ShinyQuest, by Julia Watson. Episode 12

Previous: Episode 11

Tulip gaped as Surzl’s charred holy symbol struck the ground, bounced once, and came to rest next to the swirling cloud of ash where the flame acolyte had stood. At the foot of the dais, Mags let out an anguished keen that seemed to go on and on.

Next to Tulip, Isabog started forward a step, eyes wide. “No!”

Pain and fury swept over Tulip, tinging her vision red. She’d destroy every last one of these Holvrgoshrr-bedamned Bouldermaws. She’d smash them to jelly and grind their bones to dust. But then she saw the broken look in Mags’ eyes, and something inside Tulip contracted, her rage cooling as suddenly as if she’d been immersed in icy cold water. Swallowing back her urge to smash everything within reach, Tulip forced herself to assess the situation. Not far off, there were shouts and the sound of more booted feet coming this way. Surzl was gone. Mags was still wailing, maybe unable to fight on. And it seemed the Shadowtongue had been wrong about most of the Bouldermaws’ warrior caste being away on a hunt today. Their odds had been bad to begin with, but now . . .

Tulip swallowed the lump in her throat. How could Surzl just be . . . gone?

The rest of them had to get out of here—now, while the they still had a chance.

“Dreg!” she shouted. “Get Mags!”

But the big ogre was already moving. Sprinting straight for Mags, he swooped her up under one arm, then spun around and dashed back toward Tulip and Isa.

“We go now?” Dreg yelled plaintively, already headed for the open doorway they’d entered through.

“No!” Isa cried. “What about the Shiny?”

Dreg skidded to a stop, hugging Mags to his chest and looking hesitantly between Tulip and Isabog. Tulip was stunned to realize she’d all but forgotten about the object of their quest in the wake of Surzl’s demise. She shook her head to clear it. “Mags?” she called. “Do you still have it?”

Limp in Dreg’s grasp, Mags had stopped screaming, but her eyes were blank and staring. The little rogue didn’t respond, didn’t even seem to hear Tulip. And her hands were empty.

“Did you see the Shiny on the ground near her?” Tulip asked Dreg.

Dreg shook his head, looking nervously at the far side of the vast treasure room. Tulip couldn’t see anyone coming yet, but shouting voices had begun to spill into the chamber.

“Check her!” Isa said, starting toward Dreg. “We can’t leave without it.”

“No time!” Tulip said, dragging Isa toward Dreg and the doorway. “We’ll just have to trust she’s got it stashed away.”

“But—” Isa growled.

Tulip whirled on the warlock. “Isa, if we stay here a moment longer, we die, and what Surzl just did for the clan, for us, means nothing. If we have to, we’ll come back for it later.”

Isa looked mutinous, cocking her head as though listening to something Tulip couldn’t hear.

“Dreg, grab Isa too if you have to. We’re going now.”

Isa glared at Tulip. “Fine! But she’d better have it.”

They rushed out into the long, straight hallway, slamming the heavy door closed behind them. It wouldn’t hold their pursuers up for more than a moment, but right now every second counted. As they ran, Tulip cast a worried look in Mags’ direction. The little rogue’s arms and legs flopped like a ragdoll’s as Dreg bounded along.

Barreling down the hall, the party reached the bending U-turn curve that led back down into the inner warrens. They rounded the corner, and Tulip heard the door at the far end of the hallway smash open, at least a dozen whoops and war howls announcing the Bouldermaws’ pursuit.

Their group skidded to a stop at a three-way intersection of corridors.

“Which way?” Isa panted.

“I don’t know,” Tulip groaned. She’d tried to pay attention to their path on the way in, but there’d been so many twists and turns that she’d been counting on Mags to get them back out the same way. “Mags, please snap out of it,” Tulip said. “We need you.”

The little rogue remained unresponsive, still staring off at nothing.

Tulip let out a growl of frustration. “This way,” she said, picking a direction at random and turning right, then left at the next one, and straight ahead after that. The others followed, Isa’s hands raised and ready to cast at the first sign of any threat.

Around the next bend, the party slammed into two Bouldermaw no-castes dressed in rags and carrying large bowls of gruel. Dreg flung one aside without breaking his pace, while the other dropped his burden and shrunk back against the wall, cowering. Ignoring him, Tulip led the group down another right turn which led past an open workroom—its tables scattered with weaving and mending projects.

