The winds ran cold on Shadowturn Peak during the night, and the days weren't much better. Mornings seemed the worst. Horace Kettle had gotten used to it in his childhood in Shadowturn Peak, curled up in his cot in the cluttered cabins East Forge Consolidated built to house miners and their families. He would burrow under the blankets like a worm buried under the earth and the cold wouldn't be so bad. Then his parents had died, taken by the mines and Frost Flux, and the Iron Guard had snapped him up and sent him to fight in the Seething Sea Islands with the 44th Tunnel Regiment. He had just gotten used to sleeping outside in a bedroll with one eye open for Islander rebels, when his tour ended and they sent him back to the Shadow Country and Shadowturn Peak. Kettle had to get used to the cold all over again – and plenty else besides.
Now he slept in a cabin away from Peak Town, the only town on Shadowturn Peak, and bundled under blankets on the floor next to the smoldering remains of the fireplace. Kettle had done all right for himself. Not many Nox owned their homes, or had solitude. Still, his lot wasn't particularly great. He woke up too early, his brain still used to morning patrols and digging with the 44th, and he would lie in his bed with the harsh sunlight blazing in through the frosted windows, listening to the mountain wind, and telling himself to sleep. That's what he did when he heard the knock on the door, and his friend Callow Tongs bellowing out his name.
"Kettle! Kettle – we need to talk! I'm in trouble, my dear friend! I'm in deep and turbulent waters, and they do rush about me like the storms of old." Tongs wailed and pounded at the door. Kettle groaned, but he still pulled aside the blanket and slid out of bed. He stumbled to the closet, scratching his tangled black bristly beard, as he let Tongs knock on his cabin door.
The knocking continued while Kettle put on his dark shirt, his long Navy blue greatcoat, Iron Guard standard issue, and grabbed the heavy, old oak pickaxe handle that his family had passed down for generations – a Nox tradition. He tucked it under his arm, his fingers worming over the old carvings of the fantastic kings of the lost Under Lands, and walked over to the door. He scratched his beard again and let the door open.
Tongs stepped inside, his bare clawed tramping on the snow. "Thank you, Horace. Thank you." His fine pearl gray suit, matching waistcoat, and carefully knotted tie contrasted with the light rust of his scales. Tongs was a Kobold, hatched in an egg brought up from an island in the Seething Sea to work the Shadowturn Mines. He had been here ever since. "I know I can rely on your stalwart aid."
"Uh-huh." Kettle groaned as he closed the door, trying to prevent any more warmth from leaving. They headed to the cabin's one room. Kettle moved to the stove in the corner and started to prepare coffee, his stubby fingers working dexterously. "And what is the trouble this time?"
"Frankly, Horace, I am the middle of a considerable run of bad luck." Tongs hopped down on the arm chair. He put up his scaly feet, wiggling his claws. "I considered it would have left me sometime last afternoon, before I bet a significant amount of money on a pygmy dragon bout at the Nest." That was the gambling hall where Kobolds spent their free time.
Kettle groaned while the pot boiled. "I thought I told you to stay away from the Nest."
"It was for one evening," Tongs continued. "One evening only. I sipped a great deal of Hillman's Tea and engaged in a fair amount of wagering. However, fortune, as she always does, turned against me." He held out his hands while Kettle handed him the cup. "I am in debt," he said. "To the wrong sorts of Kobolds."
"Meaning the Claw Brotherhood?"
Tongs' bright eyes lowered. "That's the truth," he said. "And Brother Vermillion wants me to pay him money which I do not have."
"I've heard of Brother Vermillion," Kettle said. "Back before I went into the Guard, the Nox on Shadowturn lived in terror of him and the Claw Brotherhood. I remember a lot of stories about Claw Brothers." He scratched his beard as he thought. "They're supposed to skin people they don't like, as I recall. Supposed to take off the scales of Kobolds who they don't like, keep them around as decorations. Are there any truth to those stories?"
"A great deal of truth."
"I think you would look good as a carpet." Kettle drained his cup, holding it with both hands. "How much money do you owe."
"A great amount." Tongs told him the number.
"Hmmm." Kettle let out a low grunt. "It's tempting to leave you to your fate." He scratched his beard. "But I don't think I will. We're gonna need to get that money fast and pay back Brother Vermillion. That means going to the professor for work."
"Delving work?" Tongs asked. "Damnation. We need to be alive to pay the debt, Horace."
"So you know a better way?"
"I do not." Tongs stood up and set down the tin cup. "The professor awaits. Let's go."
They headed for the door of the cabin and stepped outside, back into the snow. Kettle's boots crunched on the frozen earth as he walked to the adjoining stable that he had built, connected to his cabin. A serpentine mountain road led away from the cabin, heading below the pointed spire of Shadowturn Peak. Beyond the cabin, the cold expanse of the Shadow Country stretched into the distance – snowy fields and dark forests. Kettle's pack mammoth, General Lusk, rested inside the stables. General Lusk, named for Kettle's old commander from the 44th, shook his furry ears and blinked his dark eyes. Tongs and Kettle scrambled onto the mammoth's shaggy back, and the hairy pachyderm trotted from the stables, and began the long road to Peak Town. Tongs sat in the back of General Lusk's shabby palanquin, wiggling his clawed feet. He didn't speak of his guilt, but Kettle knew it was there.
Peak Town lay nestled in a gentle valley, with dozens of stony roads peeling away and heading to the countless mine entrances dotting Shadowturn Peak. All the mines – along with most of Peak Town – belonged to East Forge Consolidated. The miner's town bustled, despite the cold and the falling snow. Wagons and pack animals crowded their way through Peak Town's single street, walking past the rough, gray stone and wooden structures that all looked like tomb stones. Drunks lolled in the back alleys and on the boardwalk sidewalk, sick and weakened from the mines and turned to the relief of Hillman's Tea. The Nest stood at one end, a circulars structure that looked like an oversized egg. Tongs shivered as they rode past.
Instead, they headed to the Coal Dust Inn at the far end of town. With three stories to its name, the Coal Dust Inn was the tallest building in Peak Town. Kettle rode the mammoth to the front of the inn and clambered down from the side, using General Lusk's fur for handholds. Tons followed, nimble as ever. General Lusk carried most of their tools and weapons. If the professor had work for them, they'd be prepared.
Tongs and Kettle walked in through the dusty lobby and headed to the stairs in the corner. They topped the stairwell, and then turned the corner and started going down the hall. "I am beginning to wonder if being sized up for a carpet by the Claw Brotherhood isn't preferable to working for the professor," Tongs said.
"The professor ain't that bad," Kettle muttered.
"It's not him I'm worried about," Tongs said. "The Hill Woman – Drake – is the true terror."
