ShinyQuest, by Julia Watson. Episode 11

Previous: Episode 10

Reacting on instinct, Surzl’s hand flew to her holy symbol, the words of her incantation whispered in such a rush that the syllables ran together like one long word: “aquiestravaobscura.” The illusion she’d summoned instantly sprang up around her party, creating the image of an empty hallway where the five of them stood. Having cast it, she could see through it. But would it fool the Bouldermaw guards?

Already, one was turning in their direction, reacting perhaps to the soft snick of the leather clasps that held Tulip’s warhammer in its harness as she reached back to free it. The weapon now in her hands, Tulip’s stance shifted. She was going to attack and ruin everything!

But then Mags moved to stand in front of Tulip, her footfalls so light they didn’t make a sound. The little rogue held her arms out to her sides, shaking her head, and looked from Tulip to Dreg, who was standing in the back next to Surzl and Isa. Surzl gulped; the rogue had turned her back to the Bouldermaw. If they saw through the illusion. . .

Tulip blinked in surprise, but Mags held up a finger to her lips, her meaning clear. Surzl risked a quick look at Dreg to see the ogre standing stock still, his face screwed up in a mix of confusion and concentration, as if he could keep himself from making any noise from sheer force of will. His pet raccoon poked its banded nose and eyes out from the sling it was carried in, took one look at Surzl, blinked, and disappeared again without a sound.

Two steps out of the doorway that had opened, the lead guard stopped, his hand going to the hilt of the dogslicer sheathed at his hip. “Did you hear somethin’?” he asked his fellows, eyeing the spot where the party stood, but not reacting to their presence.

Surzl tried not to even breathe.

“Sure did,” said the badly scarred female behind him. “I heard my gut grumbling for breakfast. So move, why don’t you?”

The first guard growled, taking another step toward the party. He was within arm’s distance of Mags now. If he but took another step forward—oh gods.

Surzl saw a bead of sweat drip down Mags face, but the rogue held her position, still not moving an inch.

“Bah!” the guard spat and turned—thankfully before he could see that the glob of phlegm he’d launched never hit the floor, having been intercepted by Mags’ invisible (to him, anyway) boots. The other three guards didn’t so much as look back as they followed him further down the hallway, eventually turning down a distant corridor to the right.

As soon as they were out of sight, Mags let out a long sigh of relief. “That was close,” she said and gave Surzl an approving smile. “Fast thinking.”

Surzl nodded stiffly back at the rogue, an uncharacteristic blush creeping to her cheeks. Piqued at this, she scrubbed at her face with the back of one hand. Honestly. What was wrong with her today? She was Surzl Foultooth, Flametouched of Ruznabiyug. So why did she suddenly feel like she had a belly full of butterflies?

“Yeah, good thinking, Surzl,” said Tulip, her voice likewise pitched low and quiet. “We better get moving. How far to the Shiny?”

Shrugging off her nerves, Surzl reached for her magically enhanced sense of where the Shiny lay ahead and her heart sank. Where before there had been a distinct, bright ping in her mind that indicated her relative direction and distance from item they sought, now there was . . . nothing.

Surzl gulped, turning panicked eyes to Tulip. “Uh,” she began. “Well. It was that way.” She pointed down the hall and to the left.

“Was?” Tulip hissed, her eyes narrowing. “What do you mean was?”

“I lost the spell to locate it,” Surzl admitted. “Probably when I cast the illusion to hide us from the guards.”

“Well, cast it again,” Tulip said.

“I can’t,” Surzl growled back. “I cast that one from a scroll, remember?”

Tulip shifted impatiently. “So cast it from the scroll again.”

“That’s not how it works!”

“Shh!” Mags hissed. When she spoke, her calm voice was pitched low, quiet, reminding Surzl to keep her head. “Do you remember what direction it was?”

“That way,” Surzl said, pointing down the corridor and off ahead to the left. “Not too far off.”

