NOTHING CAN FLY WITH THIS BROKEN WING, SO HERE’S A GIFT IN THIS FEATHER: wherein against all odds we steal a cart

You know when you think you know how things are going to happen and then reality takes a hard left?

That was Guara.

Quincy, the crew, and our group stopped on top of a hill when we saw figures in the distance in Guara. Zeno briefly entertained the idea of putting Squirrel-Awk into the Bag with No Holes, which we ultimately decided against since I’d put a living thing into a container without holes before to not-so-hot results, and we decided to send in a scouting party instead.

Naturally, Helli and I were selected.

“Go for twenty minutes and report back,” Felegum said. “We can figure out a plan when we have more information.”

Harry held out his hands. “If only we had a timer.”

There was some discussion of sending Awk with us, but both rogues objected.

“I feel like the more people there the less stealthy we’ll be,” Helli said tactfully, settling the matter. We headed off and shortly in the distance came the sound of bagpipes. It was unexpectedly cheery and I did not like it at all.

“What did we even go on ahead if he was going to do this?” I hissed at Helli. She shrugged. We’d been heading through a forest to keep out of sight, and it afforded us a lovely albeit distant view of a not-so-abandoned town, a cart piled full of stuff, mercenaries loading more parcels and bags onto it, two trolls, and–

“Durnen, yoohoo!” Zeno called cheerily.

I put my face in my hands. Goodbye, element of surprise, we hardly knew you.

It turned out it was actually Durnen and not just some terrible Zeno prank (you never know with him sometimes), and to add insult to injury, our slithery antagonist wasn’t even alone: he’d brought an elven archer and a dude who seemed to be carved from stone. Stone Dude had an insignia on his chest and char marks and both Durnen compatriots had red eyes.

Helli and I exchanged an oh-hell-no look. It’s complicated, but luckily a basic rogue skill is communicating full sentences via precise facial expressions. Having commiserated, we began the long process of sneaking closer to Team Red-Eye.

“Durnen,” Zeno called theatrically, “is that you?”

If there was one thing our party was good for, it was being so wildly in-your-face that you might not notice two missing rogues. It had its perks.

“I don’t know, guys.” Felegum looked back over his shoulder, scouting for an escape route. Or scouting for the two of us in the underbrush, making faces of please-get-out-of-there at them, who knows. “Maybe–”

“You’ve ruined my plans once,” Durnen said, looming against the dilapidated buildings, his shadow almost seeming to writhe. “I shall not let it happen again.”

Zeno cocked his head and stroked his goatee. “But you’re already on the way out.”

There was a small pause. He did have a point.

The elven archer cleared his throat. “I still wouldn’t risk it if I were you.”

Helli and I exchanged another look. Someone was almost certainly going to risk it.

And sure enough, the bard laughed. “Hey, I know you like your friends better when they’re dead.”

Durnen sighed, perhaps the most existential angst I’d ever seen from the guy. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a giant dick, but in that moment I kind of felt for him. “Yeah, sometimes when your plans get ruined you have to make do with what you’ve got.”

A few horses pawed the dirt behind the houses as we crept in. As long as the party continued their distractions, maybe we could gain an edge.

“Perhaps you can answer a question for us,” Awk said.

I leaned in. This actually might work. Awk was great at distractions. What was the druid going to ask about? The conduits, maybe? Some hint at Durnen’s master plan? Whether or not they’d been involved with the corrupted taaks?

Awk met the gaze of each person on Team Red-Eye before asking, with extreme gravitas, “Do fish have lips?”

I buried my head in my hands. Durnen did not dignify that with a reply.

Stone Dude, though, found this hilarious. He turned to Awk. “I see you met my handiwork.”

“What?!” Zeno spluttered. “Why would you do that? Those are beautiful people! Actually, no— some of them are like fifteen feet long, but still!”

“Yuval?” I mouthed to Helli and jerked my head at Stone Dude, confused. Yuval had been a merdude. Merguy. Of the mer-persuasion. And granted, I wasn’t a water person, but it felt highly unlikely that being made out of solid rock would be useful underwater. Also, dude clearly did not have a tail.