They turned the corner, reaching the hallway leading to the professor's room. Sure enough, Cora Drake stood there, twin revolvers in her hands. Two men with ragged greatcoats and bandannas around their heads knelt in front of her, their gloved hands raised. One had a bleeding nose, pooling around his bandanna like sprays of rust. Drake's face seemed fused in a permanent scowl, her pinched features framed by auburn hair tinged red.
She glanced up from her victims, glancing at Tongs and Kettle. "These sorry bastards tried to rob the professor. Crept in real quiet-like. Figured they could slip in, flash iron, and get the wealth that the professor keeps. Damn fools." She slammed the handle of her revolver against the portlier thief's face. He moaned slightly. "Don't you talk," Drake hissed. "I don't want to have to blow your brains out and upset the professor and the boy, but I will if I have to. Now pick yourselves up and get the Hell out of the inn. Turn back and I'll send some bullets after you." She stomped her boot. "Go!"
The two thieves stumbled to their feet. Tongs and Kettle stepped aside as they ran past. Drake sighed as she returned the revolvers to her holster, hidden under the folds of her long mammoth-skin robe. "Should've known better," she muttered. She glanced up at Tongs and Kettle. "You want to see the professor?"
"That we do," Kettle agreed. "Drake – didn't you try and rob Professor Arq? Day he arrived in town?"
"I did," Drake agreed. "Ambushed him and his little apprentice in an alley. He hired me on the spot. His apprentice was even polite about it." She opened the door to Professor Arq's room. "Come on in, Kettle." She glanced at Tongs. "But let the lizard know that I'm watching him."
They walked past Drake and stepped into Professor Arq's room. The place seemed to be as much a laboratory as living quarters. The desks and bookshelves had been covered with tattered tomes, glass jars of various geological and natural specimens, and strange equipment of polished brass and steel that Kettle could not dream of understanding. A cot lay somewhere in the back, where Professor Quillman Arq slept. Currently, he sat at the desk, examining a large chunk of stone from deep in the mines – purchased from the Rock Folk – through a large monocle. The stone moved slightly by itself, crawling across the desk. Professor Arq raised a small hand pulled it back, gently preventing it from crawling away. The Gnome professor worked in vest and shirtsleeves, with a shark's fin of white hair on his wizened head and another puff on his chin.
His apprentice, twelve-year-old Nathaniel Pewter, stood next to him and took notes in a large pad. "Professor, sir?" he asked. "We have some guests, I believe?" He famed it hesitantly, making it almost a question. Pewter came from a good family, the youngest son of merchants from the heart of the Iron States, and was studying to be a scientist himself. His pale face, dotted with freckles, broke in a smile. "It's Mr. Kettle and Mr. Tongs." He wore a pale blue vest, suit, and tie, with high socks and polished dark shoes. His clothes alone marked him as an outsider.
Professor Arq turned away from the living stone, which continued crawling along. "Well, what a delightful visit." He swiveled about on his stool, which made him a bit taller than Nathaniel. He patted his apprentice's ginger brown hair. "Master Pewter and I are deep in the study of this particular specimen of living stone. Perhaps some magic, lingering in the Shadowpeak Mines, has given animation to the stone and—"
"We need work, professor," Kettle said. If he let the Gnome ramble, they would be here all day.
Tongs smiled weakly, revealing his sharp teeth. "I owe money," he said. "To the local Claw Brotherhood. I'm afraid it's quite a lot of money."
"Well, we can give you some money," Nathaniel said, pushing up his round spectacles. He had grown up reading adventure stories about the Shadow Country – which seemed his primary education in the way the world worked. "I'm sure it's not that much trouble."
"No need for that, boy," Kettle said. "We'll work."
Drake glared at Tongs. "It's gambling, ain't it?" she asked. "I oughtn't to have let you in. Should have kept you out in the hall, pistol-whipped you, and sent you running like the other robbers. We ain't running a charity. Get going."
"Would you like me to beg, Drake?" Tongs asked. "Should I bend my knees? Plead? Lick the floorboards with my forked tongue? Would that please you?" He released a hissing sigh. "I need the money," he admitted. "Or I will be injured and perhaps killed."
"What about the Blackspring Shaft?" Nathaniel asked.
Kettle considered it. "That was abandoned, wasn't it?"
"Indeed it was." Professor Arq reached for the pile of maps stacked at the edge of the desk. The living stone crawled away, fell off the desk, and hit the floor. Nathan gently picked it up and set it back. "Master Pewter and I were examining it earlier. Before it was abandoned – for a host of safety issues – it reportedly led to some rich veins of gems. All manner of rare minerals could there, in the dark, waiting to be unearthed."
"Along with untold dangers," Kettle said.
"But what else are we to do?" Tongs asked. He picked up the tattered map, waving a clawed finger along the location of the Blackspring. "We'll go and do some delving there, professor. And I thank you very much for the suggestion. If we find minerals – and I have enough to pay back Brother Vermillion and the Claw Brotherhood – you may take your pick of the remainder."
"Very good, very good," Professor Arq said. "Take Master Pewter with you?"
Nathaniel nodded. "It would be quite extraordinary to venture into such rare mine. Perhaps we will encounter some rare creature or mineral – and find more specimens for study." He hurried to the pile of clothes in the corner, and grabbed his good coat and scarf, as well as his fur hat with thick earflaps.
Drake glowered at Professor Arq. "It's dangerous," she said. "Ain't fitting for the little fellow."
"His knowledge of Shadowturn Peak is unparalleled," Professor Arq said. "Besides, you will go and protect him."
Tongs winced. "Must she?"
"You heard the professor," Drake replied. "I'm going with you. Get used to it." She turned to Kettle. "Still got that mammoth?" Kettle nodded. "He stinks to high hell. Bet he's got fleas. If Nathaniel gets them, I'll break your big Nox nose." She pulled her robe shut, and grabbed the broad-brimmed hat from the post in the corner. "You do what I say, Nathaniel. Stick close to me and don't take no risks if you don't have to."
"Of course, Miss Drake."
"Good," Drake said. "Now let's get this over with."
They left the hotel room, leaving Professor Arq to his studies. The living rock had crawled off the desk, and now seemed determined to reach the window and escape for good.
The entrance to Blackspring Shaft lay right in the mountainside, leading straight down into Shadowturn Peak. The opening of the tunnel looked like a wound carved by a bullet that had bored its way into the flesh of the mountain, jaggedly carved out of the rock wall and adding a circle of darkness surrounded by snow. Kettle rode General Lusk to the tunnel, and then slowed the mammoth. He swung down from the side. Drake followed, pausing to help Nathaniel make his way to the rough, snow-covered ground. Shadowturn Peak lay above them, stretching up into frozen reaches where clouds and mists melded together so that no one could tell where the mountain ended and the sky began. Kettle's breath came in mist as he walked to the pack on General Lusk's side and withdrew his black powder rifle – another memento from his time in the Iron Guard.
