The gang looks on as Berstuun’s essence is wiped away by the circle. He opens his old, lined mouth in a wordless scream. All anyone present can hear is a white-water whooshing, a rushing, pulsing sound that had started as the circle’s gentle thrum and was now nearly deafening. Cang turns his eyes away, and Abia continues to sing. What, her companions cannot hear.
Blackened flakes of Berstuun’s flesh float gracelessly to the floor. As the noise rises, the pieces fall. His form collapses before their eyes, while Abia, her expression steely, sings her song.
The degradation reaches Berstuun’s face, and as it does, his mouth turns from a scream to a smile. The tension he carries is released, and he appears blissful, joyous even. His eyebrows shoot up, and Shyan imagines he’s meeting some longed-for friend in a distant place. Black skin falls.
Soon it’s not just skin, but muscle fibres, organs, bone. Flaking and erasing itself from within the circle. The last thing to go is Berstuun’s beatific smile, from which falls a single purple tooth. It hits the centre of the circle and comes to a rest. The circle vanishes, and the gang is left in darkness, the purple fang before them.
Berstuun, under the watchful, expectant eyes of Shyan, Abia, Fassn and Cang, steps into the circle. The moment he breaks its perimeter, white light shoots up, refracts off the lighthouse mirror, and shines across the town.
“If the lich didn’t know, she does now,” Shyan says.
“Lich always knew,” Abia replies.
Berstuun groans as the light intensifies. Wisps of purple vapour drift from his anguished lips. Soon his mouth is peeled open in a scream, and more purple energy flows away from him. To any close examiner with the requisite dental knowledge, his purple fangs appeared to be rotting away at great speed, fleeing the confines of his mouth.
“How long does he have to stay in there?” asks Shyan.
“As long as he likes,” is Abia’s reply.
The purple fades and twists, is lost to the overwhelming light. “Berstuun,” Shyan shouts, but he can’t appear to hear. His skin begins to twist and crackle.
Abia sings in her first language, from a land distant and strange, which none of the gang, save Abia herself, can claim to have seen. The words are unintelligible to them, but the melody is light and recursive. The same strain whirls and curls back in on itself, the tangled tune drawn from the stirring air. In response, the magic circle glows brighter.
Berstuun breaks away from Fassn’s talk to join Abia. He sits beside her, closes his eyes. The rest watch as he sways gently in time with Abia’s song. The circle’s light washes over him, and when he smiles, the purple fangs of the lich glow only faintly.
Fassn and Shyan watch the ritual while Cang rummages for material goods now that there’s no one around to stop him. He finds several brass objects that cause his pockets to sag deeply when he loads them in.
Abia’s song builds to crescendo, its power soaring, until she hits a single, sustained note, then lets it fall off to silence. The gang hears Berstuun’s ragged breathing over the circle’s thrum. Eventually, it calms, too, and all that’s left is the unnatural vibrancy of the circle.
Berstuun heaves a sigh, and says, “I’m ready.”
They stand before the magic circle. It seems smaller, somehow, of inferior dimensions. Perhaps it was stronger when the witch tended to it. Privately, Cang is astonished the circle persists at all. Just one more reason to be suspicious of magic.
Fassn breaks the contemplative silence. “Do we just throw the old bugger in?”
“The last one is a rotten egg,” Cang suggests.
“Circle must be prepared,” Abia says. “No pushing.”
“Well,” Shyan says. “Can you do it?”
“Yes, with time.”
Abia sits cross-legged at the circle’s edge. Fassn guides Bertuun over to the dental chair to wait. With glee, he mimes the performance of oral surgery upon the bewildered old man’s form.
Shyan scans the bookshelves, finds the slot where Abia’s book came from. She opens a volume next to it. The text is illegible, flowing, overlapped by sketches, diagrams, formulae. She puts it away.
Abia begins to sing.
Shyan dusts herself off. The clear morning sky begins to fill with clouds, ugly black piles flooding in from the south. “More rain,” she mutters.
The gang moseys up the spiralling ramp to the top of the lighthouse, finds Ulxurix’s dental chair and the many bookshelves ringing the room. The magic circle thrums away, apparently unaffected by all that has come since its creation. Berstuun’s teeth glow a vibrant purple, the light leaking from his mouth. He whimpers, turns for the ramp. Fassn lays a firm hand on his shoulder, enough to comfort him, and prevent him from departing.
“Not so quickly, old man,” Cang says. “The lich owes us each a great deal. None more than yourself, perhaps, but as you are the lynchpin of this preposterous enterprise, we cannot let you take your leave just yet.” He gestures to the circle.
“Are you ready for this, Berstuun?” Shyan asks.
He meets her eyes, his own wet, red-rimmed. He sniffles, shakes his head.
Shyan nods once, sadly. “Still,” she says, and trails off.
Cang bursts back into the corridor just behind the swarm of creatures that’s fallen upon Abia. He uses his low centre of gravity to pull the things off balance, while Shyan helps Abia to her feet. All around them, the hallway is still clogged with shuffling horrors. Fassn hollers and waves from the end of the hallway, turning their attention to him. With a start, he darts away. Shyan and the rest follow.
Again, Ulxurix’s voice rings through their collective heads. “Leaving so soon with Berstuun?” The double doors before them slam shut, crystallize from wood to iron before their eyes. The creatures press up against the gang, grasping at their clothes, raking their skin, until they, too, turn to iron, the transformation making no mark upon their faces, leaving only ugly, brutal statues scattered in grotesque positions.
“See? You’ll never leave!” gloats the voice.
A large window, set with glass in an elborately-filigreed frame, beckons from the wall. Shyan meets Cang’s eyes. He shakes his head no. She shakes her head yes. He mouths the word “rope,” she mouths back “none.”
“You’d better hurry,” rasps Berstuun from Fassn’s shoulder. “She’s only getting madder.”
“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.