Previous: Episode 12
Tulip stumbled a half-step as her foot struck a knot of roots, the movement jarring Dreg and eliciting a grunt of pain from the injured ogre. The healing potion had done it’s work on his legs, getting him back up and moving after their plummet down the steep cliffside, but he still leaned heavily on her enlarged form. Battered and bruised, the ogre’s skin was mottled purple and yellow, several bones in his arms were fractured, and the terrible wound on his thigh oozed blood from under the strips of blanket they’d secured there—though not nearly as badly as before.
They were halfway across the basin of the rocky valley, the angry shouts of the Bouldermaw clan’s warriors echoing from the rocky cliffs above and behind them as their pursuers made their laborious way down the mountain—much more slowly and carefully than the Horntooths’ wild tumble.
“How are we doing?” Tulip asked, glancing back at Mags. The little rogue kept stopping to look behind them, though Tulip forced herself to keep her eyes fixed on the narrow pass that led out of the valley up ahead.
“At this rate, we have ten minutes before they catch up. Fifteen, maybe. If we’re lucky.” But the rogue’s flat tone said she didn’t expect luck to be on their side.
Tulip didn’t either. Not after the way today had gone. Resisting the rising tide of terror and despair that threatened to wash her away in its wake, Tulip swallowed down her fear. They all needed to keep a level head, if they were to have any hope of making it through the next hour. “Options?”
“Let’s start with problems,” Mags said. “For starters, even if we could outrun them, we’re leaving a helluva trail.”
Mags pointed to the ground behind them and Tulip saw what she meant. They weren’t just leaving footprints, but blood spatters. All three goblins were covered in Dreg’s blood, and more was dripping steadily down his leg with each step he took.
“I can help with that,” Isa said unexpectedly.
Tulip turned in surprise to the betentacled warlock in time to see her wave her hands. Just like that, all the blood disappeared from Tulip and Mags, leaving them clean. With a few more waves of her hand, the same was true for herself, Dreg (except for his dribbling leg), and the path immediately behind them. Even the disturbed surface of the ground bearing footprints had been smoothed clean.
“How often can you do that?” Mags asked, the little rogue’s mind visibly spinning as she—hopefully, Tulip thought—calculated some sort of plan. “And can you undo what you just did to me and make me bloody again?”
“Uh. I don’t know. I’ve never tried.” Isabog grimaced and waved her hand again, blinking in surprise as Mags became covered in blood once more.
“Hey, I did it!” Isa said. “And yeah, I can do this one all day long if I have to. It’s the first spell cantrip Oorn taught me.”
“Then that’s what we need you to do,” Mags said. “But we also need somewhere for you guys to hide.”
“What do you mean hide?” Isabog said, frowning.
At the same time, Tulip said, “What do you mean you guys?”
“If we can’t outrun them,” Mags said, “then one of us has to lead them away from the group. Dreg needs Tulip’s help to keep going, and between me and Isabog, I’m the fastest and the best tracker. It’s an easy choice.”
“Mags, no—” Tulip started.
But the little rogue held up a forestalling hand.
“We don’t have time to argue. You guys go find a place to hide and cover your tracks. If this works, their forces will be concentrated here, I hope. So maybe try somewhere back there.” She waved her hand in the direction of the nearest rise of sheer rock, some five hundred yards off through the scrub. “I’ll make it look like we made good time through the pass and to the river where we left it on the way in. They’ll think they lost us there. Then I’ll slip back through their lines and come find you guys. We’ll lay low and rest until things die down, then slip out when it’s safe.”
Tulip nodded. That sounded like it just might work.
“That’s great,” Isa said, “except how will you find us if you don’t know where we’re hiding and there aren’t any tracks to lead you there?”
Crap. Tulip hadn’t thought of that. From the way Mags blinked up at Isa, she hadn’t either.
“Take Nermie,” Dreg said, stopping to take off the sling he wore to carry the raccoon. “Come back here and tell Nermie ‘find Dreg.’ Nermie has best sniffer. He sniff us out for you. Not need tracks.”
“Can your spell do that?” Mags asked Isa. “Clear away the blood and the tracks, but leave Dreg’s smell?”
“I—I think so?” Isa said, looking dubious.
“We’ll just have to hope so,” Mags said, accepting the burden of Nermie. Dropping to one knee, the little rogue opened her pack and moved to stuff the chittering raccoon into it, but stopped short, staring into the backpack in surprise.
“What is it? Did you think of something else?” Tulip gnashed her teeth together. She wasn’t sure she could take any more surprises right now.
“No,” Mags said, her voice shaking a little. Her eyes landed on Isabog for a moment, then she hastily settled Nermie into the pack and shouldered it again, hopping back up to her feet.
“Hurry. I’ll turn back after nightfall and come find you.”
“Be safe, small goblin,” Dreg said. “Keep Nermie safe.”
“I will,” Mags said. “I promise.”
And with that, she turned and rushed ahead, plowing through the squat, spindly trees and smearing her bloodied form against the branches she broke in her wake.
As Mags hurried off, Tulip led the party in an abrupt ninety-degree turn northward through the scrub toward the nearest cliff wall, checking every so often to make sure Isa was remembering to continuously cover their tracks. The warlock caught her looking one too many times though, and gave Tulip a sour glance back, so Tulip finally stopped. Isa had been brave, after all, risking herself for them at the gate to cover their retreat. Trusting the flighty warlock—with anything—was unfamiliar territory for Tulip, but after a display of loyalty like today’s, she reckoned Isa had earned it.
As it turns out, luck was with them. After walking along the cliff wall for a few hundred feet, Dreg spotted a narrow crevice ahead just wide enough to permit him to squeeze through. The niche just beyond it was more depression than cave, but it was wide enough—barely—for the three of them to huddle together, just out of sight, after Isa obscured all signs they’d come this way.
Just minutes later, the first of the Bouldermaw warriors spilled past their hiding place, a living tide of fury that filled the valley with angry, bloodthirsty calls, flooding toward the pass. Tulip waited, one hand resting on the grip of her hammer at her hip, expecting at any minute that a scout would come this way, would see some trace they’d failed to hide, would find them and alert the rest of the enemy clan’s host to their presence. Every time the sound of a Bouldermaw came close, Tulip’s pulse hammered in her ears, her battle rage screaming to be set loose.
It would be such a relief to feel angry instead of so scared. But Tulip stayed her hand. Instead, she leaned her still-embiggened form into the reassuringly warm bulk of Dreg, who had drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Outside their hiding spot, the sound of the Bouldermaws finally retreated into the distance. Mags’ plan seemed to be working, but could the little rogue find her way clear of so many enemies? If they caught her while she was alone . . . Tulip shook herself, pushing the thought from her mind.
“What if Mags doesn’t have it?” Isa said, after a while.
“The Shiny?” Tulip asked, her voice a whisper.
Isa nodded, pursing her lips.
“Then we go home and plead our case,” Tulip said. “If they let us stay, we get stronger and come back with more help. If not, we find another way. We have to keep trying.”
“You’d really risk your life for them again, even after they cast us out?” Isa picked idly at the iron band on her wrist.
Tulip turned and looked Isa in the eye. “We’re still Horntooths, no matter what anyone says, even them. I won’t abandon the clan.”
Isa fell quiet after that, and they sat in silence.
Hours passed. Night fell, and Isa began to snore softly. While she and Dreg slept, Tulip tore more strips from the blanket they’d slashed up earlier, making slings for the ogre’s broken arms. They looked much better than they had before the healing potion, but he wouldn’t be swinging that big club of his anytime soon.
It had been so long since any of them had to let such serious injuries heal naturally that Tulip realized she’d been taking Surzl’s healing magic for granted. What she wouldn’t give to have the surly acolyte here now, Tulip thought, saddened. Without her, they’d have to be doubly careful on the way home.
