6 Eleint, the Year of the Banner (1368 DR)
The Greypeak Mountains
"You're probably right," Druhallen agreed before shifting Sheemzher's unconscious weight to his left shoulder. "But I plan to ask him all the same."
It was ungentlemanly—unfatherly—but Dru suspected he might see something other than compassion in the young man's eyes and until he shifted shoulders, Sheemzher's head blocked the view. It wasn't like the youth to smooth the goblin's road, though he and Rozt'a had been urging Tiep to do just that since they'd left Weathercote Wood. Lately Tiep was like a weathervane in a thunderstorm: pointing first this way, then that, and very likely to burst into flames at any moment.
"I doubt that Lady Wyndyfarh has been any more honest with her goblin than she has with us," Dru continued. "But it will be interesting to learn what she has told him about herself. Sheemzher's got a good memory—have you noticed that when he tells you what someone else has said, he gets it exact, right down to the accent?"
"I knew a rag-picker whose parrot squawked in couplets. Didn't make the bird a poet."
Dru heard resentment and saw fear in Tiep's eyes. "It told you something about the man who taught the parrot, didn't it?" he asked gently.
"The rag-picker didn't teach the bird anything. Some woman taught it; it squawked with a woman's voice."
"I'd say you've won my point for me," Dru said softly through a not-completely repressed grin of triumph.
Tiep grumbled something Dru chose not to hear and fell back to walk beside Rozt'a where he complained loudly about sarcastic wizards who'd forgotten what it was like to be a young man. Rozt'a shushed him with a hiss and they walked on in grim silence.
Dru shifted the goblin again at the next intersection and gave him a thump on the back for good measure. They'd returned to the dwarven tunnels. The overhead carvings were familiar and Dru was confident that the next intersection would be the last one before they hauled themselves out of the mountain. He'd be relieved to see the sky again but wasn't looking forward to squeezing himself through that tiny hole in the ceiling.
Sheemzher had promised to lead them out by another route—
"C'mon, little fellow, wake yourself up!" He thumped the goblin's back again. "Tell me if this other passage leads to the surface."
Not a squeak or twitch.
"Do you want to try another way?" Rozt'a asked with cold enthusiasm.
"No—but you're going to have your hands full getting me out of here."
She did and so did Tiep who pushed from below. The passage wasn't as bad as Dru had anticipated, perhaps because a steady rain had made the granite around the hole slick.
They'd been underground long enough for the sun to set. Dru's light spell functioned in the rain, but not well. He kept it throttled so it wouldn't draw attention from Ghistpok's goblins in the quarry, but that meant more shadows than light reaching the ground as they picked their miserable way back to the horses. Rozt'a fell and Dru came down one rock face on his rump with the goblin upside down in his lap. A more traditional wizard would have lost more than his dignity, but Dru favored leather breeches. His dignity and more remained intact.
Who'd ever have thought that a mountain range could be as wet as a seacoast marsh or the fabled jungles of Chult?
The horses welcomed them and welcomed the grass nets more. Tiep volunteered to fix their supper, reminding Dru that adolescence was temporary and the youth was their best cook. Rozt'a volunteered to help him, which was an extraordinary event and not a good omen for digestion. She'd been subdued since emerging from the Beast Lord's compulsion; losing a slice of memory must have cut deep. Tiep could reassure her about what she'd missed and if words weren't sufficient, Dru could unfold his box down to its bottom and study the spells written in the compartments that held sprigs of rue, hemlock, and lashes from a blind man's eye. He was going to have to dig down that deep anyway, if Sheemzher didn't bestir himself.
They'd laid the goblin out on the only dry patch of stone in the hollow and examined him as thoroughly as he and Rozt'a knew how. He had a lump on his head and burns on his palms, which they'd slathered with second skin, but no other visible injuries. Rozt'a had uncorked a bottle of aromatic spirits. Though the restorative was potent enough to get a reaction from the horses standing ten paces away, it had no effect on the goblin.
