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.”
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?”
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!”
Abianarin, seeing the many eyes, waves her arms in balletic gestures as she mutters something unintelligble. In a swirling blur, the loose silks of her garments blend and contort until they resemble a flock of gyuju birds: all greasy feathers and gnashing beaks. Even Abia’s chanting takes on the aspect of the foul raptors.
The illusory gyujus, in a vicious cacophony, make for the glowing eyes above, sending the thousands of creatures shrieking from their roosts in the gloom.