Previous: Episode 8
Looming over Isabog where she lay on the ground, Surzl glowered at her crumpled form. Stupid warlock. Ruznabiyug’s fury, she’d really done it this time.
Nearby, Dreg was sobbing into his racoon’s fur, the creature chittering anxiously as it nuzzled his roughened, tear-stained cheek.
Tulip skidded to a stop nearby, her new warhammer clutched in both hands. Her eyes swept the horizon for danger, then took on a confused expression at finding none. “What happened?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
Mags was just a step behind her, the little rogue’s eyes narrowing as she saw Dreg in distress, and then widening at the sight of Isabog lying motionless on the ground before Surzl. Tulip finally saw Isa too, and rushed to the warlock’s side.
“Is she—?” Mags started, looking in alarm from Isabog to Dreg and back to Surzl.
“She’s fine,” Surzl waved a hand dismissively. “Or at least, she will be after I heal her. But that can wait. First let’s have a look at you,” she said to the ogre, surveying his wounds from the battle. Several arrows protruded from his chest and shoulder, his legs were marred with slashed gouges, and a new set of still-smoking char marks smoldered on his left forearm.
Dreg backed away from her, as though afraid to let her touch him, and she scowled up at him. “Sit,” she growled, but he only shook his head stubbornly, still blubbering.
Mags’ eyes followed Surzl’s to the burn marks on Dreg’s arm. “Who did that to you?” the little rogue demanded, turning to glare at Surzl. Surzl glared back, a little insulted. Never mind that he was fifteen times her size; attacking Dreg would be like sucker-punching a youngling. Not that that seemed to stop some.
Dreg only howled louder at Mags’ question, fresh tears flowing down his face.
Tulip knelt to examine Isa, turning her over and revealing the ugly bruise forming across her face and left shoulder. “Who did this to her?” Tulip growled, looking up at Dreg.
“Didn’t mean to,” Dreg wailed. “Dreg would never hurt goblin friends.”
Surzl gave a short, frustrated sigh. “Isa attacked him,” she said, “over a bauble he picked up off the priestess. She wanted it, but he didn’t want to give it up. So she threatened him. And when he still wouldn’t hand it over, she tried to take it from him. Zapped him pretty good. I think he was more shocked than anything, because he batted her away and, well . . . ” She gestured down to the crumpled form of the warlock at their feet.
Dreg looked down at them, his face a mask of woe. “Now goblins won’t want Dreggie to stay. Just like the other ogres.”
Mags softened, going over and patting Dreg on the leg. “It’s alright. Why don’t you sit so Surzl can take those arrows out. Look, she’s already healed herself and Tulip. Don’t they both look better now?”
Dreg looked Tulip and then Surzl over, quieting some. Indeed, Surzl was feeling much better, though she’d have to wash and mend her robes later. Filthy humans. “Sit,” she growled up at the ogre again, pointing to the ground in front of her.
Hanging his head, Dreg took a few shaky steps toward her and folded his legs under himself, sinking into the grass. He held his raccoon close, his teary face half-buried in the creature’s stripy fur.
Surzl propped Dreg’s uninjured knee up so she could stand on it to reach his chest and climbed up. “Stay still,” she said. “I’m going to take the arrows out. This will hurt.”
Dreg nodded. Surzl reached for the first arrow, took a firm grip of it, and yanked it out. Dreg winced, but otherwise didn’t move a muscle. Surzl tossed the bloodied arrow to the ground and reached for another one. Meanwhile, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mags plop down in the grass next to Dreg, her small knee brushing his hip. The ogre seemed to calm, heaving a great sigh and wiping his face with the back of one hand.
Tulip, though, stood guard over Isa’s prone body, her eyes still sweeping the horizon for any sign of further threat. “Why did the other ogres want you to leave?” the big warrior asked Dreg, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Tulip,” Mags said warningly, earning a scowl from their leader.
But Dreg answered, his shoulders drooping still lower. “Because Dreg so small.”
“Small?!” Tulip barked.
Dreg flinched as if struck, his lower lip trembling. “They call Dreg ‘runt.’ Push Dreg around. Ogres not very nice. Not like goblin friends.”