Shit. They hadn’t been past here on the way in. Where in the Hells were they?

“Which way did they go?” called a voice somewhere behind them. Close. Too close.

“Th—th—that way!” came the quivery reply.

“We should find somewhere to hide,” Isa said, panting. “And wait until they move on.”

“Where exactly are we going to hide him?” Tulip asked, gesturing toward Dreg.

Isa scowled, but said nothing.

“Does your friend have any ideas?” Tulip asked.

“Hiding was Oorn’s idea,” Isa said.

Tulip tried to listen for the sound of the forges that had covered their noisy entrance into the Bouldermaws’ inner caves, hoping to find their way out by following that sound. But either they’d run too far afield, or all activity there had stopped as workers joined the chase to find them. She wasn’t sure which sounded worse, so she just kept running.

Around the next curve in their path, a lone, bulky guard appeared, hastily tugging a spiked helm onto his head as he jogged, his scimitar still sheathed at his hip. As he caught sight of them, his slightly crossed eyes bulged and he fumbled for the hilt of his blade. Leaping forward, Tulip drew back her hammer, all her attention focused on the guard’s bulbous nose—and how wonderful it would look smashed flat with the rest of his stupid face in another few seconds.

“Wait!” Isa hissed. “We need him alive.”

Tulip growled, pulling her strike at the last possible second and simply pouncing on the guard instead. She knocked him to the ground and stuck her armored wrist in his mouth so he couldn’t cry out and warn any others nearby. Dreg moved in to pin his arms, looking around in alarm.

Tulip followed his gaze, expecting another group of guards to appear at any moment. “Whatever you’re going to do, make it fast,” she growled at Isa. “We don’t have time for this!”

“It’s our best chance,” Isa said, kneeling next to the guard as she hurriedly fished for something in her pocket. Then there was a small vial of pink liquid in her hand—one of the potions they’d found in the darkcrawler cave? Without delay, Isa ripped out the cork, shoved Tulip’s arm out of the way, and emptied the potion into the downed guard’s mouth, jabbing her elbow into his throat to force him to swallow it.

With a cough and a choking splutter, he did. Then Isa grabbed the fellow’s head and stared straight into his eyes.

Tulip could hear footsteps running their way again now.

“Isa!” she said, uncharacteristic anxiety gnawing at her guts.

“There we are,” Isa said, with disarming calm.

Tulip looked down and blinked. To her surprise, the guard was staring back at Isa with an incredulous smile.

***

“My lady, . . .” the guard breathed, and trailed off, seeming unsure of how to address Isa.

“Isabog is my name,” she said. “And you are?”

“Bomedr,” he gasped, staring at her in wonder.

“Get him up,” Isa said to Dreg and Tulip, as she clambered off the male goblin’s chest.

“Isa, what in the world—?” Tulip began.

“Just go with it,” Isa snapped, never taking her eyes from Bomedr’s face as she hauled him back to his feet. “There’s been a terrible misunderstanding, my love,” she said to him. “We were invited in and then betrayed by one of your brethren. They’re trying to murder us! You must help us find a way out past the other guards, without them seeing us.”

Grabbing his hand, Isa started pulling the guard down the corridor back the way he’d come.

He followed willingly, but said, “If it’s just a misunderstanding, let me talk to them. I’m sure we can work things out—”

“No!” Isa said, throwing herself against his chest and looking up at him with wide, frightened eyes as she clutched at his leather jerkin with both hands. She turned his face down to hers with a gentle clasp of one tentacle. “You’re a Bouldermaw, and I’m a Horntooth. If they catch us, they’ll never let us be together. We must flee with my friends, now!”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “You’re right. This way!”

Still grasping Isa’s hand, Bomedr rushed ahead of her, leading the group downward into yet another maze of new tunnels and rooms.

Isa spared a quick glance back at the others. Mags was curled into the crook of one of Dreg’s arms, unnervingly still. Dreg looked confused, and Tulip, positively mystified.

“Okay,” Tulip said, shrugging. “Explain later. Just don’t stop!”

Isa smiled as she churned her legs as fast as they would go. I told you that would work, she said smugly to Oorn.

We’re not out of this yet, he replied. And we still don’t know if Mags has the rod—er, the Shiny.

Nothing to be done about that for now, Isa said. Stay sharp. I only have enough energy left for one big spell.

I’m aware of that, Oorn said crossly.

