under the lid. “That looks like my trap kit. They took my lockpicks too. We have a plan to get out of here, but we need your help.”
Tulip heaved out a huff of air, trying to steady herself. Cages weren’t a big deal; the four of them had been reared in one, after all. But a cage suspended over water, trapped here by enemies who planned to do Neegosh knew what with them . . . and worst of all, she was unarmed. This was the stuff of nightmares. “I’m listening,” she said, pleased to hear her voice remain steady.
Mags yanked at the door of the cage. It rattled but didn’t budge, soundly locked, by the look of it. “If my lockpicks are in the chest, Surzl has a simple spell she can use to grab them and move them here. But it’s a short-range spell. And we’re just out of reach.” Mags hesitated, looking from Tulip to the metal hook in the cave ceiling above, from which the cage hung suspended by a long chain.
“And?” Tulip prompted her. The sooner they got out of this, the better.
“We need you to help us rock the cage. If we can swing out five feet that way,” Mags pointed again, “that should be close enough for the spell to work.” The little rogue wrung her hands together.
Tulip scowled down at her. “If this is such a good plan, why do you look so scared?”
Mags and Surzl exchanged a look.
Mags spoke. “Because I think this water is deep. If we rock the cage too much, we could knock the chain off the hook and, well . . . ”
“She means this plan—her plan,” Surzl glared, “could just as easily drown us as save us.”
“I asked if you had a better idea and you didn’t,” Mags said quietly, not meeting Surzl’s eyes.
Tulip swore under her breath. How long had she been out? If they’d been drugged, she should have woken up before these two weaklings, not after.
Surzl’s scowl deepened. Tulip took a closer look and saw Surzl’s hands were shaking. The flame acolyte wasn’t just furious, Tulip realized—she was terrified.
“Right,” Tulip said. “Well, I don’t have a better idea either. So we do this. Carefully. Mags, you have the best eyes. You watch that hook and make sure we don’t knock ourselves off.”
Her lips pressed in a grim line, Mags nodded and showed Tulip where to stand and which direction to push. Mags and Surzl arranged themselves accordingly. Once they were in place, there was a tense moment as they all hesitated, avoiding one another’s gaze.
Tulip gulped. If this went poorly . . .
No. She was meant to die with her maul in her hands, smashing her enemies to a pulp in the frenzied glory of battle. Not in a shitting cage, trapped and drowned like a Neegosh-bedamned rat.
She took a deep breath and steeled her courage. This would work. It had to.
Tulip gave Mags a nod. Then, on Mags’ count, the three of them began to throw their weight from one side to the other.
The cage gave several gut-clenching lurches, then slowly began to swing back and forth. Mags kept her eyes trained on the hook and chain above them, calling out orders in a hoarse whisper. “Good! Tulip, move one step to your left. There! Better. Whoa! Not so fast. Slow and steady. That’s good.”
Working as one, they got the cage swinging in a wider arc. Above them, the chain creaked and rocked ominously every time the cage swung out to its full extension. Would it hold? Would the noise attract the attention of the frog people? Tulip swallowed down the anxious lump in her throat. It would work. It would.
Surzl pressed herself against the bars on the side of the cage facing the chest. “Almost . . . there!” she muttered, concentrating.
Tulip turned her head and saw a hand made of bright reddish-orange arcane energy mimicking the motions of Surzl’s actual hand. It strained in midair next to the chest, as though pushing against an invisible wall. Every time the cage swung in that direction, the hand swung in a similar arc, gradually inching just a little closer, but getting yanked back again every time they swung the opposite way.
“Just a little more!” Mags called softly. “Easy now.”
Tulip pushed a little harder on her side as they swung out again in the direction they were aiming for. The cage gave an alarming lurch, which her stomach echoed.
Almost there . . .
“Ah ha!” Surzl crowed, as her arcane hand flipped up the lid of the chest. Then they swung out of range again, and it was hauled back out of reach.
“Shhh!” Mags hissed. “They’ll hear us.”
It took a few more swings for the magic hand to find the small leather kit that held Mags’ lockpicks, but as soon as it grasped them, it zoomed back towards the three goblins in the cage.
Hope lit up Tulip’s chest like a torch in the darkness as Surzl’s physical hand closed around the tools, the flame acolyte spinning around and holding them out to Mags in triumph.
That’s when a terrible CRACK sounded above them. The cage lurched a final time, listed to one side, then plummeted downward.
Everything after that seemed to happen in slow motion—
Tulip gripping the bars of the cage as they fell.
The force of the drop sending Surzl to her knees with a splash.
The rush and gurgle of the water as it rose up to claim them.
The lockpicks sailing out of Surzl’s hand.
Mags diving for them.
The kerplunk and splash of the lockpicks, as they immediately sank below the water’s surface and disappeared from view.
Then time sped back up.
Mags’ eyes went wide as she stared at Surzl in horror, the water already up to the little rogue’s neck.
“No!” Surzl cried, searching the water as it bubbled and roiled, swamping them. “No, no, no!”