Druhallen knew a spell that would create forced rapport. Ansoain had said it would bridge between a wizard and any sentient mind. He and Galimer had cast it successfully on each other, but rapport with your best friend could hardly be called forced and some authorities questioned goblin sentience It was a complicated spell, too, and would cost him a fair amount of firepower if he committed it to memory after midnight.
He knew another spell that would turn a pair of Rozt'a's leather gloves into gauntlets sturdy enough to hold a piece of the sun if it happened to be stuck in the top of a huge brass egg. Tiep's ill-gotten myrrh from Parnast made that one possible, but it, too, would leave a big footprint in his mind and a hole after he cast it. He'd rather enchant the gloves than force a rapport with their goblin.
Everything would be easier if Sheemzher would just wake up, but prudence dictated that Dru make himself familiar with the rapport spell's logic and ritual before he convinced Rozt'a to give him a pair of her sword-handling gloves. He was lost in contemplation, when he heard Rozt'a calling his name.
"We've been talking," she said and indicated Tiep who stood beside her in the rain and faded light spell; Sheemzher was still unconscious. "We've put together some conclusions about what's going on—Tiep has, actually. He's thought things through. I think you should listen to him."
Dru realized he was hungry enough to eat two suppers and that Rozt'a's hands were empty, as were Tiep's. Whatever the two of them had been up to, it hadn't involved the preparation of food. Disappointment stung and soured. "When don't I listen to you, Tiep?"
The youth's lips rolled and tightened. "It's about the Beast Lord and how he's really a mind flayer—"
—" 'It,' Tiep. Mind flayers are hermaphrodites."
"They're all built the same. Maybe they mate, maybe they don't, but they're all the same: no males, no females. Can't tell 'em apart."
Dru winced when Tiep blushed. Some men sounded like their fathers; he sounded like Ansoain. Rozt'a touched Tiep's arm, but only made the blush worse.
"Right—" Tiep's voice chose that moment to crack. He cleared his throat several times while both Dru and Rozt'a tried not to look at him, then he tried again. "Well, I watched what went on at that pool with the light in it and I think I've got it figured out. Those ugly critters that butchered Cardinal and tried to butcher us a couple nights ago, they're not demons, they're goblins who've been put through the Beast Lord's egg. Those swordswingers, they started off as goblins, too, but the Beast Lord mixed them up with the bug lady's bugs, so they're cleverer than goblins."
It wasn't the way Dru saw events unfolding, but Tiep's view had merit. "Could be that way," he admitted. "My problem is that there's never just one mind flayer. They're supposed to be like ants or bees. They live in colonies and take orders from something called an Elder Brain. Just like the queen bee in a hive, once the Elder Brain establishes a colony, it never leaves. It can't. Its whole body has been transformed into a huge brain that floats in brine instead of blood—"
"The pool!" Rozt'a declared. "The pool was empty. What did you say after you came back from seeing Amarandaris—the Network pulled out because there'd been war under Dekanter? I'd say the Beast Lord's lost its Elder Brain and now its losing the whole war."
Dru shook his head. "Sheemzher's never said Beast Lords, not once. It's always Beast Lord, by itself. Even Amarandaris talks about trading with a single beholder."
"But if they all look alike—?" Tiep made a nauseated face. "Who'd want to look close enough to see if today's mind flayer is the same one you saw last year?"
"Good sir, Beast Lord not mind flayer."
Rozt'a, Tiep, and Druhallen all focused their attention on Sheemzher who'd propped himself up on one elbow. "What is it, then?" Dru asked, expecting a familiar answer.
The goblin howled, "Alho-o-o-o-on!"
Dru rubbed his forehead wearily. Sheemzher wasn't stupid, no more than a young child was stupid when it thought that size—bigness—determined the value of a coin. But, like a young child, Sheemzher saw the world on his own terms. "That may be the word that goblins use," he explained, "but men say 'mind flayers'."
