19 iv) The arc of the stone cuts gracefully through the dim light

The arc of the stone cuts gracefully through the dim light and clonks the princess in the head, leaving her stuttering through her chanting. The sense of tingling radiation fades from Abia’s mind as the princess wobbles. Old Mossy growls and runs to the princess’ side.

The other wide-mouthed creatures look panicked as Shyan lays into them. By now, several are groaning on the ground, clutching wounded arms and legs. Shyan begins to feel their poison moving through her body, and lets out a war cry of passion enough to loosen knees. She points an accusatory finger at Old Mossy and the princess. “Leave this place,” she growls, “or I’m coming for you next.”

Old Mossy growls again, but signals to some of his still-standing fellows to aid him in dragging the princess and their fallen friends away, while Shyan stands tall, breast heaving, beads of sweat breaking at her brow.

19 iii) In a fluid dance, Shyan moves through her paces

In a fluid dance, Shyan moves through her paces. Striking Mantis, Untoward Elephant, Bloodsoaked Parasite. Her opponents are shorter than she’s used to, but she adjusts in the moment, connects stances and moves with the smooth improvisational chops of a jazz musician.

The grinning grey creatures spill to the earth, kicking up stones and clods of dirt. Old Mossy, suddenly looking fearful, gives frantic orders, sending his fellows in to be beaten down. Open palms, fists closed, feet and knees and elbows: Shyan is a whirling dervish of flesh on flesh.

As the ranks swarm her, the princess hurries behind their bulk and begins chanting in an unfamiliar language, moving her hands in wide, suggestive gestures. Abia, for her part, feels the background radiation shift, and tapping Cang on the shoulder, points out the princess. He nods and hefts a stone.

v) The ugobok lashes at Fassn

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.

iv) Fassn smacks the snake’s massive body

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.

iii) All of Shyan’s skill, and a good portion of her luck

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.