At long last, Tulip’s adrenaline began to wear off, grief and exhaustion taking its place. She longed to sleep, but one of them had to remain alert for danger, and to keep watch for Mags’ return. She would return, Tulip thought stubbornly. She had to.
Despite her best efforts, Tulip began to nod off until her head jerked up at the sound of a branch snapping nearby. At once, she was on her feet, hammer in her hand, realizing at once that the embiggening potion had worn off at some point in the night. Who was out there? Had the Bouldermaws returned and found them? What if they’d captured Mags and forced her lead the way to the others?
“Dreg?” A familiar, anxiety-laden voice whispered from the shadows. “Tulip?”
At the same time, a furry, banded face appeared, nose and whiskers twitching as it sniffed the rocky opening of the hidey hole.
Relief flooded through Tulip. “Mags! In here.”
The rogue slipped inside, Nermie crawling straight into Dreg’s lap and curling up there.
“What happened?” Tulip asked. “Are they gone?”
“Not yet. Still hunting us. But I made it to the river and back. Did my best to cover my tracks here . . . ”
“So now we wait,” Tulip said, scrubbing at her forehead. She was so tired.
“Now we wait,” Mags agreed. “If you need to sleep, go ahead. I won’t—won’t be able to for a while anyway. I’ll wake Isa up for watch duty then.”
Tulip nodded absently, too exhausted to argue. Only—“Mags . . . do you have it? The Shiny?”
Mags looked down at her feet, shoulders slumping. She shook her head. “I gave it to Surzl. Right before . . . ”
“It’s okay,” Tulip said. “We’ll go home without it. And come back for it.”
Mags nodded, eyes still on her boots. “You should rest.”
A moment’s silence stretched out between them, Mags’ gaze still distance. Not needing to be told a third time, Tulip leaned back against Dreg and let sleep claim her.
A few hours before dawn, a Bouldermaw search party neared their hideout. Luckily, Isabog was on watch by then and, after a few tense moments, was able to hide their crevice in the rocks with a simple illusion spell until their pursuers had moved on. By morning, the valley was quiet again, but the goblins and Dreg decided it safest to stay put until nightfall and make their way out of the valley under cover of darkness.
While Mags and Dreg slept in, Tulip and Isabog ate a cold breakfast of the group’s dwindling supply of trail rations, and Tulip told Isa about the loss of the Shiny. The warlock stiffened at the news, bracing for Oorn’s displeasure. But all that came from him was an icy, lingering silence.
Isa wasn’t sure why recovering a goblin clan totem was so important to her patron, but whatever the reason, Oorn’s bitter disappointment over the group’s failure was plain enough to see. He had barely spoken to her since their panicked flight from the enemy clan’s caves. It made Isa uneasy, but at the same time, it was nice to have a little quiet for once too.
The day passed with agonizing slowness. Finally, night fell and the group readied themselves to creep out from hiding. Tulip and Mags feared the Bouldermaws may have posted sentries in the pass but were relieved to find it abandoned. Mags had done her work well—the enemy truly seemed to believe they’d already escaped. The bulk of the host’s tracks seemed to lead back to the mountain, but there was no way of knowing for sure if the entire horde had returned there or if search parties yet hunted them in the riverlands beyond the valley. They’d have to travel quietly and remain on their guard.
Once beyond the pass, though, the group followed the river southeast for three days without incident. Though they stopped to fashion a crude sort of walking stick for Dreg to lean on, it was painful for him to use on account of his arm fractures. As a result, their progress was slow—maddening so in those first few days, when all four of them were starting at every sound, expecting an attack at all hours of the day and night. They had to stop to hunt and gather food, too, as their rations quickly ran out. By the fourth day of traveling, Isa marveled to find that she wasn’t going out of her mind with boredom. On the contrary, the lack of anything interesting happening to them for once was an incredible relief. They did come across a recently abandoned Fangreaver campsite the fourth day, however. The clearing where they found the cold remains of a campfire was lousy with the telltale clawed tracks of the worgs that Fangreaver hunters rode.
Worgs, bred from wolves but far more fierce and intelligent, were known to be incredible trackers. After stumbling onto the campsite, the group was careful to skirt around that area, losing an extra day of travel in going the long way around. Better safe than sorry, they all agreed.
Oorn’s silence continued, finally unnerving Isa to the point that she resumed her usual mental chatter in his direction in fits and spurts—the sort of idle talk that didn’t require a response, mostly. For all his sullen silence, she could feel that he was still with her, and her magic certainly hadn’t left her. On the contrary, she was becoming adept at bringing down small game with her eldritch spear. Hunger seemed to improve her aim.
During the final leg of the journey, the closer the group got to home, the less they spoke to one another, each having settled into their respective roles as they traveled. Mags scouted ahead, making sure the way ahead was clear of dangers. Isa and Dreg watched for game and stripped whatever edible plants and trees they came across. And Tulip bought up the rear, watching their backs and helping Isa hunt when she could.
The closer they drew to the Horntooth caves in the marshy lowlands bordering the Chokewater, game became less frequent, and the woods, increasingly silent. At first, Isa thought she was imagining it, but Mags mentioned it one morning over a breakfast of cold rabbit and dungberry stew, the last of their meat supply.
“Something feels . . . off,” Mags said. “It’s too quiet here. Too still.”
“Be grateful of it,” Tulip grunted. “It’s better than being hunted.”
“I don’t like it,” Mags said, falling quiet again herself.
She’d been like that since the Bouldermaws—quiet and withdrawn, like she’d been before they’d all set out on this journey. Their failure to get the Shiny must be weighing on her, Isa reasoned. That, and Surzl’s loss was an unspoken weight on them all. They hadn’t talked about what might happen when they returned home—not since that first night on the run after the Bouldermaws. Isa supposed it didn’t do to dwell on it. Whatever happened would happen. If they remained in exile, at least Mags, Tulip, and Dreg would still have her back.
She blinked as that thought came to her, looking up in surprise at the ogre walking beside her, at Tulip trailing just behind.
Dreg noticed her glance and grinned down at her, not saying anything.
He would protect her—her and Mags and Tulip, too—against any enemy, any danger. With his life. He’d already proved it many times over. She knew it as surely as she’d ever known anything. It didn’t matter if she was horrible to him sometimes, like she had been at first, or if she was kind. He would protect her just the same. And knowing that made her want to be more kind. It was a good feeling, to know you could count on someone like that. Strange and unsettling. But good.
She waited half-expectantly, wondering if Oorn would choose this moment to break his long silence. He had often maintained that she could trust no one, after all, except him. But he said nothing.
At long last, the trails through the marsh became familiar. But instead of excitement at their looming homecoming, Isa felt a kernel of dread begin to form in the pit of her stomach. A glance at the others proved no more reassuring. Behind her, Tulip’s scowl had deepened. And Mags quickly drew alongside the group instead of ranging ahead out front, seeming to hunch in on herself more the closer they got to the caves.
Isa expected, at any minute, that they’d run into a hunting party, or a group sent to gather firewood or to trade with the ogres in the nearby hills. But like the surrounding wetlands, the Horntooths’ lands were eerily quiet, a strange mist seeming to creep in from the direction of the Chokewater.
Finally, Mags stopped to confer with Tulip, the two of them talking in low tones.
“What is it?” Isa asked, annoyed to be left out. “What’s wrong?”
“Something’s not right,” Mags said. “We should have seen someone by now. I’m going to scout ahead to the caves and see if . . . if something has happened.”
Isa gulped. “No,” she said.
Tulip raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“After everything that’s happened,” Isa said, “we should stay together.”
“Yes,” Dreg said, nodding. “Together.”
Mags and Tulip exchanged another look, and Tulip shrugged.
“All right,” Mags said, her voice dull and emotionless.
From the moment they saw the sloping entrance to the Horntooth caves, it was clear Mags’ fears were well-founded. The footpath leading to up to the main cavern was strewn with debris, including several trails of bloody drag marks. Without a word, Mags drew her daggers and Tulip, her hammer. Dreg still wasn’t able to lift his greatclub from its crude harness across his back, but he stayed close, scanning for danger. Isa conjured an eldritch spear, held at the ready.
