iii) Eyeing the flames dancing

Eyeing the flames dancing in their confinement, Abia says, “No.”

“Aw,” says the wizard, a smile on her lips. “What’s to be so afraid of, Abianarin?”

Abia starts at the usage of her full name by a stranger. The wizard shrugs, waves away her concerns. “Touch of the second sight,” she says. “Thought I might smell the same in you.”

“Smell?” Abia asks.

“Bit hard to catch it under all that molten gold, but yes, I do believe it.” Ulxurix goes to a tottering bookshelf loaded with nearly a dozen bound tomes of gilded leather, and withdraws a volume from the set. Abia watches warily, but accepts the book when Ulxurix presses it into her hands.

“Give this a read, and a re-read. It’s got a lot of tough words in there but I’m sure you’ll work it out,” says Ulxurix. She laughs to herself, about what, Abia cannot discern. For a moment, Abia considers dropping the book into the box of fire, but resists the desire. The voices of her friends arguing float up from below, returning her to the present.

“How much?” Abia asks.

“Oh,” Ulxurix says, grinning. “We’ll get there.”

ii) Shyan and Cang continue to argue

Shyan and Cang continue to argue over who’s going to carry the bar, while Fassn has opened a bag of Cang’s mylar and is gumming it contentedly. His tooth nubs are coming in stronger, now, and with care he’s able to break apart the crunchy orange snacks. Abia, meanwhile, ascends the brass staircase, and adds her own shadow to those flickering above.

“Fine,” Shyan says, exhausted. “Just keep it in your huge bloody bag, then. We’ll find a blacksmith and have him break this thing into four pieces, and then we need argue no more.”

“Gladly,” Cang says, his smirk oily. He slips the gold bar into his knapsack, then snatches the remaining mylar from Fassn and secretes it away.

Upstairs, Abia finds Ulxurix amidst a wide array of machines and devices, built of brass gears and copper cogs, with straps of treated leather connecting them. At the centre of the room, a healthy fire burns within the confines of a strange, invisible box. Ulxurix is hunched over it, feeding the flames with odiferous herbs which send up a deep smoke when incinerated.

The wizard turns at Abia’s approach. “Ah, wise one. Long way from Hakahersef, this!” Abia falters at the mention of her homeland, which she’s not seen in a decade. “Oh, no need for worryin’, wise one. You’ve got the mark,” the wizard says. “The box of fire,” she continues, feeding more herbs to the flames. “Want to climb inside?”

i) Shyan feels the smooth, heavy weight

Shyan feels the smooth, heavy weight in her hands of the gold bar. It’s dense, solid, far more real to her than the cookpot that once contained it, which now lay on its side, forgotten and empty. She holds the bar close and sniffs it. Vaguely metallic — gold, she supposes.

Cang reaches up to take the bar. “Plenty of room in my knapsack. Luckily I did not abandon it during our mad dash.” When Shyan turns away from him, he opens his bag, gestures for her to place the gold inside. Fassn instead dives in like a puppy, then a moment later exclaims, “There’s more mylar in here.” Cang shushes him.

Abia, meanwhile, watches the wizard closely. Her tattoos seem to move and shift, slightly, whenever the eye glosses over but does not land upon her form. She wears loose, roughspun clothes, and a flat-topped hat over her straw hair, gathered in a bun. The wizard smiles at her.

“Friends, why not come up the lighthouse?” the wizard asks. “I am Ulxurix, magician, ally to all!” Again, she beams at Abianarin. “I know much that can be taught!” She gestures to Shyan and Cang, bickering over the gold bar. “And wouldn’t you like to see the fabulous machinery that enabled such a feat?” She heads up the stairs, calling back as she goes, “Follow me, and be amazed!”

v) A haze comes over the group

A haze comes over the group as they wind up the stairs. Abia’s first to feel it, a swirling emptiness in her head. It starts behind the eyes and tunnels through the deep brain, down her spinal column. An endless second or two later, the feeling retreats, and she’s fully aware. She looks ’round at her companions and finds they too seem to be fighting the sensation.

“Oh, dearies,” comes the sprightly woman’s voice from above. “So sorry, so sorry,” she says. “You poor things.” Abia’s vision clears enough to see the woman retreat anew to the top of the lighthouse. With a great mechanical clank, and a peculiar photonic flash, the cloying haziness is suddenly dispersed.