Mags turned expectantly to Tulip, who blinked and cleared her throat. “Right,” the big warrior said. “That way then. Mags?”

Without a nod, Mags moved to the front of the group to take point, moving on near-silent feet and checking around corners at each intersection they came to before beckoning the rest of them after her. As they turned left at the end of this long hall, the path led upwards, curving around to the left before opening up into another, shorter corridor—this one a straight shot for about two hundred feet. There were several niches lining this hall that made Surzl nervous as they crept forward—the perfect place, those, for someone to hide in the shadows. But Mags continued on, waiving them forward, and no shadowy figures emerged to menace their group.

Finally, the hall ended in a pair of massive—by goblin standards—double doors wrought of heavy wood bound with iron. Carved into each of these was the snarling face of some sort of fierce beast.

Hope and anxiety warred in Surzl’s gut. Based on the spell she’d cast before, she thought they must be awfully close now. Could the Shiny be lying somewhere just beyond these doors?

She quickened her pace after Mags and Tulip, a flare of excitement emboldening her. Yes. Surely it was just beyond here. Soon they’d have what they’d come for. How humiliated flat-faced old Smung would be when he learned they’d taken it. The thought warmed her.

Mags paused up ahead at the double doors, laying her ear close to them and listening.

The little rogue nodded to the rest of the party as they tip-toed closer. “I don’t hear anything moving inside, but be ready, just in case,” she whispered.

Tulip nodded, her warhammer gripped tightly. Surzl placed a hand on her holy symbol and waited.

Mags tested the doors, but they didn’t budge. Pulling out a set of lockpicks from a leather case at her hip, the little rogue worked for a moment until, with a practiced motion, the lock gave a soft thunk as something inside released.

Surzl braced for whatever lay inside as Mags looked back at the party one more time to make sure they were ready, and a nod from Tulip, pulled the right-side door open.

 

***

 

Mags winced, pausing as the heavy oaken door gave a loud creak. Stupid. She should have taken the time to oil the hinges, but they were in such a hurry; the sooner they got out of here, the better their chances for survival. She looked behind the party, back down the curving hallway, but heard no sign that anyone had heard the noise from the door—no cries of alarm, no thudding pad of oncoming feet. Nothing. Sweet, blessed nothing.

Her stomach roiling like it was full of rocks, Mags gulped in a deep breath to steady her jangly nerves. Grimacing, she exerted pressure on the door again, pulling it open more slowly. It still creaked, but not as loudly this time. And as it swung open, Mags had to resist the urge to whistle in appreciation.

“Holy flames!” Surzl muttered, peering over Mags’ head. “How are we going to find the Shiny in all that?

Inside was a vast chamber filled with heaping piles of riches–broken furniture, moldy tapestries with indecipherable stains, rusted tools and odds and ends, the kind of junk hoard only sung about in Lorescreechers’ tales.

Despite the daunting thought of trying to find a specific item in here, Mags turned to grin at the others. What a find! But Tulip was already moving to shoulder her way past the little rogue.

“Wait!” Mags hissed. “No guards here means there are bound to be more traps.”

“The Shadowtongue didn’t say anything about traps in here,” Tulip growled impatiently.

“She didn’t say anything about ‘in here,’ because that wasn’t part of our deal with her,” Mags said. She quickly checked the ground just in front of the doors and, not finding anything suspicious, waved the others inside and closed the door behind them. “Let me do a quick sweep,” she added, as the others eyed the treasure piles longingly. “In the meantime, don’t touch anything.”

Even as she said this, Mags slapped at Isa’s hands. The warlock was already reaching for a bent iron rod with a tarnished brass ball affixed to one end, but Isa dropped her arms to her sides at Mags’ swat.

“Fine,” Isa said, grousing. “But hurry up!”

Mags made quick work of scouting ahead, moving deliberately and efficiently. Within five minutes, she’d found and either marked or disabled two spiked pit traps, a coil of nearly invisible, razor-sharp wire stretched between two loot piles, and loose stone tile rigged to blow up if you stepped on it. It would take her hours, maybe even days, she realized, to search and clear the entire hoard of traps, but her eyes fell to the dais against one far wall and something gleaming atop a stone altar there.