Bomedr led them down a path to the right, then through a room where a natural spring seemed to feed into some sort of washing trough. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll check to make sure the next hallway is clear.”

Tulip moved to the trough, splashing water on her face and bringing some to her lips, gulping it down. “How long does that last,” she whispered, wiping her mouth. “Whatever you did to him?”

“I’m not sure,” Isa admitted. “But the fact that it already lasted for longer than a minute is a good sign.”

“A minute?! There was a chance it might have only lasted a minute?!

They both turned to look as Bomedr’s smiling face appeared in the doorway again, and he beckoned them through. “Come on! Quickly.”

Tulip shot Isa a dirty look, gesturing for Dreg to stay close behind them.

They followed Bomedr out into a narrow hall. There were fewer doors branching off here, and it was quiet—the sounds of their pursuers having faded into the distance.

“Ah, where are we?” Isa asked Bomedr.

“Under the kitchens,” he said, hurrying onward. “Mostly old storerooms down here, not much in use these days. This tunnel winds back around close to the north entrance. Fewer guards there than to the east. The path up the mountain on this side is very steep—”

At this, Tulip pulled alongside Isa and glared at her.

“But I can show you the way down. It’s not bad if you know what you’re doing.” He puffed out his chest, his crossed eyes glowing with affection as he gazed at Isa.

“You’re so brave,” she simpered back, and gave his hand a squeeze.

Ugggh, Oorn groaned.

Isa ignored him, rather proud of herself for having thought to use the love potion. Pity she couldn’t have saved it for when they got back home, and used it on that handsome fool, Dzok. With a start, she realized just how much she was looking forward to returning to the comfort and familiarity of the Horntooth caves. Just thinking about it, a pang of unfamiliar longing hit her like a smack to the chest. It would be strange, though, to return there and to not have Surzl around to argue and compete with. Half the fun of learning new spells, she thought sadly, was lording each one over the stupid flame acolyte.

Isa shook herself. No time to dwell on that now.

She snuck a peek at Bomedr’s face, still worried the potion might wear off at any moment. But he seemed to sense her gaze and grinned back at her, all happiness. The enchantment was still holding then, for now . . .

He seemed a good sort, this Bomedr. A bit simple, perhaps, but . . .

You cannot be serious, Oorn interjected.

With an internal hmmph, she ignored him.

Up ahead, the corridor ended in a solid wooden door.

“There we are,” Bomedr said, dropping Isa’s hand for a moment to adjust his sword belt. “Past there, just two turns to the right and we’ll be at the north gate.”

“Gate?!” Tulip said, alarmed. “You didn’t say anything about a gate.”

“Relax,” he said. “It’s not locked or anything. I’ll distract the guards and you all can run out.” He turned to Isa. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right behind you.” Then he reached for her nearest tentacle and grasped it, pulling it to his lips and laying a kiss there, just like it was a hand.

Isa felt a heated blush rise to her face. Don’t start, she said preemptively to Oorn. Just let me enjoy this.

To her relief, Oorn made no comment, not even a flicker of the distaste he certainly felt—knowing him—reaching her. A note of disgruntled ire surfaced in her own thoughts, and she did her best to hide it from her patron. Then she thought, very privately, that it might be nice to have a few moments truly alone, every now and then.

Bomedr released her and went to the door, cracking it open to peer outside. Satisfied, he opened it the rest of the way, beckoning them after him and gesturing for silence.

Just as he’d said, they took a quick turn to the right, then peeked out from behind the corner of a second right turn. Up ahead, Isa saw a ramshackle gate of wood planks. Six guards stood there, three on each side.

“I thought you said this one was less heavily guarded?” Isa whispered to Bomedr in dismay.

“Er, it was. Usually just two here. The others must be reinforcements.”

Tulip glared at him. “Which means more are probably coming.”

“Probably,” Bomedr agreed. “We should hurry.”

“What we should do is just bust our way through before any others arrive. We can take six.”

Bomedr blanched. “Ah—”

Isa laid a calming hand on his arm. “Only if we have to. Let’s try Bomedr’s way, and if that doesn’t work and we have to fight our way out, so be it.”

Tulip looked unconvinced.

“If he’s really able to get them to look the other way and not see us leave, then they won’t know where we’ve gone,” Isa insisted.

Tulip sighed, relenting.