"Goblins say nothing, good sir. Good lady say: alho-o-o-o-on!"
Sheemzher howled again and Dru had great difficulty imagining that the keening sound had originated in Wyndyfarh's slender, elegant throat. He'd never heard of an alho-o-o-o-on, either, and it was simply inconceivable that Ansoain would have failed to acquaint him and Galimer with such an unusually named beast.
When the goblin finished his howl, he added, "Mind flayers alive living things. Alho-o-o-o-n dead living thing."
Dru, who'd been leaning against the rock, trying to stay as much out of the rain as possible, literally leapt forward and to his feet. "Undead? The Beast Lord is an undead mind flayer? Mystra's mercy—that explains the rest." His initial burst of excitement and satisfaction faded fast. "You knew," he said. Disbelief kept Dru's anger in check. "You knew what was down there. You knew, and you led us down there without a word of warning ..."
"Good sir not ask Sheemzher. Sheemzher not clever men. Sheemzher not know what clever men know. Sheemzher quiet. Men never listen not-clever goblins, good sir; Sheemzher keep quiet. Not ask, not answer."
"Sweet Tymora! I'm going to—"
Tiep lunged at the goblin, but Tymora gave her blessing to Druhallen, who caught him before any harm was done. "You're not going to do anything."
"You heard him! He led us down there to die. Him and his damn lady. We were headed for that damn egg, that athan-thing you keep talking about."
"Athanor. Alchemists use them to transmute base elements. It's our fault—my fault: I didn't ask the right questions."
Tiep swore with creative passion, which Dru took as a sign that the goblin was no longer in serious danger. He glanced at Rozt'a, who'd shut her eyes and stood still like stone, blaming herself, as he did.
Dru spoke for himself and her: "What's cut stays cut," he told Sheemzher, who'd pulled the blanket over his head. "I'm asking now. When Lady Wyndyfarh told you that the Beast Lord was an—" Imitating the goblin's howl was more than Druhallen could ask of himself. "Sheemzher, do you remember what you said and what your lady said when she told you what the Beast Lord was?"
The goblin stayed beneath the blanket. "Good lady says, Is its flesh slick and shiny or dry? Sheemzher says: Not shiny. Not get close. Not know slick, not know dry. Good lady says: The Beast Lord of Dekanter is an undead illithid magician, a lithilil—an illithil—ilthili—" Sheemzher abandoned memory. The blanket fell away from his face as he threw back his head and howled: "Alho-o-o-oon ... alho-o-o-o-on."
Rozt'a walked away. They were all soaked to the skin, but she'd started shivering. They could hear her teeth.
"Now look what you've done!" Tiep snarled and made another lunge for Sheemzher's neck.
The goblin scrambled while Dru wrestled with Tiep. He got the youth pinned upright against wet rock. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded, his mouth a finger's breadth from Tiep's nose. "Haven't we got enough trouble without you going off like a rabid dog every other moment?"
Tiep opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it and kept quiet. Dru released him and retreated, staring at his own hands and wondering how they'd gotten to a point where Tiep was assaulting a much-smaller goblin and he was doing the same to Tiep.
"We all need to back away from each other for a while," he muttered, though what they really needed was Galimer. Galimer did more than negotiate their business, he kept the peace. When this was over, Dru swore silently that he'd find the words to thank his friend. Right now, a wall of frustration separated his shame from an apology.
Tiep straightened himself up. The youth didn't appear any worse for the encounter, for which Dru was grateful. "You forgot to ask Sheemzher about the bug lady."
Dru's nerves were so raw he couldn't tell if the boy meant to be troublesome or was actually trying to be helpful. "Not now."
"Good lady very good, very kind. Good lady crush Beast Lord like this—" Sheemzher ground his right fist into his left palm. "—If good lady come here. Good lady not come here. Good lady cannot leave forest."
Though he hadn't wanted the conversation, Dru couldn't let it end without answers. "You've said that before. Why can't Lady Wyndyfarh leave Weathercote Wood?"
