Previous: Episode 6
As an acolyte of Burning Ruznabiyug, Surzl had long since learned to master fire. Flames danced at her bidding, sculpting themselves into undulating shapes at her command or leaping from her fingers to a wall of unlit torches to bring light and heat where there was none. The flames were her calling and her birthright.
A creature of fire, born and trained, it seemed only natural, then, that she’d always harbored an aversion to water.
She bore drinking it, but didn’t like to bathe in it. Insidious stuff. Where every fire was clean and new, scourging and purifying, water was older than time, and just as patient. It could afford to take the path of least resistance, slowly wearing down all who stood in its way.
So as the cage fell and the water of the pit rose over Surzl’s head, she panicked, grabbing blindly at the bars, fluttering against them like a trapped bird.
A muted, bubbling roar came from nearby. Tulip was straining against the bars, trying with all her might to bend them. Below her, Mags was on all fours on the cage floor, one arm jammed through the bars up to the shoulder as she fished blindly for the lockpicks. Surzl saw no sign of them, but she remembered the sound they’d made as they slipped through her fingers and plopped into the water.
A part of Surzl knew she should be trying to help her companions. But the rest of her knew with cold surety that she’d killed them all when she’d dropped Mags’ tools. They were going to die. Hells, Isabog was probably dead already.
And she, Surzl, was going to drown. The thought was so shaming she considered simply opening her mouth and inviting the deluge in to hasten the process.
But then Mags looked up at her, one hand still blindly fishing for their salvation. With a glare, Mags gave Surzl’s ankle a kick. The meaning of that look was as clear as if she’d said the words aloud: Don’t you dare give up.
Rage burned hot in Surzl’s chest—at stupid, insistent Mags, at their captors, at Ma Snaggl and flat-faced old Smung who’d gotten them into this mess in the first place. No. She couldn’t, wouldn’t go out like this.
With a growl, Surzl used the last bit of air in her lungs to re-summon her arcane hand and began searching the sandy bottom of the pool beyond the cage, feeling around for the lockpicks.
Every moment that crept by felt like an hour. Her lungs burned, screaming for air. How long had they been down here? If she could just—
The cage lurched suddenly, the motion so jarring that Surzl gasped, taking in a lungful of water. Her body convulsed, her mind numb with shock.
This was it then. Well . . . at least she’d tried.
Eyes shut tight, still cowering behind her own tentacles, Isabog felt dozens of tiny hands grab onto her arms and legs. She was already near-paralyzed by fear, but as the hands grasped her, a wave of sickness washed over her at their touch, making her dizzy. Then they were hauling her towards the water, the links of the chain at her ankle clinking against the stone floor.
Do something! Oorn prodded, an unsettling note of hysteria in his mental tone.
Nope nope nope, she muttered back, reeling from the sick feeling in her limbs and still hiding her eyes. Not happening. Not happening, nope!
Then there was a sense of Oorn gathering himself. Suddenly, he loomed large in her mind, towering over the tiny flame that was her consciousness.
Isabog Irontongue, he said, his voice a thunderous roar in her mind. You are a warlock of Oornthcthullon the Devourer. You have been imbued with arcane might the likes of which these creatures dare not dream. So snap out of it! And use what I have taught you.
Isabog moved one tentacle out of the way and opened her eyes. There were eight green and blue frogmen pulling her towards the creature waiting at the water’s edge, and the haughty red one marched nearby, just behind her and to the side.
Steeling herself, she spared a look at the multi-mawed monster waiting for her in the water. It was still a good fifty feet away, but its monstrously large tentacles—as big around as tree trunks—snaked up onto the stone shore, ready and waiting for her.
Oorn had been right. But that monster wasn’t the only thing with a long reach . . .
With a muttered curse and a wave of her hand, Isabog summoned forth dark tendrils of energy that sprang into being around her, lashing out at every frogman within ten feet. Where the tendrils struck them, blackened veins of necrotic energy spread, racing over their skin. Seven of the frogmen holding her keeled over, moaning and barely conscious. The eighth seemed less affected, but took one look at his fellows and released his grip on Isa’s arm, backing away.
