Through the haze of glamour, Abianarin sees the lich. Beneath the protection of a human guise is a twisted, pale thing, tall, narrow, with the stench of death upon it. Violet fire glows in its eyes. Its sharp teeth are a degraded yellow, and Abia notices one fang is entirely absent from the top row of teeth. Then, she slips under.
The lich grins and orders Horton to gather the bodies, prone and yielding. As the blacksmith struggles with the gang’s weight, the lich spots Fassn’s new dental work.
“Ulxurix, the lighthouse witch,” he says aloud, filling the blacksmith with fear.
“I don’t like her, sir,” he says.
“Nor I, Horton,” says the lich. He perks up. “And what’s this?”
Drawn by the heat, the lich crosses the room to Abia, and finds her clutching Ulxurix’s book, residual heat fading still.
The lich smiles.
The man at the door is dressed in clothes of finest cut. Brocaded lapels, silver cufflinks, and supple, thigh-high riding boots complete his look. His face is narrow and hard, pinched in a permanent scowl. Behind him quivers Horton Belwether, the blacksmith.
Pointing with a quaking hand, Horton says, “That’s them, they’s the ones.”
“I would thank you not to handle my property,” says the lich, his voice a pleasant baritone edged with cruelty.
Shyan swallows hard and meets the man’s empty eyes. There is something decidedly inhuman about them. She keeps her voice from cracking and says, “Finders keepers?”
A malicious smile plays upon the man’s lips. “Oh, to have found, and kept, when I was but a boy,” he muses. To his fearful companion, he says, “Close your eyes, Horton.”
An instant later, the lich claps his hands, and from them a sonic boom pulses forth, stunning the gang, leaving them locked in an eternal moment while the lich laughs.
Fassn’s eyes light up. “I’m havin’ that,” he says, reaching for the fang.
Shyan bats his hand away. “You’ll just touch anything, won’t you?”
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” Fassn says. “I was going to taste it.”
“Lich fang,” Abia says, her eyes locked on the violet object. “Very old.”
“Worth anything?” Cang asks.
“To lich,” she replies.
“First you’d have to find a buyer,” Shyan says. “Wonder what the blacksmith was doing with this thing.”
“Maybe he’s a lich,” says Fassn.
She shrugs. “Nice of Ulxurix to give you that book. She must have known what we’d find.”
“Perhaps it is her that is the lich,” Cang says.
“No,” says a voice from the doorway, its tones rich and sophisticated, languid and deep. “I am.”
The lock hangs, inert, as the colour fades from the runes. Abia breathes heavily, spent. She sits cross-legged on the floor and lets the book fall closed in her lap.
“Will you demonstrate for me how to do this?” Cang asks.
Shyan prods at the lock with the end of her spear. With dextrous movements, she knocks the strange-coloured metal aside and it thunks to the floor. “Thank you, Abia,” she says.
“Well, what’s in it, what’s in it?” Fassn asks. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, clacking his teeth together.
“Keep quiet,” Shyan murmurs, her attention on the lockbox. She uses the spear to trip the box’s latch and presses the lid open.
Within, a fang glows with an unearthly purple light.
The runes’ language is choppy and consonant-heavy. Abia strains with the pressure of slowly decoding the ancient glyphs and replicating their phonemes with her lips.
The smithy seems to darken at the edges as the words are intoned. Each member of the gang feels shadows closing in at their peripherals, hears the crackling of reality’s fabric — all save Abia, whose task takes all her focus.
She holds aloft the book, now searing with heat, in one hand, and with the other, she cuts magical paths in the air. Each chopping movement punctuates her rhythmic chanting, and causes the creeping darkness to expand.
Abia comes to a crescendo, rides the energies at its crest, then promptly shuts the book. The smithy whooshes back to normal, and her companions look around uneasily to find the gloom just outside their perception — but it is gone. Abia inspects her hand, and finds thin, swirling lines reaching down the fingers and palm where she held the book. Her stomach turns when she realizes they’re just like those of Ulxurix.
Just then, the runed lock pops open.
The book in Abia’s bag grows hotter. She withdraws it from the canvas, and the warmth feels pleasant in her hand, for the most part; still, there is some part of herself, deep within, that speaks up against the book — warns her to be rid of it. The feeling is like a bitter aftertaste to something sweet.
“And she gave this to you, why, again?” Shyan asks.
Abia shrugs. The runes on the leather cover twist and swirl like Ulxurix’s tattoos. Abia carefully opens the book to somewhere in the middle, doing her best not to crack the tome’s ancient spine. The room’s air pressure seems to increase alongside with the humidity, and soon, the gang sweats in their gear.
“This had better be good,” says Cang, rubbing his hands together. He’s hunched by the lockbox, ready to get inside.
Fassn says, “The witch wants us to kill the guy, though, not rob him.”
“These are both crimes,” Cang says, as a sort of consolation.
Fassn makes a ritual gesture and says, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill.”
Abia speaks the sounds of the runes.
“Well that makes perfect sense,” says Shyan, her deadpan sarcasm blisteringly obvious.
“That witch must really hate this guy,” Fassn says. He strums his fingers over a band of studded mail, savouring the bumpy sensation. He then gnaws upon the piece like a toddler, testing his new teeth.
“Should we chase him down?” Shyan asks the group.
Cang shrugs, wanders over to the counter, as though random perambulation by chance brings him to the blacksmith’s lockbox. It’s got a peculiar purple lock, inscribed with runes.
“Oh, let me, let me,” Fassn says when he spots the box. He strides toward it, lead by his pinky finger, to insert its tip into the lock. Cang slaps his hand away.
“Those runes,” Abia says, under her breath. She feels a gentle heat brewing within Ulxurix’s book.