They moved to the edge of the tunnel and stared down. "No point in wasting time out here," Tongs said. He had brought a lantern from the mammoth, and used his clawed fingers to strike a match. "Downwards we go." He glanced over at Kettle. "Do the Nox not consider such deep places holy? As close as they are to the fabled underground homeland of your people."
Kettle brushed fallen snow off his dark face. "True enough," he said. "But we're far from any home." He slipped the extra lantern onto the end of his rifle, held it aloft, and then walked into the Blackspring Shaft. Nathaniel hurried along next to him, while Tongs and Drake kept up the rear. They walked into the tunnel, and then it sloped downwards, leading further into the canyon.
Lantern light illuminated the smooth stone tunnel walls, along with discarded tools, and bits of metal used to shore up the roof – all of which vanished as they descended further underground. Soon, they reached a natural tunnel, one of the thousands which snaked around Shadowturn Peak, and they walked silently through that. Luminous mushrooms sprouted in the corner, bathing the dark stone walls in opalescent blues and greens. Something scratched, digging through the earth far away. Cave-ins, disease, accidents, and ill-timed explosions weren't the only danger in Shadowturn Peak. Native monsters accounted for a great deal of the causalities as well.
Nathaniel stayed close to Kettle. He looked up at the Nox Delver, pulling his scarf around him as his breath came in mists. "Mr. Kettle?" he asked. "May I ask you a question about Mr. Tongs? I'm afraid it may be a little personal."
"Ask, boy," Kettle said. "And I'll tell you."
"Well, sir, why does he continuously seem to be in debt? Why does he bet on dragon fights?" Nathaniel asked. "He must know that he'll lose?"
It was a fair question. "Tongs is only doing what everyone on Shadowturn Peak tries to do," he explained. "Which is to handle themselves. They spend more time under the earth then above it. That ain't healthy – even for a Nox. And the mines are no friendly place. Living so near death, slaving away for the pittance the company pays, well, it makes a lot of people want to spend what little they have on drink and fine company, just so they can feel alive." He pointed at Tongs, who walked behind them, a little bit apart from Drake. "It's the same for Tongs. He just wants relief. That's why he gambles, even when he knows he's gonna lose. He just wants to forget his troubles and enjoy something else."
"Oh." The answer didn't seem to satisfy Nathaniel. "What about you, sir?"
"Me?" Kettle sighed. "I got me a dream." He scratched his beard. "I never left Shadowturn Peak until the Iron Guard got me, and after I did my time, I came right back. I swore I'd never go down into those tunnels again, but my pay ran out, and I signed up for a mining detail. First day, I get hit in a cave-in." Nathaniel winced. "Yeah. It was bad. Most of the fellows I worked with, all Nox, died right away. A few lingered, but soon it was just me. Then some Kobold miners reached us. Callow Tongs led them. He dug like a madman, working for hours at a time, and finally got me out."
"Great God," Nathaniel whispered. "He saved your life?"
"He did," Kettle agreed. "Afterwards, I bought him a drink in the Whistling Dragon and we promised each other that we would work together, never work for the bosses of the East Forge Consolidated again, and get out of Shadowturn Peak with fortunes made as independent delvers." He snorted. "And yet, we always seem to stay here."
"That is quite sad, sir," Nathaniel said. "It's not fair. It truly isn't."
"Not much is," Kettle replied.
They trudged on through the tunnel in silence, until it ended in a small, rocky ridge looking down over a vast chamber – like some giant cathedral underground. Tongs stopped walking and rested his hands on his hips, while Drake stared down into the cavern. Large chunks of glowing fungus projected from the distant walls, providing decent illumination. Kettle and Nathaniel walked over to the ridge and stared down as well. Immediately, Kettle knew that they should never have come to the Blackspring Shaft – and certainly shouldn't have come here.
Snow Spiders had gotten inside and claimed the chamber as their own. The Snow Spiders usually nested in the endless crevices and canyons that pockmarked Shadowturn Peak, but they would occasionally get inside through some tunnel, and miners lived of fear of encountering them in an enclosed place. The webs of the Snow Spiders, thick, glistening lines of frost, crisscrossed the chamber in elaborated designs. Several strands reached up to the edge of the ridge, right before Kettle and the others. The Snow Spiders themselves sat motionless in the web, their bulbous bodies covered in shining, electric blue skin. The smallest ones rivaled a dog for size, while the bigger Snow Spiders could probably wrap up and gobble down Kettle in a few bites. But at the bottom of the chamber, plain to see, rested a small circle of shining, ruby red crystals. They had the color of dying coals in a fire, an almost impossibly bright glow. Kettle knew they had to be worth something.
Tongs licked his scaled lips. He had pulled back his coat, revealing the weapons and tools clipped to his belt. A pair of long daggers – the traditional Kobold weapon – sat in leather holsters, along with various gunpowder bombs and explosive devices of his own creation. "Well now," he said, tapping the stone with clawed feet. "This is a conundrum."
"Seems the right word for it," Kettle agreed.
"Ain't no conundrum at all," Drake said. "Them Snow Spiders will wrap a man up and freeze them to keep the flesh appetizing, then gobble them down for a week. I'm not letting Nathaniel spend another second here, not with those dangerous critters."
"Hold on, Miss Drake." Nathaniel went down to his knees. He crawled over to the edge of the cliff and reached down, resting a gloved hand on the glistening webbing. "I have studied the Snow Spiders for some time. They are simple creatures, and – though dangerous – can be easily tricked. They react to vibrations in their web. That's how they know when to hunt. I can tug on the webs in a certain rhythm and attract them, while Mr. Kettle and Mr. Tongs go down and get the gems. Miss Drake, you can, um, shoot any of the Snow Spiders that get too close."
Kettle, Tongs, and Drake exchanged a glance. "You sure of that, little one?" Drake asked.
"I am entirely certain." Nathaniel didn't sound it.
"Well, I need those gems." Tongs' nostrils flared. "I believe it's worth the risk."
"Then let's be quick and get it finished," Kettle agreed. He reached to his pack and withdrew a stout cord, with a grappling hook fixed to the end. "Start your plucking, boy. And Drake? I hope you're good with those pistols."
"What you ought to know about Hill Men, Kettle," Drake explained, patting the butts of her revolvers. "We hate outsiders, we drink too much, we don't work well together, and our stews taste like warmed-over mammoth turds – but we're good with pistols." He stepped next to Nathaniel. "We'll run on back," she said. "If the Snow Spiders get to close."
Nathaniel wrapped his fingers around the webbing and started to play, plucking like he was working on a harp. The blue band of frost quivered and shook. While he plucked, Kettle set down the grappling hook into a protrusion of rock, and let the rope dangle down. He moved to the edge, gripped the cord, and then began to shimmy his way towards the bottom. Tongs followed, moving nimbly down the rope while his eyes stayed on the webbing. All throughout the cave, the Snow Spiders started to move. They crept across the icy webbing in assured, jerking movements, almost sliding their way towards the edge of the cavern. The Snow Spiders weaved past and gave Kettle and Tongs enough time to reach the bottom.