A mystery.

Unfortunately, it was a mystery I didn’t have time to puzzle out because the elven archer nocked an arrow, took aim at our friends, and said, “Take no steps farther.”

We knew it was coming. I mean, we kind of have a signature move, and that move is blindly rushing into things.

I just didn’t expect Harry to be the one to step forward. I did expect the arrow that the archer let fly at him, and when Harry caught it Helli and I silently cheered from behind a nearby building.

Awk transformed into a bear and roared, but the horses on the cart and nearby were too well-trained to spook that easily. Felegum just loosed a ray of frost onto a horse’s butt. It struggled, but it was hooked to the cart and could not move much.

“Again?” Zeno asked, incredulous.

Felegum shrugged. “He was being a dick.”

I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, the horse or Durnen, but whatever. In for a penny, in for a pound. I unsheathed my dagger and shortsword, then looked at the horses and had a better idea. Carefully, I dug through my things for my spell components.

Zeno stomped his foot. “I just came here to party!” With that, Faerie Fire erupted onto the three members of Team Red-Eye, although Durnen was able to put his out. I guess Zeno thought they would be rad party favors, and he wasn’t wrong.

Bear-Awk went in to grapple Durnen and that was when I took out a pinch of sand and blew it at the horses hooked to the cart.

Whatever was on the cart was important enough to them to want to invest all this time and energy into moving out of this sadsack place. If we wanted to know what they were after, it would be a good start. Once we had an idea of what was in there, we could beat a strategic retreat. I’d been in enough tough scrapes back home to know when I was outnumbered, and this—with three people probably stronger than we were, trolls, mercenaries, and who knew what else—was one of those times.

The horse that Felegum had frostbitten in the butt (frostbutten?) fell asleep, and to my surprise, so did the mercenary in charge of the cart. Guess after all that practice with the merpeople I was getting pretty good at casting Sleep.

I cocked my head at Helli and Kheryph, who was riding on my shoulder. “We’re about to be in this, you ready?”

Helli nodded and the lizard snapped his tongue. Good enough.

Meanwhile, Harry quarterstaffed Durnen and then kicked him in the gut. He dropped his pack with a thud; it seemed heavy. The dragonborn in turn looked truly offended at having been shot at. I didn’t blame him—there’s a reason I prefer to attack things in close quarters and that’s because I don’t want to be the dick shooting at people from afar. Why? Because people get so mad at you they come after you with a vendetta.

Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.  

Sensing their time had at last come, one of the trolls swung their tree-trunk-club at Harry with a sickening thud. I know Harry can survive a lot more things and dodge even more than most people can, but it still worries me sometimes when that happens. I just keep flashing back to that moment when he fell unconscious in Greenrest after stretching himself too far fighting the kobolds.

Not like I’m getting buddy-buddy with these people or anything. This is a purely professional vested interest.

The mercenaries ran back to the cart and Durnen ordered the archers to fire at Harry. Zeno, equally distressed by this, yelled “NO!” really loudly and caused one of them to misfire. Unfortunately, the elven archer had managed to loose another arrow with wings of fire toward our friend the dragonborn and its course didn’t seem affected.

But did we need to worry?

No, because Harry’s the kind of guy who just snatches arrows that are literally on fire out of the air and returns them to sender.

The fire snuffed out as soon as the arrow changed direction, but it still hit the elven archer, which was metal.

Durnen at last broke out of Bear-Awk’s hold and called up a nest of unruly vines to snare the bear and Harry. Both of them were able to break free though, and Bear-Awk had a very “good thing I’m a bear!” expression on his face.

I’m not as good as reading bear faces as I am humanoid ones, but it’s a skill I’m developing.

If only I could read lizard faces.

Stone-Dude-Who’s-Possibly-Yuval raised his hands above his head and there was a rushing sound from our left, closer to shore, and it was none other than our old nemesis the water tendril.