Huh, Surzl thought, scowling from the ogre to Mags next to him. That explained quite a bit, actually.
“We don’t want you to go anywhere,” Mags said. “Right, Tulip?” The little rogue shot Tulip a stubborn glare.
The two of them eyed each other tensely for a moment, but then Tulip shrugged. “Right,” she said. “Isa should have been smarter than to try to take something you’d claimed. I get it was an accident, but you need to be careful, too. We need each one of us at our strongest for what lies ahead.” Tulip scowled, still talking to Dreg, but not quite looking at him, a note of begrudging acceptance in her tone. “That means you too.”
At this, Dreg beamed and nodded profusely, until Surzl slapped him on his uninjured shoulder to remind him to be still. He straightened up at once, all obedience. “Dreg be very careful. Dreg sorry.” He looked down at Surzl, his eyes still wet with tears. “Weird goblin okay, right?”
“Yes,” Surzl said. “For all that I’d like to be rid of her, she’s going to be just fine.” She pulled the last arrow and tossed it onto the pile with the rest. Then she put her hand on Dreg’s chest, over one of the bleeding wounds. “Dreg, I’m going to heal you now, but it’ll hurt when I do it. Just for a moment. That’s how my magic works. Do you understand?”
“Yes, angry goblin. Dreg remember. Dreg stay very still.” But he reached one big trembling hand out for Mags’ smaller one. Coloring slightly with what Surzl took to be embarrassment, Mags ducked her head, took his hand, and held it. Surzl smirked.
Even so, a spark of warmth kindled in Surzl’s chest. She cleared her throat. That was just her magic responding to her summons. Obviously.
Her face a mask of cool, clinical regard for the task at hand, Surzl centered her breathing and channeled the fiery healing power of Ruznabiyug into mending torn flesh. Dreg grunted and stiffened briefly under her burning touch, but then heaved a relieved sigh as his wounds scabbed over and then faded to red splotches of new, tender skin.
“There,” she said, peering critically at her work. “That’s better.”
She bent one knee to hop down, but before she could, Dreg picked her up and set her down next to him, his movements slow, measured, painstakingly gentle. “Thanks, angry goblin.”
“I’m not angry at you,” Surzl told him, brushing a glare at Mags.
“What did I do?” Mags asked, startled.
“You–” Surzl grasped for something to say, “breathe too loud. And get yourself into stupidly dangerous situations. You nearly got the rest of us killed, you know, with your dumb plan.”
“Her dumb plan worked, Surzl,” Tulip cut in. “And we’re all okay.”
“Well, she could at least have told me what she was up to, before rushing off like that.”
Tulip barked a laugh. “Huh. She’s mad because she was worried about you, Mags.”
At this, Mags blushed three shades darker than before, blinking furiously.
Fury boiled up from Surzl’s center. “I certainly was not. If Mags wants to get herself killed, that’s her business. But she can leave the rest of us out of it,” she finished, grabbing her things and stalking off.
“Where are you going?” Tulip called angrily after her. “You still have to heal Isa.”
“Oh, Neegosh take Isa!” Surzl yelled, tossing off a rude gesture behind her back. She wasn’t sure where the hells she was going, truth be told, but at this point she didn’t care. She needed just five minutes away from these idiots. Just a little peace and quiet so she could think. And commune with her goddess. And maybe figure out how to unwind the awful knot of anxiety in her belly.
Pfft. Not that that had anything to do with that runt, Mags. It was the quest that mattered. Surzl had so much to set to rights. The insult to Ruznabiyug must be answered with blood. This stupid Great Shiny thing must be retrieved and brought back home so their exile could be ended. And after all that, they still had a declining clan to rebuild and strengthen. How was she supposed to do all of that with these fools tripping her up at every turn?
Surzl found a shady spot on the other side of a boulder and hunkered down to rest a moment, plucking a long blade of grass from nearby and worrying it in between her fingers.
Yet again, they’d nearly failed today, nearly died. When that guard’s swords had slashed into Surzl, she’d never been so frightened in all her life. Okay, that wasn’t true. The near-drowning the other day had been worse. Mags getting poisoned by the Toadcrunchers and lying inches from death while Surzl just sat around completely useless, unable to help her—that had been worse.
