iv) I grow weary

“I grow weary,” says the disembodied voice of the lich, Ulxurix. “Let’s end this.”

At her command the man-things spring into action. They move suddenly, with a fluid grace not at all suggested by their knobby forms. Their grasping fingers tear at the team’s clothes while Berstuun struggles, helpless. Shyan barrels down the corridor to a single door, still shut. With one arm she pushes aside the moaning creatures, with the other she holds fast to Fassn, who ambles along as best he can under the weight of his passenger.

Cang ducks into one of the opened doors, slipping past one of the creatures. He finds himself in a music room, ornate and dilapidated, the once-grand piano now a mouldering wreck. He leaps through a broken window onto a balcony and sprints along it.

The man-things wrap their desiccated limbs in Abia’s colourful robes, tangle her up in their grasp. Their moaning intensifies as they seem to realize they’ve got her. At the end of the hall, Shyan looks back, their eyes meet, full of panic. “Fassn, go,” she says, wading back into the fray.

iii) First, they ascend the stairs

First, they ascend the stairs. Berstuun has ceased struggling — in fact, he may well have dozed off already, bouncing gently over Fassn’s shoulder.

Shyan, fists clenched, hears scuffling behind the door, sees shadows moving the rectangle of light. She deliberately kicks the ground, a harsh, sudden sound that attracts the attention of whatever’s beyond. She signals silently to the rest to wait.

The door creaks open, away from the cellar. As soon as a vertical strip of light appears, Shyan pushes her whole body against the door, knocking two of the lich’s moaning man-things off their tenuous balance, and they careen to the floor.

Suddenly, as though from the wainscotting in the walls, or from behind the brocaded wallpaper, comes the steady voice of Ulxurix — now the lich. “Now, now, be careful with my poor, elderly father,” she chides.

The sound instantly alerts Berstuun, who flails helplessly. “I’m not your father,” he sniffles.

Two more doors in the corridor slam open, then another two, then another. From each emerges a loping man-thing.

Shyan turns to Cang. “Find us a way out, would you?”

ii) Worse than this?

“Worse than this? We’re locked up in a dungeon right now, Abia,” Shyan says. “I mean, I can imagine worse I guess, but I can imagine a hell of a lot better.”

Already Berstuun has stopped kicking at Fassn. He slumps, only his soft, slow breathing moving his body at all.

“Witch has magic circle,” Abia says. “Put Berstuun in.”

“Perhaps you had not noticed,” Cang begins. “The tattooed witch, that cackling hag in the lighthouse, she is herself the lich now. We cannot walk into its abode and ask to destroy its sire.”

Berstuun moans weakly.

“Relax, old man,” Fassn says. “You’re going to visit Old Ajralan.”

“Can we make our own magic circle?” Shyan asks.

“Yes,” Abia says. “Not here. Not well.”

Shyan rolls her eyes. “Of course not.” She sucks air through her teeth. “All right, Cang, you’re with me. Abia, take point behind Fassn while he carries our friend.” She peers up the crooked stairway to a tiny rectangle of flickering light. “Let’s go.”

i) Abia stays by Berstuun’s side

Abia stays by Berstuun’s side while her teammates recoil. “You called lich?” she says, but as a statement, not a question.

The old man whimpers, gripping Abia’s hand as though to keep from drifting off to sea. He’s racked with sobs.

“This good?” Shyan asks.

Abia shrugs. “Not for him.”

“All right lich-caller,” Fassn says, bending down. He hefts Berstuun’s light form up over his shoulder, the older man’s legs feedbly kicking at Fassn’s chest. “You’re coming along with Old Ajralan.”

“Whoa, Fassn, what are you doing?” Shyan says.

“Well he called the lich, didn’t he? We just throw him in a volcano and this is all over.”

At this Berstuun moans horribly and struggles pathetically.

“A volcano, very good,” says Cang. “I know just the place.”

“No volcanoes,” Shyan says firmly. Then, she adds to Abia, “Right?”

“No volcano,” Abia agrees. “This much worse.”

v) Tell us about deal

“Tell us about deal,” Abia says. She gently pats the back of the old man’s rough hand.

“Wet magic,” Berstuun gasps, his breathing coming more and more shallowly now. “Dark places. I deserve it.”

“Okay, as fascinating as this is,” Shyan says. She motions for the door.

“At last, someone speaks sense,” Cang replies.

“Ulxurix left me once,” the old man continues. “Magic circle… left me with it.”

Fassn’s face falls and he stops petting the man’s papery skin. “I think we know where this is going.”

Berstuun sobs. “She left me with the circle. I made a deal.”

“A deal that gave you purple fangs?” Shyan asks.

He begins nodding, doesn’t stop. “Fangs, magic, death. I’m to blame.”

Abia says gently, “No, not to blame.”

Berstuun meets her eyes for the first time. They’re red and overflowing with milky tears. “Yes,” he says. The dim purple light from his mouth is revolting. “I’m to blame. I called the lich.”

iv) “Blame me,” Bertuun rasps

“Blame me,” Bertuun rasps. His throat is dry as a barn before a conflagration. The purple glow of his teeth has faded down to barely a flicker.

“Tell us about girl,” Abia says.

Cang groans. “Let us leave!”

“Yeah, c’mon, old man,” says Fassn. “Tell us a love story.”

“I was young,” he replies. “So young.” His palsied hands move to his scalp, touch the few thin white hairs still clinging to it. “She lived in the castle.”

“Rich girl, eh?” Fassn says.

“I worked the fields. It could never be. Never be.” Berstuun’s face collapses in anguish. “Never be.”

As he writhes on the floor, Shyan takes a step back. “Abia, maybe we should be going.”

“Never be,” Abia agrees. “So what you do?”

“I made a deal,” he says, carrying the sounds until his voice rises to a pitchy whine. “I made a deal.”

iii) The old man, Berstuun, whimpers

The old man, Berstuun, whimpers, says again, “My fault, my fault.”

“Cang, relax,” Shyan says.

“The lich was in me, too,” Cang replies with a pout.

Fassn, meanwhile, crouches beside Abia and the man, brushes his fingertips along the rivulets of fossilized skin that make up the man’s hands. “So bumpy,” Fassn says.

“The blame is mine,” whispers the old man, insensate. His eyes grow milky. Abia shakes him, gently, speaks in her first tongue to soothe him. Her words seem to have some effect, as the old man stills, some of the spirit returns to his eyes.

“Tell us about fangs, Berstuun,” Abia says.

“I loved a girl in the village,” he says. His voice seems imbued with hope glimpsed across a scarred and smokey battlefield. “But I suffered,” he says, his face clouding. “I suffered, I suffered. Blame me.”

“We should leave him to this awful place,” Cang says. He’s pacing the cell.

“He might know something useful,” Shyan replies.

“Blame me, blame me.”