v) “I am kinda hungry”

“I am kinda hungry,” Fassn says. Cang gives him a regretful look that straightens Fassn’s spine. “But Old Ajralan has had his fill this day,” he says. “Not, though, his fill, of you.”

The alchemist blinks. Her horse whinnies as Abia murmurs to it.

“I’ve got plenty of delicious steaks here,” the alchemist calls out, with a deliberately seductive inflection. Her hand creeps toward her coat, seeking a pocket within. “Just let me get them for you,” she says.

Shyan pulls her horse alongside the wagon, gets up close to the alchemist. Suddenly, her hand finds her coat, and like the strike of a viper, she withdraws and shatters a flask. It releases a thick cloud of oily smoke, and a noxious odour.

“Blek, it’s worse than the dome,” Fassn says.

The alchemist springs from her seat but her face finds Shyan’s pummel. A quick crack later and her dazed form slumps to the ground. Cang springs upon her, binds her to her horse. He yanks her pointed hat off, revealing a lined face screened by a mop of ashen hair. He tries it on, finds it to his liking. It sits low upon his bald head.

“If you kill me,” the alchemist rasps, “you’ll never find the money.”

iv) The gang’s unburdened mounts

The gang’s unburdened mounts make short work of the intervening distance. Soon they’re pulling kerchiefs up over their mouths to keep the dust out.

Shyan pulls her horse ahead of the wagon, then jerks to a stop in the centre of the road. She sits astride her steed, straight-backed, her face set in an expression that dares the alchemist to keep running.

Abia keeps pace alongside the horse pulling the alchemist’s wagon. Again she speaks her native tongue, and the horse cocks its head to listen.

“Wait, no,” the alchemist cries from the driver’s seat, to no avail.

With Cang and Fassn behind her, the alchemist finds, to her horror, that her wagon is slowing. Her horse no longer wants to run, after whatever Abia said to it.

The dust settles on the plain in a slow haze. The alchemist surveys the road, finds herself surrounded. She forces a chuckle, which comes out strained and nasal.

“Maybe you folks would fancy a bite?”

iii) The team absconds with the horses

The team absconds with the horses. Cang rides behind Fassn, careful not to catch a wing to the face, while the others select mounts of their own. Shyan rides a chestnut mare, Abia a charcoal stallion, with Cang and Fassn atop a young roan.

They burst from the stable, urging the horses onward, encouraging haste. The innkeeper, stablehand, and rightful owners of the horses emerge into the muddy streets, throwing fists and curses after the team as they hurry away.

It’s less than an hour before they come upon a trail of dust thrown up from the road, slow and lazy in settling. Shyan squints and spots a wagon at the head of the dusty column, and nods resolutely at her companions when she spies the alchemical crates loaded upon it. With a yelp, she picks up her pace, her friends following.

ii) “Well we can’t stay here”

“Well we can’t stay here,” Shyan says. “The blasted innkeeper is probably talking with the watch as we speak.”

Abia withdraws her final copper penny, begins flipping it idly, catching it in the air.

Fassn uses his gauzy, deterioriating wings to cover his eyes. He grimaces. “Old Ajralan has had his fill of that place,” he says. “Plus I’m hungover.”

“Come on, Fassn,” Shyan says. She touches a wing. It’s airy, scarcely palpable at all. “Don’t you want to refresh these things?”

He sniffles. “All they’re good for is stares.”

Cang suppresses a chuckle. “Well I, for one, have no intention of sitting in this dank stable, awaiting my arrest, with nary a purse to bribe the watch.” He gestures at the four stabled horses, who by no means belong to him. “Shall we away?”

i) Almery is, as any pan-galactic, dimension-hopping adventurer knows, a hellish place

Almery is, as any pan-galactic, dimension-hopping adventurer knows, a hellish place. Its skies are a burnt orange, its earth a parched, rocky waste. Its flora and fauna, too, are unanimously nasty.

Thus it’s with some trepidation that Abianarin relays the news to her companions. “Alchemist in Almery,” she says.

Their faces fall. The horse blinks at them, uncomprehending. It’s never had the displeasure of visiting Almery.

“But we went through the throne,” Shyan says. “How can we be anywhere near Almery?”

Abia gives a non-committal gesture, as though to convey the vagaries of mysticism, sorcery, the occult, etc.

“No way those crates are worth it,” Fassn says. “I say let her have ’em. Right, Cang?”

“Well,” Cang replies, in a thoughtful drawl. “They were rather valuable.”

“No way, no how,” Fassn says. “I ain’t goin’ to Almery.”