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?”
“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.”
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.”
Without further instruction, the grumbling man-things lurch to attention, their dried-meat arms reaching for the terrified gang. Fassn is soon entangled, then Abia. Cang, despite his continued uneasiness on his feet, manages to duck and weave the first few clumsy attempts, but soon the sheer numbers are too much and the vile beasts have him in their clutches too. Shyan is last to succumb, struggling mightily with her blade. She lops off an arm or two of her assailants, which fall to the ground with a wet thud and leak a viscous oil.
When their freedom of movement is quite constrained, and Horton sits whimpering in the corner, the man-things fall still, their prey still locked in their grip.
Ulxurix speaks. “Such a shame to have to do this the ugly way,” she says.
“You don’t have to do anything,” Shyan replies.
“Yes! Having sampled my form, you have found it distasteful,” Cang adds. “And are thus free to depart.”
“You may have been distasteful, yes,” says the witch. She languidly points at Abianarin. “But it’s her I want.” She keeps the finger trained on Abia, who can do naught but stare back. Suddenly, Ulxurix claps, her face awash with delight. Her tattoos’ purple hue deepens. “Well, friends, it seems you may well see my castle after all,” she says, signalling Horton to make ready to leave. “Or, at least,” she adds, “the dungeon.”
Cang knocks Abia away from the wriggling, inky antennae. He manages to roll out of the way before they come for him. She comes up hard against a bookshelf, its dusty tomes juddering with the impact. Shyan lunges at Ulxurix, blade bared, but the old woman is fast. Superhumanly so, thinks Shyan.
Ulxurix claps once, a harsh sound. Cang is breathing heavily. “This is no way to visit a friend for dinner,” says Ulxurix. “Here I invite you all, put out my best silverware, but you ruffians can’t help yourselves to tear it apart.”
Shyan snatches a handful of the silverware and throws it piece by piece at the witch. Those that do reach her skin are deflected harmlessly from the glowing tattoos, which seem rather to be metal than ink.
“Horton,” says the witch, gesturing at her guests. “Such barbarism!”
“Yes, sir,” mumbles Horton, before catching himself. “Ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”
“Now Horton,” she replies. “Is this how you would behave in esteemed company?”
He shakes his head dumbly.
“Of course not. We must teach our friends a lesson.”
A smirk crawls over Abia’s face. “You can’t have,” she says, with firm finality.
“Though, really, you shouldn’t take the witch’s, either,” Fassn adds.
Ulxurix smiles, her purple teeth glowing. “And why not?”
Fassn blinks. “It’s impolite?”
“Listen, lich,” Shyan says, her blade aloft. “Why not keep your slender form? Can’t imagine why you’d want Cang, or even Abia. Ulxurix, sure, she’s a weirdo like you. Why not leave us alone? Take Horton’s body, instead.”
Horton’s hand flies to his chest, his face a portrait of alarm.
“No potency in Horton,” says Ulxurix. Her tattoos flare and glow purple, matching the fangs lining her mouth. “Too little potency in this old witch, too.” The tattoos begin peeling away from her skin, lifting off like oily trails that leave her flesh, reaching like antennae. “Abia, yes?” she says. “I think I’ll have yours.”
The tattoo antennae shoot towards her.
Soup slowly drips from Cang’s face. He blinks, his faculties returning. Before him stands Ulxurix, wreathed in cool, glowing flame, standing at the centre of her magic circle.
“Much better,” she says, through a mouthful of purple teeth. “Though perhaps not a good a fit as yours,” she adds, turning to Abia. Abia’s face is set stone, but fear trembles behind her watery eyes.
“At last I am free?” Cang chokes out. Fassn pats his back like a papa trying to get baby to burp.
“I’m afraid you just weren’t doing it for me,” says Ulxurix. “Too short.”
Cang’s brow furrows but he’s yet too weak to leap from his chair. Instead, he murmurs, “Lich.”
Ulxurix claps, her tattoos shimmering. “Very good, Cang. Who says our tenure together was worthless?”
Shyan has readied her blade. “What about the magic circle?”
“Ha,” says Ulxurix bitterly. “A crafty party trick the witch whipped up. Thought it would banish me!” She chuckles merrily, a grotesque contrast to the mood of the room. She claps again. “Now,” she says, looking to Abia. “Your form would indeed suit me best.”