v) A fellow with a hawk’s head mask

A fellow with a hawk’s head mask steps forward, as though he’s finally conjured the courage to do so. He lifts a crude club and shouts, “For the lich!”

He charges the gang. Shyan gets her shield up as Cang darts to an acute angle to get behind the hawkhead. Hawkhead is clumsy, though, his nascent bravery no cover for poor training. He enters Shyan’s reach, his club still way over his head, and she effortlessly loosens her weapon and brings it out with an arcing flourish, through which hawkhead can’t help but pass.

His newly-repaired armor cracks and sunders, and within, his flesh opens and bleeds. He falls to his knees Cang stops short as his buddies surround him, their horror palpable.

“Wait,” says Fassn, in a voice imperious. His brow is straight and his jaw firm. “Allow me.” His hands up, he slowly approaches the dying man. His friends bristle, but are cowed by Fassn’s serious manner, and fractionally give way.

Fassn lays a filthy hand on the hawk’s beak. The man inside quivers.

For the second time that day, Fassn calls on Old Ajralan, and Old Ajralan answers with a blast of shining light — and hawkhead’s wound is healed.

iv) Shyan’s blade exits its sheath a hand’s width

Shyan’s blade exits its sheath a hand’s width and she holds it there. “You see I bear steel. Do not insist I bear it further.”

“Nicely put,” Cang says.

“You don’t need to bear it, sweetheart,” says one of the men, wearing a helmet carved to resemble the gruesome snarl of a boar. “Just put it down and me and the boys’ll take it from here.”

“I’m so tired of ‘the boys’,” Shyan says. Eyeing their numbers, and their newly-repaired gear, she adds, “We don’t need to fight. We’ll bring you back something nice from the castle.”

She can almost hear the blood draining from boarhead’s face beneath his heavy mask. “You’s all is going up to the castle?”

“Got to get paid, you know,” Fassn says cheerily.

“Then, we’ve got to stop you,” boarhead says, looking around at his men, who are suddenly shuffling their feet and kicking at the dirt. “Because, the lich,” he continues, trailing off.

Shyan’s blade clicks home with a sharp sound. “No one likes the lich.”

iii) The gang makes their way

The gang makes their way out of the tavern before the barkeep can notice the false coin laid on the table.

Outside, their caught by a band of figures, clad in armour, brandishing weapons of crushing, slashing, piercing.

“Do we know you?” asks Shyan.

“I do believe so,” says Cang. He’s right. Their armour is distinctive, the helmets featuring fanged beasts in place of the human visage.

Shyan deflates a little. “The rabble from the blacksmith’s?”

“Hey, we’re not rabble,” one of the figures says. “You’ve wronged our honour, you know?”

“We did?” Fassn asks.

“Well, we’ve had a lot on our minds,” says Shyan.

“Then maybe we can make a little deal. Take some of the stress off.”

Drawing her blade, Shyan says, “I doubt it.”

ii) Cang stretches his tender fingers

Cang stretches his tender fingers. “I suppose I must give you that,” he says. Fassn nods, a jaunty smile on his face.

“Good, good,” Shyan says. “We’ve all got fingers. Let’s not forget we don’t have any money.”

“Don’t let the barkeep hear you,” Cang says. He quickly gulps down the last of his beer. Then, fishing around in the lining of his vest, he feels the tiny emerald, and with it, a false coin — made of wood, but enough to pay for the gang’s round so they don’t get chased out of the tavern again.

Seeing this act of benevolence, Shyan raises an eyebrow.

Cang shrugs. “May Old Ajralan have his fill, it seems.”

“He always gets it,” Fassn says. “Are we going to the castle now?”

Abia, heretofore staring out the window at the imposing black structure, nods simply.

Shyan quaffs the dregs of her beer and stands. “You heard the lady.”

i) “Shit, shit, shit,” Cang wheezes

“Shit, shit, shit,” Cang wheezes, gripping his bloodied hand.

“Well who didn’t see this one coming?” Shyan says, tightening a tourniquet at his wrist.

“Oh, please. On an average day, I’m quite skilled at this.”

“Tell that to the puddle of blood on the table.”

Fassn straightens his spine and says, “Lemme at ‘im.” He roughly grabs Cang’s arm and holds it aloft, such that crimson drips down his wrist.

“No, Fassn, no, I need not your god’s delusions,” Cang says, but in a booming voice, Fassn speaks right over him.

“Old Ajralan,” he intones, as peasants crane their necks to see what’s going on. “May my wee buddy here have his fill.” Fassn shakes Cang’s hand making his whole body wobble on his seat.

“He needs a doctor, Fassn,” says Shyan.

“He just needs a little lick from the Old Guy.”

The anger on Cang’s face begins to wash away as he feels a tingling in his fingers, as though the flesh were stitching itself together. He revels in the strangeness of the feeling, then shakes Fassn off him. His good hand shaking, he peels the bandages from his hand to find his fingers bloodied but attached, the wound entirely gone.

Fassn beams.

v) The grasshopper sets his jaw

The grasshopper sets his jaw. “This is a dangerous place,” he says. “I’d feel far mo’ comfortable if y’all could just stay on the wagon.”

Shyan’s echoing voice rings out across the broken landscape. “Stop!”

The grasshopper’s beast of burden comes to an abrupt halt, despite its master’s protestations.

“Thank you,” Shyan says to the beast. She hops out and works at unloading the crates.

“Shyan, we’re getting out right here?” Fassn asks. He gets no more reply than a determined grunt as Shyan works.

“Well we’s nearly at my home,” the grasshopper sputters. “If y’all change yer minds, take a right at the reeds over yonder, go for six half-kims, and you’ll find my hidey-hole.”

Cang, Fassn, and Abianarin reluctantly remove themselves from the wagon. As it pulls away, it leaves a cloud of dust over the remaining crates, and the travelers themselves.

With an air of deep, slow regret, Fassn says, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill.”