ShinyQuest, by Julia Watson. Episode 8

Previous: Episode 7

The air whuffed from her lungs as she hit the ground, and Mags rolled to her feet just as the door of the wooden cage slammed shut behind her. The human scout who’d captured her hastily replaced the heavy lock, testing it to make sure it held firm. Next to him, one of the guards poked his sword through the cage’s split planks, waggling the point at the Rockbreaker goblins crouched at one side.

Like Mags, they’d been stripped of their equipment, the four of them looking tired, hungry, and cross. The meanest-looking one eyed the guard, muttering a foul curse under his breath.

“Just try it, you little shite,” the guard said and snorted, lobbing a wad of phlegm into the cage near Mags’ feet. He regarded his sword affectionately, then rattled it against the planks. “Ol’ Knobslicer here hasn’t tasted goblin in at least a week.”

One of the female Rockbreakers barked a quick laugh, then schooled her expression to one of idle boredom. The other three were quick to adopt her manner.

Mags grunted. So she was their leader. Good.

With a final sneer, the guard followed the scout back to where the other humans were gathered near the campfire, now arguing in low tones.

“So . . . ” Mags said, addressing the one who’d laughed. “What do the longshanks want with you?”

“None of your business, Clanless,” she answered, not even deigning to look at Mags. The haughty leader was smaller than her fellow Rockbreakers, nearly as small as Mags herself. This suggested she was particularly clever, dangerous, or both.

“You could make it my business,” Mags said mildly. “If you’ve any interest in getting out of here.”

The male who’d cursed at the guard turned his scowl on Mags and cracked his knuckles. “Oh no. You’re not getting out of here,” he snarled, a cruel glint in his eye. “We might. But not you.”

He took a menacing step toward her and it was all she could do to force herself not to flinch. Every bone in her body screamed at Mags to run, only there was nowhere to go. What had she gotten herself into?

“Muzzr,” the leader said, a warning note in her tone.

He stopped nose to nose with Mags, staring her down, but made no move to touch her. With great effort, she stared just past him, her eyes still politely on the leader.

“Hmmph,” he said and walked back to his fellows.

Internally, Mags breathed a sigh of relief. Getting herself captured by a band of well-armed humans and thrown into a cage with the pissed off members of an enemy tribe—on purpose—was, with a surety, the stupidest thing she’d ever done. But if her hunch paid off and she managed to stay alive. . . it would be worth it.

At the moment, however, those were two very big ifs.

“And how do you propose to get us out of this?” The leader gestured around at the sturdy planks hemming them in, her dismissive gaze finally brushing Mags’ eyes, as though taking her measure.

Mags stood straighter, not breaking eye contact. “I have my ways. I should introduce myself. I’m—”

“We know who you are, Mags, formerly of the Horntooths,” the leader said. “And why you and your cagemates are so far from home. Though you’ve all certainly taken your sweet time in getting this close to the Bouldermaws.”

Mags felt the blood drain from her face. If the Rockbreakers knew about the quest already, the Bouldermaws were bound to know as well. Damn all these stupid delays. Shit shit shit.

Mags swallowed nervously, and the barest shadow of an amused smile crept to the leader’s lips. “You have me at a disadvantage,” Mags said. “I don’t know your names.”

The leader gave a nod.

“You have the pleasure of addressing Sxorax the Deceiver,” the smaller male spoke for the first time, giving a respectful bow of the head toward his leader. “Blooded of Neegosh.”

Neegosh’s Balls! This Sxorax was a Shadowtongue? Mags had wagered her life on trying to strike a bargain with an actual blooded of Neegosh?! Great. Just great.

She inclined her head briefly to Sxorax, trying not to stare. She’d never met a Shadowtongue before. Sorcerers—who, unlike other mages who had to learn magic somewhere, were born with theirs—were uncommon among the goblin tribes. Renowned for their powers of trickery and shadow magic, Neegosh-touched sorcerers were especially prized. How one had come to be captured by a bunch of stupid humans in the first place was bound to be a helluva story.