Near the entrance, they found shattered crockery, shredded baskets, and broken furniture—obvious signs of some sort of battle and, afterward, a great deal of looting. They entered the main cavern on high alert, but found it abandoned, moving on to the kitchens and workrooms. Still, they found not a soul, not even any bodies. Everyone was just . . . gone. Judging what little spoiled food they found, Isa thought the caves looked to have been abandoned for at least four or five days. Even the dungeon cells, often crowded with troublemakers and layabouts, stood empty. But when the group entered Ma Snaggl’s rooms, a strange crooning sound brought them up short.
What first sounded to Isa like humming became a sort of song. A quivery voice sang, “Pop their bones, and grind their eyes . . . She will craft a nice surprise, you’ll see . . . you’ll see.” The voice chuckled, its laughter crackling like gravel crushed under booted feet.
The sound seemed to be coming from the other side of Ma Snaggl’s raised, cushioned nest up on the dais. Tulip signaled Mags to flank around silently, while she went the other way, and for Dreg and Isa to guard the door.
Just as Isa got herself into position, there came a squawk of surprise from the dais and a small form dressed in filthy rags burst out from the nest, making a beeline for the door. Dreg stepped in front of Isa, roaring down at fleeing figure and causing it to back up in alarm—right into Tulip, who grabbed it by the scruff of the neck.
“Let me go!” The creature said, trying to batt Tulip’s hands away. “Help! They’s murderin’ me!”
As Tulip hefted her captive of its feet, a ragged hood fell away from its face, revealing a wizened, ancient-looking goblin with mouth full of broken teeth and oversized ears, from behind which protruded wisps of white hair. There were several streaks of white and blue paint swiped down his cheeks.
A Toadcruncher then! Isa scowled, conjuring another eldritch spear of force and throwing it at the far wall, where it exploded in a shower of rocks and dust. She immediately summoned another arcane spear and leveled it at the captive’s head.
He whimpered and fell silent, Isa’s threat clear enough.
“Is there anyone else here?” she asked. “Tell us true or I’ll end you right now.”
“N—no! Just Wizek now. The others left days ago. D—don’t hurt me! You wouldn’t hurt old Wizek?”
“Tell us what we need to know and we’ll leave you locked in a dungeon cell instead of turning you inside out,” Tulip growled, giving him a good shake.
“Yes, yes! I’ll tell. What you wanna know?”
Tulip set the old goblin back on his feet, maintaining her grip on the back of his neck.
“For starters,” Mags said. “Where are our people? What happened here?”
Wizek looked from Mags to the others looming over him, his eyes lingering in fascinated horror on Dreg. He licked his lips nervously. “We fought them. We took them. For her.”
“The other Toadcrunchers took them?” Tulip demanded.
His head bobbed up and down.
“Where? Where were they taken?” Isa asked.
“To the Chokie, of course. To the lake, to her!”
“Her who?” Mags asked.
“The Lady of Dreams.” Wizek flinched, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Drukkna.”
“They’re still alive then,” Tulip said. “Most of the Horntooths?”
“They were, but . . . ” Wizek shuddered.
“But what?!” Tulip shook him again, harder this time.
“She’s hungry. Always hungry.”
Tulip growled again, gripping Wizek’s throat tight enough that his face started to turn purple. Isa raised a warning hand to her. He couldn’t answer questions if he was dead.
“Who is this Drukkna?” Isa asked. “Is she of your clan?”
Wizek sputtered as Tulip released her death grip on his throat and gave a long, wheezing laugh. “No. No! Not a goblin. A she-elf. With silver skin and eyes, and hair of white and blue.” His fingers traced the painted lines down his face as he spoke of her and his broken smile grew wide. “Beautiful Drukkna.”
“Does she wield magic?” Isa asked.
Wizek nodded, still grinning.
He nodded, then shook his head, and finally shrugged. “Don’t know. But she sings us to sleep she does. And the dreams come. If you’ve been good, the dreams are kind. And if you’ve been bad . . . ” He cackled. “Well, then, too bad for you.”
“I think we’ve heard enough,” Tulip said, her grip tightening around the Toadcruncher’s throat again. He clutched at her hand, trying to tear it away.
“The dungeon?” Dreg said, speaking for the first time since they’d found Wizek.
“Fine,” Tulip said, dragging Wizek out by his ear.
“I’ll come with you,” Isa said. “Maybe we can get more out of him.”
She shot another eldritch spear at the wall next to Wizek’s head, just missing his ear. He shrieked and began to blubber loudly, begging to be spared.
Isa’s mind spun with possibilities. If they could defeat this Drukkna and save the clan—whatever was left of it, at least—then surely Ma Snaggl would be willing to overlook the party’s failure to retrieve the Great Shiny.
If Ma Snaggl was even still alive, some small inner voice said. No matter. Whoever was left would have to accept them back. They’d be hailed as heroes. Maybe they’d even become the new leaders!
Or, on the other hand, they could all die in the attempt to defeat this Drukkna. Was it really worth it to stay and fight? Or should they just cut and run, and leave the clan to whatever terrible fate had claimed them?
Yes, she needed more information before she could make a decision. She hoped Wizek was in the mood to keep singing . . .
Left alone with Dreg in Ma Snaggl’s chambers, Mags walked over to the matriarch’s nest, her steps leaden, head and shoulders sagging. The object of her interest was easy enough to find—an old iron-bound chest usually kept hidden under the cushions here. Ma Snaggl always wore the key to this chest’s lock on a leather thong around her neck, tucked into her robes. It was the first lock Mags had ever picked, assuming that whatever was inside, being so carefully guarded, must be incredibly special and shiny. Coins and gems, perhaps. Or magic stuff. Surely something dangerous and exciting must be kept in a place like that!
But when Ma Snaggl had caught Mags looking inside the chest, instead of punishing the youngster, she’d handed her off to one of the scouts for training.
“This one presumes to be a sneak-thief,” the matriarch had told Grimla Hopfoot. “See if you can teach her anything of use.” Snaggl’s tone had been gruff and disapproving, but there’d been a twinkle in her eye that gave young Mags the odd feeling of having done something right.
Here, now, the chest was spilled on its side, its lock smashed open and its contents strewn about the cushions of the nest, likely tossed around in anger when whoever had broken it open had found it empty of what they sought.
Mags had been surprised and disappointed too, that day so long ago, to find the chest not full of riches or potions or baubles, but of hundreds and hundreds of hornteeth.
“One for each Horntooth goblin, taken from us when we leave this world and laid to rest here with the teeth of our ancestors,” Snaggl had said from doorway, finding young Mags running her fingers through the horde of teeth in disappointment. “Someday one of mine will be in there, and some day long after that, one of yours.”
But not one of Surzl’s, Mags thought bitterly, turning the chest right side up and scooping discarded teeth back into it. It wasn’t right. Nothing was right anymore.
“You didn’t tell them,” Dreg said, watching her from where he leaned against the wall near the door.
There was something odd in his voice. Something that didn’t quite belong, and that made Mags glance up at him. He was gazing over at her, a curious and oddly intelligent look on his clumsy features.
“You didn’t tell them,” he said again. “Why?”
“Tell them what, Dreg?” Mags asked uneasily, scooping up another handful of teeth.
“That you have the Shiny, of course. That you’ve had it all along. Why let the others believe that we failed?”
The handful of teeth Mags had gathered clattered back to the floor, bouncing off the cushions and the cool stone beneath them. She stared at Dreg, blinking in shock. It was his voice, but not his words, not his way of speaking them. And the way he was looking at her—like Mags was all at once a speck of dirt on his shoe and something totally and utterly surprising, and possibly dangerous or wonderful. That was all—
“You’re not here. Y—you can’t be.”