No longer in contact with the frogmen, Isa managed to shake off the sick feeling that had come with their touch. She heard a shout of dismay behind her, and turned in time to see the red one point his staff at her as he muttered an incantation in his odd, guttural tongue.
She braced for some sort of attack, but to her surprise, the energy from his spell shot straight past her. Where it touched the ground, a thirty-foot vine erupted from the stone, down near the water’s edge.
Almost as soon as it had taken root in the stone, the long vine whipped itself at Isa. She managed to dodge out of the way, but saw it already whipping back to make another strike at her. Conjuring her eldritch spear, she sent it flying at the red frogman’s chest, but he stepped aside, taking only a glancing blow to the shoulder.
Grunting in frustration, Isa heard a whip-like crack and felt the tendrils of the magical vine wrap around her, pinning her arms to her side. The red frogman leered. Then the world spun and Isa found herself hurtling toward the stone shore—and the many wide open, tooth-lined maws of the thing waiting to claim her there.
Water burned its way into her lungs. Surzl shuddered, her muscles spasming as her body fought death with sheer animal panic. At the same time, a strange calm settled over her mind. She felt herself rising up and wondered if maybe she was being called home to Ruznabiyug’s side.
Then there was a sudden, shocking rush of air around her and a tumbling sensation. A great force whapped Surzl on the back—was she still in her body then?
An enraged roar came from somewhere nearby, along with the sound of weapons striking something, followed by several shouts. Surzl’s lungs expelled a long stream of water and she opened her eyes to see Tulip oddly upside down. Wait, no—Surzl was upside down, suspended by her feet in one of Tulip’s strong hands. They were still in the cage and it was moving. Then it hit the ground with another lurch—now on dry land.
Looming over them was Dreg, one hand now releasing the top of the cage while the other wielded his spiked greatclub, fending off six armed grungs. She saw still more of the frogmen laying bleeding at his feet.
“Bad froggies!” Dreg yelled, smashing a green grung nearly flat with one mighty blow of his spiked greatclub. “No hurt goblins!”
Surzl blinked up at him stupidly as Tulip set her down. The ogre had saved them? Where had he even come from?
Mags was shaking Surzl, screaming something at her. “The lockpicks!” was all Surzl heard.
Right! They still had to get out of here. But how deep was the water? Would her arcane hand be able to reach the bottom?
Casting doubt aside, Surzl released her spell, plunging the arcane hand down into the water. There! Hurtling down through the water, her fingers quickly met sand and she began scouring the bottom of the pool for the lost toolkit. The water was too murky to see down into, though, so she was fishing blind.
Ruznabiyug, she prayed, you have spared the life of your servant. Now guide my hand.
“Look out!” Tulip shouted, as a purple grung wielding a scimitar spun into Dreg, aiming for the ogre’s left hamstring.
At the warning, Dreg moved just in time and kicked out at the purple frogman, sending him flying halfway across the room. Meanwhile, the other four grungs began closing in on Dreg from different directions.
Behind them came the sound of running feet from the hallway. Reinforcements.
Redoubling her efforts, Surzl searched frantically along the sands for the Mags’ tools.
“Hurry!” Mags said.
“I’m trying!” Surzl growled back.
More colorful bodies began spilling into the room, swarming Dreg.
Then the edge of Surzl’s fingers finally struck something hard amid the sand, and she grabbed for it. With a cry of triumph, she yanked the arcane hand back up through the water. Taking no chances this time, she made the hand deposit the leather kit containing the lockpicks directly into Mags’ keeping.
Wasting no time, the rogue whipped open the leather wrappings and yanked out two bent metal prongs.
“Come on!” Tulip yelled.
Surzl winced, watching Dreg take a barrage of arrows to the chest and shoulder as group of archers entered the room. If she only had her holy symbol, she could help him. But like their other belongings, it had been stripped from her. And without it, she couldn’t cast much beyond the arcane hand—at least, nothing of use.
Mags grunted and stuck out her tongue in concentration. With a practiced twist of her tools, there came suddenly a satisfying click from the lock, and the cage door swung open.