The small male continued. “I am called Nilbur.” He gestured to the taller female. “This is Nogga. And you’ve already met Muzzr.” Nilbur kept his face expressionless, but the slight emphasis he put on met held a veiled threat.

From the corner he’d claimed, Muzzr shot Mags a malicious grin.

Mags cleared her throat. “Well met, Sxorax, Nilbur, Nogga, and Muzzr. If you know my mission,” she said, addressing Sxorax directly now, “then what I ask won’t come as a surprise. I need information about the Bouldermaw caves. How to get in unseen. What kind of traps to expect and where. What their numbers are. Tell me what I need to know and I will free you from this cage.”

“The Bouldermaws,” Sxorax began, “are among the mightiest of all the tribes and have long been our allies. Your former clan’s power has waned to all but nothing, and you no longer claim even their pitiful kinship. Even if you can do what you say, and I highly doubt that, do you really expect us to risk the peace between our clan and the Bouldermaws by helping you?”

“In exchange for your lives?” Mags said. “Yes.”

Sxorax gave a throaty laugh, but then spat on the ground in front of Mags. “That’s what I think of your offer and your claim.” She nodded to Muzzr, who stood from his crouch and advanced on Mags, balling his hands into fists as he raised them, a glint of joy in his mad eyes.

Well. This was not going according to plan.

With surprising speed, Muzzr lunged for Mags, swinging a mean right hook for her midsection, but the little rogue stepped to the side, dodging the blow. He spun on his heel, coming at her again, and she dove through his wide-splayed legs, tumbling around behind him and rolling back to her feet. The movement brought her next to Nogga, and she spared a glance at the burly female; if the other Rockbreakers decided to hold Mags down and let Muzzr pound the ever-loving snot out of her, she wouldn’t last long.

It was a small mercy that the others seemed disinclined to get involved. This cage was only so big, though. It was only a matter of time before he caught her. And when that happened—

In the next breath, Muzzr was coming at her again, but as he raised another fist, it merely hung in the air. His eyes were locked on something behind her, staring in surprise. Fearing a trick, Mags resisted the urge to look and dodged out of the bigger goblin’s reach.

Then came a cry of alarm from the camp, and the sound of two arrows fired in quick succession from a bow. A howl of pain transformed into a familiar battle cry.

Mags whirled around in time to see Tulip charge in—alone—running unerringly for the human priestess where the woman sat near the campfire and slamming the maul into her unprotected back. The force of the blow sent the priestess reeling into the arms of one of her knights. The knight pushed the woman behind him, then drew an ornate warhammer from his hip. With a shout to the guards, the other knight drew a greatsword.

What on earth was Tulip thinking? Where were the others?

Her unspoken question was answered as Dreg charged into the camp from the opposite side, slamming his enormous spiked club down onto two of the human party’s three guardsmen while they were turned facing Tulip. One was crushed to a red pulp under the blow, while the other—wielder of Knobslicer—took a nasty glancing hit to the torso. Panicking, the second guard didn’t even draw his poorly named blade. Instead, he turned and fled.

Striding up behind Dreg came Surzl, conjuring an angry line of fire that caught the escaping guard in the back, instantly turning him to ash. Then the fire lashed out at the last remaining guard, along with both knights. The guard, more seasoned than his unfortunate fellows, was surprisingly quick, dancing out of the way of the worst of Surzl’s flames. The two knights, however, in their heavy banded mail, took the full brunt of her spell. Their clothing caught fire, trailing flames.

Not to be outdone, Isa entered the camp and fired one of her eldritch spears at the priestess, dealing the woman a nasty blow. The priestess fell to her knees, bloodied and battered.

“It seems our distraction has arrived right on time,” Mags said with far more confidence than she felt. “What do you say? Your freedom for the information I seek?”