Ugh. Why was she still thinking about that anyway? That had been days ago. In the end, she had done something. Ruznabiyug herself had shown her how to cure the poison, had spoken to her. And the new spell had lingered, there to be called on again at a moment’s notice if needed.
I will avenge that fool Smung’s insult to you, Brightness, Surzl prayed. If it is the last thing I do on this Material Plane. She bowed her head. I remain your willing servant. Use me as you see fit. And help me to do your will.
She waited a moment, willing her mind to stillness and waiting to see if any answer might come, if Ruznabiyug might speak to her again. But there was only silence beyond the sound of a breeze that picked up, whiffling through the tall grass. Even so, that knot in her belly eased a measure as she sat and centered herself, focusing on her breath, on the quiet, on her connection to the Dancer in the Flames. She heaved a deep sigh and rolled her neck and shoulders, releasing some of the pent-up tension trapped there. In the distance, she saw Dreg lumbering roughly in her direction, the unconscious form of Isabog slung over his shoulder. She gave herself another few moments, then stood, shoving her anger with her companions aside for now.
She’d better rejoin them. Gods only knew what sort of disaster they might blunder into without her around to watch their stupid backs.
Isa awoke the next morning, her jaw and shoulder still smarting from the blow that nasty ogre had fetched her. Her gut still seethed with fury at how unfairly she’d been treated. None of these morons appreciated her as they ought to! Did they think warlocks of her power and skill just grew on trees? Adding insult to injury, puny, nasty little Mags was wearing the pretty brooch that Dreg had refused to give Isa. Not fair!
Not fair at all, Oorn agreed with a tsk. Once all of this is over and we get that nasty thing off your arm, some changes will be in order.
Yeah, Isa agreed. It’s about time I was in charge of this shitshow of a group.
Of these peons? Oorn chuckled. Oh, my dear. Think bigger.
Bigger? You mean, like, the whole clan?
There was a pointed pause. Then—Bigger.
Isa chewed on that for a while. What was bigger than the Horntooth clan? Her head hurt trying to parse what Oorn meant. Bigger. Hmm. All the clans?
Oorn made no comment, but Isa sat up in her bedroll and smiled. Yeah. All the clans. Now we were talking.
Looking around, the group seemed to have left the plains behind last night while Isa was out. They were camped in a rocky canyon strewn with boulders almost as big as Dreg, rust-colored hills rising in every direction. It was warm here, too, the cool morning air already being chased away as the sun, still hanging low over the eastern hills, began to bear down on the world.
“Good. You’re finally awake,” Tulip said, startling Isa. The warrior was standing right behind her.
Isa glared up at Tulip, noting the huge, prone form of Dreg sleeping off to one side, his back curled against a boulder. “And I see that thing is still with us. He’s dangerous, you know. Why, he nearly killed me!”
“As I understand it, you started it,” Tulip said, her tone gallingly nonchalant.
“I—what?” Isa spluttered. “Says who?”
“Says me,” Surzl answered, already neatly rolling up her own bedroll nearby. “But that’s all over with now. We have more important things to deal with, so best put it behind you. We certainly have.”
Isa glared from the flame acolyte to Tulip.
But Tulip fixed Isa with a stare of her own. “Surzl is right. Enough squabbling. We need to stay focused on the big picture. Be ready to leave in ten minutes. Lot of ground to cover today.” Tulip tossed a hunk of moldy bread and some jerky into Isa’s lap.
Isa muttered under her breath about ungrateful wretches and big dumb bullies, but realized she hadn’t eaten since breakfast yesterday as her stomach growled at the scent of the moldy bread. Angrily, she tore off a piece and ate it. And another after that. The green fuzz it bore gave it an acrid mustiness that delighted her senses. As she savored this, she felt a mental shudder from Oorn and rolled her eyes. So squeamish. Silly Oorn.