Sheemzher looked behind both shoulders and up at the dark, leaking clouds before whispering: "Good lady not belong; good lady watcher only. Very great magic lady get very great angry if good lady leave forest. Very great magic lady send all Weathercote ladies, all Weathercote lords away." The goblin leaned forward. "Good lady say, No sense giving Mystra a reason to make a mistake. Not now when she's adjusting to new eyes."
They'd all heard tales of the recently ended Time of Troubles in which gods died and—in some versions of the tales—mortals had replaced them. The deaths of Bane and Myrkul were all but confirmed. Their priests were impotent and their temples abandoned, but a new Mystra, a fallible, born-mortal Mystra? No. It was inconceivable; Dru had refused, until now, to conceive of it.
"Mystra doesn't make mistakes where magic's concerned," Dru said firmly. "You can tell your lady that, or I will. If the Beast Lord's a threat to the Weave—"
He paused and considered what he was saying. Could the Beast Lord actually be a threat to the Weave? Mind flayers weren't exactly common—for which he and countless others were grateful—but there were enough that Dru strongly suspected the Beast Lord wasn't the first of its race to walk the dark path to lichdom. Though a lich of any kind was more than he cared to confront alone, he could name a score of notable wizards, priests, and paladins who could crush the Beast Lord, fist against palm, without upsetting Mystra.
If an undead mind flayer wasn't the threat, then what about the athanor it had constructed? The egg was the largest alchemic device Dru had ever seen or heard of, but mad wizards had been cobbling creatures together for millennia—since Netheril itself. What made this athanor different, this undead mind flayer a danger to the Weave?
Things started changing about seven years ago—
What started the changes?
Six years ago, the Beast Lord's athanor had been smaller. It had transmuted Sheemzher's wife into a Taker but the misshapen goblins of the bogs were demons to Sheemzher's eyes. The swordswingers they'd fought underground were demons too, but the creatures who'd led Sheemzher's wife to the small egg were Takers. The misshapen fought with sharpened sticks. The swordswingers with swords. Sheemzher hadn't said if the Takers carried weapons. It was tempting to think that the Takers would have carried spears and then construct a progression of "improved" demons emerging from the Beast Lord's athanor.
The big change—the big "improvement" had come between the misshapen and the Takers. Sheemzher's wife had been transmuted in an egg which she shared with one of Wyndyfarh's mantis minions. Was that the change—take one goblin and add a jewel-eyed insect already touched by potent magic? Or was the change the power that merged the two together? Power that came from a Netherese scroll?
Sheemzher had as much as said Lady Wyndyfarh was an exotic from another plane ... a watcher. What was she watching? Illithids. Mind flayers that lived in colonies and were guided by an Elder Brain. By itself and without an Elder Brain, the undead Beast Lord was a nuisance . .. until it acquired one of Netheril's golden scrolls of magic.
Dru cleared his throat and started again. "Sheemzher, what else do you know about the golden scroll we're supposed to bring back to Weathercote Wood? What has Wyndyfarh told you about it?"
Sheemzher began, "Good lady say—" and got no farther. He gasped once and began to choke. Choking became trembling and he collapsed on the rock, hitting his head hard. The convulsion deepened. Foam and spittle appeared on the goblin's lips.
"Damn her!" Dru shouted and tried to protect Sheemzher's head as his body thrashed on the wet stone.
"What's going on over there?" Rozt'a shouted. "Dru asked Sheemzher about the Netherese scroll and now he's having a fit."
Rozt'a raised her voice in ironic prayer: "All hail the gods, what's next?"
"Don't tempt them," Dru advised.
The tremors were subsiding. Sheemzher's back relaxed, his arms and legs went limp a few heartbeats later.
Tiep asked, "Is he—?"
"No, he'll come around in a moment or two."
"That was a lot of geas to put on a little body." Rozt'a observed. "Somebody doesn't want him talking about that Nether scroll in a big way."