“No,” Sxorax said.

Mags blinked, surprised. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“I think if you’re able, you’ll let yourself and us out whether I tell you what you want to know or not,” said the Shadowtongue. “Rather than watch from here as your friends are cut down.”

Mags scowled and crossed her arms across her chest. But then she turned in time to see the remaining guard launch himself at Surzl, striking out with two quick slashes of his longsword. Surzl cried out as his blade bit into her torso, dodging the next blow a second too slowly and taking another wound down one arm.

Near her, Dreg roared in fury, turning to the guard just as two arrows fired from the scout’s bow found their mark in the ogre’s chest and shoulder.

Mags’ hands tightened into fists at her sides and she swallowed convulsively. She had to get out of here. Fast.

“I think you’re right, Sxorax,” Nilbur said, eyeing Mags.

On the other side of the campfire, Tulip dodged around one of the knights and slammed her maul into the side of the priestess’s head with an audible whack. The priestess slumped to the ground, unconscious.

“You there!” one of the knights shouted, pointing at one of the unarmed humans Mags had seen bustling around the camp—there were two of them, probably servants of some kind. “Fetch a healing draught for her Ladyship! Be quick about it!”

Mags felt her arms pinned to her sides as Muzzr grabbed her from behind. She wriggled in his grasp, but only half-heartedly, still riveted to the battle unfolding outside the cage.

As Mags’ watched, Tulip took a nasty gash to the head from the knight wielding a greatsword. Blood flowed down the big warrior’s armor, staining the grass beneath her red.

The shouts of the battle echoing in Mags’ ears as her friends fought on behind her, she didn’t struggle as Muzzr turned her around to face Sxorax again.

“You’re right,” Mags said, her voice shaking. “I want to help them. But we’re all as good as dead anyway if we try to go in blind when we hit the Bouldermaws. And you know we have no choice.”

Sxorax studied Mags face, regarding her thoughtfully. “Well, you certainly believe you can get us out of here, don’t you?”

Mags stared back defiantly, steeling herself as she heard Tulip bark out another cry of pain.

Muzzr growled, his grip on Mags tightening painfully. “Sxorax, you can’t possibly mean to—”

“Silence,” the Shadowtongue said, still looking at Mags.

Mags felt the tension in Muzzr’s body at the reprimand. His grip didn’t ease up, but he made no further protest.

“I’ll tell you part of what you want to know now, and the rest later, once we’re all out here. So long as me and mine come through alive. Do you trust me to hold up my end of the deal?”

“Swear it on the blood of Neegosh, Himself,” Mags said, the tiniest spark of hope igniting in her chest.

“Fine,” Sxorax sighed. “We’re unlikely to get a better chance than this. I swear on the blood of the Trickster himself, Great Neegosh, that I will keep my word to you, Mags. The entry you seek to the Bouldermaw caves is this: their clan maintains a secret tunnel in and out of the deeper recesses of their caverns as an emergency escape route. You’ll find it hidden behind what looks like a rockfall in a ravine full of nettlebriar, along the northeastern face of their mountain.”

With great effort, Mags blocked out her friends’ cries of pain, committing every word to memory.

The Shadowtongue continued. “This tunnel isn’t closely guarded because it’s well-hidden and heavily trapped against intrusion. Free us and keep us alive, and I will tell you what I know of these traps, as well as the numbers you’ll be facing if you make it past them, just as you asked.”

“Done,” Mags panted, straining against Muzzr’s iron grip on her limbs as she heard an angry howl from Dreg. The others needed her, now.

With a snort of disgust, Muzzr released her. Mags frantically tore at the seam on the waist of her breeches, using her fingernails to pick at the stitches.

“Uh oh, looks like we’re about to get a show,” Muzzr cackled, slapping Nilbur on the back. The smaller male sniffed disdainfully, but Mags ignored them both. After nearly dying in last cage she’d been locked in, she’d decided to never be caught without her lockpicks again.