A disdainful sniff populated her thoughts and she laughed, washing the dry bread down with the last of the water in the hollowed-out gourd she used as a canteen. The jerky she stuffed into her pockets, saving that for the walk. Noticing that her robes were dirty and stuck with bits of grass, Isa snapped her fingers, using a simple cantrip to get herself instantly, immaculately clean. Surzl glanced over as she did this, and Isa saw that though the acolyte’s own robes had been hastily mended and scrubbed, they still bore blood stains.
“You’re looking positively shabby this morning,” Isa said, smiling with faux sympathy at the acolyte. “How dreadful.” Isa picked an imaginary piece of fuzz off her own now-clean robes, and then flicked a look of distaste Surzl’s way. Oh, she could clean Surzl’s clothes up the same way she’d done her own, and they both knew it. But why do that when it was ever so much more fun to lord being clean over the haughty acolyte—especially given that dear Surzl was much too proud to ask for Isa’s help?
Isa laughed, imagining Surzl’s face if she were to ask Isa’s aid in such a task. She amused herself with that image as she got ready to leave, laughing to herself every now and then.
Within a hand span of minutes, they’d packed up their campsite, Mags had jostled Dreg awake, and they were on their way.
When she asked for a drink of someone else’s water an hour into today’s hike, Isa got an earful from Tulip about having neglected to replenish her own supply yesterday before they left the plains.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Isa sniped back, glaring from Tulip to Dreg. “I must have forgotten to while I was unconscious.”
She had the satisfaction of seeing Dreg’s shoulders stoop and his head sag, looking appropriately cowed. After that, Tulip gave Isa half her own water, which left Isa feeling vindicated. She made sure to make a big show of drinking it with great relish in front of Mags and Surzl. What was the deal with them today, anyway? They were both so quiet and withdrawn—nervous about being so close to the Bouldermaw and the party’s intended task, perhaps?
A soft chuckle from Oorn drew Isa up sharp.
What? she asked. What do you know?
I wouldn’t dream of robbing you of the pleasure of figuring it out on your own.
Pleeeease? she wheedled.
You’ll see, was all he replied.
Well . . . she did love surprises. She spent the rest of the morning wondering what might have Surzl and dumb Mags so on edge, imagining wilder and wilder flights of fancy. It certainly made the dull walk more interesting. They hadn’t seen a soul all day, aside from a few birds and lizards and things. That was good, she supposed. Wouldn’t do to run into any Bouldermaws just yet. But all this walking with nothing but rocks, scrub trees, and Tulip’s bulky backside to look at did make for an awfully boring day.
The hills around them rose ever higher, eventually replaced by mountains as the group wound their way up through the foothills, keeping to little used trails and passes. Every now and then, the party would stop in the shadow of a boulder or a cliff, and Mags would scout ahead on her own, making sure the way ahead was clear. At one point, the rogue came creeping back at a snail’s pace. Isa had been about to shout at her to hurry up already when Tulip had actually clapped a hand over Isa’s mouth, the brute.
Turns out that hadn’t been a terrible thing, though, because Mags was moving slowly so as to stay quiet. She’d spotted scouts keeping watch in a section of the pass just up ahead, where there was too long and narrow a stretch to sneak past so many eyes. Laboriously, the party began to backtrack, losing a good two hours in the process. That put everyone in short temper—except big stupid Dreg, who as always, seemed perfectly content to clomp around like he belonged here with the goblins, which he most certainly did not. Isa hadn’t figured out how to get back at him yet for slighting her about the brooch, but he’d learn not to cross her again—one way or another.
The rest of the day passed without incident, a fact which seemed to have everyone else—Tulip in particular—on edge. “Too quiet,” she muttered, over a dinner of cold moldy bread and more jerky. For the second night in a row, the others insisted they dare not risk a fire, so Isa suffered the cold in sullen silence, turning in early, since there was nothing else to do but sleep.
The next morning dawned bright and cool, curling wisps of clouds threading across the sky.
As they ate a hurried breakfast, Mags expressed confidence they’d find the hidden entrance into the Bouldermaws’ caves sometime this morning. “Be ready,” she said, shouldering her pack.