For Tulip, there was time only to suck in a quick lungful of air before the cage sank, plunging the three goblins underwater.
Oorn had seen some foolish things in his long years of life, but awakening to find his host playing lady of the manor to a grung colony damn near took the crab cake. Far more troubling, though, was the sheer bliss Isabog radiated as she accepted gifts and sweetmeats from her amphibious admirers.
This was going to be a problem. Hmm. How to proceed?
Better to watch and wait awhile, perhaps.
Oh! Isabog cried silently. You’re finally awake!
Inwardly, Oorn groaned. How had she noticed? He’d been terribly quiet . . .
Isn’t this the most wonderful thing you’ve ever seen? I mean . . . just look at all the fantastically shiny things they’ve given us!
She waggled her jewel-encrusted fingers in front of their eyes.
It’s ever so nice here, she prattled on. I can’t understand their funny way of speaking, but these frog people seem to think me their queen. Finally! Someone who appreciates how marvelous we are, Oorn. Just think how nice it will be to stay here with them.
Ugh. Just as he’d feared. She wanted to stay.
My, my, he answered, carefully. What a fitting tribute to one as clever and lovely as yourself. He paused. Perhaps we ought to exercise a modicum of caution, however. After all, you said yourself that you can’t understand them. We don’t yet grasp their motives, their intentions . . .
Isabog chortled. Surely if they meant us harm, they would have shown it by now.
One hopes so, he said, keeping his tone amiable.
Even so, he began casting his senses about the room, taking the emotional temperature of the creatures present. Oorn knew little of grung culture, except that one’s station in such groups was denoted by skin color. Greens and blues were the lowest castes, while purples, reds, oranges and golds were more skilled and powerful. Not understanding their language, he couldn’t make sense of their thoughts, but the emotional resonance in the room was curious. The greens and blues present regarded Isabog with wonder and awe. That one red, though—he shared the purples’ frenzied devotion to Oorn’s host, but his thoughts were tinged with an odd thread of anticipation. Anticipation, colored with . . . something disturbingly akin to bloodlust.
Oh, Stars. This boded ill.
Isabog, Oorn began, struggling for the right words. I do hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I fear we are in danger.
She snorted. What on earth are you talking about?
That red fellow, he said. Does it seem like he’s in charge here?
Oh, yes, she said. Clever of you to notice so quickly. Of course, I picked up on it right away too.
If he’d eyes of his own, Oorn would have rolled them.
All the others are quick to do as the red one commands, she continued. Why do you ask?
When the red one looks at you, Oorn answered, he anticipates much bloodshed. With no small amount of eagerness.
Clearly, they recognize me for the great and powerful mage that I am, Isabog said, preening. He imagines me laying waste to their clan’s enemies. That’s all.
Oorn said nothing. Isabog was intractably stubborn, and seemed deadset on enjoying this charade as long as possible. He’d have to find better evidence to convince her of her own folly.
Why, she went on, just look at the blue fellow over there who has been sketching me. Granted, he has exaggerated the tentacles a bit, but—
As she craned her neck to get a better look at the artist’s rendering of her form, Oorn saw what she was going on about. Using a stick of charcoal on scraped animal skin, the artist was indeed capturing a crude likeness of Isabog posed as though rising from the water. Only the tentacles were strangely oversized . . .
—it’s quite a fetching likeness. Don’t you think?
Isa, he choked out the mental words. Those aren’t our tentacles!
From a side entrance into the chamber came some sort of commotion—the cries of many grungs sounded, accompanied by a clash of weapons and a great and terrible roar.
Oorn, what’s happening?! Isa stood, backing away from her nest of pillows.
Fear and fury swept through the grungs’ ranks as a phalanx of armed greens led by a sturdy looking purple fell into a line between Isabog and whatever was happening beyond this chamber.
Then a cry burst from the puffed throat of one of the green servants, and she pointed out towards the water. Isa swung her head around to look too, her fear and confusion suffusing Oorn’s senses.
The red grung likewise turned and looked where the green had pointed, and a reverent smile crept to his face. One of the blues began to blow into a large horn. There was something hideously expectant in the horn’s single, low, long-held note as it echoed through the cavern, carrying across the water—not quite a summons, but a reverent recognition. An invitation.
And there—somewhere just at the edge of the field of vision he shared with Isabog, Oorn saw something move in the water, many somethings, all slithering—somethings huge.
Isabog, he said, allowing a note of the panic he felt to creep into his tone to emphasize his urgency. We must flee this place. Now!
But Oorn—! She protested.
Then the thing out in the water broke the surface, sporting a writhing mass of tentacles, each as thick around as an oak tree, and several gaping maws ringed with suckers and sharp teeth. Stars! How many mouths did one creature need?!
Um, Isabog said. Maybe you’re right.
But then her fear boiled over. And to his chagrin, she hid her eyes behind her tentacles and began to scream.
Yes, he finally decided, a note of bitterness coloring the thought. He definitely would have been better off with Mags.
Next Episode: July 22