Mags focused on clearing a path in that direction, getting the others moving again in short order. As a group, they approached the dais, and Surzl gasped in excitement.

“That’s it!” she breathed. Sure enough, she was pointing to stone altar, where a rod just like the one Surzl had described to them lay cradled on bulky stone and metal stand in a place of honor. But the fifteen-foot path leading up to it gave Mags pause. To climb the dais, you had to navigate the steep steps leading up to it, paved unevenly with a variety of differently shaped bocks of stone arranged at jutting angles to one another.

Mags’ stomach sank. The stairway was almost certainly trapped, and amidst such a jumble of surfaces and textures, it would be damn near impossible to ascertain which steps—if any—were safe to stand on.

She turned to the party find they were all staring at her expectantly.

“Well?” Tulip said. “What are you waiting for?”

“I—” Mags wrung her hands. “I could spend weeks trying to figure out where the traps are on those stairs, and even then—”

Isa glared down at her and Mags felt as though she’d shrunk down even shorter in comparison to the others.

“So you’re saying we can’t use the stairs,” Tulip said. “Then how in the hell are we getting up there to that thing?”

Wasting no time, Surzl held up one arm while clutching her holy symbol in the other, summoning the floating arcane duplicate of her hand. Casting the hand forward, it flew up over the stairs to the top of the dais and grasped the jeweled rod on the display, yanking at it. But the Shiny didn’t budge.

“I can’t—” Surzl said, sticking her tongue out in concentration as her conjured hand pulled and strained to no avail. “It won’t—budge. Blast and char!”

“Well, we have to think of something,” Tulip said.

“Like you ever think of anything,” Isa mumbled under her breath. Mags winced.

“What did you say?!” Tulip said hotly, taking a menacing step toward the warlock.

“Focus,” Mags said. “And keep your voices down.”

Tulip glared over at her, but backed off, saying to Isabog, “I’ll deal with you later.”

Mags felt a heavy tap at her shoulder and looked up to see Dreg looming over her.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Dreg have idea,” he said brightly.

“You do?” Surzl asked, surprised.

“Dreg strong. Dreg could throw small goblin up onto altar. Then not have to step on stairs.”

“That’s not bad,” Isa said, “But then how does she get back down?”

“Oh,” Dreg said, his shoulders slumping. “Not think of that.”

“No, no,” Surzl said. “That could work, only—” she looked up at Dreg, raising a single eyebrow. “Could you throw both me and Mags?”

Mags turned to Surzl in surprise. Mags was nimble enough that she was unlikely to have any trouble landing on the altar without falling to the floor below it—which looked to be covered in the same uneven—and likely trapped to the high heavens—flagstones as the stairs. Surzl, on the other hand, was notoriously clumsy.

Dreg shrugged. “Sure. Dreg throw two goblins as easy as one.”

“Surzl,” Mags started, unsure.

“Look,” the flame acolyte interrupted. “It’s easy. We tie a rope around my waist and have Tulip hang on to the other end. Then Dreg throws us up there. We grab the Shiny—Mags can figure out how to get it loose. Once we have it, I’ll levitate myself while Mags holds onto me and I hold onto the Shiny. We’ll be floating then, and you guys can just pull us back over to you with the rope.”

Mags blinked. That was actually a pretty good plan—providing Surzl could stick the landing and they didn’t activate any traps while standing on the altar and breaking the Shiny loose from whatever was holding it in place.

There was a brief silence as she mulled it over. Then—

“I like it,” Tulip said. “Let’s do it.”

Mags gulped and looked up at Dreg. “Okay. But throw me first. Then Surzl. Very carefully, okay, Dreg?”

“Yep,” Dreg said, beaming down at her. He looked so happy to be helping that she had to smile back, even as her mind spun with all the ways this plan could go wrong.