Dreg took a step toward her, rolling his eyes. “But I am. And I want to know. Why didn’t you tell them?”
“Because it cost us too much,” Mags breathed. “And because of Isa’s patron. I don’t trust him. Not with anything that has magic that strong . . . You—you never trusted him either—” Mags trailed off, afraid to say it. Afraid if she did, Dreg would blink down at her, confused, having been himself all along. She was dreaming this. That was all. Because she wanted it so much.
“It’s okay. You can say my name. I won’t poof away if you do. Not just yet. Dreg is depressingly easy to possess. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it.”
“S-surzl?” Mags took a step closer.
“Yes. In the not exactly flesh.”
“How?!” Mags said, her pulse racing, heart thudding.
Dreg-Surzl shrugged. “I don’t know how these things work. But I do know the Dancer in the Flames isn’t done with me. She isn’t done with any of us, because she told me how I might live again. As me, I mean. Not like this.” An expression of such Surzl-like distaste flitted across Dreg’s face that it was like seeing a ghost, never mind that Mags was talking to one.
Mags’ heart went from hammering to leaping so high out of her chest she thought she might have to swallow it back down. “How?”
“The Shiny. But there’s a catch.” Dreg-Surzl scratched at her chin, gazing down at Mags awkwardly.
Mags flung her pack on the ground and began to dig through it. She’d realized when she went to put Nermie in there that awful day in the valley of the Bouldermaws that Surzl must have snuck the Shiny in there somehow amid all the chaos, just before she—Mags shook her head. No. She didn’t want to think about that. Tearing through the pack, she found the oblong object she was looking for, still hidden where she’d stashed it inside a wide tube that was part of her trapmaking kit. She pulled it out now, offering it to Surzl.
But Dreg’s large hands pushed the rod back toward Mags. “It’s not use to me in this form. I’m dead. Only life can call on magic.”
“But . . . Dreg?” Mags blinked up at her—him?—confused.
“This particular ability of the Shiny’s can only be activated once every one hundred years. And only by someone who—” she stopped abruptly, her gaze skirting away. Dreg’s cheeks reddened suddenly, embarrassment coloring his pale skin.
“What?” Mags asked, wincing.
“Since neither you or Dreg are spellcasters, that complicates things. But this ability can be used by a non-magic type person to bring back someone they—” Again, she hesitated.
“Surzl!” Mags growled. “Stop pussyfooting around and just say it. It can’t be that bad!”
“Someone they love! Alright?” Dreg’s face contorted in utter mortification, still blushing. His shoulders seemed to slump inward, and suddenly he could only stare at the ground. “It’ll only work if you love me. . . but you do. So, it will work.”
Mags felt all the heat and blood in her body flood to her face. “Oh.”
They’d never actually talked about this before. Suddenly neither of them could look at each other.
“What—what do I have to do?” Mags tried to calm her breathing, but it was impossible.
“Just think of me and . . . feel how you feel. And say rebeatha exsurgent.”
“That’s it?!” Mags looked up sharply. It seemed impossible a think like this could ever be that simple.
Mags gripped the Shiny in her hands, hearing the words Surzl had said in her mind. Rebeatha exsurgent. But when she opened her mouth to say them, she looked up to find Dreg-Surzl staring at her expectantly.
“Could you—not look at me, while I—?”
Dreg-Surzl blushed again and abruptly turned away.
Mags took a deep breath to steady herself, closing her eyes. The journey home had taken a little over two weeks, and in that time Mags had kept herself too busy to feel what Surzl was asking her to feel again—that confusing place inside her that had collapsed into a sinkhole of bottomless loss and hurt when she watched Surzl burn away to nothing before her eyes. But if there was really a chance that this could bring Surzl back, alive . . .
“What if it doesn’t work?” Mags said, turning back to Dreg-Surzl, her voice laced with the pain and anxiety she felt. “What if I do it wrong? Or if I can’t do it at all?”
Dreg-Surzl turned back to face her and walked forward, standing next to her. Awkwardly, the flame acolyte, wearing Dreg’s body like a pair of clothes, reached down and took Mags’ hand. “You won’t,” she said, and a hint of a shy smile curled at the corner of her mouth. Then she looked down at the ground again, waiting.
“Okay,” Mags breathed, clinging to the hand in hers, and holding onto the Shiny in her other hand.
Anchored by Surzl’s presence, Mags closed her eyes again, took another deep breath, and dove headlong into that awful place inside herself, the one she’d been tiptoeing around. Steeling herself, Mags pushed her way past the dull lingering misery of these recent weeks. Past the seething, consuming despair she’d felt those first few days after Surzl’s demise. And past the rending, searing pain of having felt Surzl ripped away from her forever when that charred holy symbol had hit the ground and the ashes outlining the flame acolyte’s form had swirled away into nothing. Past all that hurt was what lay behind it, what had caused it—the warmth and happiness that Mags felt every time she looked at Surzl, every time their hands accidentally brushed.
So, this is what love felt like, like warm sunlight on your skin. Mags hadn’t dared call it that before, but fine. Whatever. She loved Surzl. So what?
She let it wash over her, that feeling, along with the flooding tide of hope she felt that what she was trying to do would work and bring Surzl back.
No. Not just back. Back to her.
And once she was feeling all of that, she said the words she’d been told: “Rebeatha exsurgent.”
Then she opened her eyes.
Next to Mags, Dreg’s eyes were closed tightly too, his hand still clutched in Mags’.
“Did it work?” Mags asked nervously, after an awkward beat.
Dreg’s eyes opened, and the breath whooshed from his chest in a sigh of intense frustration. “No,” Surzl said, still avoiding Mags’ eyes.
Mags looked down at the Shiny in her other hand. “Rebeatha exsurgent,” she said again, shaking the rod. Maybe you had to wave it around? “It’s not working. Why isn’t it working?” Mags’ voice sounded panicked to her own ears, but that’s how she felt.
Dreg’s hand fell away from hers, and something in Mags’ chest clenched at that loss of contact.
“Oh,” Surzl said, looking away. “Okay. Well. Thanks for trying.”
“Surzl—” Mags started, tears springing to her eyes.
“No, it’s fine. It’s—it’s better this way. Good luck with . . . everything. I won’t bother you again.”
“Surzl!” Mags cried. But Dreg’s lumbering form was already turning away from her. Then he seemed to stumble and slump in on himself, like a puppet cut loose from its strings, before he straightened again and turned to look at Mags, blinking in confusion.
“Small goblin okay? What wrong?” He reached down toward her, his movements grown clumsy again.
But Mags ducked out of his reach, wiping hastily at her eyes. “I’m fine, Dreg. I’m just—I’m fine. Why don’t you see if Isa and Tulip need help with Wizek?”
“Okay,” Dreg said, taking a hesitant step toward the door. “It okay to be sad, small goblin. Dreg miss angry goblin too.”
“Yeah,” Mags said, fighting to keep her voice from shaking. “Thanks.”
Once he was gone, Mags untucked her arm from behind her back, where she’d hidden the Shiny from the ogre. Angrily, she stuffed it back into its hiding spot in the tube, shoving it back into her trapsmithing kit, and putting the kit back into her pack.
One by one, she picked up the scattered hornteeth and put them back into the cracked chest. At least with Dreg and Surzl gone now, there was no one to see the tears she couldn’t hold back any longer as they fell, wetting bits of old bone bleached yellow with age.
Two hours later, as the sun sank down over the hilly western horizon, the party headed down the path from the Horntooth caves. Tulip and Isa had tried to extract more information from Wizek, but the old goblin didn’t seem to know much more of use. He’d only seen this Drukkna in person twice before, and had never been to the lakeside hut she was said to live in. He did explain roughly where he knew it to be—on the northwest end of the lake, near a large outcropping of rock, one side of which looked like a knife blade tilted at the sky. Tulip had roughed him up a bit, until she and Isa were fairly sure he wasn’t holding back any more information. Then they’d dumped him in one of the dungeon cells and locked him inside with only a half-full waterskin.