Which is why, during her watch last night, she’d sewn two of her smallest tools into her clothes.

Within seconds, she’d plucked these from their hiding spot and turned toward the cage door, quickly checking to make sure none of the humans were paying attention to their captives. One of the knights was busily extinguishing the flames that had sprung up all over his body as the other laid into Tulip with that fancy warhammer. Tulip was looking terrifyingly battered by now, but she fought on with dogged determination. Behind her, the least useless of the human servants was pouring a flask of red liquid down the downed priestess’s throat. Isa seemed to be lobbing her arcane spears at someone Mags couldn’t see, and wasn’t having much luck hitting anything, judging by her howls of frustration. At least she looked unharmed, for now.

Mags took a deep breath and willed her mind quiet, forcing aside her worry for her friends and focusing on the feel and sound of the tumblers, the familiar sturdiness of the tools in her hands. Almost . . . there. The click as the lock opened was positively musical.

She pushed the door open and rushed out, leaping aside as the four Rockbreakers came barreling out behind her. Nogga and Muzzr ran straight for where the first two guards had fallen, grabbing up their swords and throwing themselves into the fray. Nilbur and Sxorax, however, both made a beeline for the humans’ supply wagon. Mags had seen her own stuff tossed in there after she’d been stripped of her gear, so she followed them.

On the way there, she saw the bloodied veteran guard—one arm hanging limp and useless at his side— feint at Dreg with the shortsword he wielded and then use the distraction to dash away from him, also headed to the supply wagon. Great.

“We’ve got company!” She called ahead to Nilbur and Sxorax. “He looks half dead at least.”

Nilbur reached the wagon first, climbing inside and rummaging around for a moment before ducking his head out and handing a wand to Sxorax. Then he ducked back inside. Mags began to scramble up after him, darting a wary glance over her shoulder to check the veteran guard’s progress. Sxorax turned to face the oncoming guard, but before the Shadowtongue could even get her wand up, Mags saw Nogga come flying out of nowhere, burying her newly acquired sword in the man’s back. Blood trickled from his nose and mouth as he sank to the ground, unmoving.  Nogga gave an ululating battle cry and whirled back into the fight, Sxorax just behind her.

Stepping under the canvas tent of the wagon cover, Mags saw her brace of knives on top of a barrel and grabbed for it. Nilbur armed himself with a shortsword and a shortbow, a quiver of arrows now slung over one shoulder.

“Don’t dawdle,” he said gruffly, hopping down and out of sight.

“Don’t worry,” she called after him, hopping out the other side of the wagon.

As her boots hit the ground, the first person Mags saw was the scout who’d captured her, now rolling on the ground as he struggled to put out the flames raging along his arms and torso. Wondering if any of his arrows had found their mark in Surzl, Mags bared her teeth and ran for him, burying one of her daggers in his neck. As he fell to the ground, gurgling out the last dregs of his life, she saw two things: first, the now awake, partially healed priestess headed for her one remaining knight, and second, a particularly keen-looking dagger in the dead scout’s belt. Plucking the blade free, Mags aimed, let out a slow breath, and sent it flying at the priestess’s head.

Rotating end over end, the dagger arced unerringly for its target, finding its mark deep in the priestess’s left eye socket. A clean kill.

To Mags’ surprise, the dagger disappeared from its firm purchase in the dead woman’s face before she hit the ground and reappeared just as suddenly back in the hand Mags had used to throw it. She stared down at it stupidly for a moment, then grasped its hilt tighter and got her feet moving again. Where was Tulip?

There. The big warrior was bedraggled and bloody, but still on her feet. Mags dashed toward her friend, taking quick stock of the battlefield; the only human left was the knight with the warhammer. Muzzr slashed up at the man, finding a weak spot in his armor. The knight brought up his shield in time to catch Muzzr’s second sword thrust, but the distraction gave Tulip enough time to hurl herself at the knight from behind. As her maul connected with the back of his helmeted head, there was an audible crack of bone and sinew. Tulip landed on the knight’s limp body, grabbing up his shiny hammer as it hit the ground. Raising it over her head, she loosed a triumphant cry.