All three goblins ran for the doorway at once, briefly getting stuck as they all tried to squeeze through. Mags was quick to twist free, giving Surzl and Tulip room to follow her. Mags snapped up her brace of daggers from inside the chest and didn’t even pause to strap it on before two small knives sailed toward the grungs ringing Dreg. The first caught an uninjured green frogman in the throat, and he dropped to the ground, unmoving. The second took a blue frogman sporting a leg injury through the eye. He too fell aside. That left four melee opponents and the three archers.
Grabbing up her maul from the chest, Tulip charged in and took out one spear-wielding frogwoman as she passed Dreg, then launched herself into the archers’ midst. She dealt one of them a mighty blow to the shoulder, his bow falling limp from his grasp.
Still digging through the chest, Surzl finally spied her holy amulet poking out from under Mags’ trapsmithing kit and yanked it down over her head. Drawing strength from the reassuring weight of it against her chest, Surzl turned and entered the fray, calling forth a sheet of flames that burned two of the remaining spear wielders to ash, and left the fourth horribly burned. The survivor dropped his spear and fell backward, crawling away from her.
Surzl cackled, stalking after the fleeing frogman.
Between the four of them, the goblins and Dreg made short work of their remaining attackers.
Grabbing the rest of their equipment, the four headed down the stone passageway leading from the room. Within moments, they came to a three-way intersection.
“Which way?” Mags cried. “We have to find Isa.”
Dreg swiped at the shafts of the arrows protruding from his chest, breaking off the feathered ends and plucking one loose with a grunt.
Surzl turned to him. “How did you find us? Could you find Isa the same way?”
The ogre indicated the carrysack tucked under one arm, where a striped, furry face peeked anxiously out. “Nermie follow small goblin’s scent. Not have scent for weird goblin. Sorry.”
“Neegosh’s balls!” Tulip growled.
Then a familiar, spine-tingling shriek echoed down the left hallway and cut off just as suddenly as it had begun. Yep. That was Isa alright.
A grin lit up Mags’ face. “She’s alive!”
Surzl scowled. “Or was until just then.”
Wasting no time, Tulip and Mags lit out in that direction, Dreg lumbering quickly after them.
Eager to watch more of those filthy, water-loving frogmen burn, Surzl followed.
As the vine flung her straight at the largest of the tentacled monstrosity’s mouths, Isa saw rows of serrated teeth looming closer in the torchlight. In the time it took to draw another breath, she’d be ripped to pieces. She loosed a shriek at the thought, her mind frozen with fear.
Isabog, Oorn yelled. Scales!
Isa blinked, following Oorn’s command on sheer instinct. With a word and a gesture, she used the last surge of mana left in her to alter her form, covering herself with the same hard little scales she’d conjured in battle a few days prior. Then the stone shore raced up to claim her and she collided with the creature, feeling the tight ring of muscle that was its mouth try to clamp down around her.
She braced, waiting for the crushing, rending pain that was sure to follow. Instead, there was only intense pressure and strain—she’d somehow managed to land wedged into the creature’s mouth, her cartwheeled, scaled arms and legs splayed wide, keeping its toothy maw from closing on her.
That’s it! Oorn said. Hold on.
I’m . . . trying! Isa gritted her teeth, every muscle in her body straining against the immense force of the thing’s bite.
Just then, her foot slipped, and that section of the mouth gained ground, closing six inches farther. She yelped, pushing back against it.
Can’t . . . hold it off . . . much longer, she said.
She felt one of the teeth scrape against the scales covering her hands and imagined them slicing into her bare flesh. Isa shuddered. Her muscles burned, her lungs aching. The creature was too strong. This was a fight she couldn’t win.
Somewhere behind her, there came the sound of a commotion—running feet and howls of rage.
Oh, thank Stars, Oorn said.
Isa felt a surge of hope from him, giving her strength.
What is it? she asked. What’s happening?
Then she heard a familiar battle yowl, and the sound of heavy steel slamming into soft flesh and brittle bone. Tulip was here. And the others too, by the sound of it.
“Isa,” Mags’ voice called. “Hang on! We’re coming!”
