Thunder crashes as the carved doors of the lich’s castle are flung open. Undead servants grouse and grumble as they line the walkway, standing like rotting footmen in oily livery. Horton hurries out into the rain, and soon an ebony carriage stands ready, Horton perched uneasily atop it. The magnificent vehicle is drawn by two black horses, looking much like the “men” attendant to Cang.
Inside the warmth of the castle, the gang stares into the bleak night. From behind them, Cang says, “Friends, surely we must be away if we’re to make our appointment. The lateness of the hour is such that even those of refinement—” here, gesturing to himself “—have typically already eaten.” A faint purple glow creeps into his narrowed eyes. “You’ll find my patience wears when I grow hungry.”
Fassn launches into action, holding a tanned seikum pelt over Cang’s head, and walking him like a dignitary out to the carriage. Fassn holds the door open for Cang to enter. After shutting it behind him, he throws a look of panic to Shyan and Abia. Shyan shrugs, and they hurry to the carriage.
Abia shakes her head vigorously. Shyan puts on a guise of affront. “Magic circle? Lighthouse? No, no, friend, you’ve got it all wrong.”
Fassn’s brow falls. Under his breath, he says to Shyan, “Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?”
Shyan frowns at him and he straightens his back. “Oh, the lighthouse? Where the witch lives? Certainly not,” he says, too loudly.
Cang appears bemused, his sentries swaying uneasily. Horton Belwether looks terrified, his eyes darting between each of the gang and the many corpsey things just hanging around.
“Very well,” Cang says at last. “It has been so very long since I dined with those of refinement. Though I suppose looking at you—” he says as he does so, taking in the road-stained garments of his former friends “—that time may yet be further still.” He claps sharply. “Horton, prepare the carriage.”
“Well, thanks but no thanks,” Shyan says. “We’ve heard that one before.”
“Yeah,” Fassn says. “You might mean you wanna have us for dinner. Like eat us.”
Cang is taken aback. “No, I never,” he says. Around him, his grumbling servants stand and groan. “I have not eaten human flesh in, oh,” and here he falls into reverie.
“Look, it seems like you’ve got a lot of guests here already,” Shyan says, gesturing to the dead-looking man-things. “Maybe you’d like to join us for a meal, instead? Take some of the load off of being a host.”
“Can’t imagine it’s easy,” Fassn says. He spots a candlestick and grabs it up, begins stripping the wax with his fingernails, crushing and rolling it in his fingers.
Cang snaps back to himself, or at least, to the lich within him. “And where would you have me dine, hm? At the lighthouse? Smack dab in the centre of the witch’s magic circle?”
“Obviously,” says the wizard Ulxurix. “Books are for tasting! But first, be a good boy and stay still.
“Deal,” says Fassn.
Abia opens Muthugran’s Runes with great trepidation. The heavy pages seem to resist her efforts, and only after a brief struggle is she able to glimpse within the book. The pages are the colour of clotted cream, the text a vibrant ochre that, she shudders to think, could once have been blood.
She’s surprised to find ledger lines and stroke diagrams, perfectly legible thanks to Ulxurix’s enchantment. The text and illustrations defined several rudimentary runes and magical squiggles. Abia finds herself tracing the shapes in the air with her forefinger.
Suddenly, an alarm blares. It’s a shrieking mechanical bird, on a perch of brass. It thrusts its long metal neck at Cang. All eyes follow it to him, where he is frozen mid-pace, with a crystalline object from Ulxurix’s writing desk in his hands.
Cang blinks, opens his mouth, closes it. He clears his throat, and begins, “Well, you see, the thing is…”
“Can’t read it,” Abia says. Everyone turns to her; even Fassn lifts his head to gape. “All symbols and swirls,” she adds.
“Nonsense!” says the wizard, leaving Fassn’s side. Slim tools jut from his lips like farming gear standing up in firm soil. Ulxurix pushes the book closer to Abia, then traces her forefinger over the largest shapes on its cover. At the tip, sparks fizz and crack, leaving a thin trail of smoke. As she traces, the wizard vocalizes phonemes for Abia, slowly working out their sounds aloud.
Abia worked her lips to follow along, the sound growing more and more resonant, the questioning looks from her compatriots receding further into a vague haze.
When the wizard had traced all of the shapes on the book’s cover, and the lighthouse smelled of fried sage, Abia came back to herself. She let her eyes run over the shapes, which now had an undeniable phonetic association.
“What is it, Abia?” Shyan asks.
“Muthugran’s Runes,” Abia says. “Edition one. In original Isi.”
Fassn perks up again. “Can I taste it?”
“Can I taste it?” Fassn asks, the sounds mangled by his wide-open mouth and the tools jutting from it.
“I’m afraid not, dear,” says the wizard.
“But I love tasting things,” he replies.
“I know,” she says, patting his hand in a patronizing, reassuring way. “I fear that bubbling goo is not for mortal lips.”
“I’m not mortal,” Fassn says. “I have wings, see?” He flaps the fragments of scapular.
“Very nice,” says the wizard, in a humouring tone. Cang rolls his eyes.
Abia moves slowly, though Ulxurix is not looking directly at her. She examines the bookshelf, squints at their spines. In an elaborately-decorated typeface, they declaim their contents in a language she doesn’t recognize. The volume given her by the wizard sits heavy in her hands. She replaces it on the shelf, but the wizard’s voice again arrests her. Though Ulxurix hunches over Fassn’s mouth, peering deeply into it and making tiny moves with her tools, she says, “What’s the matter, dear? Refusing a gift from an old lady?”
Fassn says “Ah.” Nubs of white show through his mottled pink gums. Ulxurix draws a slender implement with a tiny triangular head, and taps at the nubs. The contact makes a flat tkk.
Shyan and Cang lean in to watch, but Cang backs again. “Your breath, Fassn,” he says.
Fassn speaks with his mouth wide. “Maybe you can fix that, too, Madam Wizard?”
As she taps at the nubs with one hand, she rummages her robes with the other. She withdraws a long-handled tool with dense bristles at one end, and offers it to Fassn. He sticks it behind his ear.
Meanwhile, Abia slowly wanders the room. Her eyes fall upon the arcane implements of the wizard’s abode, and continue to fall upon the bookshelf’s empty space. With an effort to ignore it, she makes her way to the cookpot. By all indications, it’s the same one they brought on the wagon — in fact, the liquid appears to be the same, as well. Abia dips a pinky into the gold soup, and as she brings it to her lips, Ulxurix’s voice cuts across the room, saying, “Don’t taste that, please.”