While Tulip tied a rope around Surzl’s waist, Dreg reached down and Mags stepped into his cupped palm. She saw Dreg screw his face up in concentration as he brought back his arm, and she focused all her own attention on landing on the stone altar next to the Shiny—and not the uneven stone floor near it. The next thing she knew, she was hurtling through the air toward the altar in a tight arc. Twisting in mid-air as she saw she might overshoot her mark a bit, Mags shifted her weight and dropped to the right side of the altar, her boots hitting the wide granite slab with a soft slap as she threw her arms out to keep her balance.

Instinctively, Mags hunkered down, braced and ready for something awful to happen as soon as she made contact, but the stone was sure and solid under her feet, the vast, cavernous room silent except for the relieved sigh she let out then.

Mags held up a warning hand to Dreg to hold off throwing Surzl for a moment while she did a quick check of the rest of the altar. It looked clear of traps, at least on the empty, flat expanse away from the center. She’d deal with that in a moment, but first—

“Okay,” Mags called quietly down to Dreg. “Now, Surzl. Aim her for this side, next to me, so I can help her if—” Mags trailed off, deciding not to finish that sentence, or even that thought. No sense tempting fate.

Dreg gently picked Surzl up and hauled his arm back a second time, while Tulip carefully let out plenty of slack on the rope, holding tightly to its other end. Mags locked eyes with Surzl, focused on every movement of hers and Dreg’s, ready to anticipate exactly where the acolyte would land so she’d know best how to ensure she did so safely.

With a hurling motion, Dreg tossed Surzl the same way he’d done with Mags. But where the little rogue hadn’t had offered any resistance in mid-air, the rope seemed to weigh the flame acolyte down—and the arc of her mid-air trajectory began to drop much too quickly. She was going to crash into the steps!

“Surzl,” Mags hissed. “Look out!”

Surzl reached for her holy symbol and spat the word, “Volus,” throwing her hands out to protect her face as she went crashing down toward the unforgiving edge of one of the stairs—and stopped short just before impact, suddenly rising ten feet up into the air, halfway to the ceiling of the room.

Mags let out a hissing breath. Surzl was safe, but she was five feet away from altar, and the spot where she was floating was seven feet higher than the top of the altar on which Mags stood. Great, Mags thought. Just great.

With another wave of Surzl’s hand, though, her arcane hand reappeared and began tugging the rope attached to the flame acolyte dragging her directly over the altar and Mags.

“Get the Shiny,” Surzl called down softly. “Then just climb the rope and hang on.”

Mags nodded. Neegosh’s balls. Maybe this plan would work after all.

Mags saw Tulip give a nervous glance at the door. “Do you hear something?” she asked, a spike of alarm stabbing at her.

“No,” the big warrior said. “But the longer we stay here, the more chance we’re discovered. Hurry!”

Like Mags needed reminding. She took a knee and examined the contraption holding the Shiny in place. The rod was just as Surzl had described it—a graceful braid of silver and platinum, each end was capped with a platinum firebird, tiny flame-like wings outstretched, with shining red gems for eyes. From a distance, the device that held it looked like a simple stand, but up close, now Mags could see the rod was actually clamped into place with twin vice-like mechanisms carved from solid stone reinforced with heavy iron bars.

Each vice had a knob on the back that could be spun to loosen the vice’s grip—but doing so enough to release the Shiny would push a jutting piece of stone on the back the vice into an odd-looking structure that loomed over the whole thing. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Mags raised up on her tippy toes to examine this.

She ran one finger gently over the surface of the groove where each block would press when the vices were unscrewed.

Yep. There were small holes here, rigged to be depressed once the stone extensions fitted themselves into place there. Mags wasn’t sure what kind of trap this action would spring, but it was bound to be a nasty surprise. And there didn’t seem to be any way to get enough slack in those vices to yank the Shiny free without sliding those stone rods into place to trigger it.

