The goblin king paced and shook his head. “You have come at a bad time.” He repeated the phrase over and over before he explained. “The sorcerer in the tower demanded that we serve him. That is not our way. You travelers have been around long enough to know. Our work is in the night. Sure, people fear us in the dark, but we avoid them when we can. Our god has made clear to us. We are not to mingle.” He sat on something like a throne, worried his hands and furrowed his brows.
“Elder elf,” one of the dozen dwarfs caught in the hall interrupted. “We have made a space along the wall for you and your horses.”
“Thank you,” Mingus responded. He got people to gather the horses. They noticed a few imps among the dwarfs, and several gnomes who had no business being underground, but got caught in the trap all the same. Lockhart, Katie and Nuwa stayed to face the goblin king, and the king continued his thoughts when he could.
“We had some volunteer to serve the sorcerer. Brave fellows. We had hope he would leave us alone after that, but he is greedy beyond words. I think he wants everyone to serve him, and he has uncanny power. He called up the shadow from the shadow realm, and we have no defense against such a creature.”
“A shadow is a lesser spirit,” Nuwa explained. “These little spirits have no such power, even when they combine their magic.”
“And who are you?” the goblin king spoke like he just noticed her presence.
“I am Nuwa,” she said, with a slight bow to the king. “Do you not know me?”
The goblin king looked at her for a long minute before he spoke. “I saw Nuwa when I was in Tibet and she came to send those space creatures home. I was very young, not yet mature, less than a hundred, and though that was eight-hundred-years ago, I still remember. You look like her, but not exactly, and she died long ago. You are not my goddess. Thalia is a mere human in this life. Who are you, exactly?”
Nuwa smiled. “I take Nuwa’s form from time to time to let you know that you are not forgotten. Your goddess is even now headed for the dark tower on the fire mountain, and though I do not know how it may turn out, I know your goddess will not leave you in bondage.”
“And you can do something about this situation?” the king asked.
Nuwa bowed again, and let out a small smile. “And the first thing I will do is give these good people a time of rest.” She bowed a third time and took Katie and Lockhart to the others.
Boston got the dwarfs to dig a hole and set up her tent on top of it. She made a hole in the fairy weave floor of the tent so people could go to the bathroom in some privacy. Katie was the second to use it, after Boston herself.
Alexis and Lincoln got out the bread crackers. Most in the hall did not go for elf bread, but it was better than nothing. Decker had a portion of deer left over, but that did not last long.
Mingus and Elder Stow spent some time trying to plot a way out of their dilemma. Elder Stow brought up a three-dimensional map of the tunnels and chambers in the goblin underground and they went over it, and over it. In a way, it was pointless since they had no way of pinpointing where the shadow might be in any given moment.
No one slept well that night, but when Alexis and Lincoln settled in, and Lockhart got up for his turn on watch with Mingus, he told Elder Stow to get some rest. He said who knew how hard they might have to run in the morning.
Lockhart sat and watched the goblins put logs on the fires, and he wondered how long it might be before they ran out of firewood. Mingus talked quietly with a dwarf who finally admitted they had a small, secret connection from their mines to the goblin lair.
“And you suppose the dark elves do not know where that is,” Mingus said.
“They haven’t said anything,” the dwarf responded, and looked toward the tunnel they would have to navigate if they planned to go that way. “But you would never get your horses through that narrow gate.”
Mingus nodded and glanced at Nuwa dragon who appeared to be sitting, eyes open, never blinking. It was unnerving to look at her for too long.
Decker got up early and sat beside Lockhart. “Hard to deal with a creature impervious to bullets,” he said.
Lockhart nodded. “Nuwa said even Elder Stow’s force field would be ineffective. Mingus, Roland and now Boston could walk right through the thing with little effort. This shadow, she says, might not even know it was there.”
“Not much I can suggest other than make a run for it.”
Lockhart agreed. “We might lure it to the tunnel farthest from the way we want to go, and run for daylight, once there is daylight.”
“I’ll be bait,” Decker said.
Lockhart shook his head. “Probably me. I can’t ask or let anyone else do it.”
Mingus, meanwhile, brought the dwarf to view Elder Stow’s schematic of the underground. “Here, this way, and through here,” the dwarf said. “But believe me, you won’t get your horses through. Your big men might be a problem.”
Mingus nodded, thought, one problem at a time, and went to bed, leaving Elder Stow to puzzle out the passages. With help in direction, Elder Stow managed an outline of the dwarf mines, almost to the surface.