“You’d better hope we return to let you out,” Isa had said. “If there’s anything else that you want to tell us, now’s your last chance.”
“No!” he’d gasped. “Wizek already told you everything.”
In the marshy woods, Tulip glanced over at her companions, hoping they were all ready for this. Mags had been quieter than ever since they’d arrived at the caves, having spent the last hour they were there cobbling together a rudimentary weapon that could be strapped onto one of Dreg’s arms, a sort of bladed gauntlet. He still hadn’t healed up enough to wield his greatclub, but with the wicked blades now protruding from his elbow and wrist, anything he swung his arm at was likely to be in for a very bad day.
Mags herself was trudging along, drawn into herself. She’d not spoken a single word to anyone for hours. Isa was also quiet but kept stealing glances at Tulip like she wanted to say something. Tulip didn’t take the bait and ask what it was though, since she was pretty sure anything Isa had to say would involve asking to abort the current plan and abandon the rest of the clan. Tulip was afraid the whole thing would fall apart at the seams if they had that conversation now.
The current plan, one of Tulip’s devising, was simple. They’d find the hut of this sorceress, run in and kill her, and rescue the clan.
Seemed simple enough. The only person who seemed excited about it, though, was Dreg, because he was eager to meet “the other nice goblins,” by which he meant the other Horntooths. Since Mags, Surzl, Tulip and Isabog had accepted him, the ogre seemed to assume that the rest of their clan would too.
For his sake, Tulip certainly hoped so—and that the clan’s good will would extend toward the entire group, if they could pull off a daring rescue.
That is, if there was anyone left to rescue. Tulip gulped.
The marshy lowlands were quiet in the twilit murk of early evening—the mist from the lake wending its way through the scraggily trees. Like the wilds closer to the Horntooth lands, everything here was too quiet, too still. No birds sang from the trees, and no insects buzzed below them. The party hadn’t seen a single living thing outside of themselves. It was like the entire marsh was holding its breath, waiting for something.
Tulip wasn’t sure she wanted to find out what that something was.
Darkness began to fall, and under the light of a waxing moon, they followed the path eastward along the northern shore of the lake, its glinting waters crowded with the clinging chokeweed from which the Chokewater took its name. Eventually, the path swung south, and soon Mags’ sharp eyes picked out the distant shape of the stone formation Wizek had described.
“There,” Mags said, breaking the silence—the first words Tulip had heard her speak since they first captured the intruder to the Horntooth caves. “We must be close. Shouldn’t we have seen them by now? The Toadcrunchers?”
Tulip shrugged. “Who knows? But stay sharp. There are bound to be some guarding the hut. From what Wizek said, their clan worships the sorceress almost like some sort of goddess.”
Isa snorted. “I can just hear Surzl’s response to that.”
Tulip shot the warlock a sad smile. Mags, though, flinched at Isa’s words.
Once they got a bit further, Mags offered to go and scout ahead. Tulip hesitated only for a moment before agreeing to this. At least the little rogue seemed to have roused a bit from her earlier funk. That she was falling back into her role as scout seemed to bode well.
The rest of them waited, hidden in a copse of trees with drooping branches, as Mags crept on ahead. Five minutes passed, then ten. Then twenty. Tulip was beginning to fear Mags might have ditched them altogether when the little rogue suddenly reappeared, wearing a deeply disturbed expression.
“What?” Isa said, turning toward Mags. “What is it?”
“Come and see,” was all she said, turning without waiting to see if they followed.
Down the dirt path another few hundred yards lay dozens and dozens of goblin bodies.
Some bore the characteristic paint that marked them as Toadcrunchers. Others, the telltale snaggleteeth of the Horntooth tribe.
“Are they . . . dead?” Tulip asked, stunned, looking down at Mags.
The little rogue looked up at Tulip and shook her head, stone-faced. “Asleep. . . I think. They’re breathing, but they won’t wake up.”
Tulip saw the familiar squash-nosed face of Dzok Greatstech among the sleepers here just as Isa did. The warlock rushed over and knelt at the Horntooth warrior’s side, trying to shake him awake. “Dzok,” Isa hissed. “Dzok, it’s me! Isa!”
“It’s no use,” Mags said, walking over to Isa. “I tried everything. Unless—do you know any spells to wake people up?”
Isa shook her head, standing back up. A fierce expression came over her then. “No,” the warlock said. “But I know plenty of spells to kill meddling sorceresses.”
Tulip grinned over at her. Now that was more like it.
“The hut is up that way just a little further. There are many more of them there,” Mags gestured at the sleepers, “the closer you get to it.” A shiver seemed to run up Mags’ spine.
“Did you see her?” Tulip asked.
Mags shook her head, her lips pressed in a thin, hard line.
Wordlessly, the group continued on. The hut came into view before long—a ramshackle structure made of woven reeds and branches, rounded on one long side and more flat on the other, though the flatter side curved in slightly, giving the whole thing the rough shape of a crescent moon.
Weapons drawn, the group approached the hut.
“Show yourself, Drukkna!” Tulip shouted. “We’ve come to challenge you!”
But there was no reply, not even the chirping of crickets broke the eerie silence—just the soft lapping of water at the lake’s shore as the moonlight made odd ripples over its surface.
Then one of the goblins down by the water’s edge gave a soft, groaning sigh. Her head seemed to bend up from the neck, as if pulled on an invisible string. Then her mouth opened, and a strange sort of blue-black mist was drawn out of her, disappearing almost as quickly as it had emerged.
“Ma Snaggl!” Mags cried, darting toward her.
“If you wish her dead,” a silvery voice said from somewhere near the Horntooth matriarch, “by all means, take another step.”
Mags stopped short. So did Tulip and the others.
“You leave her alone!” Mags raged.
The voice laughed, a tinkling sound like tiny brass bells shivering against a breeze. “And why should I do that? Will you make me?”
“You bet we will,” Tulip challenged. “Stop hiding like a coward and face us.”
And just like that, she appeared. Leaning over Ma Snaggl was the beautiful elven woman Wizek had described—her hair white streaked with blue, her eyes and skin a garish silver. The elf parted her lips, leaning over Snaggl, and more of the blue-black mist appeared, drawn from Snaggl’s mouth into the elf’s. The elf woman purred, drinking it in. “My, my. This one is delicious. Is she someone dear to you, youngling?” The elf turned and fixed her silver gaze on Mags—just in time to recoil from the dagger flying at her face.
The elf screeched and dodged to the side, but not quick enough. The dagger sliced a wicked line across her shoulder, staining her gossamer white dress with purplish blood. Just as quickly as it had been thrown, the dagger blinked back into Mags’ hand.
“You’ll pay for that,” the elf hissed, lashing out one arm in Mags’ direction. Three glowing orbs formed at her fingertips, all shooting unerringly for Mags and striking her one by one in the chest.
The little rogue grunted in pain but held her ground.
Picking her way around still goblin bodies, Isa conjured one of her arcane spears and let it fly at the elf. It struck the woman in the torso, its brute force knocking her back ten feet into the shallows of the lake. Released from whatever connection had been draining her, Ma Snaggl’s prone form fell back to the sand and lay unmoving once more.
Dreg and Tulip charged in then, splashing into the water. The ogre’s first swing with his bladed gauntlet went wide, the elf ducking under the blow. But he caught her in the shoulder with his backswing, the blade at his elbow slicing another purple ribbon in her flesh.
While the elf was distracted by Dreg, Tulip swung her warhammer in arcing blow aimed at her ribs. There was a satisfying crack and the she-elf shuddered, her breath rasping out in a heaving gasp. And just like that—she wasn’t a she-elf anymore, but a hunched, monstrous female figure with dark blue skin, a wizened, pointed face with a hooked nose, slender black horns curving back from her face on either side of her temples, and hands that ended in long, wicked claws.