"Can you get around it?"
"In a month, in Scornubel with all Ansoain's books open in front of me, if I got lucky, stayed lucky, and didn't kill him by mistake."
Sheemzher coughed out phlegm and bile. He tried to sit but couldn't lift his shoulders. "Sheemzher hurt. Sheemzher not remember."
"Your good lady doesn't want you answering certain questions of mine."
The goblin tried again to sit. He still couldn't manage it on his own. Rozt'a offered her hand. Sheemzher ignored it, groping at his sides instead. "Spear? Where Sheemzher spear? Sheemzher not Sheemzher without spear."
Panic gave the goblin a drunk's strength and coordination. He struck both Dru and Rozt'a in his efforts to find the missing spear. The blows were hard, but not hard enough to prevent Dru from spreading his hand across Sheemzher's chest and forcing the goblin to lie back on the stone.
"It was you or the spear," Dru explained, which wasn't the complete truth. He could have carried both and he had looked for the spear, but he hadn't wasted much time in the search.
Sheemzher hung his head and hugged himself. He'd lost his spear and his hat— possessions which he'd clearly prized—his bright-colored garments were dirty and sodden, and his good lady had tagged him with a geas that had fallen just short of killing him. A man in his place might be feeling pretty well abandoned by now. And a goblin? Dru laid a hand on Sheemzher's shoulder.
"We'll look for it when we go back underground."
"We're going back down?" Tiep asked, a mix of relief and surprise in the question.
Dru nodded, but not before Rozt'a answered, "Of course we are. I don't care what Lady Wyndyfarh is or what she's done—we're getting that scroll. We're getting Galimer out of Weathercote Wood. One alhoon isn't enough to stop us."
She named the Beast Lord's breed without howling. The word was almost familiar.
Rozt'a caught him staring. "Just because I didn't ride with Ansoain doesn't mean I grew up in a garden, Druhallen," she told him indignantly. "There were others before you, and not all of them were bastards like the one in Triel. When I was just starting out, I hired on with a Cormyr lord who wanted to reopen the family gold mine, which meant cleaning out a couple centuries' worth of squatters, the worst of which was an alhoon. There were about forty of us—a sentience shield, the lord called it. He armed us with green wood sticks and bundles of straw, no steel allowed, for our own safety, he said. We marched ahead of two priests and a wizard, all laying low, pretending to be common.
"A few of the veterans had shivs in the their sleeves; one wrapped his long sword in straw. When the alhoon started grabbing minds, setting us against each other, blood flowed bad, but the wizard popped up quick and pasted it good. Like as not, we'd have all walked out of there if we'd stuck with the sticks and straw. Easiest five lions I ever earned."
Tiep took advantage of a pause to ask, "Why didn't you say something, then, when I told you what the Beast Lord looked like? Those things hanging off his face. It's not like anything else anywhere ever looked like that!"
Rozt'a shrugged. "Forty brawlers in a mine tunnel—I was way toward the back and never saw what we were supposed to be distracting. By the time our priests and wizard were done, the alhoon was soot. The undead, they go fast in a holy fire. After Sheemzher howled, I started thinking about what I felt that day and what happened a little while ago. I call it a close enough fit. An alhoon isn't invincible, Dru."
He had difficulty meeting her eyes. "If you've got forty hired brawlers, two priests, a wizard, and a Cormyr lord." She started to scowl. "Don't get me wrong, Rozt'a: I like the idea. A sentience shield. You couldn't do it with a mind flayer colony; they could suck up as much sentience as you could throw at them. But alhoons are apparently solitaires. The Beast Lord would become a juggler with too many balls in the air and have nothing left for defense when magic started to fly."
"I've watched you throw fire around. You're better than the wizard we had with us." Rozt'a flung flattery with a shovel. "You wouldn't need two priests."
"Or the Cormyr lord," he agreed. "It's the shield, Rozt'a. Bodies. We'd've done better to join in with Amarandaris. He'd loan us forty men ... if we let him have the scroll afterward."