When Boston and Katie got up, Nuwa said the only thing she said all night. “Saddle up.” They took their time, but did that thing, quietly, not daring to ask why. They hoped it meant Nuwa thought of a way out, but “saddle up” did not give them much to go on.
Nuwa gently woke the travelers. “Follow me,” she said. “You too,” she told the dwarfs. “You too,” she said to the gnomes. While the travelers woke and got ready, Nuwa exhaled. She inhaled for a whole minute as they heard shouting and screaming from down, what Mingus was calling, the dwarf tunnel. Three dwarfs had gone to explore the route home. Two came back, screaming.
Nuwa began a slow exhale that was pure white fire. She began to transform back into the dragon form even as she moved into the tunnel. People had to wait while her enormous bulk made the tunnel plenty big for the horses, but at last her tail whipped out into what was now a dark passage, and the people, elves, dwarfs, gnomes and several others poured into the tunnel.
Nuwa dragon turned this way and that, all the while with a slowly exhaled fire in front of her. When she slithered through a big chamber, she did not make her flame any larger. Alexis figured out that Nuwa dragon had the shadow trapped in a ball of flame and was forcing it to move ahead of her. Katie heard and repeated the theory for the others. Still, Nuwa moved forward.
She crashed through a wall at one point, and made a narrow, hidden opening into a big one. Those who knew or paid attention understood they had moved into the dwarf mines. Dwarfs scattered in every direction, but Nuwa had thought ahead to give warning. Any who were too slow or too hard-headed to listen got crisped. There were a couple.
Nuwa, with everyone else following her zoomed through the cavernous dwarf halls, one after another.
On the surface, Thalia woke when the wolves arrived, about an hour before dawn. Chief Zed and his three guardsmen yelled about it being unfair.
“We already killed these wolves. They should stay dead.”
Everyone climbed up on the roof of the great hall, and Nevah yelled, “Skeleton formation.” She grabbed Bezos’ axe while Bezos pulled his hammer. Anwanna sat in the middle of the roof, unable to think of anything he might do. Phadon and Thalia had their swords out, but Thalia was ripping up chunks of the roof and getting Nevah to set them on fire. Thalia used the fire to whip the wolves and dropped it on their heads, while the wolves tried to find a way they could reach the roof, and Chief Zed complained.
“You’re going to set the whole house on fire, and then we’ll be in it.”
Nevah heard and stopped flaming the wood. Of course, she began to fire flame balls at the wolves directly, so evidentially she heard but did not exactly understand. Nevah stopped when it became apparent that as long as they remained on the roof, the dead wolves would not be able to reach them. That was when Chief Zed shouted.
“It’s the damn dragon.” He pointed, and Thalia saw the winged serpent, a middle-aged dragon bleeding from the bullet holes put in it the day before. A couple of places appeared to be festering. The beast looked to be in pain, but it came in, meaning business, and Thalia had little time to act.
Thalia grabbed all four dwarfs and made them yell with their words and their minds. She gave them the words to say and prayed they would get through to the dragon. She also prayed the dragon would obey the commands. When dragons matured, the command language was not always effective.
“No fire. Do no harm,” the dwarfs shouted in the right way. All the same, the dragon came in and let out a great burst of flame. People dropped to the roof and covered their heads, but there was nowhere to hide. To get down from the roof was suicide, but the dwarfs were not for giving up. “Fire the wolves,” Thalia shouted in the command language. “Flame the wolves.” The dwarfs picked up the new words, even as Thalia realized it was a long shot. She had to assume the dragon knew what wolves were. Then again, dragons were not exactly dumb beasts. Given its age, it probably knew what people were, and if it did not know wolves exactly, it could figure it out.
“Flame the wolves,” the dwarfs yelled, and after landing, the dragon did exactly that. Of course, the great hall of the dwarfs caught fire, and Thalia imagined it would burn quickly. Anwanna was actually the first to leap down. He ran inside the building to get his donkey. The wolves had no interest in the donkey because, being dead, they were not there for a feast.
The others jumped down, and Thalia had to slice off one wolf’s head, but otherwise, the dragon was at least concentrating on the other side of the hall.
“To the trees,” Chief Zed shouted, and it was just before the dragon decided to see if all that flame made anything edible.
Thalia got behind a tree and watched. She figured fried, dead wolf was no treat. She recognized that the dawn was up and the sun was about to break above the horizon, when the earth began to shake beneath their feet. People fell and rolled. Several yelled to watch out for limbs and trees. The donkey brayed, and the dragon yelped, unable to lift into the sky since it was half-way through swallowing a wolf.
The earthquake grew to dangerous levels before a much bigger dragon burst out of the ground like a giant worm reaching for the sun.