The rope ended and Kettle let go. His boots settled on the stone floor of the cave. Tongs hopped down after him. They moved towards the cluster of red crystals, weaving around the sharp lines of frosted webbing. Kettle withdrew the pickaxe handle from his belt. He gently pushed a stretch of web away with the rounded butt, and he and Tongs ducked through. Tongs started to release quiet, excited hissing noises. Just a few more steps and they would reach the crystals.
A gunshot blasted through the quiet of the cavern, echoing across the stone walls. Kettle turned around. Drake had her revolvers in her hands, and she fired down at the approaching Snow Spiders. Her next shot punched into the Snow Spider's face, sending out a spray of dark blue juice. The Snow Spider toppled down from its perch in the web, and tumbled down, spinning end over end while its legs flailed. It splattered down right next to Tongs and Kettle, sending azure goop dripping over the stone.
Tongs squeaked and recoiled. "Madwoman," he said. "A damned madwoman."
"Easy, Tongs," Kettle said. "We're almost there."
"Yes," Tongs said, shaking head. "Almost."
He took another quick step, and reached the crystals. He knelt down, and Kettle stood over him. More gunshots sounded from up above as Kettle withdrew the rifle from the sheath on his back. Another Snow Spider dropped, blasted through the abdomen, and fell down behind them.
With shaking fingers, Tongs got to work. He smashed the base of the crystal with the handle of his knife. The crystals cracked and he scooped the fragments into a dark satchel. Kettle tapped his fingers against the rifle, waiting as the seconds ticked by. Drake kept shooting. Her revolvers thundered again, gunning down a Snow Spider trying to crawl around the wall. This Snow Spider fell into the web and hung there, lying like a lounger in a hammock. Kettle didn't know how long it would take. Tongs had to hurry.
"I'm not certain what sort of gems these are," Tongs said. "Shadowturn Peak hosts a wealth of riches, after all. Nathaniel should know. That boy is a walking dictionary." Tongs stood up, the satchel bulging. "Well, I think I've gotten more than enough to repay Brother Vermillion. In fact, I may have a small surplus, which I could perhaps invest in a few games of chance, increase a small stake, and—"
Kettle glared at Tongs. "You'd do that?" he asked. "You've learned nothing?"
"One cannot win if one does not play, Horace," Tongs explained.
"You'll win yourself to an early grave, you damned—" Something in the earth creaked behind him. Kettle turned around and watched as a bright blue shape emerged from a shadowed crevice. A giant Snow Spider towered above them, big enough to catch a mammoth in its webbing and bite off its head with its long mandibles. The Snow Spider crawled towards them, its mandibles clattering together and ready to eat them. The rifle in Kettle's arms seemed inadequate.
Still, he raised the rifle and fired. The black powder rifle bucked in his arms, firing into the face of the Snow Spider. The bullet carved through several of the Snow Spider's glistening eyes, leaving dripping remains, and then he turned to run. He grabbed Tongs' arm and pulled him along. Tongs clutched the satchel tightly and they hurried along as the Snow Spider skittered after them. Kettle slung the rifle over his shoulder, with no time to reload, and drew his pickaxe handle. With his luck, the giant Snow Spider would use it to pick its teeth after it finished eating Kettle.
They reached the rope. "Climb," Kettle said, pointing to the rope. Tongs nodded, grabbed the rope and started to scramble up. Kettle followed, gripping the stout cord and using his feet to help him clamber towards the ridge. The Snow Spider followed them, its strangely thin legs clicking on the stone. Kettle felt his panic grow as he kept climbing. He glanced down to see the Snow Spider nearing them, walking straight up the wall while its mandibles clattered together. Then the Snow Spider lunged, jumping upwards in a single bound, and reached for them. Its long spindly legs bashed against Kettle and Tongs and they fell to the side.
Tongs and Kettle crashed down into an extended line of frosted webbing. Kettle pressed against the webbing, which froze around his legs and arms. He struggled and kicked – but it only made more of his limbs touch the web and freeze. "Under Kings help me," he muttered. He turned to Tongs, who lay next to him in the web. "Can you free yourself?" All around them, Snow Spiders crept towards the newly arrived prey.
"I think I can!" Tongs pulled one of his daggers. He placed the blade against the rope and started to saw. "Simply give me some time and our liberty will be returned."
They didn't have time. Kettle turned back to the Snow Spiders. The nearest arachnid, about as big as a goat, poised above him and prepared to attack. He jabbed at it with his pickaxe handle, bashing the heavy edge against the spider's face. The Snow Spider recoiled and prepared to attack again – only for Drake to shoot it through the side. She stood on the edge of the cliff, her revolvers blazing and gunning down the Snow Spiders as they approached. Nathaniel had pulled in the rope, preparing to send it out again. Kettle felt a sudden glimmer of happiness that he had brought them along.
The dagger lifted up, the broad edge shining in the cavern light. Tongs let out a hiss of satisfaction. He leaned over and hacked it down, trying to free Kettle. The blade pressed against the frozen web and cut the cords, allowing Kettle to move. He sat up in the web, then Tongs leaned over and freed his friend's legs.
Nathaniel tossed the rope in their direction. "Mr. Kettle!" he cried as the rope flew through the air. Kettle caught it. Tongs gripped the other end, and then they both leapt off the web. They fell straight down. The rope swung to the side and they nearly crashed straight into the rocky wall below the ledge. Kettle pushed his boots out, which took most of the impact. His jaws clamped shut in the sudden pain, but he still felt like he had been hammered into a hard surface. He and Tongs straightened out and started to climb.
This time, they reached the top of the ledge. Drake and Nathaniel reached down and helped them up. The giant Snow Spider emerged after them, its mandibles rearing up over the edge of the cliff, and clamping shut. Drake grabbed Nathaniel's shoulder and hauled him back. They didn't spend any more time in the cavern, but turned and darted for the exit, running down the tunnel as fast as they could.
Their shoes pounded on the uneven stone floor. Nathaniel slipped and Kettle caught the boy's arm, and helped him up. No skittering sounds followed, but they still kept running until they raced through the tunnel entrance and emerged back into the snowy light. General Lusk turned his docile eyes towards him, and his furry trunk snorted in surprise.
"God be praised!" Tongs laughed, holding up the satchel. "My debts are as good as paid." He grabbed a handful of the crystals and held them out to Nathaniel. "What are these worth, my dear child?"
"They seem to have no imperfections," Nathaniel said. "Though I'm sure of the exact kind of gem. I'll need to check my books..."
"No matter!" Tongs laughed. "Brother Vermillion will certainly take these gems as payment. No imperfections indeed." He nodded his scaly head to Kettle. "Let's board your mammoth, Horace, and be away from this miserable, freezing mine."