“A hag!” Isa shouted, back on the shore. “She’s a filthy hag!”
The hag, if that is indeed what she was, turned and hissed at Tulip, the creature’s breath reeking of fetid swamp water and brimstone. Then a look of shock came over her face as her gaze fell to the sandy beach behind Tulip.
“No!” the hag shouted. “How are you doing that? You can’t!”
Despite her better judgement, Tulip turned to look. Behind her, Ma Snaggl and the Toadcruncher warrior next to her were both sitting up, clutching their heads and blinking around in confusion. “What’s happened?” the Toadcruncher said. “Who—?”
But then a length of driftwood clocked him the temple and he fell back to the sand unmoving. Ma Snaggl got shakily to her feet, pointed her bloody length of driftwood at the hag, and shouted over to Tulip. “Well? What are you waiting for, girl? Get her!”
That’s when Tulip saw the golden glow coming from her hands—her hammer lit up like a miniature sun, its light stretching for ten feet in every direction, burning away the darkness.
The hag reared back, covering her eyes and shrieking. “It burns!” Then she turned toward the figures lining the shore and raised one hand in a lifting motion. “Arise, my children. And kill these intruders!”
As one, every prone goblin on the beach except the Toadcruncher Ma Snaggle had just brained rose to its feet and started moving toward the party. Their eyes remained closed, but they seemed able to see somehow anyway, and their movements were slow and faltering—like sleepwalkers, Tulip thought. But there were far, far too many of them, a horde of at least fifty.
“Uh oh,” said Dreg next to her.
“Uh oh,” Tulip agreed.
Up on the beach, the three sleepwalkers closest to Isa slammed out her with flailing arms. They were clumsy and slow enough that she easily moved out of the way of two of the attacks, but a third clocked her in the side of the head, dazing her for briefly.
Others moved for Ma Snaggl, who sidestepped most of the attacked directed her way but took a glancing blow to the side that caused her to cry out in pain.
Mags was just out of range, as were Tulip and Dreg, but they’d be swamped in mere moments. “Isa,” Tulip shouted. “Got any good ideas?”
“One really bad one,” the warlock answered, breathless.
Isa began to utter the words of a spell, but it sounded to be a lengthy incantation. While the warlock chanted, Mags darted forward away from the advancing sleepwalkers and took another knife throw at the hag, missing this time and cursing in frustration as her blade returned magically to her hand.
The hag raised one clawed hand for what looked like a nasty swipe down at Tulip, but suddenly winked out of existence and reappeared right behind Isabog.
Before Tulip could cry out a warning, the hag said, “Over here, dearie.”
Seeming close to finishing her spell, Isa turned in alarm toward the hag, who blew a stream of that eerie blue-black mist into Isa’s face. A look of surprise came over the warlock, and she dropped to the sand and lay still.
“No!” Dreg cried, running back onto the shore. The sleepwalkers reached for him as he went, landing several blows, but the ogre shrugged these off, rushing the hag and swinging out at her again. This time, the wicked blade at his wrist caught her in the cheek, tearing open a grisly wound that revealed the roots of teeth through her torn flesh.
Tulip charged back up the beach after Dreg, swinging her hammer at the Toadcruncher sleepwalkers in her path and knocking two aside. As she moved through them, those sleepwalkers touched by the light from her hammer blinked their eyes open and seemed momentarily confused—until the Horntooths among them saw the Toadcrunchers, and the two clans fell on one another, battering away at each other with their empty fists.
“No!” the hag gave an anguished scream. “Stop it! Stop waking them! My children, wrest that weapon away from that wretched Horntooth girl and throw it into the lake!”
And with that, all the Toadcrunchers Tulip’s hammer had awakened turned and began to converge on her, while some of the sleepwalkers moved to take their place to keep the wakened Horntooths at bay.
Multiple hands reached to grab Tulip, while still more attempted to wrest the glowing hammer from her grasp. With a growl of frustration, she dug her feet into the wet sand and hung onto the hammer for all she was worth, barely managing to keep it in her grasp. But her focus on keeping her weapon left her open to attacks, and fists began to slam into her unprotected chest and face. Stars swam before Tulip’s vision and she spat out a mouthful of blood.
Then her legs went out from under her, and dozens of arms grabbed her, lifting her into the air.
Tulip heard a roar of fury from Dreg and a cry of surprised alarm from Mags—but she couldn’t see either of them, only the sea of bodies that had claimed her, their painted faces garish and terrifying in the moonlight. Something solid crashed against the side of Tulip’s head, stunning her, and she felt the hammer finally wrested from her grasp. “No,” she wheezed, blood flowing from her gashed lip and coating her tongue in a coppery tang.
Then she was falling, tumbling to the sand to find herself next to Isa, thrown at the hag’s feet. Dreg was still fighting, swinging at the goblins that swarmed him, but injured as he was, he was too slow. It was only a matter of time before they took him down. Tulip couldn’t see Mags, but she could hear the little rogue howling in rage and alarm, even as Tulip’s own battle fury was suddenly snuffed out like a candle.
They had failed.
And now they would die.
Above her, the hag cackled joyfully and tipped sleeping Isabog’s chin up toward her own pointed face.
Tulip tried to crawl toward the fallen warlock, ready to claw at the hag with her bare hands to wrestle her off Isa. But arms reached out to hold Tulip down, leering Toadcruncher faces appearing in her view. If only she still had her hammer, at least she could take a few of them with her.
The wakened Toadcrunchers began to howl in triumph, their voices shrill and piercing. Then there was a roar of a different kind, and some of the screams turned to shrieks of agony. Heat blazed somewhere near Tulip’s left side, and she raised a suddenly freed arm to shield her eyes against the glare of bright light.
A figure approached out of the darkness, wreathed in flames. It gyrated in a frenzied dance, like Ruznabiyug Herself come to walk among them, and where it spun and pointed its arms in graceful arcs, fire blossomed, consuming whatever it touched.
Slack-jawed with awe and fascinated horror, Tulip watched the Dancer come, waiting for the flames to claim her too.
Near the water, Mags was on her knees being dragged toward the hag by half a dozen ensorcelled goblins when she saw the Dancer in the Flames wade into the sleepwalkers, throwing jets of flame.
But something about the way the figure moved was familiar, known.
Mags’ despairing heart gave an incredulous leap, flopping like a fish against the inside of her chest.
“Surzl!” Mags screamed, her throat raw from howling at her attackers.
The flaming figure turned in Mags’ direction, and then she was coming, the crowd of sleepwalkers and wakened goblins alike parting in front of her, shying away from the flames. The creatures dragging Mags dropped her and recoiled back several feet, shielding their faces.
“No, you fools!” The hag cried. “Stand and fight!”
On her hands and knees, Mags scrambled forward.
“The Shiny,” Surzl said, holding out one flame-wreathed hand.
And it was Surzl—the flames that wreathed her familiar form didn’t appear to be harming her, for all that they were laying waste to everything else they touched. The flame acolyte grinned wickedly down at Mags, pointed an idle finger at one of the Toadcrunchers edging away from them. Surzl cackled as the other female goblin went up in flames like an animated torch.
Meanwhile, Mags ripped her pack off her back and dumped its contents out onto the sand, pouncing on her trapsmithing kit as it tumbled free. In one smooth motion, she yanked out the tube that held the Shiny, rattled it loose, and tossed the rod to Surzl.
A wide grin broke over the flame acolyte’s face as her fingers closed around the braid of silver and platinum, the fire opal eyes of the phoenix figurines on either side seeming to glow a brighter red as they too became wreathed in flames.
“Come,” Surzl said to Mags, beckoning her to follow.
Kipping back up to her feet, Mags hurried after the flame acolyte. Hope and confusion warring in her chest where only dread had existed just moment before.
Had the spell they’d tried to cast through the Shiny worked after all? Was this Surzl in the flesh, resurrected? Or was this flaming apparition just another haunting?