Sighing, she looked up at Surzl, floating directly above her.

Surzl gazed back down at her, the acolyte’s face impassive. “Don’t rush,” she said, surprising Mags. “Think your way through it. Breathe.”

Mags did take a deep breath then, realizing she’d been holding hers. She nodded, searching the area around the altar for any clue about what kind of trap she was dealing with. The altar itself was a long rectangle of stone perched atop a more narrow square stone plinth. The wide front end of the table, along with its two shorter sides, were open to the air, while the back side was pushed flush against a façade wall jutting up from the center of the dais. The wall itself was plain and empty, except that just above Mags’ head level, there was some sort of bauble stuck into the stone that gave off a soft glow, illuminating the altar.

“Surzl, see if you can get a look at what’s behind this wall, if anything,” Mags said, scooting forward for a closer look at the altar between the two vices.

Using her arcane hand again, Surzl pulled herself around the side of the wall like a balloon. “Nope,” she said. “It’s just flat.”

Mags sighed and crawled to the nearest side of the stone slab, hooked her feet against one of the vices for leverage, and leaned her head down over the side, wriggling forward until she was angled to see the altar’s stone base. There was a little niche there, but it was dark enough and she was craning to look at just an awkward enough angle, that it was hard to make out the finer details.

With a soft groan, Mags hauled herself back to her feet and stood on her tippy toes to get a better look at the light source in the wall. On closer inspection, it was just an old, cracked crystal doorknob. The dim light it gave off flickered sleepily, as though whatever meager magic it had long ago been imbued with was now fading from it.

Still, it looked damned useful at the moment, and it had been crammed carelessly into a space slightly too small for it. Mags slipped the file from her thieves’ tools kit into a cracked seam in the stone behind the doorknob and, with a wrenching pull, popped it loose into her hand.

“What are you doing?” Tulip hissed.

“Need more light,” Mags answered, and leaned back down over the side, using her new hand-held lamp. By its wavering light, she could see that the depression in the base of the altar concealed a carefully hidden panel. Ah ha! Now she was getting somewhere.

Mags popped back up over the side of the altar and started gathering the slack in the rope attached to Surzl.

“Mags,” Surzl said, “I don’t mean to rush you, but we only have about five minutes left for the levitation.”

“Okay. These vices are definitely trapped, but I think I might have found a way to disable them. I’m gonna tie myself onto the rope so I can get under the altar without touching the floor and get a closer look.”

“That sounds like a marvelous plan,” said a voice from twenty or so feet to the right of where Tulip, Isa, and Dreg stood before the dais.

Mags froze, turning to look.

Standing there was old Smung, a wide grin on his face, as ten Bouldermaw guards fanned out around him.

“Kill them,” he said idly to the guards, the lilt in his otherwise calm voice betraying his glee.

 

***

 

Surzl stared down at Smung’s stupid, smiling face, heated rage flooding her limbs and coalescing into waiting flames at her fingertips.

Without hesitation, she flung out one hand, sending a bolt of fire arcing toward the sneering Bouldermaw shaman, but he neatly dodged to one side, avoiding her attack.

“Foolish girl,” he yelled up to her. “Your pitiful magics can’t hurt me!”

Surzl’s ears went hot with fury at her missed attack, just as she caught a blur of motion beneath her. She spared a glance down at Mags, seeing that little rogue was coiling the rope attached to Surzl around her legs. Locking her foot into one of the loops she’d created, Mags dove off the side of the altar and disappear under it.

A stab of alarm went through Surzl as Mags disappeared, but the rope quickly went taut between them, indicating that it had held. And at least on that side of the altar, Mags would have some cover from the four guards behind Smug now readying crossbows—which was more than she could say for herself at the moment. Surzl said a quick, silent prayer to Ruznabiyug, beseeching her deity to grant Mags quick fingers and keen wits, and to help Surzl to burn her enemies to ash and ruin.