"Fine by me," Drake agreed.
"When will you pay the Claw Brotherhood back?" Kettle asked.
Tongs shrugged. "Tomorrow, I think. You may spend the rest of the day in peaceful repose."
Kettle grunted as he started back towards the mammoth. It sounded like a fair plan.
That evening, Kettle gave General Lusk a good grooming. He stood in the stables, using a thick brush with bristles like knives at the end of a pole to comb the mammoth's shaggy hair. General Lusk watched him with a lazy dark eye as Kettle dragged the pole across the beast's sides, brushing down the hair and cleaning away any errant frost. The mammoth's trunk snaked around and came towards Kettle in a clumsy embrace. Kettle tried to stop himself from grinning as the trunk slithered around his shoulders and played about his hands. Then General Lusk let out a slight snort and looked out at the snowy trail leading to the cabin. Kettle turned to see two familiar figures moving quickly through the dark snow. Drake and Nathaniel had come to visit.
He set aside the pole and walked out into the snow, resting his hands on his hips. "Drake," he said, with a quick nod. "Boy." He stared at Nathaniel.
"No time for pleasantries, Kettle." Drake pulled her mammoth-skin robe tight against the cold. "We've got some lamentable news. Tongs is in trouble – and even more trouble than usual. I wager you'd care to hear about it."
"What manner of trouble?" Kettle asked.
Nathaniel and Drake exchanged a glance. "Well, I looked through the professor's books and discovered the exact type of mineral that we encountered in the Blackspring Shaft." He pushed up his frosted spectacles as he continued. "They are Redbuncles, sir – an exceedingly rare type of stone with numerous alchemical properties. Redbuncles are highly sought, particularly by East Forge Consolidated. I visited one of my father's friends in the company and discovered that they found out about Tongs, and have dispatched the Silver Patrol to claim the Redbuncles."
"Silver Patrol?" Kettle scratched his beard. The local law in Peak Town consisted of a bailiff more used to drunkenness than law enforcement. The company kept their own police – the Silver Patrol, who enforced their law with lead and blades. "Hellfire. How'd they found out that Tongs had the gems?"
"How do you think?" Drake demanded. "He's been bragging since he returned to Peak Town."
"And where is he now?"
"We can't find him, sir," Nathaniel explained. "Not at his boarding house with the other Kobolds.'
"He's at the Nest." Kettle sighed. "We'll need to get him. To warn him at least."
"The Nest?" Drake asked. "Gambling, I suppose – and doubtlessly sinking deeper into debt, before he could extricate himself from his previous obligation to Brother Vermillion and the Claw Brotherhood." She pointed at Kettle. "Got me a suggestion: we let the Claw Brotherhood claim his worthless hide. That lizard got himself out of debt because of our effort. Now he's back in trouble, and we're supposed to help him again? Seems like we'd be bigger fools than him if we did."
Nathaniel stared at Drake. "We need to help him," he said. "He's a good fellow. He's a delver. A hero."
Kettle thought as he worked his fingers through his beard. For some reason, he didn't remember the cave-in that much. His time in the 44th seemed much more real than the several hours he spent entombed in total darkness, loose rocks pressed against his legs as he listened to his own shallow breath. The cave-in seemed like a half-remembered dream, a nightmare that would always be hidden in the corner of his mind. He remembered his time in the Whistling Dragon saloon afterwards, sitting next to Tongs, coal dust still blackening their faces, as they drank, and talked, and made their promises. They were going to get out of Shadowturn Peak. They would never work for a boss again, and earn enough to escape. Maybe that was the dream that would never be real.
He turned back to the stables without another word. General Lusk stared in his direction, flapping his big ears. Kettle went to his black powder, resting on the table in the corner of the stable next to his pickaxe handle. He slid the rifle over his shoulder and tucked the pickaxe handle into is belt. Then he gripped the rope around General Lusk's neck and led him out into the snow. Kettle clambered up and hopped onto General Lusk's back. He stared down at Nathaniel and Drake.
"Tongs is my friend," he said. "No matter how deep the pit he falls into, I will always pull him out. I swear this by the Under Kings." He patted the fur next to him. "I am riding to Peak Town. I will go to the Nest and find Tongs. Claw Brothers or Silver Patrol – I'll protect him from either. You can ride with me, if you wish."
"Of course, Mr. Kettle." Nathaniel scrambled to the mammoth's flank and started to climb. Kettle held out his hand and helped the boy up. Drake sighed and followed as well – more out of a desire to protect Nathaniel than help Tongs. Still, Kettle was grateful to have her along. They would need all the help they could get.
He shimmied over to Genera Lusk's neck and assumed the mahout's position, then clacked his heels. The mammoth started walking down the snow, gathering speed with his great, powerful strides. Soon enough, he broke into something close to a gallop. They rode down the winding trail, which dipped into a gentle slope, and led straight to Peak Town.
They reached Peak Town just after nightfall. The settlement glowed at night, with countless lanterns dangling down from the corners and roofs of every establishment. Torches flickered in the hands of the miners, providing more light and casting wild shadows over the poorly-constructed buildings and the trampled snow. Nathaniel stared down from General Lusk's back, his eyes wide behind his spectacles. He rarely left his room in the Coal Dust Inn and ventured into Peak Town – for which Kettle was grateful.
The Nest rested in the middle of the street, red and egg-shaped. Kettle rode to the boardwalk running past the Nest and slowed General Lusk. He and his friends swung down from the mammoth's back, and then stepped across the boardwalk to reach the door. A Kobold guard stood by the batwing door, a long-bladed dagger thrust into the belt of his purple suit. He glanced at the newcomers, his forked tongue slipping past his scaly lips. "No children," he said. "No Nox either. Try the Whistling Dragon." His eyes settled on Drake. "And no ladies."
Drake pulled back her mammoth skin coat, revealing her revolvers. "Ain't a lady. I'm Hill Woman, born and bred. Now step aside, lizard, before I put some holes in your scales."
The Kobold hissed slowly. "We just want to meet one of our friends, sir," Nathaniel said. "That's all."
"You have my word," Kettle said.
"Be quick." The Kobold guard stepped aside, letting them go through the door. Kettle's fingers had wrapped around the handle of his pickaxe handle. He could have drawn it and beaten the sharp teeth from the Kobold's head. Perhaps he had even come close. He walked ahead of Nathaniel and Drake, pushed his way through the batwing doors, and walked into the Nest.
The vast circular chamber had a curling balcony moved around the edge, so that the wealthier guests could stare down and watch while they sipped Hillman's Tea from wooden mugs, and smoked cave fungus through long pipes. Banners bearing embroidered scenes of the Seething Sea Islands draped down from the balconies, showing palm trees and yellow sand. They had been made from imagination – the Kobolds on Shadowturn Peak had been brought over as eggs and none of them had ever seen the Seething Sea. Kettle had, during his time in the 44th, and he could point out all the inaccuracies. In the middle of the Nest, round dragon fighting pit had been constructed of wooden planks. Two Pygmy Dragons battled inside, each about the size of a dog, and fire gleamed around their open mouths as blood stained their scales. Kettle scanned the crowd of Kobolds watching the fight. Tongs wasn't hard to spot.