Bomedr shot Isa a grateful look. The ensorcelled Bouldermaw guard didn’t seem too keen on the idea of fighting his fellows unless he absolutely had to. Thought he did seem resigned to it if it came down to that. Thank Neegosh.

Tulip nodded, her lips pressed tightly together. “Get to it then,” she growled.

“Right,” said Bomedr. “Stay here and watch for my signal.”

With surprisingly light steps for a goblin of his size, he crept down the tunnel, sticking to the shadows, and managed to slip into what must be a parallel tunnel around another bend up ahead, seemingly without attracting the notice of the guards. Then Isa heard footsteps running down that parallel tunnel and her heart all but stopped . . .

Until she saw it was just Bomedr, running toward the gate. For an instant, she feared the potion had chosen this inopportune moment to wear off and he was running to tell his fellows about the intruders hiding just around the bend. But then she saw him feigning being out of breath, grabbing at his side, chest heaving. They’d been running for at least ten minutes, after all, and he’d barely seemed phased by the exertion up until now. Isa was rather impressed that she, herself, had held up as well as she had under their forced run, but then again, they’d been doing nothing for days and days now except walking. Ugh.

At the gate, one of the guards raised her voice, arguing with Bomedr, though Isa couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying from back here. Then Isa’s “beloved” pointed down the far tunnel, gesturing emphatically. Finally, four of the guards peeled off at a jog, heading down that way, leaving just two at the gate, including the one who’d argued with Bomedr. As they left, he crossed his arms and leaned against the gate, like he was waiting for something.

Did he look nervous? Crap. Isa thought he did. While neither of the remaining guards were looking his way, Bomedr shot a quick, covert look back at where the party was hidden, then looked away again just as quickly, answering a question from the argumentative guard.

“Was that his signal?” Tulip whispered.

“I don’t know,” Isa said. “I think he’s trying to get rid of the other two.”

Now. While you’re waiting. Search Mags and see if she has the—

“Not now, Oorn,” Isa hissed out loud. “We’re a little busy here.”

Icy fury crackled at the edges of her thoughts, but for once, she found she wasn’t afraid of her patron’s wrath. Huh. So there.

Raised voices came from up ahead again, and the female guard took a menacing step toward Bomedr, poking him in the chest with a long finger.

“Uh oh,” said Dreg.

“Uh oh,” Isa agreed. Quick, she thought to herself. Do something.

Well . . . There was one thing she could do . . .

 

***

 

“This is a terrible plan,” Tulip said for the second time, as Isa bound the big warrior’s wrists with the other end of the rope she’d used to bind Dreg’s hands. She’d done his legs, too, so that he had to crab-walk forward. The ogre was still carrying Mags, who’d yet to move or speak or even acknowledge any of them since the treasure room—though now she was cradled in the carrying sling that usually housed Dreg’s pet racoon, tied into it so she couldn’t fall out. “It’ll never work,” Tulip added.

“Not with that attitude, it won’t,” Isabog scolded. “Now, how do I look?”

“Disturbing,” Tulip answered candidly, grimacing as she beheld Isabog in the guise of Smung, the Bouldermaws’ very recently deceased clan shaman. With fascinated horror, Tulip raised her bound hands and poked one finger into Isa’s flabby-jowled cheek. It was no illusion, this disguise. The warlock had used a spell to physically transform her body into one that looked just like his. She even sounded like him. Tulip shuddered. But hey, if Isa’s disguise was effective enough that it gave her the creeps this badly, maybe their plan did have a chance in the Nine Hells of succeeding. Tulip peeked around the corner again as Isa tied the last knot in place. Bomedr and that female guard were in each other’s faces, both screaming incoherently at this point. But he hadn’t backed down, she admitted quietly to herself. That was a serious whammy Isa had laid on him.

“Okay, let’s do this,” Isa-Smung said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.

“Well, don’t lose your nerve now!” Tulip hissed.

“Right,” Isa-Smung said, cracking her thick neck from side to side. She sucked in a deep breath and then took a step forward, nearly tripping over her own feet. “Sorry. I forgot what it feels like to balance without tentacles. This is weird.”

Tulip grimaced. “I’ll say. Are you sure—?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Isa interrupted. “Dreg, you ready?”

The ogre nodded, looking terribly anxious. So the better. That would help sell this, too.