Mags couldn’t say. But as the sleepwalkers continued to stumble out of their way while Surzl and Mags charged straight toward the hag looming over their friends, the little rogue summoned her magic dagger back to her hand and prepared to save them, or die trying.
Oornthcthullon had felt Isabog’s consciousness wink out with the hag’s spell, his own vast intelligence surging against some unseen barrier the magical state of sleep presented, preventing him from taking over the warlock’s unconscious body. Screaming in helpless fury into the void, he slammed the full weight of his psionic might against that wall, feeling it shudder under his onslaught.
Tendrils of thought slithered over the barrier, testing its strength, searching for any signs of weakness.
Yes, he thought, sampling the nature of the creature’s enchantment. Its magic tasted of brimstone and a familiar, sickeningly sweet reek—milk of the poppy mixed with Lethean water.
A night hag?! Oorn raged. A disgusting fiend of a night hag dared to challenge him?
Drawing on the banked embers of magic stored in Isa’s body, Oorn gathered as much of it to himself as he could and used it to batter away at that arcane wall blocking his mind from seizing control of Isa’s body.
One shuddering crash. Two. Three. The wall was trembling now, splintering.
With a final slam, the arcane barrier shattered and Oorn’s consciousness surged into Isa’s prone form, slithering into her puny limbs and tentacles and settling behind her eyes.
He blinked, orienting himself to what was happening around him.
There were screams in the night, howls of tortured anguish. Delicious.
The hag loomed over his, her mouth tilted to his. He could feel tendrils of Isabog’s soul being pulled up from inside of her, coiling up her throat and into her mouth.
Then the hag saw that Isa’s eyes were open, and her smile of anticipation darkened into a scowl.
“Surprise,” Oorn purred with Isa’s voice, wrapping two tentacles around the hag’s filthy head and sending a sharp jolt of electricity through her.
The hag reared and screamed, smoke rising from the places where Oorn’s tentacles had grasped her.
He laughed, reaching for her again.
But then the screaming from nearby quieted, a whoosh of rising flames taking its place. Oorn and the hag turned to look at the same time.
Barreling towards them was Mags on one side, blades gleaming in her hands. And next to her was—no, Surzl?!
But that was impossible! He’d watched her die, seen it from behind Isabog’s eyes, standing not thirty feet from the acolyte when she’d burned to ash.
And yet, here she stood, awash in flames. A lurid smile stretched across Surzl’s lips, and borne in her flame-wreathed hands—
“No,” Oorn cried, the realization dawning on him. “Noooooo!!!”
Surzl held the rod of the phoenix—the relic he’d so painstakingly sought to use to resurrect himself in his true form—as he’d once been, a mighty lord of the sea. A kraken.
Not this sad assemblage of smithereens, his pitiful excuse for a continued existence wholly dependent on a disgusting lower life form.
He’d arranged the quest so carefully: manipulating Isabog and her worthless cagemates so that they failed in every task assigned them; psionically influencing the visiting Bouldermaw shaman, that blithering fool, into giving insult; and forcing Snaggl’s hand in sending the offending group of young goblins into the Bouldermaws’ treasure horde—the last known resting place of the one item powerful enough to save him from this undeserved fate: the rod of the phoenix could be used to cast such powerful resurrection magic that it could even rebuild from nothing a body long lost to the ravages of time, such as his own.
Except this magic worked only once every one hundred years. And if Surzl was here bearing the rod, that meant it had already been used. On her.
He had failed! Here he would remain, trapped inside of a Stars-bedamned goblin and doomed to die in the thirty or forty short years that conscribed such horrid creatures’ entire, meaningless existence. And that was if he was lucky, if Isabog didn’t get herself killed here by a shitting, soul-gobbling night hag or any of a thousand other ridiculous means of destruction.
What point was there to that now, when no hope remained to him?
Well . . . if he was finally going to die, after the nine thousand years of his long life, then at least he would know the pleasure of destroying the creature who had thwarted his plans.
Oorn surged upright, his feet finding the ground beneath him. Wrenching himself free of the jabbering night hag, he launched himself at the flame acolyte’s advancing form, conjuring the most powerful of the spells he could cast with Isabog’s limited ability.
It should be enough, he thought, chuckling darkly.
Surzl would die by his hand tonight. Let her not breathe a single moment more of the precious life she had stolen from him! She and that wretched, so-called flame goddess of hers could both rot in the hells!
He raised Isabog’s hand, the incantation for his killing blow spilling from their lips.
Mags saw Isabog rise and lurch toward them, a look of murderous rage on her face as she fixed her gaze on Surzl.
“Isa, no!” Mags cried. “What are you doing?!”
All her fury bent on the night hag, Surzl didn’t even seem to notice the warlock’s approach, or the threat she posed.
“Surzl!” Mags yelled. “Look out!”
The Dancer in the Flames watched the scene unfold, gouts of fire lighting up the dreaded night as sweet Surzl carved through her enemies, their cries of agony swiftly silenced.
Ah, yes. Such sweet music, the wails of the burning.
Their ashes caught on the wind, rising—a symphony floating on a sirocco.
From on high, Ruznabiyug saw Surzl’s companion, the warlock rise to her feet, heard that creature’s pitiful patron shriek as he realized all his machinations had come to naught. That, She could tolerate. But his blasphemy against Her glory in the same breath that he swore to strike down the most devout and promising of Her priestesses—
No. That would not do. She had plans for this one, after all.
The divine gate that separated the realms of the gods from those of mortals was a fearsome thing. But like the arcane wall that had just been torn to shreds by all that remained of the once mighty Oornthcthullon the Devourer, the divine gate too had its weaknesses.
And Ruznabiyug knew just how to exploit them.
Laughing in delight, She took careful aim . . .
“Surzl!” Mags yelled. “Look out!”
Surzl was turning to face Isa—but too late. The warlock’s hands were drawing a complicated pattern in the air, words hissing from her lips and seeming to scald and burn the cool night air like sizzling acid.
Seeming to complete her spell, Isa threw out one arm in Surzl’s direction.
Mags did the only thing she could, acting on instinct. She threw herself at Surzl’s burning form, trying to knock the acolyte out of the way. Mags felt her flesh sizzle on contact with the flames dancing across Surzl’s skin, crying out in pain.
And as both Surzl and Mags crashed to the ground, Mags looked up and saw a strange thing. At first she took it for a falling star, hurtling straight toward all of them.
But as whatever it was plummeted, whistling, toward the ground, Mags saw that it was much too small for that—a delicate, lancing line of fire that seemed to trace down from the heavens themselves, as it speared Isabog through back, coming out the other side.
Then, just as fast as it had fallen, it disappeared. And Isa fell to her knees, collapsing face first in the sand.
The hag was just a few steps behind the warlock, stumbling back from the oncoming firestorm that was Surzl. As Mags watched, the flame acolyte launched a jet of flames at the hag that seared and melted the flesh from one side of her face, which was left a bubbling, blackened ruin.
The hag wailed, clutching her head and scrambling away. Then Dreg was there, stabbing down at her with his new weapon. Just a beat behind him, Tulip appeared, slamming her recovered warhammer into the back of the hag’s skull, caving it in and silencing her for good.
The hag’s body collapsed next to Isa’s, and Tulip fell to her knees beside them both.
As the hag breathed her last, a collective gasp rose up from the cowering goblins that lined the beach, as those yet asleep under the creature’s foul sorcery awakened and all who had been under her spell reeled from the shock of her demise.
“Stay back!” Mags shouted, circling around her friends and brandishing her blades at the nearest Toadcrunchers, lest they get any ideas.
“Horntooths, to us!” Tulip cried.
Milling and confused, the remnants of the Horntooth clan answered Tulip’s summons, crowding close. There was a moment of panic as Dreg swept into their midst, sobbing as he picked up Isa’s limp body and cradled her into his arms. “No,” he said. “No, no, no.”