Rozt'a narrowed her eyes and flashed her predatory grin, which made Dru far more nervous than her scripted flattery ever would. "We've got forty men, Dru, maybe more. At least a hundred, if the women come too."
"No." He'd figured out where Rozt'a's logic was going and didn't want to follow. "No, not Ghistpok's goblins, for pity's sake. They think their Beast Lord's a god."
Tiep offered his opinion, "Then they should line up with bells on for the chance to meet him."
"If they don't eat us first."
"People not eat people, good sir."
In the heat of absurdity, Dru had forgotten they had a goblin listening to their discussion.
"People not eat good sir, not eat good woman," Sheemzher continued. He wrinkled his nose at Tiep. "People not eat that one; people get sick."
Dru clenched his teeth, biting off the words he would have spat out. What was the point of chiding Tiep for his prejudice against Sheemzher when it was so obviously reciprocated? The pair deserved each other. They all deserved one another, and Dekanter, too.
Wind came down the mountain, gathering up buckets of rain to hurl in their faces. Possibilities—likelihoods—occurred to Dru as he swallowed cold water. They weren't going to steal the Nether scroll, they weren't going to get back to Weathercote Wood, and most of all, they weren't going to redeem Galimer from Wyndyfarh's glade. The way the rain was starting to flood around their feet, they were simply going to drown.
Something snapped inside Dru at that moment. He felt it go like a flawed pot left too long in the fire.
"It's not going to succeed," he said. His voice was calm; the rest of him was shaking. "Whatever we try, it's not going to succeed." He pawed beneath his sopping shirt, found his folding box and tried to open it with hands that trembled from exposure and anger. "Whether it's a sentience shield or an alliance with Ghistpok, it's not going to succeed. Since we got to Parnast, it's been one unpleasant surprise after another. All of them pointed here, to Dekanter, and all of them added another burden to our shoulders."
Dru's thumb flicked a hook-shaped clasp and broke it, then he cracked one of the spell- etched wooden panels. How many years had he had the box without so much as scratching it? Ten, at least, maybe a few more. His mind was so churned he wasn't sure how old he was or how many years had passed since Ansoain had died.
The compartment he'd been groping for finally opened. A disk of glass colder than the rain slipped into his hands.
"We didn't come here to clean out the mines or destroy an alhoon or free slaves or solve any of the problems plaguing this damned place. We're not even here to steal a golden scroll. We're here because I'm a fool. I needed something to hang my life around. I couldn't live from one day to the next, so I lived for this." Dru brandished the disk above his head. "I've killed him!" he shouted, seeing Galimer and nothing more in his mind's eye. "Me and my pride. Me and my determination that there had to be something larger, something powerful and mysterious behind Ansoain's death. If it was big enough and powerful enough, then there'd be some point to it. We wouldn't all live and die for no reason at all. The gods laugh at us ... at me. They're laughing right now! Listen to them!"
Of course, there wasn't any laughter, only wind and rain on the mountain side. Dru knew that. He hadn't lost his grip on truth and reality, but things were getting slippery.
Dru wasn't the sort of man who lost control very often, and he was inexperienced at regaining it afterward.
On the verge of tears he'd never shed, Druhallen shouted. "You were right, Galimer! You were right! There was never any meaning to it! We were bought and sold, just like the bride!"
Tiep, Rozt'a, and Sheemzher were staring at him with their mouths open. The goblin and Tiep were speechless, but Rozt'a had been merely waiting for him to breathe.
"Quit hoarding the guilt, Dru. You didn't get us here all by your lonesome."
The fight went out of Dru's heart, the air went out of his lungs, and in his mind's eye he saw a desperate, foolish man standing in the rain, waving a lump of ancient glass over his head.
"It's finished. No more vengeance. No more meaning," he said wearily.
Dru hurled the glass disk at the ground with force enough to smash it to splinters, but it might have been a feather for the way it fluttered and drifted—a magical feather that shone brighter than his light spell.