Before the crossbow-wielding guards could fire an opening volley, the other six guards drew scimitars and charged toward the rest of the party where they stood at the foot of the dais. Three went straight for Dreg, chopping at his legs, two of their blades finding their marks. With angry roar, Dreg plucked one of the guards who’d struck him off the ground and threw him back toward Smung. The old shaman once more dodged out of the way, but the thrown guard crashed to the stone floor with bone-shattering force and didn’t get back up.

The next two guards ran at Tulip. She parried the first one’s sword strike with her hammer, but the second landed a might blow on her armored chest that would have felled a lesser opponent. Tulip, though, looked down at the rivulet of blood flowing from the new chink in her thick leather breastplate, and simply grinned down at her shorter attacker, causing him to stumble back in surprise. The final sword-wielding guard slashed at Isabog, leaving a wicked slice across one arm, which she’d thrown up to shield her face from the blow.

The warlock looked furious at having been harmed, and one of her tentacles whipped out at the offending guard and latched onto him, sending such a powerful jolt of electrical energy through him that it left him a smoking, charred husk as he collapsed at Isabog’s feet.

From where she floated precariously over the altar, Surzl cackled. “Your warriors die too easily, Smung,” she called. “Where the fun in that?”

With a growl, the old shaman turned toward her and threw back his arm, lashing it forward in a whip-like motion. In the space between him and her, a line of lightning shot out, crackling its way toward her. It twirled as if about to wrap around her midsection like a strand of rope, but she gripped her holy symbol and uttered a fierce cry, watching with satisfaction as the lure stopped short of reaching her and fizzled out harmlessly.

“You’ll have to do better than that, you old fool!” she shouted, watching Smung’s face begin to purple with rage.

“Don’t just stand there,” he barked to the guards standing by his side. “Shoot her!”

And like that, all four of the guards turned their sights on Surzl and loosed their bolts. Two sailed harmlessly past her, but the other two found their marks in her flesh—one in her thigh, and the other straight through one of her palms. Surzl hissed in pain, cradling her injured hand. The movement caused her to bob unsteadily in the air, but her concentration on her spell held.

Loosing a fierce battle cry, Tulip took a swing at one of the guards who’d rushed up to her, caving in his face with a single blow. On the backswing, she took out another guard, smashing his chest in and sending him tumbling to the ground in a bloodied heap.

Surzl saw the two remaining sword-wielding guards near Dreg take a nervous step back, seeing their fellows so quickly defeated. Those crossbow-wielders, though. Surzl gritted her teeth, felt a flood of power surging out from her holy symbol, and conjured a wicked line of fire that raked out at Smung and two of the guards near him. Quick on their feet, the guards started to dive out of the way, but the line still caught them up, instantly burning them away to nothing. Still spry, but not as fast as the younger goblins under his command, Smung took the full brunt of the spell, one side of his body now sporting angry red weals, his purple robes charred and burned.

The smell of roasting flesh began to fill the cavern, and Surzl threw back her head and howled with glee. The look of surprised horror on Smung’s face as she’d burned him was now seared into Surzl’s memory as one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen.

“You’ll die screaming for that!” he shrieked. But she just laughed.

Surzl felt the rope between her and Mags tighten, and spared a concerned glance at the side of the altar Mags had crawled under, but she still couldn’t see hide nor hair of the little rogue. Whatever Mags was doing, she’d better do it faster.

Following Surzl’s gaze, Smung grinned foully. “A barrel of my finest grog for the goblin who shoots that rope clean through,” he said.

The two remaining crossbow-wielding guards next to him looked at each other nervously, each knocking another bolt into place. Somewhere in the distance behind them, Surzl heard the sound of booted feet—lots of them—running this way. There must be another door on the side of the room Smung and his guards had appeared from. Dammit.

“Reinforcements coming,” she shouted down to Tulip, unsure if the warrior heard her through the battle rage that had taken its hold.

Two crossbow bolts flew at the altar near the rope that held Mags, but both clattered harmlessly off the stone.