I cursed under my breath. This was looking bad. Stone Dude, who was very definitely Yuval, had given us enough trouble in the palace taak with those merrows, and Yuval hadn’t even needed to be present for that. The same could be said of the water tendrils—the Wind’s Pride had gotten wrecked, sailors were injured, we were pulled overboard, and Yuval hadn’t even been nearby that I could tell.

We were outmatched.

The building Helli, Kheryph, and I were hiding behind had Victorian style windows that were boarded up, a thatched roof, and stakes along the sides. I gave Helli a boost and she climbed to the roof, laying low to avoid being spotted. Perks of being a gnome: not much to hide. I peeked around the corner again.

“Fulmis.” Felegum pointed at the elven archer and his metal armor started to get hot. Still concentrating on his spell, the sorcerer moved to the cart.

Not to be outdone in coolness, Zeno raised Shatterspike, looked at it then at the tree trunk wielded by the troll who’d smacked Harry, and with an encouraging “raaah!” slammed it into the troll’s weapon. The trunk didn’t shatter per se, but it was mostly split in half and definitely sorrier.

Bear-Awk munched on Yuval, which was gratifying to watch.

“Yeah, get him!” Felegum cheered while maintaining his concentration on the elven archer’s armor. “He ruined our ship!”

“Speaking of,” Zeno said, looking around, “where’s Quincy? We haven’t been paid!”

He had a point, but I hoped for everyone’s sakes that Quincy and his merry crew were staying far away from this mess. Seaman Johnson had been through enough for one excursion.

Seizing an opening in the chaos, I ran to the cart, hopped in, and looked through one of the bags. Whenever the mercenaries hauled crates and packages around, they’d struggled like these things were heavy. Now I understood why: the bag was packed full of random stuff.

And I’m not even talking the loveable randomness of the Goblin Shopping Network. This was blankets, dried meats, stone tablets, and even an incredibly disturbing necklace of bones.

Behind me, the troll hit Zeno, who in turn mocked it as viciously as he could. “What’s with the plants?”

It may not have been his finest material, but he was pretty injured at that point and it still caused the club to break in half.

The other troll, not to be forgotten, attacked Bear-Awk, who also had seen better days.

“They’re on the cart!” Durnen called. My heart plummeted to my stomach. I got into the game by taking things from people and not having them notice me, and if I did get spotted, running away with the spoils as fast as I could. Lingering in plain sight held no appeal, but there I was as Durnen continued, “You know what to do!”

The mercenaries swept forward and the elven archer fired two arrows at me. I was able to dodge one, but the winged flame one got me right in the shoulder. To make matters worse, Durnen pointed at the archer being roasted slowly in his own armor and Felegum’s heating spell vanished.

Helli did a graceful jump into the cart and also began rifling through the goods.

This couldn’t last. I was hurt, Team Red-Eye clearly wanted to protect whatever the random stuff in the cart was, and I had little interest in dying for junk. Felegum was able to hold one of the trolls back with a spell, but it didn’t make sense to go all in for this.

Zeno nonchalantly hopped in the cart with us and healed himself. “How are you all doing? I’m doing fine.”

Bear-Awk tried to grapple the water tendril, failed, and a very wet and tired gnome climbed into the cart. With Harry in the driver’s seat with the mercenary pushed out, that was all of us in the cart. The monk and I nodded at each other. He was going to make off with the cart in grand wild west style.

Except one of the horses was still asleep. It had been a good move to keep them from leaving with the cart before we inspected what it contained, but now that we needed to make our escape it was becoming a problem.

My mind raced through options. They’d fight tooth and nail to hang onto the cart, of that I was sure. Keeping possession of it seemed more and more untenable, so I figured I’d plan for the eventuality that we lost the cart and take what I could from it to analyze later.

I didn’t even choose what I grabbed from one of the bags—it just felt heavy—and I stuffed it down my shirt. Then I leapt out of the cart, hit the sleepy horse right on its frostbite, and shouted “Go!”

