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.”

ii) As much as I enjoy a good narrative

“As much as I enjoy a good narrative, perhaps we ought to depart this infernal place,” Cang says.

The old man draws a rattling breath, and, ignoring Cang, continues. “I was a student, once. Came to town to learn the finer arts.” He scrabbles at his moth-eaten sleeve, raises it to his bony elbow. Inscribed upon the flesh, in ink faded with decades, is a series of looping, swirling tattoos — much like those across Ulxurix’s entire body. Even those on the old man’s forearm twist and move, but slowly, lethargically, as though drifting in some unseen current.

“You trained with witch?” asks Abia.

The man nods. “I was Berstuun, her apprentice. It’s my fault, my fault.” He claws himself into a tight ball, squeezes his weightless frame against the dank stone walls. “My fault,” he whispers.

“Speak sense, man,” Cang says, jabbing the old man with his boot. Privately, though, he feels a hypothermic sweat crawling down his neck.