iii) The runes’ language is choppy and consonant-heavy

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.

ii) The book in Abia’s bag grows hotter

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.

i) “Well that makes perfect sense,”

“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.

v) Horton’s eyes fly open

Horton’s eyes fly open. He throws a quick, uneasy glance at a rack of weapons and armour, then begs of Shyan, “Please, just go!”

“Let us have our gear, Horton,” the leader says in a sweetly supplicating way. “We’ll pay you well, right after.”

“I don’t think so,” Shyan says. “You lot—” as she brandishes her weapon at the men — “scatter.”

The bassy groan of a floorboard creaks as someone shifts their weight. The greasy leader says, “We’ll be back for our stuff, Horton,” then bows deeply and backs his lads out of the smithy.

“They’ll return, you know,” Horton rasps.

“Yeah, I’m right here,” Shyan says. “I don’t care about them. I care about Ulxurix.”

At this, the blacksmith blanches, and sprints for the back door.

iv) The arriving figures are dirty

The arriving figures are dirty, cut, scarred, and bear the unmistakable aspect of street thugs.

In an instant, there is tension in the air, as the five new arrivals stare at our gang of four, surprised to find anyone but the portly blacksmith in the tiny shop.

“That’s a fine gold bar you’ve got,” says the leader of the new arrivals. “Why not go ahead and share it with us, eh?”

Ugly grins spread across the faces of his friends. Crucially, though, they are unarmed, and unarmoured. Shyan steps up and loosens her weapon in its sheath. “Seems you and your boys aren’t ready to play. Why not let us have a moment with your backsmith friend, and then we can chat later?”

A laugh goes up amongst the dirty men; the blacksmith is dead silent. Cang slowly creeps behind the cover of an ancient wooden worktable.

“Just let me pick up me order from old Horton here and we can have more than a chat,” the leader says with a lascivious smile. “Come on, lass. Me boys is hungry.”

Without a word, Shyan draws her weapon completely free.

She asks, “Are you sure?”

iii) A tin bell jingles

A tin bell jingles as the gang enters the smithy. A coal-stained fellow, stout, with an unkempt beard, pauses with a hammer held above his head, mid-stroke. He pulls the round goggles off his face and stares agape at the four arrivals.

“Hello, sir blacksmith,” Cang says. “We are agents of the wizard Ulxurix, here to slay you.”

The blacksmith’s face falls into a mask of terror.

“Cang, you moron,” Shyan says, stepping forward. “Not true, sir. We’re just a band of travellers, looking for some help.”

“Metallurgical aid,” Abia says. She holds the book the wizard gave her, slightly away from her chest.

“That’s me,” the blacksmith stammers.

“Those coals look great,” Fassn says. “Can I have one?”

The blacksmith nods dumbly, and Fassn goes over to the forge. With his fingertips, he picks up and drops a number of coals, sending up the scent of sizzling flesh with each.

“These are hot,” he says.

Just then, five bedraggled figures burst into the smithy, tired and panting. The bell above them rings.

ii) “Okay, okay, this is bad,”

“Okay, okay, this is bad,” Shyan says.

“You imbecile,” sneers Cang, snatching the bar away from Fassn. Its surface is mottled by the invasion of Fassn’s teeth.

“Strong jaw,” Fassn says. He grabs up a rock and bites into it, chipping one of his incisors. He reels, dropping the rock, and screeching in pain.

“Easy come, easy go,” says Abia.

“Wait a second,” Shyan says. “Let me take a look at that.”

“I presume you won’t try to swallow it?” Cang asks.

Shyan shakes her head, annoyed. When Cang offers her the wonky bar, she runs her fingertips over the imperfections. “Maybe the blacksmith can fix it for us?”

“The blacksmith?” Cang asks. “Are you kidding? Why would we visit him to pay a debt to the wizard when the wizard has so transparently screwed us?”

Eyeing the bar closely, Shyan says, “I’m not sure it’s so transparent.”