“Not . . . going . . . anywhere,” Isa managed to grate out. Her arms were starting to wobble, her failing strength no match for the tentacled monster’s unrelenting hunger.
Isa felt her knees and elbows start to bend, her leverage ebbing with every inch of ground she lost. It was going to eat her!
Oorn, she whimpered.
Then there was a tremendous, bone-crunching impact against the tentacled horror, and she felt its grip on her loosen for just a fraction of a second. A great hand closed around her midsection, lifting her up and away. Isa blinked in surprise, staring up into the face of Dreg as he set her behind him on the stone shore and then engaged the thing that had nearly eaten her alive. It was easily twice his size, its tentacles whipping out to lock around the ogre’s arms, legs, and torso.
With a grunt of effort, Dreg strained, digging his bare feet into the stone floor as the tentacles tried to drag him forward into the creature’s open and snapping mouths.
Isa backed away, her eyes searching the cavern behind her for other threats. Tulip and Mags were engaged with the red frogman, and Surzl was busy cutting down the remaining greens with wave after wave of flames. Their shrieks of agony as their flesh sizzled and melted were horrible to hear.
Then Mags and Tulip looked beyond Isa to Dreg. Tulip gave another angry battle cry and charged toward the shore. Mags finished off the red frogman with a dagger to the back of the head, and then hurled herself after Tulip. Isa followed their gaze back to the many-mouthed monster, and the entangled ogre, still wrapped up in its tentacles and now only five feet away from the snapping jaws that had nearly claimed her.
“Go for the tentacles,” Mags called, darting in with a dagger in each hand and slashing at one of the many appendages wrapped around Dreg.
Tulip followed suit, laying about with her maul. She quickly smashed one section of tentacle flat, nearly severing it. The creature in the water howled in pain, and slapping at the big goblin. While it was distracted, Mags hacked away again at the same tentacle she’d attacked before, finally severing it.
One of the tentacles encircling Dreg fell away, but several others still remained.
“Surzl!” Mags yelled. “We need you!”
Isa felt a surge of pique. And what was she? Chopped crawler?
Already, Surzl was striding down to the shore, the burnt husks of the last frogmen falling to ashes at her feet.
Not to be outdone, Isa conjured her spear of arcane force and hurled it at the monster—only it went wide and missed, nearly hitting Tulip.
“Watch it!” the big goblin growled, spinning to slam her maul into yet another tentacle.
Isa grimaced, turning to look at Surzl, hoping she hadn’t seen that. But the flame acolyte’s attention was riveted on the creature in the water, hatred burning in her eyes.
Enrobed in an aura of flames, Surzl almost seemed to float down to the water’s edge. Several of the creature’s eyes turned to gage the newcomer to the battle.
Her voice echoing strangely, laced with power, Surzl pointed her finger at the monster and said, “Release.”
With a shudder, its coiled dropped from around Dreg, and the ogre sprang back, freed.
Isa blinked in shock. She knew Surzl was powerful, but Stars! Even Tulip had stopped fighting, just standing and staring at the flame acolyte in surprise.
And Surzl wasn’t finished. Her finger still pointed at the creature, she spat another command at it. This time: “Flee.”
With a roar of protest, the creature withdrew from the shore, starting to swim back out into the lake.
The second it started to move away, Surzl grabbed Isa and made a run for the section of the cavern near the dais. “Come on!” she yelled to the others. “It’ll be back fast! That spell only lasts a few seconds.”
Resenting being dragged around by Surzl, Isa yanked her arm free but followed the flame acolyte. She wasn’t sure if the monster was able to heave itself entirely out of the water, but she didn’t care to stick around and find out. Behind her, Tulip hesitated only a moment before shoving Mags and Dreg ahead of her and following the others.
Nearly tripping over the chain at her ankle, Isa conjured another arcane spear and slammed it into the chain one, twice—then a third time, finally severing it.
Then Isa and Mags were pulling her into one of the cavern’s side corridors, the tentacled horror’s angry bellow echoing from the stone walls of the tunnel around them.