“Okay, then. Let’s go.” Isa tugged the rope, jerking Tulip forward, Dreg pulled along in their wake. And with that, the group of them headed down the tunnel toward the gate.

“Halt!” challenged one of the guards almost immediately—a male voice this time, not the female. At the party’s approach, though, she whirled around too, along with a stunned-looking Bomedr.

“Stand down,” Isa said, her voice—Smung’s voice—radiating confidence and authority. Not bad, Tulip thought, and tried to look cowed. That was perhaps the hardest part of this.

“Who goes th—oh! Master Smung, is that you?” The male guard rushed forward. “We’d heard you—well,” he hesitated. “Um. Died?”

“Well, you heard wrong!” Isa-Smung growled. “I captured these infidel Horntooths singlehandedly after they took out the entire company of utterly worthless guards assigned to me.” She glared down at him accusingly, as if the other guards’ ineptitude were his fault.

The male guard looked abashed, though the female one was still glowering. Crap. Did she suspect them?

Bomedr just looked from Smung’s face to Tulip’s, his eyes darting wildly for the missing Isabog. As instructed, Tulip waited until the other two guards’ eyes weren’t on her, ducked her head as if she had something in her eye, and gave Bomedr a wink.

Seeing this, he blinked at her and took a harder look at “Smung.” Bomedr still didn’t seem to understand what was going on, but he at least seemed to relax a bit, seeing that Tulip wasn’t too concerned.

“Let us through,” Isa-Smung continued. “I’m going to personally see to it that these criminals punished properly. Permanently.” Isa-Smung yanked cruelly at the rope binding Tulip’s hands. Tulip gave an all too real yelp of pain.

“Easy!” she growled.

“Silence, fool!” Isa-Smung screamed.

“You’re going to execute them? Out there?” the female guard asked, starting to look more interested and less angry.

“Yes,” Isa-Smung said, showing the old shaman’s awful, boulder-shaped teeth as she smiled wide. “Would you like to watch?”

“Yes!” said the female guard, throwing open the latch that held the gate shut and swinging it open in her excitement.

Tulip looked down at the ground, not trusting herself to look at the freedom beckoning beyond that open gate without giving them away. She forced her shoulders to droop, too, belying the unexpected surge of hope she now felt.

“Well, you can’t,” Isa-Smung said to the female guard, dismissing her out of hand. “You there,” she gestured imperiously to Bomedr. “You will accompany me as a witness. You other two, remain here at your post.”

The female guard opened her mouth, but then closed it, perhaps thinking better of protesting.

It was working! Neegosh’s balls, they were going to get out of here after all!

Bomedr took a hasty step forward, falling into step next to Isa-Smung. Then the two of them were through the gate, and Tulip, too, the sunlight so bright it made her raise her bound hands to shield her eyes. Blinking against the glare, Tulip dared a look ahead now as her eyes adjusted, seeing that they’d stepped onto a rocky path that ended thirty feet up ahead in cliff overlooking a valley below.

Behind her, Dreg ducked his head to step out from under the ledge into which the gate was fitted from this side. Then he and Mags were through, too.

“Close the gate!” Isa-Smung bellowed, then cackled. “Now we’re going to see if you filthy Horntooths can fly.”

Bomedr gave a nervous chuckle, looking back to Tulip for—what, reassurance? She tried to nod at him as subtly as she could, so she wouldn’t draw the notice of the other guards. “Go on!” she mouthed to him silently, her eyes flashing with urgency.

Bomedr gave a curt nod, turning back toward Isa-Smung as he took another step forward. Behind them, Tulip heard the gate start to swing shut, catching a muttered curse of disappointment from the female guard. Then Bomedr stopped short, now staring right at Isa-Smung as if seeing him/her for the first time.

Tulip smirked. Finally figuring it out, was he?

But then he backed away from Isa in horror.

“Open the gate!” Bomedr screeched. “The Horntooths are escaping! Get out here, and call the others back! That’s not Smung! It’s one of the intruders in disguise!”

“Shit,” Isa-Smung said. “And to think I was considering asking you to defect and come with us. Oh well.” With a sigh, she waved her hand at him and two eldritch spears shot from her fingertips, slamming into Bomedr’s chest and flinging him twenty feet back, where he tumbled over the edge of the cliff.

With a shriek, he fell and was gone. Then his scream cut off with unnerving abruptness.