As Tulip’s yowl died away, it suddenly got very quiet. Even the two servants, it seemed, had fallen to Nilbur’s blade and arrows. All of the humans were dead.

Mags hurried to her party, anxiously assessing their injuries. Neither she nor Isa had a scratch on them, but Dreg was sporting several arrows and slash wounds, and both Tulip and Surzl looked beaten to hell.

“Glad to see you’re okay,” Tulip wheezed, limping over. She nodded her head at the approaching Rockbreakers. “They gonna be trouble?”

“Thanks,” Mags murmured. “I don’t think so, but be ready, just in case.”

Mags stepped in front of Tulip, her new dagger itching in her palm. She heard rather than saw Dreg lumber up behind her, his breaths labored, and she couldn’t help but turn and look as she heard Surzl approach with Isa.

Surzl was a mess, her red robes dyed a deeper crimson with fresh blood—mostly her own, by the look of her. Even as Mags watched, the flame acolyte laid one of her hands over a long, angry wound down her side and muttered under her breath, hissing as the blood flow there was staunched and the torn flesh seemed to knit back together. When she reached Tulip, Surzl did the same for her.

“You retain your Lady’s blessing,” Sxorax said by way of greeting, addressing Surzl. She raised an eyebrow in exaggerated surprise. “A boon indeed for one made Clanless.”

Mags saw a glint of fury in Surzl’s eyes. The flame acolyte opened her mouth, but Mags shot her a meaningful look, silently pleading for caution.

Mags might have been imagining it—or not—but waves of heat seemed to rise off Surzl’s bloodied frame as she turned to the Shadowtongue and said only, “I serve at my Lady’s pleasure.”

“I’m sorry, who are you now?” Tulip said to Sxorax, looking irritated.

“Tulip, this is Sxorax of the Rockbreaker tribe, Blooded of Neegosh. Sxorax, meet Tulip Dreadyowl, our leader.”

Isa snorted at that, and it was all Mags could do not to deck her on the spot. Didn’t she understand how important at least the appearance of unity was at a time like this?

“Hi, new goblins,” Dreg said, grinning down at them.

Surzl tugged at his leg and gestured for him to lift her up. He did so, and she whispered something in his ear.

“Oh!” The ogre said, his eyes alight with understanding. Then he set Surzl on his shoulder and his smile faded, replaced by a slightly constipated expression.

He’s trying to look intimidating . . . on purpose, Mags realized. He was failing terrifically at it, but his immense bulk still made him an imposing figure to anyone their size. And the Rockbreakers had already seen what he was like in battle. Sxorax was smart; she wouldn’t be eager to test his strength.

Sure enough, all four Rockbreakers eyed Dreg cautiously.

“You’ve nothing to fear from our ogre friend,” Mags said. “As long as you keep your word.”

Sxorax smiled toothily. “I intend to. Although I wonder if Tulip would be interested in trading us some of her spoils from the battle for something of ours—of equal value, of course.”

Mags blinked, following Sxorax’s gaze to that fancy warhammer Tulip had picked up. According to goblin tradition, she who scrounged the pickings first was the new, rightful owner of that property—at least until someone else bargained for or stole it, fair and square.

“I like how it’s weighted,” Tulip said, hefting it experimentally. “Think I’ll keep it.”

“Surely you’d at least wish to know what we’ll offer you for it.” Sxorax gestured to Nilbur, who came forward with a pair of bloody boots.

“You want to give me a pair of boots for a fine hammer like this?” Tulip scoffed.