Moments later, the party spilled out of the tunnels and up into the late afternoon sun along the riverbank, finding it abandoned, for the moment. There wasn’t a single frogman in sight.
“That was . . . amazing,” Mags said to Surzl, eyes shining.
Tulip grunted in approval, checking the straps of her maul’s harness to make sure it was secured tightly. “Not bad.”
“Remind Dreg not make angry goblin angry at him,” the ogre said, grinning down at them.
Isa glowered at Surzl, who coolly basked in the others’ praise like a queen.
“Whatever,” Isa said. “I was doing just fine on my own.”
“Obviously,” Surzl said and rolled her eyes. She and Mags shared an exasperated smirk.
Isa . . . Oorn began.
Oh, stuff it, Oorn! she growled back.
“Let’s get moving,” Tulip said. “There could be more of them any moment.”
With that, they set off again. Pouting, Isa dawdled a bit behind the others.
“I mean it,” she said. “I could have taken the whole lot of them myself!”
“Sure you could,” Tulip drawled. “Now shut up and let’s go.”
Isa obeyed, but her temper simmered. They’d see how powerful she was becoming. All of them, sooner or later. And when they did, then they’d be sorry.
In the hours that followed their escape from the grung colony, Surzl’s gratitude to simply still be alive quickly faded, replaced by gnawing worry and increased irritability toward her cagemates.
Ugh. She didn’t even want to think about cages. Not for a long, long time.
She endured a lecture from Tulip, once they were free of the underground lair, about why Surzl had never before deigned use the command spell she’d cast on the tentacled monster.
“Just because I haven’t cast it around you before doesn’t mean I’ve never used it.” Surzl rolled her eyes.
“I mean on our journey,” Tulip countered, fuming. “Something like that would have come in handy against that darkcrawler thing, for instance.”
“Its existence offended me,” Surzl sniffed. “It needed to burn.”
Who was oaf-brained Tulip to question Surzl’s tactics? She’d half a mind to reply that some people would do better to stick to smashing things than try their hand at strategy, but managed to hold her tongue.
And Isabog . . . the little wretch had been pouting for hours, and all because Surzl had gotten more attention from the others after the battle? Honestly.
For all that Surzl should have been the least vexed by Mags’ presence, the clever little rogue’s company had been the most difficult of all to bear lately—ever since that incident back in the cave during the storm, when Surzl had been sure the little sneak-thief was going to die. And Ruznabiyug . . . had spoken to her directly, responding to Surzl’s request for aid.
Since she’d begun her acolyte training, Surzl had become accustomed to praying to her god on and off throughout the day until it was a matter of routine—albeit a heartfelt one. But she’d certainly never expected to receive any kind of reply.
Truly, who’d ever heard of such a thing?
But now that Ruznabiyug had spoken to her, the question nagged Surzl: Why me? Why now?
Worst of all, her deity’s final words still rang in her ears. “You too will burn for me. And for her. Perhaps.”
Her who? Mags?!
For a god, Surzl thought very quietly, Ruznabiyug certainly had that wrong. She didn’t care one whit about stupid Mags, past the rogue’s usefulness in seeing Ruznabiyug’s honor restored when Surzl finally stormed into the Bouldermaw caves and burned flat-faced Smung to ash.
They’d see who got the last laugh then.
Still, the Dancer in the Flames’ attention and Her words ate at Surzl as she turned them over again and again in her mind.
Bah. The gods were mighty, but fickle. Who knew if any meaning at all lay in that last musing?
Ironically, the person Surzl minded the least at the moment was Dreg—if you could call him a person, she thought sourly, and then chastened herself for the thought. The ogre had shown more bravery in the goblins’ defense today that most actual goblins would ever bother to show for one another. Not that bravery was something most goblins—other than herself and Tulip, perhaps—prized very highly. What’s more, he’d saved Surzl from a watery doom, essentially her worst nightmare. As loathe as she was to feel obliged to anyone, Dreg’s simple, good nature lessened the onerousness of the debt. He was likely too dim to expect her to return the favor. Nonetheless, he’d proven himself a stalwart and valuable ally. While no one had invited him to stay, there’d been no more attempts by Tulip to ditch the ogre. For now, anyway.