“Shut it, Oorn. I really liked him!” Isa-Smung said as she whipped out a dagger and slashed the ropes that bound Tulip and Dreg. “Go!” she said, pushing them toward the cliff. “Find the path! I’ll cover you.”

Already, the gate was creaking open again, and a javelin thudded into the ground at Isa-Smung’s feet.

“They’re getting away!” The female guard yowled. “Here! They’re up here!” From somewhere inside, a gong sounded, the thunderous clatter of it rattling Tulip’s teeth inside her head. Wasting no time, Tulip bounded forward, skidding to a stop where the ground fell away and the valley beyond stretched on—far, far below them. The drop off here was hundreds of feet. Tulip cringed, glancing at Dreg.

“I don’t see a way down,” she said. “Do you?”

“Not yet. But male goblin say there is path. So, must be path, right?”

“I sure hope so,” Tulip said, jogging along the edge now, looking for it.

Out of the corner of her eye, Tulip saw Isa fling another volley of arcane spears at the guards, slowly backing a retreat toward the cliff’s edge.

“See it yet?” Tulip asked Dreg again.

“Maybe,” he said. “I think something there.” He pointed, then frowned. “Or not. Hey, weird goblin! You can cast spell that make Dreg walk down walls again, maybe?”

“Nope,” Isa-Smung yelled back. “Not until I’ve had a chance to recover some of my strength. Find another way!”

“Okay!” Dreg said. Then he scrunched up his face. “How we do that, big goblin? Small goblin, maybe you wake up now? Maybe?” He looked down at Mags hopefully, where she lay cradled against his chest. But she didn’t respond, didn’t stir. “That okay,” he said, patting her. “You rest. We find it.”

From inside the cave came a sound like angry bees boiling out of a hive, growing louder with each passing moment.

“Isa,” Tulip called. “We could use a little help here!”

“Little busy myself at the moment,” Isa-Smung shouted back. “Ha ha! Missed again, you fools! Oh, crap!”

Tulip turned in time to see Isa-Smung dodge out of the way just in time, as not one, or two, but five javelins came hurtling out of the gate. Then, with a roar, a group of guards finally broke free from their cover there, charging out through the gap toward the party.

“Dreg sees it! Dreg thinks,” the ogre said excitedly. “To me, goblins! Here!” He turned and beckoned to them, holding out his arms. Without thinking, Tulip leapt into them, Isa a beat behind, suddenly looking like herself again as she pulled an oddly-shaped glass bottle from her pack and uncorked it.

Then a lot of things happened at once.

The bottle Isa was clutching began to spew out a thick, white, odorless smoke.

Dreg hefted the two of them, Isa and Tulip, more tightly into his arms, curling them in toward his chest, next to Mags in her sling.

Tulip wondered, belatedly, how Dreg intended to climb down the mountain without the use of his hands, since Isa had said she couldn’t cast that climbing spell on him again . . .

And Dreg, dodging another volley of javelins—except for the one that took him in the back of the shin, a single quick grunt escaping him at its impact—leapt off the side of the cliff, tucking himself into a protective ball around the three goblins.

They fell—the world a spinning jumble of white smoke and blue sky beyond the cradling bulk of Dreg’s massive body.

Then the ground rose up to meet them, only it was tilted strangely sideways. With a spine-jarring impact, Dreg hit the rocky slope, a whoosh of breath leaving his body as he began tumbling end over end down what did indeed seem to be some sort of steep path.

Isa and Tulip screamed, clinging to each other and Mags for dear life within the shelter of Dreg’s arms and drawn up legs. So close to him, Tulip could feel the vicious impact of each outcropping of rock Dreg blasted through, each one battering against his flesh, tearing into him. And still, they continued to gain speed.

“Dreg!” Tulip yelled, the wind whipping her words away. “You have to stop! Find a way to stop!”

Could he even hear her? Another jarring impact hit and Tulip heard a terrible crack as something shattered—bone, maybe. Dreg gasped, groaning.

“Oh. ‘Kay,” he seemed to say, shifting his weight, noticeably altering their trajectory to the right.

Tulip craned her neck, trying to see where they were headed. A huge slab of stone entered her field of view, spinning toward them with terrifying speed.

Then they slammed into it, and the world went from spinning white, grey, and blue to icy blackness.

They were dead.

They were all dead.

They must be.

It certainly hurt enough that they must be.

