iii) “Now this I’ve gotta try,”

“Now this I’ve gotta try,” says Fassn. He catches the mushroom shavings on his tongue. Between gulps, he cries, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill!”

“That’s probably not good for you,” Shyan says.

“Mushroom man,” Abia says.

The alchemist shoots her a glare, then continues delicately carving away the mushroom man’s mouth.

“I’m not a mushroom,” he says, sputtering through the last of the spongy puffball. “I’m a wizard. What have you brought me, Burbaloo?”

“Her name’s Burbaloo?” Fassn asks.

“What happened to you, wizard?” Shyan asks. She touches the mushroom. “Can you feel this?”

“Go you by the moniker Eric Wagon?” Cang asks.

“Enough questions,” shouts the mushroom man. “Burbaloo, what have you brought me?”

“A great debt,” Shyan says.

ii) The alchemist gestures frantically

The alchemist gestures frantically at it, such that Shyan removes her gag. “Here he is,” she says. “This is Eric.”

“This mushroom is Eric?” Cang asks. “And he’s your buyer of valuable tinctures and tonics?”

“Yeah,” the alchemist says. “But I haven’t been here in a while, looks like he’s mostly grown over again. Loosen my bonds, and I’ll show you.”

Shyan and Cang share a skeptical look, but she stands close, weapon drawn, as Cang removes the alchemist’s bonds.

She flexes her joints and lets out a prodigious grunt. “It’s good to be free.” Approaching the enormous mushroom, the alchemist produces a dagger and begins flaking away some of the fibrous flesh. “Come on, Eric, where are you?”

The gang crowds in to observe the alchemist’s work. Soon, her cutting and carving reveals a humanoid face, its eyeline a few centimetres above the alchemist’s own.

The eyes blink.

i) Sure enough, the gang follows the horse

Sure enough, the gang follows the horse. The alchemist, bound and sullen, rides along with them in the back of the wagon. Cang drives it. For eight days they follow the gutted road, eating nothing but dried mussberry and the occasional gikken Shyan manages to bag.

Abia, by turns, holds long conversations with the horse, totally unintelligible to her friends and the alchemist, and passes long silences in steady, unassailable contemplation. Sometimes she speaks with their other mounts, as well, though none are so loquacious as the alchemist’s. Abia keeps the contents of their talks private, other than to share the horse’s name: Larry.

Larry has never heard of Eric Wagon, but he agrees to show Abia where the alchemist was headed.

As they travel, the broad plains to either side of the road grow dense with applebaum trees and neenwood, and by the ninth day, they find themselves in deep forest. Larry halts at the edge of a ragged clearing. At the centre stands a gargantuan puffball mushroom.