“Perhaps you’ve never seen boots like these,” Sxorax said. “They’re quite magical. How do you think that dunderfooted scout managed to sneak up on us unheard when we were spying on this camp? The wretch used some sort of sleeping powder to knock us out. There may be more of it on him, or in the wagon. Nilbur, go and see. That would be nice to have.”

Dutifully, Nilbur did as he was bidden, first handing the boots off to Nogga.

Magic boots that made you as quiet as that scout had been—he’d gotten the drop on her too, Mags remembered sourly, even if she’d meant to get caught—must be worth far more than a finely made warhammer. That is, unless—

“Isa,” Mags said, “you can see if things are magic, can’t you? Take a look at those boots. And the warhammer, too.”

Sxorax’s wide, friendly smile did not falter, but Mags thought it looked a tad forced for just a moment. Ah ha! So the warhammer was magical. Probably very magical, if she wanted it enough to trade the boots without even haggling over them.

Isa blinked once and her eyes went a solid, metallic grey color, the same as her tentacles. She turned to look at the boots first, then the hammer. “Ahhh!” she shrieked, shielding her eyes. “It burns! Oorn doesn’t like it. Give it to them and take the boots instead. They’re both magical. He says the boots will be good for Mags.”

“Wouldn’t mind having boots like that,” Mags said. “But the hammer is clearly more valuable. What is it, some sort of relic of the humans’ god?” She gestured at the bodies of the fallen knights and the priestess. “The woman and both knights wore the same symbol.”

“I couldn’t say,” Sxorax shrugged, sounding bored.

Mags didn’t believe her for a second.

“I’m keeping it,” Tulip said, sliding it into a harness she picked up from the fallen knight. “But thanks for the offer.”

“Suit yourself,” Sxorax shrugged. “Now to conclude our business,” she turned back to Mags. “I promised you information. There are four traps in the secret passage I told you of. The first is laughably obvious, meant to lull intruders into a false sense of security. If you can’t see that one for yourself, the rest of what I tell you is useless. The second trap is a series of blades that whirl up from the floor, cutting the legs out from under everyone in a ten-foot radius. It’s triggered by a cleverly concealed pressure plate you’ll find twelve paces in front of the first bend in the passage.”

Mags nodded, filing away every word as Sxorax briefly explained where the rest of the traps were located, what dangers they held, and how to avoid them. During the Shadowtongue’s recitation, the little rogue was dimly aware of Tulip staring over at Mags in surprise, and even Surzl looking impressed from her perch on Dreg’s shoulder. Not known for her—admittedly abysmal—social skills, Mags felt a slight upwelling of pride at their notice of her successful negotiation with an important member of a rival tribe. Sxorax also relayed that the Bouldermaws would be sending many of their warriors out for a traditional giant bat hunt the morning after tomorrow—timing that, given the group’s current distance from the mountain, would work in their favor. Only two dozen of the clan’s best warriors would be left behind, guarding their home.

Only two dozen?” Isa screeched.

“Hopefully we’ll be in and out before they all know we’ve been there,” Tulip said.

“That’s the plan,” Mags said. Then she turned back to Sxorax. “Where’s their hoard? You didn’t say.”

Sxorax smiled. “Ah. That information was not part of our bargain.” The Shadowtongue shrugged apologetically. “Of course, if you were to offer us the hammer . . . ” She trailed off meaningfully.

Mags silently cursed herself. It was true. She had forgotten to ask about the layout of the caves before the deal was struck. Neegosh’s Balls.

“No thanks,” Tulip said to Sxorax. “With what you’ve told us, I’m sure we can find it.”

“If you say so.” Sxorax shrugged. Nilbur had returned while she’d been speaking, his arms heaped with the rest of their group’s equipment and, Mags wagered, a sack or two of plunder. Nogga and Muzzr, meanwhile, had stripped the rest of the weapons and the odd bit of armor off the rest of the dead, along with any coin they’d found. They picked over the equipment, taking some and leaving the rest.