Her words seemed to ignite a buzzing nervousness in the group, which manifested almost as soon as they got underway. Clumsy Surzl tripped over a rock, nearly taking Dreg down with her as he just avoided tripping over her. Luckily, there seemed to be no one around to hear all this commotion, though Tulip and Mags practically shat themselves with anxiety in the aftermath, eyes swiveling this way and that, as though a horde of angry Bouldermaws might boil out of the very ground at any moment. It was all Isa could do to keep from laughing at what a ridiculous sight the rest of them made.
You’re not taking this very seriously, Oorn said. You do realize what we’re about to do is incredibly dangerous?
Well, if things get all that hairy in there, you and I will just cut and run, and leave the rest to rot, she answered with a mental shrug.
If it comes to that, yes, he said. But this thing that we’re here to retrieve . . . we have much need of it, you and me.
Isa blinked in surprise. We do?
It’s quite powerful, he said. And how marvelous it will look, wielded in your pretty hands. Ah, such power to be had.
Isabog preened. Well then. Out loud, she said to the others. “Do we even know what the Great Shiny is? I mean, what does it look like?”
Tulip turned to look at Isa and shrugged. “Ma Snaggl said we’d know it when we see it.”
Suddenly, Surzl froze in place, her eyes going wide, then distant. She stopped so suddenly that Isa nearly walked into her.
“Hey!” Isa barked. “What are you—?” Then the hair on the back of Isa’s neck rose. Surzl bore a surprised, rapt expression. Almost as if—
Then Surzl shook herself a little, as if coming out from under a spell of some sort. Her eyes shone. “She . . . She spoke to me again!” she said. “She showed it to me.”
“Showed what to you?” Mags said, frowning.
“The Great Shiny,” Surzl breathed. “It’s a scepter. A beautiful scepter carved of silver and platinum, with fire birds on either end, wrought in silver, with fiery red gems for eyes.”
“Ruznabiyug talked to you again?” Tulip said, sounding curious but wary. “What did she say?” Near her, Dreg was listening intently, looking confused. Shocker.
“She said I already possess something that will help me to find it, now that I’ve seen it. But what?” Surzl pulled her pack open and, without warning, dumped everything inside it out onto the dusty trail.
“Surzl!” Mags hissed, looking around in alarm as the contents of the acolyte’s pack crashed to the ground. But Surzl had already squatted down to sift through the mess. Strewn about were candles, sticks of incense and a small censer, a few flasks of oil, Surzl’s mess kit and, curiously, a silver snuff box carved with ornate designs.
“Something in there maybe?” Mags said, pointing at the box.
“No, it’s empty,” Surzl said, shaking her head in despair. “There’s nothing here that could help. What could she have meant?”
“I don’t know,” Tulip said, still on high alert, “but we can’t stay here out in the open like this.”
Mags dropped to one knee and reached to scoop some of Surzl’s belongings back into her pack, but the acolyte slapped her hand away in irritation. “I’ll do it,” she snapped. “I don’t need your help.”
Standing behind them, Isabog tittered. So long as Surzl was picking on someone other than her for once, Isa was happy.
A few moments later, they were back on the move, Surzl muttering quietly to herself under her breath, apparently still trying to puzzle out the cryptic message she’d received from on high. Isa rolled her eyes. Relying on something as flighty as a god. What utter rubbish.
Indeed, Oorn agreed smugly. Our arrangement is so much simpler. And far more beneficial to you than what pittance Surzl receives from that piss-poor excuse for a deity she worships.
Isa laughed in agreement and found something new to focus her attention on: the intricate geometric pattern of the brooch Mags had pinned to her bandolier of daggers. What a ridiculous place to display it, first of all. Still more insult to injury. And worse, Isa noticed the brooch emitted a faint aura of magic while flicking her detect magic vision on and off out of boredom. She’d only wanted the thing initially because it was pretty, but magic to boot? Ugh. Now she wanted it more than ever. She couldn’t stop wondering what it did. It passed the time, at least.
Her party members grew more nervous and the talk between them less frequent as the Bouldermaws’ twin-pointed mountain began to loom larger before them. Mags scouted ahead more often the nearer they got, as they carefully skirted around the southeast flank, headed north. As Sxorax had said, this region of the rival clan’s domain seemed sparsely watched. Mags encountered no more scouts, but the group kept low and quiet, just in case.
