“Share?” the ugobok hisses. “What means this word, little mouses?” It reaches the spire’s base and rises up, its fleshy belly pressing into the dry grass, its flared head and fangs a sword’s reach above Shyan.
With a careful, fluid motion, she readies her shield.
“Altruism is the oil of the world, my friend,” Cang says, taking a half-step behind his armoured companion. “It’s a magical force wherein we all get what we want.”
“Little mouses wants warm homes,” the ugobok says. Its yellow, reptilian eyes hold no hint of malice — its intentions alien and unknowable for the mammals among us.
“Yes,” Shyan says. “That’s it, exactly.”
“But we can’t afford it,” Fassn says. Another tooth comes loose. He points to it. “See?”
“Poor little mouses,” the serpent replies. “So cold, so alone, little mouses. Ugobok give you safe, warm homes, little mouses.”
The gang falls back a pace as the great snake’s bearing rises. It unhinges its jaw, distorting its speech.
“Always be safe, little mouses,” it says, and strikes.
The ugobok, a great serpent with a flaring ridge along its head, slithers down the spire. Its green eyes flash, and the clearing soon smells of sour milk. The gang’s neck hairs prick and rise.
“Four little mouses creeping to the spire,” the ugobok rasps, with a drawn-out, sibillant quality. A tongue slips out between two curved yellow fang, tastes the air an instant, darts back in. “Four little mouses, yes.” Its serpentine face seems almost to contort to suggest a humanoid smile. “Come on up to the spire, creeping mouses.”
“No thank you,” Shyan says. “We’re not here for a social call.”
“We need your eyes,” Fassn cries. His words are rounded and soft at the edges. A tooth comes loose is lost.
“Well, just the tear duct of one, at least,” Shyan says.
“Is that perchance something you could share?” Cang asks.
The spire is burnished steel. Cang raps his knuckle against it, sending low, rumbling tremors up its length. The flag at its peak is a deep crimson, rippling on the breeze like the wine-dark sea.
“Don’t do that,” Fassn says. “You’ll wake it up.”
“How do you know it’s sleeping?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Fassn says, pretending sheepishness. “Maybe by the fact that it hasn’t come down here to eat us all up, yet.”
“No one’s eating anyone,” Shyan says.
“Easy for you to say, Ms. Armour.” Fassn works his ruined winglets, ruefully. “Snakes go for us birds first, you know?”
“You’re not a bird, Fassn.”
Just then, rustling bushes. Dry reeds shake, and the scent of sweet meat rises.
Abia pivots on her toes, points at the reeds. “There,” she says, dread filling her voice. “Ugobok.”
Three days later and they’re still on the road. On one hand, it’s nice to have left the wagon of crates behind — on the other, both hands are empty. Vague promises of transmuted mushroom gold leave little impression on an empty belly.
Fassn’s wings have entirely degenerated by this point, leaving only spindly protrusions from his shoulder blades, sagging and sickly. A few of his teeth have fallen out. He’s saving them in a grimy velvet pouch.
Shyan hasn’t said a word since camp the previous night. There’s precious little to discuss. After months on the road the gang is still penniless. She steals a glance at Cang, who seems composed, but she worries his latent avarice may come bubbling to the surface.
Abia conversed with Larry the horse, briefly, before their departure. Larry was concerned about the ugobok, having lost a brother to it once. A great scaly hide it has, Larry claimed. Abia smiled and thanked him for his time, and said a horsey prayer for Larry’s brother.
As evening falls on the fourth day of travel, the group comes to a spire emerging from the rocky terrain. At its height, it flies the flag of the ugobok.
Shyan grits her teeth. A vein pulses in her forehead. She tightens her grip on the pommel of her weapon. Mr. Jashenzizok stares her down.
Cang clears his throat. “Shyan, we must not abandon our purpose. There was nothing in the dome. The Jiko were penniless. We have to get paid.”
“This whole expedition,” Shyan says, lowering her blade as though fighting with herself, struggling to release her pent-up rage. “Has been a disaster.” She wheels on Burbaloo. “You stole from us. We had at least a dozen silver marks between us. Empty your pockets.”
Burbaloo, face sweating, throws her hands up in submission. She glances at Mr. Jashenzizok, who wears a patient, unthreatened expression. He nods. Burbaloo slowly withdraws a handful of coins from her robes and lets them fall to the ground. Cang darts in to scoop them up.
“Abia, I don’t feel so good,” Fassn says. “Look at this.” He holds up a grimy palm, with a mottled yellow tooth at its centre. “I think it was the mushroom man.” He sniffs at the tooth, then swallows it whole, as one would a medicine capsule.
Shyan sighs, slides her weapon into is scabbard. “Okay, mushroom man,” she says. “Where’s the ugobok?”