v) They camp for four days beside the gargantuan, apoplectic bird-thing

They camp for four days beside the gargantuan, apoplectic bird-thing. Unable to right itself, or even control its devastated form, it boiled with anger. “Poison, poison you sold me,” it said.

“It was a free sample,” Fassn replied.

They saw no other people in the desiccated city, until the fifth day, when they hear the undeniable sound of a wagon, drawn by a beast or burden. A grasshopper, Cang’s height, with an untamed beard and yet-wilder eyebrows, calls his horse to a halt.

“Howdy,” he says.

“Hi,” Fassn replies.

The grasshopper nods to the crates. “Thought I smelled liquors. Y’all sellin’?”

The gang shares a look. Fassn is least able to contain his delight.

“Perhaps,” Cang says.

“Well why not load ’em all up onto the cart and old Wilbur here’ll drive us back to the Jewel Farm. I’ll buy ’em pots off ya, and maybe you can gets to pickin’ a gem or two off the vines for yourselves. What do you say?”

“Old Ajralan,” Fassn says, and hops on. “May you have your fill.”

iv) Shyan and Abia lock eyes

Shyan and Abia lock eyes. Abia shrugs. Shyan pops the lid off a crate at random, pulls out a guacamole-green phial the size of Cang’s forefinger. She shows it to her friends, then lobs it to the bird-thing, who catches it gracefully, despite its bulk.

It tosses the phial into the maw under its fleshy beak. The gang hears the crunch of glass.

All but Abia are motionless in a moment of heavy expectation. She’s oh-so-slowly folding the paper rubbing she’d made.

The bird-thing hiccups. Cang’s eyes bulge, his weapons ready.

Then the bird-thing grows. Its fleshy bulk expands, its cells multiplying inconceivably. Soon it’s unable to support its weight, and it flaps its useless wings. It stares down with rage at our four heroes, who are desperately dragging the crates away.

It loses its balance and crashes backwards, taking with it the enormous bone palisades, and many of the rough-hewn buildings besides.

“We’ll never find buyers like this,” Cang says.

iii) “Oh, but friend, we’ve yet to negotiate the particulars”

“Oh, but friend, we’ve yet to negotiate the particulars,” Cang says. He strides toward the bird in a jocular manner and wraps the thing’s leg with his arm as one would an old, familiar friend.

It murmurs. “Gimme ’em.”

“No way,” Shyan says. “We’ll gladly sell them, sure.”

“Yeah no one gets the good shit for free,” Fassn says, gesturing at his wings. As an afterthought he adds, looking up, “Except for Old Ajralan, of course, may he have his fill.”

The bird grumbles, lumbers towards them. “I got lotsa moneys,” it says.

Shyan steps in front of the crates, sword and shield bared. “This is valuable stuff, mister. Abia, tell him.”

“Strong magic,” she says.

It approaches within a breath of Shyan. “Gimme a sample, then,” it says.

ii) The many-hued potions, tinctures, ethers, and suchlike

The many-hued potions, tinctures, ethers, and suchlike sparkle under the sun. Cang and Shyan crack the lids of each crate so the bird-thing can see.

“Hail stranger,” Fassn says, raising a hand. He flaps his wilted wings. “I too know the joys of the skies.”

The bird-thing waves him off. “The bottles, what’s in ’em?”

“Magical blends of spectacular potency,” Cang says. “Perhaps you and your compatriots are desirous of a closer look? You’ll find wares most exquisitely rare.”

Shyan gives him a look. Fassn tries to get aloft. Abianarin brings a rough sheet of paper from her satchel and makes a chalk rubbing of the bony palisade.

The bird-like thing above disappears. A moment later, the great gates heave and crash open.

“I guess this is our invitation,” Shyan says. She hammers the crates’ lids back into place and hefts them into the city.

Expansive avenues of dust and dry rock run at wild angles in all directions. Buildings of squat stone, each with only one or two crude windows, are piled atop one another. Many edges and corners are worn, crumbled, and decayed, and in some places, scored, as though in a great crash. Some of the rambling buildings are reinforced with long yellow bones.

The bird-thing stands before them, its lumpy grey flesh mostly concealed by a faded but opulent robe. It stands half again as tall as Fassn and Abia. “C’mon,” it says, in a lisping voice. “Gimme the juicies.”

i) The bony palisade

The bony palisade rises up to a cream-coloured sky. It’s tipped in spikes, such that giants might fear — they’re entirely too tall to threaten our dogged team.

Set into the palisade is a massive gate, held closed with a series of cogs and levers, criss-crossed with chains.

Shyan bangs on the gate with a gloved fist. A face appears at a tower rising up beyond the palisade. The tower, too, is made of bones — enormous vertebrae, they appear to be, stacked atop one another like a spinal column rising out of the earth.

The face is that of a bird-like creature, with two orange forward-facing eyes, and a fleshy beak protruding below. It emits a shrill squawk. “What’s in the crates?” it asks.

iv) The dry sound of cracking wood

The dry sound of cracking wood filled the chamber, as Abianarin’s humming grew in pitch and volume. Soon, before the wide eyes of her companions, the poles’ spiked points split into a Y shape, with grinding protestations from the ancient wood. When Abia let her humming fade, the spiked poles, once fit for a palisade, resembled small, flat platforms. Splinters were all that remained of the split points.

Dusting herself off, Abianarin gestured to the pit.

“Foul sorcery,” Fassn muttered.

“Let us see your Ajralan do this,” she said, with a smile of satisfaction.

“So we’re to crawl across on hands and knees?” Shyan asked.

“What is next is up to you,” Abia said.