“You idiots!” Smung howled.

Meanwhile, it seemed the two guards on Dreg were too busy dodging his attacks to take another swipe at him. As Surzl watched, one threw herself to the side, out of harm’s way, leaving the other blinking in surprise as the ogre’s enormous spiked greatclub slammed down, leaving only a vivid red smear of gore on the stones where the male guard had stood.

“Almost—got it!” Mags yelled from under the altar, as a loud click sounded.

“Oh no you don’t,” shouted Smung. He pointed an intricately carved staff of charred warpwood at the altar, and three bolts of greenish energy shot out from the end. Two slammed painfully into Surzl, knocking her back a bit. The other seemed to miss her, but then arced down at the end of the rope that held Mags suspended from the other side of the wide stone slab.

“No!” Surzl cried, as she watched the rope part and split, then snap in half.

 

***

 

As the line holding her weight suddenly snapped, Mags kicked off the base of the altar, scrabbling for the edge of the wide stone table. Her fingers just managed to catch the edge, and with a grunt of effort, she hauled herself up and over the side and to her feet.

Above her, Surzl was staring down at her in wide-eyed shock and something very much like relief. Ignoring the sudden rush of warmth in her cheeks, Mags dove for the two vices holding the Shiny in place, now reasonably sure she could safely unscrew them and pull it free.

“Mags!” Surzl called down. “The rope!”

“Huh? Mags said, only now noticing that Surzl was starting to drift away across the ceiling, still floating helplessly there. Mags grabbed for the frayed end of the rope and looped it through her belt to keep her hands free.

“Stop her!” Smung yelled, and a crossbow bolt whizzed past her head, just missing her ear. A sudden sharp pain in her shoulder announced a second bolt had hit her, though it seemed to only graze her flesh, her armor taking the worst of the impact.

Mags was dimly aware of Tulip making short work of the last guard near her and Dreg, as Isa shot two bolts of arcane force at Smung, one smacking into him solidly enough to send him reeling back a few steps. Good! Maybe they could take him down.

Then the sound of shouting arose somewhere in the distance behind the old shaman—many, many voices, all raised in anger.

Crap. They were running out of time.

Mags bent all her focus on the first of the two vices that held the Shiny in place, unscrewing it as fast as she could. She braced herself as the first stone rod on the back end of the contraption began to fit itself into place in the awaiting groove behind it. If she’d misjudged which gears did what in the panel she’d found in the altar’s stone base, she might be about to unleash Neegosh knew what sort of fresh hell upon herself and Surzl.

But the stone protrusion settled into place, and nothing seemed to happen. Uttering a hasty prayer of thanks to the King of Tricksters, Mags moved on to the other vice, but this one was stuck fast. She took a firmer grip of the knob, but even pushing with all her might, she couldn’t budge it.

Out of the corner of her eye, Mags saw something zooming toward her face and ducked. But it was just Surzl’s orange-red hand of magical force. It landed on the stone slab next to Mags, its fingers grasping the other side of the pronged knob.

Above her, Surzl grunted with effort, her own hand mirroring the motion of the arcane hand she controlled below. Together, they got it to start moving, slowly but surely.

“Hurry!” Isa yelled somewhere nearby.

There was a sudden clank as the Shiny fell loose between the two vices that had held it, clattering to the stone surface of the table. But as Mags grabbed for it, she heard a telltale click as the stone rod attached to the second vice pressed into the grooved hole behind it.

No. No no no no.

There was another click, and groan of stone as the two halves of the stone altar began to fold in on themselves toward the center. Mags yelped as her feet began to slip, the surface beneath her tilting and a dark chasm opening below her. With a start, she saw the Shiny start to tumble down too, and shot out one hand to grasp it just in time before it would have fallen beyond her reach.

“Jump!” Surzl yelled above her. “The rope!”

Mags looked; the rope was floating a few feet now from the remains of the altar. But she could make that; she had to.