But Tulip opened her eyes and saw blue and white. Sky. Clouds? Smoke.

The wind whistled in her ears, partially obscuring the sound of the shouts and yells boiling down the mountain toward them.

The Bouldermaws, part of her brain seemed to say, amid the strange ringing in her ears, though that part of her brain sounded a lot like Surzl for some reason. They’re coming. Get UP.

But that couldn’t be right. Surzl was definitely dead. It hurt to think about, but it was true. Tulip knew it down to her aching bones.

“Tulip! Get up!” Someone was saying. Someone real, and sad, and scared. “Please! We have to help Dreg. I—I can’t move. Can’t reach my knives!”

Tulip blinked and sat up, and the world spun again, her stomach reeling, the sky blurring. There was a hand grabbing her shoulder. And there were two Mags, also spinning, and shaking her. “Get up!” Mags shrieked.

“You’re awake,” Tulip said, smiling. Mags being awake was good. “My everything hurts.”

“Tulip, they’re coming! We have to get everybody back up. Cut me loose. Quick!”

“Oh, for Neegosh’s sake,” came a familiar, crabby voice. “I got it.”

There was a snicking sound, and then Mags was fishing around in Tulip’s backpack. “Tulip, where’s your potion of healing? It’s the last one! Come. On!”

Tulip shook herself, willing her blurred double vision to coalesce back into a single, focused image. When that didn’t work, she tried closing one eye, the left one.

Was she wet? She felt like she was wet. Was it raining?

Ah ha! Using just one eye, she could see again. And Mags was awake! And Isa seemed okay, if angry. And Dreg was—

Dreg was . . .

Oh no.

“Dreg,” Tulip choked out. The big ogre turned his head and tried to smile—or grimace, she couldn’t tell—at her through a dislocated jaw. One of his legs was horribly twisted, a jagged, massive shard of bone poking through the skin of his thigh. And his arms—the arms that had sheltered them, taking the worst of their tumble down the side of the mountain, were shattered, twitching and slithering at his side like snakes.

Tulip was wet—drenched in blood. Her hands flew over her body, checking for wounds of her own and finding nothing but bruises and scrapes—nothing that would warrant this. No. That was Dreg’s blood. The others were splashed with it too. The worst of it was coming from his thigh, where the bone had pushed its way through.

Having seen Knazg, the Horntooth shaman, do so with badly bleeding wounds, Tulip pressed her hand down over the spot, grazing the broken bone. Dreg shrieked, the sound knifing straight into Tulip’s heart. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry! I have to!”

“Dammit, Tulip,” Mags sobbed, now dumping items out of the backpack. “Where’s the potion?”

“I have it,” Tulip said. “It’s here.” She reached down to her belt with one slippery hand, unsnapping the straps that held the vial in place. But inside, only shards of glass remained. “Oh,” Tulip said.

“No!” Mags wailed.

Mags was right. That was the last one, their last healing potion. And without Surzl’s healing magic . . .

Tulip looked down at Dreg, the reality of their situation sinking in.

She couldn’t save him. Even though he’d saved them. Again. At this cost.

Tulip looked at her hand pressed into Dreg’s wound. The bleeding hadn’t stopped, but with the pressure she was applying, it had slowed. With her other hand, she found one of Mags’.

“Please no,” Mags said. “Not again.”

“I have one,” a small voice said.

Mags and Tulip both whirled around. Isa was reaching into a side compartment of her knapsack, her face flushed with shame. “I found another one in the lab, in the cave with the other potions. And I snuck it for myself. Here. Give it to him.”

She held it out with trembling fingers.

“Will it be enough?” Mags asked.

Tulip flinched at the hollow sound in the little rogue’s voice.

“I don’t know,” Tulip said. “But we have to try, right?”

Mags nodded, scrubbing at her face. “His legs. He needs his legs to get out of here.”

Somewhere in the distance, far above, the shouts were getting louder. Tulip spared a quick glance up, seeing they’d tumbled—great burning Ruznabiyug—halfway down the mountain. It would take the Bouldermaw at least ten minutes, fifteen maybe, to catch up to them, unless they tried the same stunt Dreg had pulled. And that seemed . . . unlikely.

Tulip popped the vial’s cork and gritted her teeth, pouring some of the precious liquid directly into the wounds on Dreg’s legs. He stiffened and groaned, a series of pops and cracks sounding as some of the bones immediately snapped themselves back into place, flesh mending here and there. Tulip poured another splash onto the worst wound, pushing gently at the bone to help it ease back down under the skin.

