“Don’t you see it?” Lissie asks, with Serra stood next to them at the threshold of the valley leaving T'Eilt. The rest of the group are huddled behind them after their race through the city’s streets. After the smog-filled train station and town centre Roe is happy to see some greenery again, Elinor’s looking on the bright side of their current situation — at least there’s no reanimated whales or skeletons on horses — but Fi is fuming that they’re in yet another difficult spot. Serra, meanwhile, is sceptical about the whole situation but nonetheless has her problem-solving hat on. Still, it’s not clear exactly what their new orc buddy is gesturing at. Confused, they ask if anybody else sees it; Baxter, at least, seems to be sniffing something on the wind. Taking a few steps forward and gesturing them to join them and look closer, Lissie is relieved when the magic users can at last make out the giant dog sleeping between the two huts across the valley. Except Fi. Fi can’t see anything, and has no idea what everyone’s reacting to.
The creature is huge, with a split tail and jointed fingers and toes like a human, with a red clay mask covering its face and snout, its eyes visible. Elinor instinctively reaches into her bag and pulls out an Eldritch tome which, having been written a long time ago, can tell her only that this is Inu, an ancient dog deity of some kind, with a poorly-rendered illustration next to it. Inu sits up and looms over the group, noting in an upper-crust kind of voice that “They never could get my profile right.” Roe asks what’s going on, and Inu rolls his eyes in the direction of Lissie. “Didn’t you tell them anything, darling?” he asks. Lissie sighs, clearly irritated at this whole situation. “This is Inu,” they explain. “He sort of guards where I come from.” Their eyes dart back and forth conspiratorially. “I guess we’re safe to talk here.” They explain that the borders around T'Eilt have become increasingly restrictive, and passing through town is particularly difficult for their people. (“Are your people dogs?” asks Roe, to which Baxter barks in reply: “More dogs?!”). They regularly steal tickets by night to create copies and allow them to pass through T'Eilt unhindered — whether for business or pleasure — before returning them. The group’s intervention the previous night messed up the usual routine, but Lissie is now trying to atone for that. They also suggest that, since they’re magic users, they might be able to help them out further.
Before that though, they have to get past Inu. He’s a sort of de facto security system. Every day he switches which hut contains the entrance to Lissie’s home, which is good for keeping out undesirables, but kind of annoying. Roe pets Inu’s fur, which he appreciates, but which throws Baxter into a jealous rage of barking. Elinor asks if Inu is a sphinx, a creature from old mythology, and Inu suggests they were the inspiration for them. He lays out the terms under which they will tell the group which hut they want: tell him a story. Entertain him. Lissie shakes their head and pinches the bridge of their nose. Serra makes a decent fist of it first, showing off her party trick: putting her skull, on and transforming into a Samoyed, whose form she witnessed on the streets of Barent. Inu tries to hide how impressed he is, brushing it of as the sort of magic trick he saw all the time in the king’s court. He asks how she learned it, to which Serra can’t give a good answer, just that the skull helps. Inu reiterates that he’ after stories, not tricks, and Serra recounts a particularly juicy law case from her old life.
Impressed by this rollicking courtroom drama, Inu continues the conversation, intrigued. “Let’s get to know each other, it’s so rare I get new company,” he says. He asks what brought the group here. “Apart from my friend Lissie here,” he says, to which Lissie hisses at the group: “We’re not friends.” Roe greatly embellishes the story of the train robbery, adding some stuff about them being kidnapped and blindfolded by some bandits, and manages to get away with it. Inu then asks how long she’s been able to talk to Baxter, to which Roe stammers a denial. Inu then asks Baxter, who says (in barks) that it’s a recent development.
After needling the group to ask about him a little, Inu reveals that he used to roam the lands more freely, back when the continent was still under monarchistic rule. He was a member of the king’s exotic menagerie, many hundreds of years ago, on land that was tended to mainly by his gamekeeper — who rode a horse and was rarely seen without his royal armour. Fi, meanwhile, can neither see nor hear any of this, and has chosen simply to believe that the rest of the group have lost their minds. Elinor intuits she can’t see Inu, but decides not to tell her, given her propensity for blowing stuff up. Serra asks if Inu has any experience with twig people, still considering a place to plant more of Rowan’s seeds, and Inu recounts a story of the gamekeeper steering clear of some woods eastwards where he heard “voices coming from the trees.” Serra produces the seeds and asks if it’s okay to plant some in the woods behind Inu; he waves away any responsibility for anything except for the huts, and she scatters a couple between the trees.
Inu leans forward to Fi and Elinor, asking why they’ve been so quiet. He notes how strange Elinor’s eyes are, which Roe protests, but Elinor explains are linked to her magical abilities. Before he can question them further, she asks for further information about this gamekeeper he mentioned. Inu expands: he saw more of this man than he did the king, as the gamekeeper was responsible to tending to his entire land, patrolling up and down the continent, defending from attackers, hunting down threats and generally keeping things in good nick. He was fiercely devoted to the king, too. Serra asks if he’s seen him recently, to which he laughs. “Oh goodness no,” Inu says, “he must have died centuries ago.” Serra takes Elinor aside and asks if she’s thinking what she’s thinking: that this gamekeeper is the self-same headless, skeletal horseman who summoned the whale skeleton they fought in Barent’s abandoned observatory.
