v) “Know you?” Ulxurix exclaims

“Know you?” Ulxurix exclaims, her tattoos shuddering. “Of course not! I’m but a kindly old lighthouse keeper, you see.” She winks at Abia, who looks down at her hands to find the book she’d been given is gone.

“But you’ve just my name,” Shyan says.

“Oh, tosh! Why not come up for a cup of mead and a rump of rutabaga?” asks the wizard. Suddenly, the gang’s aware of a delectable scent, glazed rutabaga with salt and cracked pepper.

Fassn imagines diving into an enormous mug and tearing at a massive plate of rutabaga, until he remembers his teeth. He pouts. “Can you fix my teeth, wizard?” he asks. He lets his mouth hang wide so she can inspect the gums, and the shiny white nubbins within.

“With pleasure, my friends! Come on up for ale, and the wonders of modern dentistry.”

iv) Abia returns to her friends with the book

Abia returns to her friends with the book, cutting short Shyan and Cang’s debate. Fassn holds the gold bar to his chest like a baby, stroking it gently and cooing.

Seeing the ornate tome in Abia’s hands, Cang says, “We are by no means trading gold for that book. Unless — what is it worth?”

“It’s worth nothing at all,” says Ulxurix from the top of the stairs. She carries a tray with cups and a pot of tea. “It’s only a loaner. Sit, friends, sit, enjoy a steaming brew.”

“Thank you for your generosity,” Shyan says, true conviction belied by her hesitant speech. “And what do we owe in return?”

Ulxurix beams. “A while in your company is all I ask. Don’t get too many visitors up to the wizard’s tower, you know,” she says. Her tattoos seem to shift minutely.

“This is a lighthouse,” Fassn says, correcting her with good cheer.

“Is there a smith in town you would recommend? We’d like to have this bar divided,” Shyan says.

“Of course, Shyan,” says Ulxurix. “Garret Tasabinian works with many precious metals, and I do believe he is between projects at present.”

Shyan grins for an instant before the smile vanishes from her face. “Wait a moment. You know us?”

iii) Eyeing the flames dancing

Eyeing the flames dancing in their confinement, Abia says, “No.”

“Aw,” says the wizard, a smile on her lips. “What’s to be so afraid of, Abianarin?”

Abia starts at the usage of her full name by a stranger. The wizard shrugs, waves away her concerns. “Touch of the second sight,” she says. “Thought I might smell the same in you.”

“Smell?” Abia asks.

“Bit hard to catch it under all that molten gold, but yes, I do believe it.” Ulxurix goes to a tottering bookshelf loaded with nearly a dozen bound tomes of gilded leather, and withdraws a volume from the set. Abia watches warily, but accepts the book when Ulxurix presses it into her hands.

“Give this a read, and a re-read. It’s got a lot of tough words in there but I’m sure you’ll work it out,” says Ulxurix. She laughs to herself, about what, Abia cannot discern. For a moment, Abia considers dropping the book into the box of fire, but resists the desire. The voices of her friends arguing float up from below, returning her to the present.

“How much?” Abia asks.

“Oh,” Ulxurix says, grinning. “We’ll get there.”

ii) Shyan and Cang continue to argue

Shyan and Cang continue to argue over who’s going to carry the bar, while Fassn has opened a bag of Cang’s mylar and is gumming it contentedly. His tooth nubs are coming in stronger, now, and with care he’s able to break apart the crunchy orange snacks. Abia, meanwhile, ascends the brass staircase, and adds her own shadow to those flickering above.

“Fine,” Shyan says, exhausted. “Just keep it in your huge bloody bag, then. We’ll find a blacksmith and have him break this thing into four pieces, and then we need argue no more.”

“Gladly,” Cang says, his smirk oily. He slips the gold bar into his knapsack, then snatches the remaining mylar from Fassn and secretes it away.

Upstairs, Abia finds Ulxurix amidst a wide array of machines and devices, built of brass gears and copper cogs, with straps of treated leather connecting them. At the centre of the room, a healthy fire burns within the confines of a strange, invisible box. Ulxurix is hunched over it, feeding the flames with odiferous herbs which send up a deep smoke when incinerated.

The wizard turns at Abia’s approach. “Ah, wise one. Long way from Hakahersef, this!” Abia falters at the mention of her homeland, which she’s not seen in a decade. “Oh, no need for worryin’, wise one. You’ve got the mark,” the wizard says. “The box of fire,” she continues, feeding more herbs to the flames. “Want to climb inside?”

i) Shyan feels the smooth, heavy weight

Shyan feels the smooth, heavy weight in her hands of the gold bar. It’s dense, solid, far more real to her than the cookpot that once contained it, which now lay on its side, forgotten and empty. She holds the bar close and sniffs it. Vaguely metallic — gold, she supposes.

Cang reaches up to take the bar. “Plenty of room in my knapsack. Luckily I did not abandon it during our mad dash.” When Shyan turns away from him, he opens his bag, gestures for her to place the gold inside. Fassn instead dives in like a puppy, then a moment later exclaims, “There’s more mylar in here.” Cang shushes him.

Abia, meanwhile, watches the wizard closely. Her tattoos seem to move and shift, slightly, whenever the eye glosses over but does not land upon her form. She wears loose, roughspun clothes, and a flat-topped hat over her straw hair, gathered in a bun. The wizard smiles at her.

“Friends, why not come up the lighthouse?” the wizard asks. “I am Ulxurix, magician, ally to all!” Again, she beams at Abianarin. “I know much that can be taught!” She gestures to Shyan and Cang, bickering over the gold bar. “And wouldn’t you like to see the fabulous machinery that enabled such a feat?” She heads up the stairs, calling back as she goes, “Follow me, and be amazed!”