Two days later…the group have been traveling on the Great Interstate Railroad, headed for warmer climes, holed up in a single compartment shared between the four of them (and Baxter (and Elinor's cauldron)) and are starting to go a little stir crazy. Whilst they’ve managed to keep their magical abilities under wraps, for fear of spooking the other passengers, Roe has discovered she can understand her animal pal and is quietly freaking out about it. Serra, meanwhile, is exhausted because Baxter — who is “disguised” as a gnoll, since the train doesn’t allow pets — keeps whispering mean things to her through the night.
On the third evening they are awoken in the middle of the night by a rapping at their door. Elinor, on the bottom bunk and particularly sensitive to being “caught”, cracks the sliding partition just a little to find a well-dressed orc with a waistcoat, slicked-back hair and sleeves rolled up to reveal some sweet ink. He claims to be doing a ticket check, since the train just crossed a border into a new polity. Elinor is dubious, since his uniform doesn’t match that worn by the rest of the train crew they’d met so far, but everyone nonetheless hands over their tickets, hoping they can get it over with quickly and go back to sleep. There hopes are dashed when the orc mutters something about “double-checking with his boss” and quickly slams the door shut; immediately leaping from her bunk, Roe (in her jammies) follows in hot pursuit with Baxter, who follows the trail of the orc’s fragrant pomade up the corridor to the door between train cars, where it goes cold.
Fi joins her in the empty hallway, noticing there is a ladder next to the door into the next carriage. Elinor watches from the doorway of their compartment along with Serra, who is wearing a nightcap (very important) and asking Baxter — at a super high-frequency only he can hear — what’s going on. The dog shrugs, or at least the closest approximation to a dog shrug. Fi decides to impulsively climb the ladder and see if that’s where the orc headed, but the rungs have become slippery as they left the wintry frosts of Barent, the snow thawed. She stops short of falling in the space between the train cars, but Roe — unconcerned — has succeeded in scaling the ladder, poking her head over the top of the next carriage. She sees the orc, two cars along, sprinting at a fair pace before climbing down through a hatch. He has a whole stack of tickets under his arm, one of which slips from his grasp and smacks Roe square in the head. She pockets it and clambers back down.
Having communicated this information to the rest of the party, the slightly dozy Serra realises this orc is not an official ticket inspector, transforms into a cat and slinks through the next carriage — figuring that she wouldn’t want to wake the others passengers, for propriety’s sake. After she’s scratched at the doorway and had Fi open it, the rest of the group tip-toe quickly behind her, through a carriage where everyone is asleep but in regular seating instead of compartments (the cheap seats!), and find the door to the following car — which Roe saw the orc descend into — locked. Again Roe tries to scale the ladder next to the door, but it’s old and fragile, the rungs snapping as she tries to find purchase on them.
Instead, she lifts Serra up and has her peer through the darkened window into the car with her cat-vision. It’s the luggage car! She can make out the orc stuffing his handful of tickets into a sack which, presumably, contains even more stolen papers, although he is no longer actively fleeing. Instead, he is pacing around nervously, eyes darting back and forth. She surmises he is about to make his escape, albeit not through the next door, which leads to the front of the train and is firmly secured. Serra suggests Fi simply blow the door to the luggage car open and tackle the thief, to which Roe backs off — ready for the plan to go ahead — whilst Elinor seems more skeptical. From nearby, they hear a horn sound, but are unable to make out its provenance.
Summoning a burning brand in the form of a fireball wielded in her palm, Fi smashes a huge hole through the doorway, which obviously gets the attention of the orc, who looks terrified. Serra leaps through and transforms into a human in mid-air, hoping to bodyslam the thief to the ground, but gets the angle wrong and instead clatters to a heap at his feet. Baxter follows her in, and the horn sounds again, much closer this time, to which the orc stops looking concerned and instead grins. Outside the luggage car, Roe realises the horn must be coming from some other form of transportation — his getaway vehicle? — and a gust of wind from in the other direction tips Elinor off to what it is: another train, coming the opposite way on the tracks parallel to their own. At that, the witch puts together the orc’s scheme — steal a bunch of tickets and run — and realises it makes no sense she can see, yelling as such through to the next car. The thief looks a little hurt to have his plan-making mocked so, but only for a moment, as he slides open the side of the carriage, box car-style. The train opposite is keeping speed with them, the adjacent carriage also slid open to reveal a bunch more orcs, albeit with their faces covered. One gestures for the thief to leap across and, after a moment’s hesitation and Serra’s failed attempt to grab his ankle, he does. The druid plumps for making an “I’m watching you” gesture with her two fingers pointing at her eyes and then him, but he can’t see her glare behind the skull she’s wearing.