Sxorax herself took nothing from the loot pile, but as her warriors finished arming themselves, she inclined her head politely to the Horntooths. “Until we meet again then. Good luck. I imagine you’ll need it.”

“Goodbye,” Mags said guardedly, still anxious that the Rockbreakers might attack them. Sxorax had fulfilled her end of the bargain now, so nothing was stopping her—except maybe Dreg. Mags saw the ogre was crouched over the dead priestess, prying something small and shiny out of her stiffening fingers. Back on the ground now, Surzl was standing near him, her eyes warily on the Rockbreakers. One of the flame acolyte’s hands was poised as if ready to grasp her holy amulet at a moment’s notice.

Sxorax lingered a moment longer regarding their group, her expression impossible to read. Then she turned and began to walk away, the other Rockbreakers falling in line behind her. Nilbur gave Mags a dirty look over his shoulder, but followed it with a subtle nod of respect.

There were a few moments of silence while Mags and the others watched the Rockbreakers go, making sure they were really leaving. But once they disappeared into the hills—

“That was . . . ” Tulip scratched her head, then she threw out her hands in consternation, seeming unable to find the words she sought. “How did you do that? Get her to tell us all of that?”

“The real question is, can we trust a word of it?” Surzl growled. “Or, if it is true, whether she’ll just go running ahead of us to the Bouldermaws and tell them which way we’re coming.”

“It was the truth,” Mags insisted. “She swore on the blood of Neegosh to tell me what I asked in good faith if I broke them out of the cage. No Shadowtongue would ever break that sort of promise.”

“Hmmph. I suppose you’re right,” Surzl said. “But as for the rest . . . ”

“She could go tell them we’re coming. We just have to hope she doesn’t, or that we get there first, I guess. Unless . . . ” Mags looked pointedly at Tulip’s new hammer.

“I said no,” Tulip growled. “If this thing is really as powerful as you say, better for it not to fall into another tribe’s hands.”

“Okay,” Mags said, hoping Tulip was right. “We shouldn’t stay here, just in case they do decide to double back and take us by surprise. Let’s find somewhere safer to rest for a bit and get you guys bandaged up. But then we should be on our way.”

Tulip nodded. “Let’s see what they left us first,” she said. “We could use more food, if there’s any left.” She headed for the wagon.

Mags followed, sparing a glance back at Surzl. The flame acolyte hefted a discarded shield, peered critically at it, and then tossed it aside in disgust; it looked well-made, but was much too big for her to use.

As Mags and Tulip walked, the big warrior spoke again. “Did you hear what that Sxorax said? We’re almost there. Only two days now.” Tulip paused, hesitating before she continued. “That was smart, making that deal. You did good, Mags.”

Mags grinned, her heart swelling at the praise. It was the nicest thing Tulip had ever said to her. Emboldened, Mags lowered her voice as they ranged out of earshot of the others. “Did you think we’d make it this far?”

Tulip gave her a dirty look. “Of course I did,” she said flatly, clearly lying and not being very subtle about it.

Mags laughed, hopping up into the wagon. “Yeah,” she said. “Same here.”

As they rummaged through what was left of the humans’ stores, an ear-piercing shriek suddenly sounded from the other side of the ruined camp. Mags and Tulip shared a strained look, both turning to leap down from the wagon in the same breath, a now-forgotten wheel of cheese falling from Mags’ grasp.

A hundred increasingly awful thoughts crowded Mags’ mind. At the top of this list: Were the Rockbreakers back? What if they’d had reinforcements hiding nearby all along? What if Isa, Surzl and Dreg were already captured or dead?

Her boots hit the ground, Tulip just a step behind her. The weight of Mags’ new dagger was a welcome comfort in her hand as she careened around a corner between tents, taking in the scene unfolding before her.

Next: Episode 9


One Comment Add yours

  1. carol says:

    Just did a Sunday morning marathon catch up with the gang. Good job, Niece!

    Liked by 1 person

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