22 i) The following morning, as dawn breaks grey upon the canopy

The following morning, as dawn breaks grey upon the canopy, Cang creeps into the village. He keeps low and quiet, moving through shadows.

The wide-mouthed grey creatures live in the trees, make their homes among the branches. He eyeballs each in turn, from the humble abodes of peasants to Old Mossy’s place, more secluded and well appointed than most. Cang makes mental notes on entrances and exits, then steals away, looking for the home of the princess.

He isn’t looking long when he comes upon a pair of ancient oak trees, twins, with broad reaches of foliage, within which sits a rather opulent palace — or opulent by the standards of the village. Cang moves closer when he spots a handful of guards watching over the place. A couple have injuries from where Shyan laid them low last night.

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 ii) Shyan senses the poison is the same

Shyan senses the poison is the same one she’d been hit with before. Its changes to her nerve endings are almost familiar, tickling as they do the painful memories and regrets centre of the brain. The darts themselves are mere pricks, like the bites of mosquitos. With an open palm she brushes many from her skin and they fall with soft clicks to the ground. She glares at the princess and her many retainers, each of whom is frantically trying to load another bone dart into its blowpipe. Shyan launches at them like a cat sprung from hiding. Her superior height and weight advantage bowls several over, eliciting cries of surprise. Old Mossy and the princess bark orders and fall back as Shyan starts swinging.

18 v) “I knew the moment I saw you fight in the square,”

“I knew the moment I saw you fight in the square,” the princess says. “A village full of tall folk, and you, a young woman, striking with the Silent Mantis. Sliding into Hooking Crow. Techniques only Davit knew.”

Shyan perks up at the name. She stands steadily, rising from the floor, silent and intense.

“Of all people,” Old Mossy says. “I’m glad we finally found you.”

“The killer of Davit,” the princess says, a note of wonder in her voice.

“You are some of many,” Shyan replies. She pivots a foot into a defensive stance as her compatriots gather around her. Her eyes blaze. “Come,” she says, raising her fists. “You may have it.”

18 iv) Heads swivel toward the noise

Heads swivel toward the noise. Timid in the light of the fire, several grey faces, low to the ground. At the centre of the clutch of humanoids, the princess the gang had rescued, and with her, Old Mossy, explorer extraordinaire. When the gang recognizes them, they let their guards down — just a fraction.

“Any luck in there?” Old Mossy says.

Sardonically, Cang says, “I found some gems.”

Old Mossy gives a start of surprise. “Really?”

“No, not really,” Cang replies with a huff.

“What brings you?” Abia asks the group.

A creepy grin worms its way across Old Mossy’s face.

13 iii) “I don’t think we never heard no knocking, did we?”

“I don’t think we never heard no knocking, did we?” Fassn asks.

“Not as such,” Cang replies.

“And that name, ‘Asmosius.’ Would’ve picked up on that one.”

“Seems probable.”

“What is it you need?” Shyan asks.

“Well,” Old Mossy begins, faltering. In a soft voice, the princess urges him on. He keeps his eyes on the ground. “I’d like to know who, or what, knows me well enough to call to me from beyond a massive door deep under the earth,” he says, before looking hopefully up at the gang.

Fassn and Abia share a look suggesting that whatever it is, it’s nothing good.

“In exchange for the antidote?” Shyan asks.

A look of horror crosses Old Mossy’s features. “No, no, certainly not! You rescued our fair princess, after all.” He dodders to a cabinet, and, his back turned to the gang, fiddles with a switch or latch and a hidden panel slides open. He withdraws a small palmful of colourful gems. “In exchange for these!”