He stood at the edge of the pit, waving his satchel of Redbuncles. "Come on!" he roared. "Come on, my dear, devoted draconic champion. Pull strength to your battered limbs. Slay your opponent. Come on and win!" He shook his head as one Pygmy Dragon pinned the other, and then pressed its jaws around its opponent's throat. "No, no, no." Tongs sank down to his knees. "What wretchedness. What shame." Fire blossomed around the attacking dragon's mouth. The meaty smell of roasting flesh filled the room as the audience cheered.
Nathaniel shuddered and turned away. "They just kill each other?" he asked. "That's...that's awful..."
"It's a business, boy," Kettle replied. He walked past Nathaniel and Drake and neared Tongs. Kettle clamped a hand on Tongs' bony shoulder. "Did you lose?" he asked. "Driving yourself even deeper in debt to the Claw Brotherhood?" Tongs stared at him in surprise. "Answer the question," Kettle ordered.
Tongs hung his head. "I truly am a worthless lizard."
Drake and Nathaniel approached and stood next to him. "That you are," Drake agreed. "And you shouldn't have left your egg. Those gems of yours? They're some sort of crystal called Redbuncles. Real powerful stuff. The Silver Patrol wants them, so your debts will remain unpaid."
"And the Silver Patrol could just kill me and take the Redbuncles from my dead claws," Tongs said. "They care so little for the life of a lizard." He looked at the Redbuncles, still in their sack. "At least I am awarded with a fine choice – die by the rifles of the Silver Patrol or the daggers of the Claw Brotherhood. My corpse will lie upon the mountainside, picked at by wolves and crows, or my skin shall adorn some chamber below the ground of this very establishment, and the Claw Brothers will spit fungus juices upon it as they stroll past."
"Neither of them seem very good," Nathaniel said.
"We'll think of something," Kettle promised. He took Tongs' arm. "Come on."
But before they could leave, Drake pointed to three Kobolds coming their way. "Hold on, Kettle," he said. "We've got company."
Tongs shivered. "Brother Vermillion," he muttered. "Grand to see you!"
Brother Vermillion, leader of the Shadow Peak Claw Brotherhood, strolled between two bulky Kobolds with countless knives resting on their belts. He wore a traditional Kobold robe of dark blue fabric, a cap with a long tassel cocked on his scaly head. Several pink scars crossed his rusty skin, etched around his lips and chin. "And it is grand to see you," Brother Vermillion said. He put his hands on Tongs' shoulder. "Brother Callow, are you still making your explosive concoctions? I know well their potency. We could certainly use some good bomb-makers in the Claw Brotherhood."
"I'm otherwise employed, unfortunately," Tongs said.
"Hmmm." Brother Vermillion smiled, revealing jade and gold on his teeth. "I would not call your present state employment. Tell me this, Tongs – have you enough money to fully pay back your debts? After this latest lost in the pit, I don't think that you do."
"If you would give me some more time..."
"I'm sorry." Brother Vermillion shook his head. "I'm so very sorry – but I cannot."
Kettle stepped closer to Brother Vermillion. "You must," he said. "He will pay you back, but we need to do more delving first. Just give him some time and—"
"Nox." Brother Vermillion folded his clawed hands. "Your kind rarely comes in here, unless you are very drunk. You think yourselves are better than Kobolds. Master diggers, eh? The specialists the company calls in for the delicate work." He cocked his head. "While the Kobolds are sent in for dumb labor. Yes, I know all about what you Tunnel Men think of us lizards." He held out his hand. One of his bodyguards produced a serrated knife and handed it to Brother Vermillion. "And you're the same. Giving me orders, like you're better than me. Maybe I cut out your tongue, eh? Slice up your tendons, so you crawl like a worm. Will you think yourself better than me after that?"
Nathaniel stared at Brother Vermillion. "Please, sir," he said. "You don't have to hurt anyone."
The Claw Brotherhood kingpin stared at the boy. "And you – a human. Wealthy, to judge by your clothes. Are you with the company? The son of one of the bosses? I think they are even worse than the Nox at times." He twirled the knife in the air. "But you are so small. If I cut you, then I think there would be nothing left." He turned to Tongs. "These are your friends?"
"Yes," Tongs said.
"I like you, Brother Callow, but your friends are going to—"
Tongs pulled one of his own daggers from his coat. He drew quickly, the blade clearing its scabbard in an instant and rushing up into Brother Vermillion's chin. Tongs rammed the handle in a devastating uppercut, bashing Brother Vermillion and knocking him backwards. He tumbled to the floor, the blade falling from his hand. Tongs kicked it aside, and then turned to his friends. "Time to leave," he said quickly. Kettle had to agree.
They raced for the door, Drake grabbing Nathaniel's hand and tugging him along. The two Kobold bodyguards followed, going for their own knives. Their lean legs crossed the ground quickly, their mouths opening as if hungry to catch and eat their quarry. Kettle stopped running and grabbed his pickaxe handle. He swung the handle around, the carved lump of wood humming through the air as it slammed into the face of the foremost Claw Brother. The impact raced down the wood and into Kettle's arm, familiar as a pat on the back. The Kobold collapsed, sinking down to his knees in sudden pain. Kettle swung the pickaxe handle again, aiming at the second Kobold. He connected with the Claw Brother's chest. The blow sent the Claw Brother stumbled back, crashing into the edge of the Pygmy Dragon fighting pit and nearly falling in.
The blows gave them some time. Kettle turned back and followed the others to the door. The Claw Brother guard stepped past the batwing door, trying to stop them. Drake barely slowed as she kicked him, planting a boot into his chest and knocking him against the doorway. She pushed her way through the doors, Nathaniel running along at her side. Tongs and Kettle followed. They scrambled out onto the boardwalk and hurried to General Lusk.
A rifle shot cut through the air – but not from the Nest. Kettle froze, halfway to the mammoth. A score of horsemen came down the street, rifles in their hands. They wore the gray uniforms and short-billed caps of the Silver Patrol. Kettle's eyes darted to the man at the head of the horseman, a portly fellow who looked like he needed help getting into the saddle, but now seemed perfectly comfortable. He had a thick waxed moustache, the edges pointing upwards so a smile rested above his frown. Kettle recognized him as Commander Titus Wellman, leader of the Silver Patrol.
He tugged at the reins of his horse with one hand, aiming the rifle with the other. "You know what I want, Lizard." His eyes settled on Tongs. "You know it well, you damned, scaly heathen. Toss it here and perhaps we won't shoot you down, and spare the world the presence of another worthless Kobold."
