The thug bleeding from his leg drags himself to the door. Horton watches with growing horror the red stream lengthen across the faded floorboards. Cang stands and wipes the blood from his mouth, leaving an ugly crimson smear.
“And then you say, ‘Old Ajralan, may you have your fill,'” Fassn says to Berstuun. They’re in the corner, oblivious. “Hey,” Fassn says, noticing. “You scattered them.”
“Maybe,” says Shyan. She strides with purpose into Horton Belwether’s personal space. “You serve the lich, who’s been a pretty bad guy to us of late.”
Horton nods, an incipient whimper trembling on his lips.
“You’ve kinda been a bad dude, too,” she adds.
He shakes his head in minute denial.
“You’d better go on home to your body-stealing boss,” she says. “We would make crueler masters yet.” Shyan takes a moment to reclaim her breath, then points to the crawling thug. “Fassn, help him, would you?”
Fassn perks up. To Berstuun, he says, “See, I’ll show you,” then crouches by the man to whisper a prayer to Old Ajralan on his behalf. The thug continues his fearful escape before the tendons can begin to regrow.
Horton flees the scene.
Frost drips from Abia’s fingertips, as though her body temperature has plummeted. Icy flakes form at her fingernails and tiny puffs of white powder drift off the digits. She raises her freezing hand at the oncoming thugs in a dire, wordless warning.
All the same, they come charging.
Cang trips the first one, sending him sprawling at Abia’s feet. She pulls her indigo robes away from the fellow’s clutching grasp and presses her hand into the crown of the man’s skull. The cold burns him in an instant, and he howls with pain. He stays on the floor, clutching himself.
The head thug brings a truncheon down at Shyan, but she catches his arm before he can deliver. They struggle, their strength evenly matched, but Shyan feels her grip slipping, until Cang bites the meat of the thug’s calf and sends him reeling.
Fassn has drawn Berstuun into a shadowy corner, telling him about Old Ajralan. Horton watches the melee, helpless. The two remaining thugs drop their clubs and flee.
Shyan lowers her fists, straightens her stance. “Horton,” she says, exasperated. “There is nothing you can do about this.”
“Well, well,” he says, stammering. Though the gang is without weapons, he’s still quite alarmed. “I’ve got friends, too.”
From the shadows emerge a handful of burly, greasy thugs. “Hey, we saw you at the blacksmith’s,” Fassn says. “You came in for your armour! How are you guys?”
The head thug spits. “Y’all are rude,” he says. His forearms are as big as Fassn’s thighs. He and his buddies are wearing the armour they’d previously been missing. Truncheons and daggers hang at their belts.
“It’s rude to ask how friends are doing?”
“These rough fellows are not your friends,” Horton says. “I took a substantial hit on my fee to employ them, so they’re actually my friends.”
The head thug rolls his eyes and spits again. “Let’s do this,” he says.
Shyan tries the lighthouse doors. Stuck fast, though she’s fairly certain nobody’s been through since they were captured. When had that been, the night before, two? Time got slippery in their cell underground. She bangs hard on the door, calls out, “Anyone in there, we need the magic circle at the top. Everything else inside is yours.”
Cang looks alarmed, but Shyan gives him a gesture to stay quiet, that she doesn’t really mean it. Still, no sound comes from within.
With her boot just under the handle, Shyan gives the door a swift kick. It blows in on its hinges, swinging into the gloom. Even though the sun is rising, its rays do little to penetrate the lighthouse cylinder. Even so, there is a single figure huddled at the centre around a weak, sputtering fire.
The gang strides in before stopping short. The figure is Horton Belwether, town blacksmith and lackey to the lich. He gapes and for a moment seems incapable of speech. “You can’t come in here,” he finally says. He glances quickly around, then lowers his voice to a theatrical whisper. “‘Cause of the lich!”
The fishermen heading to the ocean give the band peculiar stares — four strangers from distant, disparate lands, helping an ancient, withered, nearly naked man through the streets. From the castle, of all places. Peasants steer clear as the gang pads through town. Children stare.
The only sounds, beyond their laboured breathing and plodding footsteps, is a rumbling in Fassn’s belly. He looks to the sky. “Old Ajralan, may I have my fill.”
“We just ate last night,” Shyan says. She’s supporting most of Berstuun’s weight.
Fassn uses this opportunity to shift more of it to her. “But this is today.”
Cang grumbles something under his breath, his eyes focused hard on the ground before him.
“We’ll eat once we feed this guy to the magic circle,” Shyan barks.
She catches herself too late. Berstuun doesn’t react, but silence falls. “With respect, of course,” she eventually adds.
They draw close to the door of the lighthouse. Abia feels, in the tingling creep of the hairs on her arms, the circle above.
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.