The ugobok lashes at Fassn, because of course it does. The toothless man, intoning a wordless cry to Old Ajralan, patron of the real, tongue of the universe, gentle hands of the sky, etc, leaps half a metre as though he intends to slip down the ugobok’s throat in one slick, life-ending maneuver.
Vaulting through the air, Fassn feels a twinge of regret, fears that Old Ajralan has really left him to bite it this time. The blank menace in the ugobok’s eyes offers nothing to assuage him.
But Fassn’s friends are clever, and in the critical moment, Shyan and Cang yank the loop of rope, and the Eckman knots within give way. The rope flies up, catching the ugobok under the neck, ruining its momentum.
Fassn feels the deep, wet, wasting smell of the ugobok’s breath, sees the instant of confusion and alarm that precedes its entrapment.
The enormous snake’s composure is upset for only a second. Luckily, a second is all Abianarin needs. She rests a cool hand upon the ugobok’s rough scales, and wills its body temperature to fall.
Fassn smacks the snake’s massive body with his blunt-headed mace, making a trebly ‘tink’ noise when the weapon contacts its scales. He calls out to Old Ajralan, but with his mouth largely free of teeth by this point, the sound is muffled, indistinct.
“Come, little mouses,” the ugobok says, its lipless mouth lascivious and sinister. It doesn’t seem to notice the hanging loop of rope.
Over her shoulder, Shyan shouts an order to Fassn. He shakes his head, fear welling up in his eyes.
“I’m serious, Fassn!” Shyan retorts.
Fassn clenches his fists, his gums slapping wetly. He utters a wordless shriek and charges the ugobok’s big flared head.
All of Shyan’s skill, and a good portion of her luck, goes into dodging the ugobok’s strikes. It takes great gulps of empty air, hoping to fill its unhinged jaw with warm meat. Shyan, though, feints and stabs, working to draw the great beast’s attention away from Fassn, whose armour is patchwork at best, and absent in certain key places, and Abianarin, too, whose swirling indigo robes no doubt attract the beast’s eye.
Shyan fades back from the present to her martial training in the mountainous Huaodeng province. The hallowed school, with its peaked and tiled roofs, is lost to her, now, her travels having taken through the back ways behind the planes. Still, the lessons she learned there are retained, and the growling voice of her master echoes key phrases in her head. “Pivot. Jab. Release.”
Her moves are like a dance. The ugobok’s fangs do not find her.
Alas, there’s nothing in the spire’s crest suggesting massive, liquid value, though Cang does indeed take a moment or two to check. Plenty of shed snake skin abounds, though, which he briefly considers grabbing, in case some eccentric buyer with pickled appendages on the walls might have interest in buying.
The chaos and clashing noise below brings him back to the present, though, and he returns to his work. He uses a length of rope as wide as he is, and ties a four-step Eckman knot atop the spire, just above the crest. He tests its strength with a firm tug, as from below, Fassn yelps.
Satisfied with his knot, Cang uses the rope to swing through the air, his heart racing, and alights at the canopy of a nearby tree. He lets a few dozen feet of the rope dangle loose to the ground, then ties another Eckman to the tree. It has nowhere near the tensile strength of the spire itself but Cang decides that it’ll have to do.
He calls down to his companions. “Rope’s up.”
Shyan parries the serpent’s great bulk, her shield catching the tip of a yellowed fang. The reptile’s force knocks her to the ground. She lets out a grunt and regains her feet.
The snake is already reoriented, shuttling its massive bulk towards Fassn. He’s flapping his useless wings with all the force he can muster, though his eyes are cloudy. He spits a handful of teeth into his hand and throws them at the ugobok. “Mean little mouses,” it says.
Abia steps behind the spire in one careful movement. Her mouth mumurs an incantation as her hands dance the steps to make the magic happen. Cang, meanwhile, crouches nearby, observing the fight.
The ugobok strikes at Fassn but Shyan is ready, again deflecting the enormous, flared head. The snake’s mass is such that she can barely keep her footing in the loose soil. “All this for a tear duct?” she shouts.
“All this for gold!” Cang says. He wraps his limbs around the spire and begins to shimmy up.
I’ve only been in one fight in my life, one physical fight, at least, and it was with Corey Thompson, in elementary school, whom I never really liked. He was blond and a bit jocky, whereas I was anything but. I don’t recall the circumstances of the fight but I believe that I started it. It wasn’t much of a fight – we must have been 12 or 13 at the time, certainly no older – we were wrestling on the ground at the back corner of our school’s vast playground, at the grassy part, where the fenced edges of the playground met at a corner. We were never too antipathetic toward one another, Corey and I, but there was no genuine affinity there, either. I recall we were playing touch football, which I was never much for, but I did for a while bring a football so that Dave Pritchard and the other popular guys like Dave Webster would let me play, and I was popular too for those brief interludes though even then I recognized that I was being used. I stopped bringing the football before long, but that’s not what the fight was about. Corey and I were on the grass, on the ground, probably on our knees, my arm wrapped around him, in a head-lock type thing without any skill or understanding of what I was doing, without any end-point in mind. I recall in high school there was to be some massive fight at Gage Park, which was easily a couple of kilometres from the school, between our own Delta Secondary and some rival institution – Queen Mary perhaps? And so a horde of children like the orcs of Tolkien flooded west along quiet residential streets to arrive at the park, surely exhausted by then, to witness the brawl. That’s how I remember it, but I remember it from a crane’s-view like a film, and I remember dozens of barbaric youngsters, so surely my memory cannot be trusted on this or any other matter.