I’m not sure if it worked because I’d cast the Sleep spell or because I scored a lucky hit, but it did: Harry snapped the reins and the cart wheeled forward. And sure I’d been left behind, but hey, I operate best when I’m under pressure. Also, I’m fast. I wasn’t worried.

An arrow flew through the air from the elven archer, missing us but killing the sleeping mercenary we’d evicted from the cart. I stole stuff, sure, but I never intended to be party to killing people. Let alone Team Red-Eye killing their own people.

And while I could say it wasn’t my fault– I didn’t intend for that mercenary to fall asleep and the archer probably didn’t intend to hit them—it still happened.

Feeling gross, I judged my opportunities to get back on the cart, protect it, or encourage the rest of the party to get off and run as Harry caught another arrow and flung it back, Zeno dodged a third, and a fourth hit Awk right in the hat. A water tendril slammed the cart, soaking everyone, and then Durnen, that terrible copycat, took my idea and cast Sleep on the horses again.

Our whole ride-into-the-sunset operation ground to a halt.

Things happened almost too fast to process: Harry went down, Helli was fighting a water tendril, and Felegum was trying to turn it into ice chunks again and also throwing stuff at the horses to wake them up to no success.

In a moment of desperation, Zeno flung out his bagpipes and droned mesmerizingly at one of the trolls. “Durnen needs that tree trunk right now, very quickly!”

As the troll absorbed this information, the bard got Harry back up and then departed the cart and ran down the road.

I wasn’t even mad. I agreed.

Then Awk went in the polar opposite direction, leaping off the cart and Thunderwaving through the mass of mercenaries in pursuit.

“Ah, the old exploding gnome,” a very tired Harry said.

But as much as I was cheesed off at Awk, I had to admire the strategic brilliance of the moment. Because of Yuval’s enthusiasm with the water tendrils, much of the ground was wet. The mercenaries following us were also packed pretty close together in the narrow village streets. The concussive blast from the spell slammed the mercenaries into the buildings and the lightning fried the water tendrils back into puddles on the ground.

All that mud and watery slush didn’t look fun to move through, but Awk stood, cast Shillelagh, and planted his feet, ready to hold his ground.

It was at this point that I realized that two of the objects I’d stuffed down my shirt were stone tablets from the bag, and they hit my chest as I moved. As much as I wanted to join Zeno down the road, I couldn’t.

Awk had transformed back from Bear-Awk because he’d been hurt. And as effective as his attack had been, if he got toasted this time, he’d go down surrounded by a lot of angry people.

I was pretty done with leaving people to their fates when there was something I could do to help.

So yeah, okay, maybe I summoned my wings.

I had a gnome to extricate.

Harry, on the other hand, had had just about enough with that elf archer. Using some sort of gymnastic monk thing, he leapt on top of the house Helli had jumped off earlier, sprinted over to the shack where the elven archer had been shooting at us from, and punched that dude right off the roof.

As baffled as my mind was as to how Harry did that, it was incredibly gratifying. My shoulder still hurt pretty badly from that jerk and his fire arrows.

One troll tried to hit Helli but she was way too quick for it, rolling out of the way of both strikes it took. The other troll decided that whack-a-rogue looked like a great time, despite its friend’s lack of success, and took aim at me.

I knew I couldn’t move away in time; I’ve been in enough fights to know what’s too fast or huge for me to evade. A tree trunk fell way into too-big-to-miss territory.

Hoping to dodge as much as I could, I angled my body backwards—only for my wings to almost-flap once, twice, and float me half a foot back against the cart. I was so surprised that I couldn’t figure out what I’d done—I was back on the ground immediately—but the troll’s club missing me by a hair.

“Teach them a lesson, Savas.” Durnen raised a hand to the elven archer and motioned for him to renew the aerial assault versus our cart crew. He fired two arrows at Helli and Felegum, and despite Zeno’s heartfelt scream of “NO, FELEGUM” the sorcerer was still hit.