Finally, they found a narrow ravine like the one that had been described—bristling with nettlebriar, the scree slope gave way to a large section of rockfall against the far wall where the ravine dead-ended. Mags crept ahead again, and came back a few moment later, a grim smile on her face.
“I found it,” she said softly. “Are we ready?” She looked from Tulip to Dreg, Surzl, and finally Isa.
Tulip and Surzl nodded, both looking scared but resolute. Isa thought about making a fuss, but a note of warning leaked from the corner of her mind occupied by Oorn. Ugh. Fine, she groused back at him, shrugging her assent to the others.
And with that, they all crept forward after Mags, even lumbering Dreg taking pains to place his feet carefully, so as not to scatter the stones underfoot. Sure enough, behind two oblong boulders that had fallen one atop the other in a sort of slanted ‘T’, there was a wide tunnel mouth hidden behind a hanging shroud of nettlebriar—just big enough for Dreg to squeeze through, though he’d bear the brunt of the thorns more than the rest of them. And so he did, stepping in just ahead of Isa.
Apparently, the opening narrowed just up ahead however, because the big oaf quickly became stuck.
“Uh oh,” he said, his words muffled since his back half was wedged tightly, and his front half was already through the gap.
Tulip’s head appeared, peering through the ogre’s legs. “Isa, help him!” she hissed
“Ugh,” she said. “How?”
“Push!” Tulip growled.
Isa shot Tulip a death, but she had already ducked back out of the way. Hmmph. “Oh, fine. Honestly,” Isa grumbled. Begrudgingly, Isa placed her hands on Dreg’s odious backside and gave him a little shove.
He grunted, but didn’t budge.
Grimacing, Isa set her feet and put her shoulder into it, pushing harder. Pity she didn’t have some sort of spell for this.
Tulip’s head appeared again. “It’s not working. Are you even trying?”
“Of course, I’m trying,” Isa snapped. “You think I like having my hands this close to an ogre’s . . . ” Isa cringed and made a disgusted noise rather than finish that thought.
Dreg made a huffy, embarrassed noise, still trying to squeeze himself through to no avail.
“Hold on,” Tulip said, testing to see if she could squeeze in between Dreg’s legs. “I’m coming to help.”
“I don’t . . . need . . . your help,” Isa ground out, pushing with all her might. Oh, for Holvrgoshrr’s sake this was getting them nowhere. “Hold on,” she told Tulip, putting a hand on the warrior’s forehead and giving her an ungentle shove backward. “I have an idea.”
Tulip gave a growl of protest, but allowed herself to be pushed back through to the other side.
Backing up ten paces, Isa focused on the inner ring of stone that had Dreg pinned. Raising one hand, she summoned one of her arcane spears of force.
“What weird goblin doing?” he asked nervously, his voice still coming muffled through the stone.
“You’ll see,” she said sweetly, and flicked one finger forward at the lip of stone around his waist.
The arcane spear slammed half into the rocky tunnel and half into Dreg himself, a spray of sharp stone hitting him as well. But she’d done just enough damage to the opening to widen it slightly. With a frightened cry of surprise, Dreg fell forward. Isa strolled in casually after him, purposely stepping on his hand and grinning at the dirty looks Mags, Tulip, and Surzl were giving her—not to mention the expression of surprised hurt on Dreg’s face as he hauled himself to his feet, rubbing his sore backside.
There. That would teach the big oaf better than to slight Isabog again.
“That wasn’t very nice,” he said, checking to make sure his pets were alright. But they seemed to have come to no harm.
“It worked,” Isa said, shrugging. “What are we all waiting for?” she asked, shoving her way right past the others.
Mags lunged into motion, a warning her eyes. “Wait!” she said.
Isa turned her head to look over her shoulder at the scrawny little rogue, her feet still moving her forward. “I thought we were in a hurry?” Isa scoffed.
Just then, Mags’ expression of warning gave way to horror, as there came a quiet but clear click under Isa’s left foot where it met the dusty stone floor.
Next Episode: October 28