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"Get back to me, Sergeant," Druz said, flicking the rifle's chamber shut. Ziya, setting her jaw, stalked to his side and waited, daggers poised.

"I never did tell you the rest of the story," Lorewalker Shuchun said.

"With all respect, Lorewalker," Druz said as he fired another shot. Two warriors fell. Another three rose. "Does this look like the time?"

Shuchun shrugged and went to sit on a nearby dune. Humming, she reached into her pack, selected an apple, took an enthusiastic bite, and watched the fight with interest. A single warrior lurched in her direction, snarling, and she displayed her mostly empty paws. It froze and crumpled into the sand. No more of the creatures troubled her.

Eventually she dropped the apple core and frowned.

"Something's wrong," she called.

"Oh, do you think so?" Ziya's daggers punched sand in quick succession. "Fall down, you ugly lakratz! Fall down!"

Shuchun scratched her cheek, puzzled, then snapped her fingers.

"That's right," she said with satisfaction. "In the story, the desert warriors had weapons."

"What? Druz! Down!" Ziya shouted. A warrior's heavy iron hummed through the air and crunched into the sand.

"That's more like it," Shuchun said. Now all of the warriors had an exciting variety of swords, maces, and polearms. She settled her chin into her paws and watched.

"Did you do that?!" Druz roared at her between gunshots.

"No," Shuchun said. "The story did."

"And you! And you!"

"That's probably fair," Shuchun said. "But I could have mentioned that their weapons were also on fire—"

FWOOSH!

"Aah!"

"All right, that was careless," Shuchun admitted, firelight glowing orange on the fur of her upraised palms. "I'll keep quiet. Carry on."

Minutes passed, punctuated by grunts, growls, and daring acrobatics. Finally, Shuchun rose and walked down the dune and into the battle.

"Each grain of sand became a fierce warrior intent on Di Chen's death," she repeated, absently pushing aside the soldiers. They paused, confused, as if they couldn't see her. "The battle would end only when Di Chen admitted that there were some challenges too difficult even for him."

She reached the center of the hundreds of soldiers. Druz and Ziya stood back to back, utterly surrounded. Flaming weapons blotted out the sky.

"Are you saying," Ziya panted, "that we have to surrender?"

"That's one option," Shuchun said.

"Good enough for me," Druz said, and he dropped his weapon. Ziya hastily did the same.

Wind howled down from above, rich with the desert witch's laughter, and carried the soldiers away grain by grain. The goblins watched them go.

"You could have said," Ziya growled.

"She tried to tell the rest of the story," Druz said, grinning and bending to pick up his gun. "We wanted to fight…"

He paused and shot Shuchun a suspicious look. "Hold on. Before all this, we were talking about having to go on fighting. We ended up in an impossible battle."

Ziya's jaw dropped. "We were talking about monsters and how there's no way back, and we ended up being followed by a monster in a maze!"

"Lorewalker," Druz said in a tight voice. "When we argue, are we makin' traps?"

"Of course," said Shuchun, her face a mask. "I thought you knew."

"How would we know?"

"When my people are embroiled in a divisive argument, they call for a Lorewalker," Shuchun said. "I'll listen to both sides and then tell a story that challenges their opinions. That's not what you were doing?"

"No!"

"Oh," Shuchun said.

"We could have died!"

"Never," the Lorewalker said. "After all, Di Chen wasn't even scratched. In the story."

"What happened to him, anyway?" Ziya said. "Did he surrender too?"

The wind rose again, and the high circle of the sun expanded over them, a spreading blanket of white light. Shuchun shook her head and pointed at a figure atop a faraway dune. As they watched, it swung a weary fist, blasting a warrior into dust.

"He battles on to this day," she said. "There are always reasons to fight. The trick is knowing when to stop."

***

The goblins stood quietly, shoulder to shoulder, at the center of a small white room.

"What's happenin'?" Druz said out of the corner of his mouth.

"The lorevault is waiting for you to speak so it can create the final challenge," Shuchun said, leaning back against the wall.

Druz nodded.

"That's what I thought," he said, then fell silent again. Time passed.

Eventually, Shuchun took pity.

The Blank Scroll

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