Helli, who was also hit by one of the winged fiery arrows, pulled out the Danger Dagger (the weapon formerly known as the Nasty Dagger, properly known as the Dagger of Venom), yelled “Stabra cadabra!” and sunk the blade into the chest of one of the trolls.

Awk glanced back at the rest of us fighting. “Oh, I can explode vigorously several more times.”

“Please do,” I said, seizing up my next move.

Felegum continued to paralyze trolls with, Zeno healed himself and also whaled on a troll, and things were looking bleak. Perhaps even bleaker than they had looked previously, given the beating we’d taken.

It was at that moment that Awk rushed back into the middle of the melee and promptly exploded again. The building that Harry was standing on partially collapsed, though surprising no one the monk seemed to keep his footing.

Then a voice rumbled over the hills: “Your offer is accepted, little one.”

And that was when Awk turned into a spectral dragon.

“Wait.” Felegum squinted up at it. “Is that a trick?”

In the moment, I was more trying to process that our resident exploding gnome had become a draconic feather ghost and less about watching where I was swinging my shortsword, so I went wide on my first attack on the troll, but luckily came back to my senses with the dagger. So your companion turns into a big incorporeal dragon. Still have to kill the troll and not get hit.

Harry took Spectral-Dragon-Awk’s advent as a good sign to get away from high places and punch the troll with us, and while he was also a little too shocked to land a blow, we did see the trolls’ skin knitting itself back together.

Always a good sign.

As far as actual good signs went, there were no more mercenaries and the trolls themselves were still rooted in place thanks to Felegum’s persistence. Yuval stared up at Spectral-Dragon-Awk and his red eyes almost seemed to grow brighter. Savas, the elven archer and subject of Harry’s vendetta, also watched it.

Then the two took off.

Spectral-Dragon-Awk, being about twenty feet in the air, flapped his wings at the two who ran away, inflicting pain but not stopping Yuval from getting up and continuing to jog out of there. Helli, undeterred by the appearance of a massive ghostly dragon, kept up the daggery assault on the troll. As she did so, Spectral-Dragon-Awk swept in with his tail at Savas the archer as he fled. The archer, being annoyingly nimble, did not fall prey to the massive tail, though it was a near thing.

Felegum expressed his feelings with acid and accidentally melted a horse in addition to the troll he’d hoped to injure. I think I would have been more grossed out if I still wasn’t floored by Spectral-Dragon-Awk. Zeno stabbed one of the trolls with diminishing enthusiasm, perhaps sensing that there were more exciting things happening elsewhere.

Spectral-Dragon-Awk progressed to grappling with Durnen as a slew of frightened mercenaries ran the hell away around us. Wings still glowing behind me, I felled the troll and checked on everyone else.

Spectral-Dragon-Awk chose that moment to flap his wings again at the remnants of Durnen’s forces as they fled, knocking several back into walls and into the melted horse courtesy of Felegum.

Meanwhile, the other troll knocked Harry out and the sorcerer finally glanced over at the stable.

“Those poor horses!” Felegum exclaimed.

Both the spectral dragon and I gave Felegum the patented dude-you-are-absolutely-the-reason-they-are-melted-goo look.

Slowly, the paralysis was starting to wear off on the last troll. I swore. Helli and Harry had been doing their best, but it never seemed to be in true danger. Yuval took the opportunity to sprint away, once again barely dodging Spectral-Dragon-Awk’s tail whipping at him.

Helli stabbed again at the troll, and Felegum cast Message to tell Savas the elven archer: “You can run but you can’t hide! If you stop and answer our questions, our dragon won’t eat your soul!”

Unfortunately, this did not seem very appealing because the archer did not stop running, so Felegum took off chasing after him.

Zeno, now that the troll he’d been attacking had fallen, fished two rations out of his knapsack and made a sandwich out of them. Then he sat down to eat them on the battlefield, watching appreciatively as the spectral dragon flew over a fleeing Durnen and Yuval and once more battered them with claw swipes.