Dreg gave a garbled cry of pain at her touch, and Tulip flinched as the bone visibly retracted back under the skin. The wound closed partially, but not all the way.

“He should drink the rest,” Tulip said, more to herself than the others. “Right?”

Mags nodded, moving to lift and brace Dreg’s head. Tulip crawled over and carefully poured the last of the potion down his throat. With a snapping sound, his jaw cracked back into place. The ogre let out an anguished whimper. Tulip saw quivering noses peek out from Mags’ backpack, where Dreg’s pets had been stashed before the party had marched out toward the gate. At least they seemed alright, if frightened. Tulip could relate.

“Here,” Mags said, pulling Tulip over to take her place at Dreg’s head. “Hold him up. I’m gonna make something to brace that leg. The other one looks okay now, at least. And the bad one looks . . . better.”

Nudging the animals aside, Mags pulled her trapsmithing kit out of her backpack and took out two short planks and some coiled wire bands. Within moments, she had attached the planks together somehow and was strapping them to Dreg’s leg.

“Hey, big guy,” Tulip said, looking down at his swollen face. “Talk to me. How you doing?”

“Tulip,” he said, looking up at her.

“Yeah, buddy?”

A drop of water fell on his face, leaving a clean-ish streak in the blood and dirt smeared across his pale skin. Maybe it was raining. She looked up, but the sky was clear.

“Don’t cry,” he said. “Dreg be okay. Goblins should go. Before mean goblins come. Leave Dreg here. Go faster that way.”

“Not a chance,” Mags said, still down by his feet.

“You heard her.” Tulip shrugged. “Mags is the boss.”

Mags snorted at that, and Isa shot Tulip a surprised, shy smile.

“Alright,” Mags said. “That should do it. Dreg, I’m sorry, but we have to get you up now.”

“Okay, small goblin. Dreg try.”

They managed to get him to a seated position. Then, with Isa and Tulip bracing him on either side, and Mags bracing the bad leg, Dreg tried to heave himself upright. The first time, he fell sideways—luckily, on Tulip’s side and she caught him—but the second time, he hauled himself to his good knee.

“Good,” Mags said. “Almost there.”

Screwing his face up in concentration, Dreg gave a shout that was half growl and lurched upright, putting his weight onto his good leg.

“You did it!” Isa said. “Which is great, because we really need to go.”

“Isa—” Tulip said.

“Well, we do,” Isa insisted. “Try taking a step,” she said to Dreg.

Dutifully, he did, but his bad leg began to buckle under him. And his arms were still broken, so he couldn’t steady himself. The goblins surged beneath him, putting all their combined strength into keeping him upright.

“We need to be bigger for this to work,” Tulip growled, her heart guttering. They had to get him out of here.

“That’s it!” Mags said. “You’re a genius!”

“I am?” Tulip blinked, confused.

“Yeah. You guys got him for a sec?”

Tulip and Isa nodded as Dreg put his weight back on his better leg.

Mags rummaged through a side pouch on her own pack. “Come on,” she said. “Don’t be broken. Don’t be broken. Ah ha!”

She came up with another pristinely intact vial and held it out to Tulip. “Quick! Drink it.”

“What is it?” Tulip asked, hesitantly.

“It’ll make you embiggened,” Mags said. “Now drink up, quick!”

That guttering spark of hope in her chest glowing a little brighter, Tulip downed the potion. For a single heartbeat, nothing happened. Then a loud belch came from her mouth, and the ground seemed to get farther away.

Mags grinned up at Tulip, oddly shorter than usual.

“That . . . a good . . . trick,” Dreg said, panting, his voice strained.

Tulip looked up at him, surprised to find that her head now reached his shoulder.

“Thank Neegosh,” Mags whispered.

“Alright,” Tulip said, easing herself carefully under Dreg’s shoulder and wrapping one arm around his waist. “Let’s get out of here.”

Leaning heavily on Tulip’s enlarged frame, Dreg was able to limp onward, his pace slow but steady, for now.

The sun was still high in the sky, and the Bouldermaws would be gaining on them mere minutes for now.

But they were moving. They were still alive. And they’d figure a way out of this. Together.

Tulip gulped.

Somehow.

Next Episode: January 27

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