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.

ii) Alas, there’s nothing in the spire’s crest

Alas, there’s nothing in the spire’s crest suggesting massive, liquid value, though Cang does indeed take a moment or two to check. Plenty of shed snake skin abounds, though, which he briefly considers grabbing, in case some eccentric buyer with pickled appendages on the walls might have interest in buying.

The chaos and clashing noise below brings him back to the present, though, and he returns to his work. He uses a length of rope as wide as he is, and ties a four-step Eckman knot atop the spire, just above the crest. He tests its strength with a firm tug, as from below, Fassn yelps.

Satisfied with his knot, Cang uses the rope to swing through the air, his heart racing, and alights at the canopy of a nearby tree. He lets a few dozen feet of the rope dangle loose to the ground, then ties another Eckman to the tree. It has nowhere near the tensile strength of the spire itself but Cang decides that it’ll have to do.

He calls down to his companions. “Rope’s up.”

i) Shyan parries the serpent’s great bulk

Shyan parries the serpent’s great bulk, her shield catching the tip of a yellowed fang. The reptile’s force knocks her to the ground. She lets out a grunt and regains her feet.

The snake is already reoriented, shuttling its massive bulk towards Fassn. He’s flapping his useless wings with all the force he can muster, though his eyes are cloudy. He spits a handful of teeth into his hand and throws them at the ugobok. “Mean little mouses,” it says.

Abia steps behind the spire in one careful movement. Her mouth mumurs an incantation as her hands dance the steps to make the magic happen. Cang, meanwhile, crouches nearby, observing the fight.

The ugobok strikes at Fassn but Shyan is ready, again deflecting the enormous, flared head. The snake’s mass is such that she can barely keep her footing in the loose soil. “All this for a tear duct?” she shouts.

“All this for gold!” Cang says. He wraps his limbs around the spire and begins to shimmy up.

v) “Share?” the ugobok hisses

“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.

iv) The ugobok

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.

iii) The spire is burnished steel

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.”

ii) Three days later and they’re still on the road

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.