Two badly bloodied Horntooth warriors started toward the ogre, shouting at him to leave Isa be.
“Leave her to the ogre,” Tulip called in a ringing challenge. “He’s our friend—more of a true friend to Isa than any of you ever were.”
“Is that so?” said a familiar dry voice. Ma Snaggl stepped into the midst of the circle the Horntooths had formed around the party. “You Toadcrunchers,” she called to the enemy clan, still lumbering about in confusion. “Go back to your forsaken village and leave us be, or by the gods, we will see you all burn!”
Surzl cackled and shot a gout of flames into the night sky.
And just like that, their “sorceress” defeated and their spirits broken, the Toadcrunchers turned and fled the beach. Emboldened, many of the Horntooths picked up rocks and stones, pelting their fleeing enemies. But those who made to chase them were stopped by a sharp reprimand from Ma Snaggl.
“Now,” she continued. “These exiles have done us a great service. What a shame it is that they are exiles.”
“Yeah. About that . . . ” Surzl said. And with that, the flames surrounding her form winked out with a guttering wind, dismissed for the moment, it seemed. As the flames left her, Surzl stumbled a step.
At this, Mags instinctively threw an arm around the acolyte’s waist to support her, blushing as she felt Surzl lean into her. Mags blistered hands stung, but it was nothing compared to the way her spirit soared.
Surzl was here. Alive.
They’d defeated their enemies.
And they had the Shiny. That meant that they were about to be welcomed back into the Horntooth’s fold.
So why was Dreg blubbering over—
Oh. Over Isa’s unmoving body.
Isa, who had tried to kill Surzl. Or had she, Mags wondered. She’d hidden the Shiny from her companions for a reason, after all. Ever since Dreg had given her the magic brooch they’d taken from the human caravan, Mags had become aware of the absence of a certain pressure against her thoughts, a force that had amplified her fears and frustrations and induced paranoia against her cagemates.
In its absence, she’d found clarity and a new, sneaking suspicion. Isa had bragged about Oorn’s psionic powers often enough that it was easy to discern the most likely origin of that force. And if he had such influence in shaping Mags’ thoughts, feelings, and actions—in all of theirs . . . then what else could he do? What else had he done? And what was it he wanted with them?
Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.
And Isa had jerked awake and charged at Surzl in a murderous rage as soon as she appeared with the Shiny in her hands. The Shiny that had brought Surzl back to life.
The pieces clicked, fitting themselves together in Mags’ mind.
Isa hadn’t tried to kill Surzl; Oorn had.
Only something had struck them down before he could.
But Isa . . .
Poor, dumb, annoying, but surprisingly brave these past few weeks Isa . . .
. . . was stirring in Dreg’s arms.
“Hey, look!” someone said with a laugh. “The freak is alive.”
Tulip’s arm shot out, punching the goblin who’d spoken in the face. He squawked, clutching his bleeding, broken nose. “Don’t call her that.”
“Dreg,” Isa wheezed. “You’re holding me too tight.”
The ogre’s heaving shoulders stilled as he went rigid. Then he pulled back to get a better luck, holding Isa at arm’s length, more delicately. “You’re okay?” he sniffled.
“I will be, soon as you stop crushing me. Only—” Isa gasped as the ogre set her gently down on her own two feet. “He’s—he’s gone. Oorn’s gone.”
Panicking, the warlock conjured an arcane spear and threw it into at an empty patch of nearby sand. Hooting with joy, she waved her hand and spoke a word under her breath, and her body became covered in hard, green scales.
“He’s gone!” Isa whooped, laughing in joyful hysterics. “And I still have all of his magic!”
“Yes,” Ma Snaggl said, stepping to Surzl’s and Mags’ side. “You were saying something, Clanless? About your status as exiles?”
Surzl stood a little taller, grabbing for Mags’ hand with her free one. Mags winced as the pressure against her hand chafed her burns, but returned it nonetheless. Surzl’s other hand held the Shiny, which she now presented to Snaggl.
Ma Snaggl looked down at the rod and back up at Surzl, raising a single eyebrow. “It’s quite impressive, but I’m not sure what its relevance is to the current discussion. Unless you mean to threaten me with it?”
“It’s what you sent us to retrieve,” Surzl started hotly. “It’s—tell her, Mags.”
But Mags’ eyes were trained on Snaggl’s face and the dawning comprehension there, along with a flash of genuine shock and disappointment that disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Two things were clear.
The rod in Surzl’s hand was not the Great Shiny.
And Ma Snaggl had not expected them to fail.
“What is it?” Surzl said, seeming to sense Mags’ disquiet.
“That’s not the Shiny, is it?” Mags asked Snaggl.
Snaggl shook her head, her mouth a bitter line. The matriarch sighed, turning to the gathered Horntooths. “Come. Let us return home.”
“What?!” Tulip started forward. “We’re coming with you. We saved you!”
“You were given a task, which you seem to have failed.” Snaggl’s eyes blazed with anger, though Mags could see now the despair that underlaid her fury. She hadn’t just expected them to succeed, she’d needed them to. And they’d failed her. They may have saved them from this week’s peril, but they hadn’t change the fact that the Horntooths had not one speck of prestige or honor left to their names. The other clans would smell their weakness and, like circling wolves, move in for the kill. If not the Toadcrunchers, then the Fangreavers or vengeful Bouldermaws.
“We’re going home to pick up the pieces,” Snaggl said to Tulip. “Your future is your own, but it is not with us.”
Tears sprang to Tulip’s eyes as she stared back at Snaggl, unbelieving. Isa and Dreg each took a step toward her, Dreg’s big hand settling on Tulip’s shoulder.
Snaggl turned and began to walk away, the rest of the clan following her. Dzok Greatstench turned sad eyes to Isa and gave her a faltering wave. Her shoulders sagging, Isa gave him a heartbroken wave back.
They had failed, the words sank home in, finding purchase in Mags’s dashed hopes.
Unless . . .
The Great Shiny.
What if there wasn’t anything all that great about it? What if it was just—
“Wait!” Mags cried, jogging after Snaggl.
“If you’ve any further disappointments to visit on an old woman, I would prefer if they could wait until a later date,” Snaggl growled back.
“Just this,” Mags said, drawing something from a pocket and tossing it in an underhand throw to Snaggl. The matriarch caught it reflexively, her fingers closing around the faintly glowing object in her hand.
The Horntooths nearest her leaned in, curious to see what it was.
Then Snaggl’s fingers unfolded, revealing the cracked crystal doorknob Mags had pried loose from above the altar in the Bouldermaw treasure hoard. Snaggl stared down at it, her wizened face expressionless.
“Huh,” she said, pocketing the doorknob, and shaking her head in exasperation in Mags’ general direction. She waved a hand at the tiny rogue, seeming to dismiss her once and for all.
Mags hung her head, the last of her hopes spent and gone.
Surzl draped an arm over Mags’ shoulder and pulled her close. Tulip, Isa, and Dreg came to stand near them, Tulip placing a hand on Mags’ other shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
At least the five of them had each other then. That was something. But the clan . . .
“Come along, Horntooths,” Ma Snaggl said. The crowd ambled after her, stopping short after a few more steps as the matriarch whirled around, her voice laced with irritation. “Well?” she said, to the group of them standing there—Tulip and Isa and Dreg, Surzl and Mags. “Are you coming, or not, Horntooths? Since none of you lot seem to be paying a damned bit of attention.”
The five of them looked at each other, long faces suddenly bursting into smiles.
Ma Snaggl snorted and rolled her eyes, waving them to the front of the crowd.
Grabbing Surzl’s hand, Mags started forward, Tulip, Isa and Dreg in lockstep with the two of them as they made their way to their indicated place at the front of the clan.
Mags looked down at Surzl’s warm hand in hers. The acolyte grinned shyly back at her.
“Go on, then,” Snaggl said to the five of them. “Lead us home.”
And home they went.