Before allowing the group access to the correct hut, Inu is tickled at Roe’s initial suggestion that they might have to solve a riddle to get in. Lissie groans loudly, like a teenager being embarrassed by a parent. So he poses one: “I have a tail, and I have a head, but i have no body. I am not a snake. What am I?” Immediately Roe guesses “coin?” Inu claps his hands and congratulates the group on clearly being an intelligent bunch, and tells them it’s the left hut. As the group heads that way, Fi asks if they’re finally moving, which is when Elinor finally expresses incredulity over her not seeing the giant dog deity. She then continues her speculation with Serra: “So the ghost we saw was this groundskeeper who was fiercely loyal to maintaining the kingdom?” To which Serra replies, “And he’s raising ghosts?” “So we’re not crazy, that’s good,” nods Fi. “Well, I’m not anyway,” she adds, still convinced everyone else has lost their marbles a bit and just had a long discussion with thin air.
“What are you all talking about?” Lissie asks from in front. “Oh, we saw a ghost who can summon other ghosts,” says Serra. Lissie notes this with some confusion, but is further convinced that the group may be of some help with something, given their experience with such strange situations. Leading the way into the hut, which is fairly cramped and sparse, Lissie crouches down to open a trapdoor in the floor, and asks cheerfully who wants to go first. Fi immediately leaps down without thinking, but Serra is a little more careful. Before clambering down she asks what’s down there. Fi briefly conjures a flame which reveals a long, narrow, winding spiral staircase made of stone leading down into darkness. They can’t quite make out how far it goes down, except it’s really long. Having confirmed it’s not some kind of bottomless pit, Serra joins Fi, followed by Elinor. Roe is more reticent. Whilst mostly suspicious of new-fangled technology, being from a rural town, she was entranced by an elevator seen during one of her cross-continent trips so far and asks why Lissie doesn’t have one of those. They apologise, but she heads down anyway, after popping her head out the hut to wave Inu goodbye; Baxter follows, again sulking from envy. Finally, Lissie joins them, and they wander down a little ways until Roe asks why Lissie isn’t leading the way. Everyone else agrees, and Serra steps aside, but they have trouble squeezing past on the narrow staircase.
As they attempt to do so, the sound of footsteps comes from below. Roe instinctively draws her short sword. Serra calls down “Hello?”, her voice echoing into the void. For a moment, the footsteps cease, before continuing at greater speed. Behind them, they hear the trapdoor slam shut, and the small amount of light it was providing is snuffed out. “Guess that’s why they call it a trapdoor,” Roe quips, and Serra pulls her skull on in preparation for combat. Elinor shoots a glare at Lissie, who shrugs innocently. Fi is increasingly pissed about their bad luck. Two orcs, their faces masked not unlike the group on the train, rush them from the front, whilst a third comes from behind at Roe. The third jabs a spear at Roe, but misses as Baxter drags her out the way, and she responds by stabbing with her sword, the orc collapsing in a bloody heap. Roe immediately goes numb from shock, having never done such damage to a flesh-and-blood creature before. Since the group were advancing down the stairs in single file, Fi has to deal first with the orc in front of them, failing to summon a burning brand and instead clocking one square in the jaw. In return, he brings down the axe he was wielding above his head leaving him wide open for that punch, and it cuts through Fi’s armour into her shoulder.
In the middle of the group, Elinor casts a curse on the second orc coming up the stairs, causing him to get into a panic. “What’s going on?” he splutters. “What are we doing here? Is Innogen okay?!” he asks, flailing his axe wildly. Behind her, Serra dramatically steps off the steps and falls into the darkness. She then swoops back up, having transformed into a duck, and flies at the frightened orc. In his panicked frenzy he smacks her upside the head with the butt of his axe, knocking her out of the air and falling straight down to the bottom of the staircase. Lissie demands to know what’s going on; the first orc pulls down his mask, revealing that he’s the thief from the train. He immediately lays down arms, but his crazed pal barrels straight towards Fi. She manages to dodge his charge, and the other orc pins him against the wall, apologising. He introduces himself as Aidan, recognising the group from the train, and tells them the crazed orc is called Cassidy (thanking Elinor when she lifts her curse with a flourish), and the one Roe mortally wounded is called Innogen. “What are you doing here, Lysandre?” he asks. “We had no record of anybody going in or out this morning.” “Yeah this was, erm, off the books,” they explain sheepishly. He calls up to Innogen, who is out cold. Lissie checks her pulse, confirms she’s alive, but both she and Roe are covered in blood. They sling Innogen over their shoulder and the group begin hurrying down the stairs, hoping to help her before it’s too late.
Roe is otherwise silently freaking out, but finds the strength to insist they don’t let Elinor help, given her past experience with her healing potions. The witch protests: “I won’t charge you!” Roe expands on her long-held grudge, yelling “You turned me into a duck once! I mean, I got better…” Elinor is completely wrong-footed by this, having previously believed Roe was just one of a long string of people she ripped off back in the bad old days. Elinor insists such a thing would be way above her skill level; it transpires that when bed-ridden with the flu, Roe had a very convincing fever dream where she turned into a duck, and thinks it really happened, but nobody knows otherwise right now. With Innogen’s life on the line, they carry on walking down. At the front, Aidan and Cassidy discuss something under their breath; Elinor tries to come up with a recipe for a healing potion; Roe expresses concern over Fi’s injury, but she shrugs it off, downing a healing potion; Roe and Elinor continue to bicker about ducks before reaching the bottom, where a dizzy and still fowl-looking Serra is picked up by the former and cradled as Aidan bids them to walk through an entryway that presumably leads out of the stairwell.