Kettle glanced at Tongs and the others. "Wait," he said. "And then we'll run."
"Not now?" Tongs asked.
The batwing doors to the Nest burst open. Brother Vermillion stepped into the street, followed by several Claw Brothers. Long knives glistened in their hands, ready to shed blood. This was the distraction that Kettle had waited for. He gripped his rifle, pointed it blindly towards the Silver Patrol, and fired. The shot whistled into the dirt, making the Silver Patrol's horses whinny and kick. But the rifle also puffed a cloud of black powder into the air, making everything stink slightly and adding smoke to the chaos. It gave them a chance to escape.
"Now!" Kettle cried. He ran to General Lusk, followed by the others. Kettle clambered up the furry flank, with Drake and Nathaniel next to him. Drake helped Nathaniel into the palanquin, pushing him down, as she drew one of her revolvers. Tongs gripped the side of the mammoth, his clawed hands intertwined with the dark fur. Kettle cracked his heels and General Lusk broke into a gallop. The mammoth rumbled straight down the street, dirt and snow flying from its feet.
They rode hard through Peak Town. Miners and drunks scrambled out of their way as they pounded past, General Lusk trumpeting wildly. Behind them, the Silver Patrol stirred their own horses. Even with the chaos caused by the Claw Brothers, Commander Wellman would still give chase. Kettle's mind raced, thinking of someplace like they could go.
Tongs looked up from where he dangled on General Lusk's side. "I suggest the Southern Slopes!" he cried. "Home to the ice caves, where we might hide and wait. It has its own dangers, of course, but seems positively benign compared to our present predicament."
Drake aimed her pistol at their pursuers, even though the revolver couldn't do much at this range. "Sounds mighty fine to me," she called. "Ride on, Kettle!"
The mammoth continued galloping along. Kettle turned the mammoth down part of the curling road. He could only hope that the Southern Slopes would offer some kind of sanctuary.
They rode along the curving, thin trail that crossed the mountainside and neared the Southern Slopes. The pathway moved on top of a ridge, with a gentle sloping valley on one side and the rocky bulk of Shadowturn Mountain on the other. The road narrowed as General Lusk continued galloping along, snorting as snow flew from his padded feet. Kettle had reloaded his rifle. That was all he could do to prepare for whatever danger awaited him. He glanced back at his friends. Tongs had made it to the palanquin and now sat a little bit apart from Drake and Nathaniel. He pulled out the metal canisters containing his explosive concoctions, fiddling with fuses as they rode along. He hadn't said a word since they left Peak Town. Kettle guessed that guilt kept him silent.
Then General Lusk let out a powerful snort and slowed his charge. Kettle turned back to the road. He grabbed the spyglass from his coat and snapped it to life. A quick glance at the end of the trail revealed Brother Vermillion and his Claw Brothers, standing together in a loose clump in the middle of the trail. "Hellfire," Kettle muttered.
The others peered past him and noted the Claw Brothers. "They must have used some shortcut – a tunnel perhaps – and cut us off," Drake muttered. She gripped her revolvers. "Turn around, Kettle. We can ride back, find some other way down to the caves."
"I don't think that will work, Miss Drake." Nathaniel pointed behind them. Kettle turned. The Silver Patrol had reached the trail and galloped closer, their horses riding in close formation while the riders brandished their rifles. The Claw Brothers stood at one end. The Silver Patrol rode towards the other. They were trapped, with Tongs and his Redbuncles right between a hammer and an anvil. Kettle had been in some bad fixes in the Seething Sea Islands, but he couldn't recall anything like this.
He dug in his heels, slowing General Lusk. Then he moved along the mammoth's back and dropped down to the ground. He withdrew his rifle. "We'll have to fight." He said what they had all been thinking. He pointed up at Nathaniel. "Stay on the mammoth, boy. And keep your head down." Tongs hopped down next, a hand resting on his dagger. Drake followed, pulling a revolver from each hand. The Silver Patrol slowed their horses, moving into a trot. On the other side of the trail, the Claw Brothers broke into a speedy run.
Tongs turned to Drake. "Miss Drake?" he asked. "I must heartily apologize. You are in this because of me. My gambling, my inconsiderate ways, have placed us both in danger. I wish heartily that it wasn't so – but it is."
"Hell, Tongs," Drake replied. "You needn't be so worried. I'm a Hill Woman, well-used to fighting for dumb reasons."
She stepped behind General Lusk, facing the Silver Patrol. Their horses cantered in, going slower while the Patrolmen went for their rifles. Kettle had seen Drake in action before. She could drop half-a-dozen of them in a matter of seconds – but their guns would thunder back and they would all fall. Kettle turned his rifle to the other side, facing the Claw Brothers. They hurried across the trail in a scampering run, long knives glittering in their hands. He could probably pick off a few before they arrived. Tongs readied his own knives. It would probably get bloody and close before the end.
"Horace?" Tongs asked. "I must apologize to you as well." He paused. "We'll get off this mountain. Someday."
"We will," Kettle agreed. "Far away from Shadowturn Peak."
Nathaniel leaned down from General Lusk's back. "Mr. Kettle?" he asked. "I think we have a further problem." He pointed down the slope. "We seemed to have attracted a pack of Snow Apes." Nathaniel spoke softly, but his words could have been as loud as cannon fire. Intelligent, strong, savage, and numerous, the Snow Apes provided a constant source of terror for all the residents of the Shadow Country. Kettle turned away from the Claw Brothers and looked down the slope. Sure enough, a pack of Snow Apes had emerged from the snow – where they had buried themselves for camouflage – and now bounded straight for the trail.
The Snow Apes reached them in a white horde. General Lusk trumpeted in panic and shifted his shaggy bulk. Nathaniel fell from the palanquin, squeaking as he gripped the edge and struggled to hold on. The Claw Brothers and the Silver Patrol suddenly seemed far less dangerous. Kettle turned and raised his rifle at the foremost Snow Ape. It seemed ghostly, its muscled arms, domed head, and stubby legs covered in fine white fur. Even its long fans, pointed incisors perfect for slashing flesh, gleamed pure white. The rifle thundered in Kettle's hands. He shot the Snow Ape through the chest, knocking it back into the snow in a spray of red blood. Kettle ducked back and reloaded quickly, sliding another bullet into the breach of the rifle to fire again.
Drake stepped in front of him, firing with her revolvers. The Snow Apes closed in, bounding around them and trying to reach out with grasping hands. Drake shot an attacking Snow Ape twice, punching twin two bullets through its skull. The ape sunk down into the snow, a final roaring leaving its lips as it collapsed. Kettle fired his rifle again, wounding another Snow Ape, and then spun his rifle around and rammed the butt against the monster's side. Fur and bone broke under the blow and the Snow Ape recoiled. Kettle pulled back the rifle to strike again, when a Snow Ape's thick fingers wrapped around his arm and pulled. That arm could have been wrenched from its socket – if Tongs didn't plunge his dagger into the Snow Ape's back.