She’d never say so, but Surzl was glad Dreg seemed determined to stick around. They needed all the help they could get to see their quest through. And if they made it back home in one piece and their marks of clanlessness were removed, having an ogre around to enforce their group’s bidding—or at least, to give the impression that he might—was bound to win them considerable status.
Afternoon wore on to evening, and the group made camp in a series of hills they found in the otherwise flat river plains. There were no trees to hide them here, but at least from this vantage, they could see anyone else coming for miles.
Mags took the extra precaution of setting traps around the base of the hill. “Just in case,” she’d said. Isabog was promptly ensnared by one, which set Mags and Dreg to laughing so hard that Tulip had to free the hapless warlock, who only sulked the harder for her embarrassment.
Surzl kept to herself, saying little as she continued to brood over the party’s prospects.
That they’d come so close to failing in their quest and dying at the hands of such base creatures as the frogmen rankled. How easily they’d been subdued and captured. Careless. Well, Surzl for one would not be caught off guard again.
They set a watch schedule, during which the night passed without incident.
The next morning dawned bright and hot, the sky full of towering clouds, like floating fortresses.
As Surzl rose and stretched, she noticed that one such fortress that was lower than the others seeming to stretch one long tendril toward the ground.
That was smoke—campfire smoke, by the look of it. Not more than a few miles off from their camp!
Surzl whirled on Mags, who was leaning up against the sleeping mass of Dreg’s protruding belly. The little rogue had been assigned the last watch. “Who’s out there?” Surzl hissed. “Why didn’t you wake us?”
Mags shrugged, her face blank. “Didn’t see a need to. I’ve been keeping an eye on our neighbors. Their fire’s been lit only for the past hour. No one has approached.” She shrugged. “Barring any change, I thought it best to wait until you all woke up to investigate.”
“Investigate what?” Tulip mumbled, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “What are you two jabbering about?”
“Whoever else is camped a few miles west of us,” Surzl snapped. “And brave or dumb enough not to use green wood for their fire.”
That got Tulip up out of her bedroll right quick.
“Probably burning animal dung,” Mags said with a yawn. “No trees for miles.”
The goblins quickly broke their fast, during which a squabble arose as to who ought to accompany Mags on her scouting mission to the other camp. She insisted she could go alone, but Tulip was just as adamant they stick with the buddy system this time.
“Just in case,” Tulip echoed Mags’ words from last night back at her.
Isabog scowled. The warlock—eager to prove herself after yesterday, perhaps—insisted she ought to be the one to go, since magic might be useful if the scouting party was discovered and needed to make a quick escape.
“Do you know any sneaky spells?” Mags asked, with obvious interest.
“Of course I do,” Isa sneered.
“Oh?” Surzl countered. “Such as . . . ?”
“Well,” Isa sputtered, caught in what was now an obvious fib. “I . . . uh.”
“Dreg go with small goblin,” the ogre offered eagerly.
Mags grinned up at him apologetically. “Not this time, buddy. You’re about sneaky as I am tall.”
Dreg started to smile, then scrunched up his large face and scratched at the patchy hair on his head. “But small goblin not tall . . . ”
“Exactly,” Mags prompted, waiting.
“But . . . Oh!” The ogre grinned. “Small goblin not tall, and Dreg not sneaky.”
“We do have names, you know,” Isa huffed. “If you’re going to stick around, you may as well learn them.”
“Dreg can learn. Maybe,” he said sheepishly. “Dreg try to learn.”
“There’ll be time for that later,” Tulip interrupted. “Let’s stick to the issue at hand. Isa does have a point. It makes more sense for one of our spellcasters to go with Mags.”
Surzl forced herself not to roll her eyes as Isa perked up, preening.
“Surzl,” Tulip continued. “You’ll go. Dreg and Isa will stay with me. We’ll stay back a good ways—close enough that we’re around if things go poorly, but far enough that we can stay out of sight.”
Surzl would just as soon not go, but who was she to turn down an opportunity to annoy Isabog?
“Fine.” She shrugged. “I don’t care either way.”