Rozt'a spoke first: "Dru—? What's happening, Dru?"
"In fifteen years, I swear it's never done anything like that. They put it to the test at Candlekeep and swore there was more magic in flour, yeast, and water."
The disk completed its descent, losing its glow when it settled on the wet stone.
"I can't see it anymore. It disappeared!" Tiep exclaimed.
The remark puzzled Dru, who could see the disk as clearly as he could see anything else through the rain and his light spell's illumination. He picked it up—the glass was icy, but that was no change from the first time—and displayed on his open palm.
Tiep touched it lightly with an extended finger. "Weird..."
Dru made a fist around the glass, absorbing the cold and irony—he'd finally mustered the will to get rid of the disk and in that very instant, it displayed properties that justified returning it to its compartment in the folding box. He'd barely gotten it tucked away when another cold, wet, wind-gust slapped them hard. Lightning lit the mountains with flickering silver light. They waited for the thun- der, which was a long time coming, but loud and long when it arrived.
"Everything tied up tight?" Dru asked his human companions, a reminder more than a question. He had a different question for the goblin. "How bad can the storms get around here?"
"Very bad, good sir."
"What do you do to keep yourself safe?"
"People hide, good sir. People pray."
Tiep and Rozt'a packed their gear while he moved the horses to the highest part of the gully. The animals were balky and Hopper was lame on his cracked hoof. By lightning-light, Dru examined the damage. Barring a miracle, they were going to lose another horse—another loyal friend—but that was a problem for after the storm.
He'd guessed it would be bad—everything else had been—but all Dru's years on Faerun's roads didn't prepare him for the fury of a mountain storm. The wind came from every direction, including straight down, and pushing walls of rain with it. Thunder became a continuous full-body assault and the lightning strikes came so fast and bright that Dru's eyes adjusted to their brilliance. He saw his companions as statues that moved with jerky motions. Conversation was, of course, impossible, and thought itself was difficult as the weather waged war over their heads.
They had one bit of luck—their gully drained well enough. Water came off the rocks in torrential streams. It rose to their ankles, but no higher. It was high enough to sweep Sheemzher away from Dru's side. Between one lightning flash and the next, the goblin latched onto Tiep and Tiep latched onto Hopper's tail.
Dru's relief was short-lived as a rock the size of his skull glanced off his shoulder. It would have crushed Sheemzher if the flood water hadn't moved him first, and they'd all have been flattened if it had been the herald of a larger rock fall such as they'd seen from the High Trail above the goblin camp.
As they lived it, the storm seemed to last forever. When it had ended, reason said no more than an hour had passed. The danger would linger until the mountains above them shed their water, which might be hours or days—Dru didn't know mountain weather well enough to choose. He was checking Hopper's hoof again and bracing himself to give Rozt'a and Tiep the bad news when Rozt'a squatted down beside him.
"We're going to have to put the old man down before we leave," she whispered, telling him before he'd found the words to tell her.
"Does Tiep know?"
"He thinks it's not as bad as it looks." She sighed. "It'll break his heart."
Dru's mind was empty; then he found the words, "I'm ready for that scroll-shop in Scornubel with a hearth behind and a bedchamber above."
Rozt'a leaned against him. "Whatever you say, as long as it gets us out of here."
Druhallen patted Hopper's leg then stood up, giving Rozt'a a hand as he did. "We'll try the sentience shield," he said, making the decision on the spot. "Give him grain—all the grain he wants." He scratched Hopper's long, damp forehead. "They're always hungry; that's what Amarandaris said. We'll be welcome if we come leading enough food to feed every mouth in sight. Don't panic when you come up one pair short when you're counting gloves. I'm borrowing them."
"Magic. An enchantment to protect the hands of whoever goes after that golden scroll next."
"Then you're not borrowing them, are you?"
"No, but I need them."
"Make sure your magic works; that's all I ask."