The door on the other train shuts and it begins to peel away. Fi has pushed past Baxter and Serra and attempts to fling her burning brand through into the next car on the other train, but doesn’t quite time it right and suffers burns from the blowback of sparks and embers as a hole is scorched into the carriage opposite, her nightclothes catching alight far easier than her usual adventuring gear would. Elinor storms in and slaps her round the back of the head, scolding her, “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT, IT’S ONLY TICKETS!” At that, everyone decides the chase is over, the other train disappearing off into the night. Cutting their losses, they close the carriage side-door and trudge back to their compartment for the night.
Back in the seated carriage a family of lizardfolk have been awoken by the noise and the heat from behind them. Agitated but also only half-awake, one of them asks what all the commotion was; Roe holds up Serra, back in cat form, and claims they were tracking down an escaped pet. Unfortunately, when Serra tries to conceal the skull she is wearing over her feline head, she fumbles her magic — still in a daze from stacking it at the orc’s feet — and begins to change back into a human. Roe quickly swings her back behind her and flees from the car, again followed by Baxter. Fi and Elinor are left to deal with the questions of a lizard who is suspicious about the cat story. The witch manages to palm them off with a version of the truth where an orc stole a load of tickets but was also responsible for the whole burned in the luggage car; placated, the last lizard awake curls up in her seat for warmth and tries to go back to sleep. Elinor can’t believe it worked, but doesn’t look that gift lizard in the mouth and returns to the group’s compartment with Fi. Serra has already fallen asleep, face down on her bottom bunk, and Fi climbs up top to do the same, licking her wounds (not literally, ew).
Elinor and Roe, meanwhile, decide it’s probably a good idea — based on the lizard woman’s suggestion — to go inform the guards about what’s happened. Heading in the opposite direction through more sleeper cars and the dining carriage they find the back car, with a single compartment. On the window there is a sheet of parchment daubed with the sign “DO NOT WAKE BEFORE 6AM.” Elinor worries that it’s too early, although she hasn’t adjusted her pocket watch to the local timezone and can’t know for sure, but Roe waves off her protestations that dawn has yet to break. “We’re being good citizens!” she insists. “We’re reporting a theft!”
Knocking on the door despite the sign, the pair are greeted by Rurron, a sleepy-looking tiger woman, who paws at her eyes and asks, annoyed, “Did you see the sign?” They explain what happened — with Elinor’s addition that the orc was responsible for tearing up the luggage car door — and Roe worries about them being thrown off the train without their tickets. Rurron confirms that they did indeed cross a border, but it’s not usual protocol to wake people in the night to do a ticket check. She reassures them that, in the morning, she can go through and check everyone off on the manifest she has on a clipboard by the door (Roe, lacking a traditional surname, has hers listed as “Baxter”). Rurron levels with them: she’s still a little tipsy, and really wants to just go to sleep, but promises everything will be fine in the morning. Suitably convinced, Elinor and Roe return to their compartment; the former reiterating that she doesn’t know why this whole escapade was their problem anyway, and the latter telling a half-awake Serra that everything is fine.
Early the next morning Antonio, a magnificent white tiger person with a moustache and the correct train uniform, raps twice on their compartment door and then lets himself in, giving a prim and proper “Good morning!” to rouse the group. Rurron shuffles in behind him, sheepishly, also in uniform. Antonio asks them to repeat the story delivered to his colleague, which he challenges at the point about the luggage car door: he has carried out a full inspection on his rounds and seen no such damage. He’s also not sure why they all acquiesced to giving their tickets to somebody clearly not wearing the correct uniform. Confused, the group are put on the back foot as he asks for identification in lieu of their tickets, suspecting them of being illegal stowaways. Lacking any official papers, Elinor hands over a flier for her old medicine shows, Serra shows a locket with her photo and name and hair in (which would have been given to her betrothed if she had remained in her High Society upbringing), whilst Roe waves the ticket that hit her in the face triumphantly. Baxter, whom Antonio still believes to be a gnoll despite him licking his feet and sniffing his leg, responds to Roe talking to him and she panics. Having seen enough, the ticket inspector affirms that they are to remain in their compartment until they reach the next station, where the situation will be handed over to the proper authorities.
Antonio leaves but Rurron stays a moment after, apologising profusely for misleading the group; she had just wanted to go to sleep, but she believes them, and finds the situation as strange as they do. She leaves when a porter brings them breakfast on a trolley, squeezing past him and closing the door, apologising again. “Compliments of the chef,” says the porter, gesturing to the silver tray on his trolley; the group are immediately suspicious, since they a) didn’t order breakfast b) are sure prisoners don’t get room service c) can’t smell any food beneath the tray cover and d) the porter is an orc.
He keeps insisting, Elinor resisting, Serra quietly suggesting he leave from her bed whilst menacingly drawing the skull out from beneath the pillow she keeps it under. Frustrated, the orc porter — who Elinor identifies as being different from the thief — keeps insisting they enjoy the breakfast, before giving up and lifting the lid of the tray himself. Underneath is a stack of papers and a quill. “They might be listening,” he says, shushing the group. “Let me explain…”