They broke camp and headed out, winding their way through the hills back down onto the plains, as their group crept closer to where the plume of white-grey smoke wound up from the horizon.
Luck was with them, and as they made it about two-thirds of the way to the mystery camp, they found another tumble of small hills. Leaving the rest of the party there, Mags and Surzl continued on, staying low to the ground.
Another few hundred yards out there came the sound of distant voices raised in an argument. They spoke the Common tongue, which the goblins knew middling well from occasional altercations with big folk. (‘Bigger folk, bigger loot,’ as one old goblin proverb put it.) Still, that any of the races who liked to think of themselves as ‘civilized’ had ventured willingly this far into untamed, goblin-held lands was a curiosity in of itself. Mags seemed to think as much, for she looked at Surzl in surprise as the raised voices found their way to the two goblins.
“Humans, you think?” Mags asked.
“Not gruff enough for dwarves,” Surzl said. “Not quite pretentious enough for elves.” She shrugged. “Could be.”
Mags nodded, gesturing for Surzl to follow her more closely.
The two managed to find a stand of wild barley just tall enough to hide them both if Surzl crouched, just a stone’s through from the camp. Wending their way through the dried stalks towards the voices, they reached the edge of the field and carefully peered through.
Surzl gasped. Sure enough, a camp of humans lay just ahead. There were at least six or seven of them, that she could see. Two wore plated armor that shone in the early morning sun and were armed with shields and swords. One of these was arguing with a tall woman in fine robes, who wore a pendant around her neck in the shape of a shield emblazoned with a smith’s hammer. To Surzl, it looked like a holy symbol of some kind.
Upon closer inspection, the same symbol was painted onto the knights’ shields. A holy woman and her guards, perhaps? She tried to listen to what they were saying, but her Common was rustier than she thought.
Then Mags yanked at her sleeve, wide-eyed and pointing to the far side of the camp.
“What?” Surzl whispered. “What is it? Oh!”
In a hastily constructed wooden cage squatted four goblins—Rockbreakers, judging by the color of their armor.
“Holy Ruz—” Surzl choked off her own whisper of surprise, glancing over at Mags.
The little rogue was staring intently from the holy woman and her knights, to the other humans bustling about the camp, to the trapped Rockbreakers and back, as though making multiple calculations at once.
“What are you thinking?” Surzl whispered. It was hardly lost on her that Mags was the one who came up with all the good plans in their group, even if the little rogue was content to let Tulip take the lion’s share of the credit.
“I’m wondering why humans would bother to cage four nosy goblins and not just kill them outright,” Mags murmured back. “Unless there’s something they need from them.” She paused, still watching, then spoke again. “At least three more behind those up front are armed, but two look a bit green. The other two I don’t think are capable of putting up much of a fight.”
“You can’t mean you’re thinking of—oof!” With an ungraceful flop, Surzl tripped over her own feet and let out a cry of surprise.
“What was that?” One of the knights at the camp’s edge drew her sword, taking a wary step in front of the robed woman.
Silently cursing herself, Surzl froze. She was still in the tall grass, lying flat on her belly. Had they seen her? If she could get back on her feet quietly enough, maybe she and Mags could—wait? Where was Mags?
“Over here, longshanks!” came Mags’ voice from the other side of the barley field. “You missed one of us.”
To Surzl’s horror, she watched Mags step out of the barley and throw a rock at the male knight who’d been arguing with the holy woman. It pinged off his helmet and he grunted, what little was visible of his face purpling with rage.
“Why you little—!” He picked up a rock himself and chucked it at her, as his companion cursed something at him. Surzl might have laughed, had she not been so scared.
Mags dashed to the left, letting fly another stone. Then she too gave a cry of surprised as a lightly armored man with a longbow strapped to his back swopped her up, seemingly out of nowhere. He held Mags tightly under one of his arms, pinning hers flat to her body as she squirmed and howled.
“Ha ha!” he crowed, saying something about a bird and a cage. Maybe something singing?
As Surzl watched, he dragged Mags off towards the other captive goblins, leaving the flame acolyte alone and apparently unnoticed in the barley.