The Snow Ape howled in pain and let go of Kettle. He sank down, letting his rifle dangle on the strap. His arm felt like it was about to fall off. He nodded his thanks to Tongs, who returned the smile. Kettle forced himself to stand. He had no time to reload the rifle, so he drew out the pickaxe handle instead. Maybe that would be enough. He heard another Snow Ape moving behind him, then turned and swung the handle hard against the beast's skull. Bone cracked as the pickaxe handle settled down and the Snow Ape whimpered and darted back. Blood stained at the end of the pickaxe handle, as it had so many times before.
He stepped next to Drake, who fired the last rounds from her revolver. "See any way out of this?"
"You know what, Kettle?" Drake asked. A Snow Ape bounded towards the fallen Nathaniel, who had tumbled down from General Lusk's back. Drake grabbed the boy and yanked him back, just out of the way of the Snow Ape's clashing jaws. "I do not think I do."
More roars came from further up the trail. The Snow Apes had reached the Claw Brothers, who clustered together in a loose circle and tried to ward off the hungry primates with the points of their knives. The Snow Apes roared as they surrounded the Kobolds, darting about and then lashing out with their heavy hands. One Kobold tried to lunge out and slash at the Snow Apes – only for the primate to grab his arm and yank him away. The Snow Ape tossed him down in the dust, and he hissed as he tried to scramble back.
Tongs stared at the Claw Brothers. "Horace?" he said. "I need to help them."
"What?" Kettle asked. "They would have skinned you."
"They are in danger and they need help," Tongs said. "It was why I dug so hard, to free some Tunnel Men in a cave-in."
He offered a toothy smile, and then turned and ran down the trail. Kettle started after him, ducking a Snow Ape's swinging hand as he tried to keep up with his friend. Tongs had a good heart and couldn't stand to see the Claw Brothers attacked by the apes – even if it led him to rush straight into danger.
Brother Vermillion hissed orders at his Claw Brothers as they waved their knives, and then stared at Tongs. His eyes flashed with surprise. Tongs withdrew one of his homemade bombs and snapped a match to life. He touched it to the fuse, which began spark and burn down. Brother Vermillion didn't seem to understand it. The Snow Apes looked up from their prey and turned to watch as Tongs ran closer, holding aloft the metal tube and its crackling fuse as if it was some torch meant to shed light. Tongs let the explosive tube fly.
The bomb hurtled through the air and landed at the edge of the circle of Snow Apes. "Take cover!" Tongs roared – and then the tube exploded. A cloud of fire ripped its way out of the canister, kicking up snow and tossing a few Snow Apes through the air. The explosion's retort made Kettle's ears ache and echoed across the slopes of the mountain. The Snow Apes hooted and turned to run, racing through the snow as they struggled to get away. Even the Snow Apes around General Lusk fled, frightened by the noise of the explosion alone. Tongs stopped running and turned back to Kettle. He showed a delighted smile.
Kettle returned the grin – and then cried out as another Snow Ape emerged from the frost. The Snow Ape grabbed at Tongs with both arms, hauling him up and trying to bring him up to his jaws. Tongs shrieked and kicked, wriggling in the Snow Ape's hands. The Snow Ape's mouth opened, the fangs shining like icicles. As he shook Tongs, the bag containing the Redbuncles fell from the Kobold's belt. It fell down, hit the slope, and tumbled its way down. The brown glared out against the white of the stone, and opened to let a few Redbuncles spill out.
At the moment, the gems didn't matter. Kettle ran to help his friend, swinging up his pickaxe handle. He charged the Snow Ape, ignoring the fear as he swung the pickaxe handle around and walloped the primate's chest. The pickaxe handle slammed down. The Snow Ape growled and released its hold, letting Tongs fall into the snow. Kettle raised the handle, preparing to strike again. The Snow Ape stared at him, its tongue playing around its fangs. Then it turned and headed down the slope, moving on its stubby feet and knuckles. Evidently, it decided that Kettle wasn't worth eating. Kettle lowered the pickaxe and sighed deeply.
Tongs' hand dropped to his belt. "The gems," he whispered. "Oh, Sweet Savior, the gems have—"
"It's too late, Tongs!" Drake cried. "Silver Patrol's got them."
Sure enough, the Silver Patrol rode along the gentle slope. Commander Wellman galloped at their head. He rode toward the fallen bag of Redbuncles, leaned down from the saddle, and swept them up. Then he turned his horse and started to ride back. The rest of the Silver Patrol cavalrymen followed him, snow rising from their hooves. They didn't consider it worthwhile to stick around.
Brother Vermillion and the Claw Brothers approached. Tongs turned to face them. "If it's any consolation," he said. "The Redbuncles would not have paid debts recently incurred." He stepped away from Kettle and neared the Claw Brothers. "Well?" he asked. "Will you skin me?"
"You saved my life, Brother Callow." Brother Vermillion reached Tongs. He patted Tongs' shoulder. "That bomb of yours scared off the Snow Apes." He hugged Tongs, wrapping him in a tight embrace. "For that, you deserve a reward – so here it is. All debts are currently forgive. You owe me nothing. But next time? I'm afraid you won't find me in such a good mood."
"Well," Tongs said. "That's probably the best I can hope for." Kettle snorted. He was inclined to agree.
Dawn found Drake, Tongs, Kettle, and Nathaniel at the Whistling Dragon Saloon – sipping Hillman's Tea at the dusty bar. Nathaniel got a cup of warm chocolate, which he greatly needed after his ordeal. Tongs guzzled the Hillman's Tea and then reached into his pocket. "Aha!" he said, pulling out a tiny Redbuncle, no bigger than a pebble. "I must have removed this when I was bragging and tucked it back in my pocket without realizing." He held up the stone between thumb and forefinger. "So perhaps this whole wretched experience was not for nothing." Tongs held out the Redbuncle to Nathaniel. "You take it," he said. "For the professor to study."
"S-sir?" Nathaniel asked. "The proper study of such a rare jewel would greatly increase science, but the stone is yours..."
"And I'm giving it to you." He patted Nathaniel's shoulder. "Besides, what would I do with the gem, but lose it at the dragon fights?" He tucked the Redbuncle into the pocket of Nathaniel's coat. "Give the professor my regards."
"Well, of course, Mr. Tongs – and thank you."
Drake raised her cup in a toast. "Thanks from me as well," she said. "Maybe you ain't so bad – for a lizard."
"High praise indeed." Tongs turned to Kettle. His good humor faded. "Horace?" he asked. "I am beginning to think we are never going to leave Shadowturn Peak."
Kettle sipped his Hillman's Tea, enjoying the bitter coldness of the liquid. He wondered if that was true.