The wizard appears before them. “A little trick from back when I was a girl. Soup into gold, such a long process. I just sped it along.” With some effort, she presents in her palms a flawless gold brick. It glows gently in the dim light.

Cang salivates and absently fingers the tiny emerald sewn into his vest’s lining. Fassn leans in to lick the bar, rub his new tooth nubs along its frictionless form. Shyan throws out an arm to stop him and guides the gang a step back, while Abia traces the wizard’s tattoos with her eyes.

Shyan gestures at the gold brick doubtfully. “All that soup for one little bar?”

iv) A short, sprightly woman appears

A short, sprightly woman appears on the stairs, her hair caught up in a loose bun. She wears a peasant’s homespun robes, and sports distinctive tattoos across most of her visible flesh. A deep indigo colour, they sprout and swirl like ivy. Only some pale skin around her eyes is unmolested.

“What?” she calls again. “I’ve no wish to be interrupted!”

“We are but humble acolytes of the great mage Jashenzizok,” Cang intones, ending with a bow and flourish.

“No we’re not,” Fassn says. He looks at Cang as though he just leapt down from the big moon.

Shyan gives him a swat on the shoulder, to pay attention. “Verily,” she says shakily, sweeping the room with her arm. “And, lo, we bring, well, soup.”

“Soup?” cries the wizard. “From Mr. Jashenzizok?” Her gaze wanders across the scruffy band in her foyer, then snaps to Abianarin. “Sure it wasn’t from this one, then? Seems she’s got a spot o’ the old magic, eh?”

Abia shifts her feet, but glares back.

“The esteemed Mr. Jashenzizok said you could help us turn this soup into gold,” Shyan says.

“It used to be mushrooms,” says Fassn, wistfully. He smacks his gums.

The wizard perks up. “Used to be mushrooms, eh? That’s easy, then! Come, come,” she says, her wheezing voice already retreating to the top of the lighthouse.

iii) The door cracks and gives

The door cracks and gives. Shards of wood tumble to the ground as Abia steps back, her molecules re-aligning.

A small gaggle of townsfolk watch from the bottom of the outcrop. When Abia turns in their direction, they scatter.

Within, the lighthouse is dank and musty. Despite the early hour, the circular chamber is ill-lit, with ragged curtains covering windows no bigger than slits.

“Hello?” Shyan calls. “Wizard?”

Silence. She takes a tentative step inside, peers up the spiralling staircase. Firelight reflects from somewhere above.

Shyan helps her companions lift the cookpot, which is almost entirely absent any residual heat. The surface is still and gummy. They each start to shout, their voices overlapping, cacophonous din bouncing around the cylindrical lighthouse.

From above, a clang. Then, a reedy voice, dripping with disdain, screeches, “What!?”

ii) The lighthouse rises up

The lighthouse rises up from the sea’s edge on a rocky outcrop, pounded by waves. A goat path winds around it, circling its way to the spire above. Struggling with the cookpot, the team sees a faint light from the top of the lighthouse, as though from a cookfire. Splashing liquid gold, they hurry up the path. A few children, awake with the dawn, follow far behind, grabbing up tiny splotches of wet amber, which melts into mud in their hands.

Exhausted, their breathing ragged, the gang reaches the base of the lighthouse. It stretches into the sky above them, impossibly high. Their muscles go weak at the thought of lugging their iron cookpot to the lighthouse’s summit, even though, with all the spillage, it’s lighter than ever.

Abia knocks upon the lighthouse’s wooden door, waits a beat for no response. She tries the handle; it’s locked. She looks to Cang, offers him a “go ahead” gesture, but he shakes his head, holds up a trembling hand. “Doubt I possess the capacity, at present,” he says.

Abia nods and channels the cells of her body to shift. She gently rests her fingertips against the door, feels its saltwater-pocked grain, delves deep in her mind to the molecules it’s made up of, aligns her own polarity to its.

A wracking, screeching noise drifts forth from the door as splinters appear along its length. Jagged chunks of wood strip and peel, rent away by the force of Abia’s touch. Her glowing eyes are closed.

Fassn grabs a piece to use as a toothpick before realizing his teeth are all gone. He feels at the hard nubs of bone crowning through his tender gums, and sighs.