v) “Share?” the ugobok hisses

“Share?” the ugobok hisses. “What means this word, little mouses?” It reaches the spire’s base and rises up, its fleshy belly pressing into the dry grass, its flared head and fangs a sword’s reach above Shyan.

With a careful, fluid motion, she readies her shield.

“Altruism is the oil of the world, my friend,” Cang says, taking a half-step behind his armoured companion. “It’s a magical force wherein we all get what we want.”

“Little mouses wants warm homes,” the ugobok says. Its yellow, reptilian eyes hold no hint of malice — its intentions alien and unknowable for the mammals among us.

“Yes,” Shyan says. “That’s it, exactly.”

“But we can’t afford it,” Fassn says. Another tooth comes loose. He points to it. “See?”

“Poor little mouses,” the serpent replies. “So cold, so alone, little mouses. Ugobok give you safe, warm homes, little mouses.”

The gang falls back a pace as the great snake’s bearing rises. It unhinges its jaw, distorting its speech.

“Always be safe, little mouses,” it says, and strikes.

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