With what last bit of purchase her boots could get, scraping against the tilting stone planes of the altar, Mags leapt as high as she could, and made a grab for the rope. Her hands were slippery with sweat and the rope burned her skin as she slid six inches before her grip locked and held. But she’d done it. She was dangling five feet off the uneven stone floor.

The momentum from her leap rocked Surzl sideways as the line between them once again went taut. There was an odd droning noise from the center of the broken altar, and then a blast of pulsating purple-black energy shot up from the hole that had opened there, slamming up toward the ceiling and just narrowly missing Surzl where she floated next to the altar and Mags, dangling helplessly below.

Mags felt her flesh crawl at the nearness of whatever sickening ray had been activated. With the Shiny clutched tightly under one arm, she inched her way up the rope toward Surzl, trying to use her weight to swing them further away from . . . whatever that awful beam was.

But already, she was starting to swing back toward the purple beam, her initial momentum now carrying her in the opposite direction.

“No!” Came a cry from Surzl above her.

Then they were falling, Surzl tumbling down toward Mags. Instinctively, Mags twisted so that she could kick off the up-tilted surface of the altar, praying that Surzl would think to do the same. If either of them hit the stone blocks of the dais floor, who knew what other traps they might set off?

Mags felt her boots connect with the stone, and pushed off as hard as she could, going into a mid-air tumble and landing on her feet just in front of the dais. Then Surzl slammed into her from above, knocking Mags’ feet out from under her and the breath from her lungs. The back of Mags’ head cracked painfully on the stone floor as she hit the ground, but pain was good. Pain meant she was alive. They both were, for laying on top of Mags, Surzl was staring down at her in surprise, the same strange way she’d stared at Mags earlier, like she’d never really seen her before. Mags felt a strange pulse of warmth from the holy symbol around Surzl’s neck, only now noticing that it was glowing brightly, as though wreathed in harmless flames. An answering pulse seemed to rise from the rod in Mags’ hands.

Breathless, she and Surzl scrambled to their feet, facing an oncoming horde of Bouldermaw goblins. There were dozens of them. Far more than there should have been if Sxorax had been telling the truth about that bat hunt. Unless the hunters had been warned to turn back. Blast that treacherous Shadowtongue!

Dozens of cries sounded from the oncoming horde, screaming for Horntooth blood. A limping, singed and bloodied Smung was shouting orders, pointing at Mags and Surzl, directing the onslaught their way.

Mags pushed the Shiny into the flame acolyte’s hands. The jeweled rod still pulsed with magic stronger than any Mags had ever felt before, steady now, like a heartbeat, but that was no use to someone like her. In Surzl’s hands, though—who knew what she could do with it?

Surzl took the rod and gave Mags a shove back toward Tulip and Dreg, who were already falling back toward the doors they’d entered from. “Go!” she yelled.

Mags blinked, confused. Everything was happening so fast it felt to Mags as though she was moving in slow motion. Why was Surzl moving away from her, toward the Bouldermaws, instead of coming with her? And why was the acolyte’s skin glowing like that, the same way her holy symbol had?

With a triumphant shout, Surzl launched herself at Smung, a dagger appearing in his hand. Mags stared in horror as Surzl pushed her way forward onto Smung’s blade. Then there a bright flash and a BOOM and Surzl and Smung, along with at least a dozen Bouldermaw warriors, disappeared in a roar of white-hot flames. The force of the explosion sent Mags flying backward into something hard and unyielding

Dazed, Mags watched the smoke clear, seeing the outline of two charred forms where Smung and Surzl had stood. Mags lurched to her feet, taking an unsteady step toward them. A phantom wind swept the room, crumbling both figures to swirling piles of ash. With a clatter, Surzl’s holy symbol fell to the stone floor, charred nearly beyond recognition.

The flame acolyte was gone.

Mags threw back her head and howled, the staggering pain of this loss like nothing she’d ever imagined. Then something enormous swept her up in its grasp and her view went dark.

Next: Episode 12

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