I sprinted under the cart and around the troll, slate tablets clunking against my chest the whole time, to get to Harry and used my celestial power to heal him. Luckily, it was also just in time for him to slam a fist into the troll’s stomach. Despite that, both Harry and I were feeling pretty rough. If that troll attacked either of us, we were toast.

The troll turned to us—

And its mouth went open, like it had just remembered something of primary importance, and it hastily jogged off, club held out before it like an offering, to Durnen.

Spectral-Dragon-Awk battered the troll (who had thrown its tree trunk club to Durnen in an effort to be most efficient and hit him in the stomach) and Yuval (who was looking very sad, even for a stone dude), and then the same rumbling voice from earlier said, “The battle has been won. You have vanquished your foes and slain them.”

And then Spectral-Dragon-Awk was no more. There was just regular Awk, falling from a few stories back to the earth, unconscious. Yuval dragged Durnen’s unconscious body into the woods and presumably also the archer guy took advantage of the chaos to rush off.

Felegum, having had success with rays of frost earlier, was shooting blasts of ice at Yuval’s hasty retreat and soon disappeared into the forest.

I may not know a lot about weird druid magic, but not being able to fly was a genre I was deeply familiar with, so I booked it to Awk’s side, once again skirting the gooey mess that once called itself a horse. The other two horses were still asleep. Spectral-Dragon-Awk had not even been enough to wake them.

Yuval made a weird spire of stones around three-quarters of me as I dashed to Awk’s unconscious form, but it also meant that he couldn’t see when I stuck my tongue out at him behind his rock wall. I wasn’t coming after you anyway, buddy.

It didn’t seem like Awk was broken or harmed beyond being pretty dirty, but he just wasn’t waking up. Harry carried Awk back with me, and I guess that Zeno must have abandoned his sandwich to go and chase down Yuval and Durnen because those two had dipped.

Helli, naturally, was busy going through the cart’s contents. She’d unearthed some gold and gems in an impressively short amount of time. I almost thought Awk opened his eyes and murmured something about vague memories of being a dragon, but the next time I looked over he was still passed out.

Kheryph crawled out from my hood and cocked his little frilled head at Awk. My thoughts exactly. I was happy not to be dead, but what in hell had that gnome done?

I was debating on making a ration sandwich myself—until I remembered that, tragedy of tragedies, I had exactly zero rations left—when Zeno and Felegum emerged from the woods from their rout of Team Red-Eye.

“We can’t let them get away!” Felegum called to us from horseback. This was, you might recall, the one free horse he had not melted. It did not seem very happy with its position.

“We have to,” Harry said, calm.

Zeno held out his hands in a shrug. “Felegum, I have no spells.”

“But you have gumption!” The sorcerer replied. Those two have become such bros after the Bag with No Holes experiment and no, I’m not jealous, thank you for asking.

“Also,” Harry mused, “there’s Quincy. He’s in those hills!”

And sure enough, as though summoned, Quincy and the crew of the Wind’s Pride chose that moment to crest the hill before Guara and waved a greeting to us. We were surrounded by a broken cart (one of the wheels had been destroyed in the fight after the horses had fallen asleep again), goo that now only looked vaguely equine, several trashed houses, scorch marks, and random puddles of water and filth.

I should also add that the cart had gotten raised onto a small spire and that none of its working or non-working wheels were touching the ground anymore.

“Looks like you guys got into a little trouble, eh?” Quincy called from the hill.

“Oh, darling.” Zeno shook his head. “You don’t even know.”

“Everything is fine!” Harry yelled inside the suspended cart.

I took out one of the tablets from my shirt. Awk had done something that was definitely going to bite us in the ass later, we were all walking wrecks with a cart of uselessness, and it wasn’t even lunchtime.

But…we’d made it. Helli was thriving, Felegum was griping about letting Durnen go, Harry wasn’t dead and neither was Awk, and Zeno was exaggerating how cool he’d been.

“Somehow,” I said quietly to the tablet, “I guess it is.”

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