“Not very friendly,” says Fassn, kicking the dirt.
“We do owe her some money,” Shyan says.
“For my teeth,” he replies, smiling.
“Cang in castle,” Abia says.
Lightning cracks. The gang huddles under a tiny overhang outside the lighthouse. The castle is shrouded in black wisps. Shyan glimpses the occasional flash of unnatural purple light from one of its many windows. She says a single word, then sets out into the rain.
The castle’s gates are iron wrought, taller than a person. Shyan grabs a couple of the bars, gives them a preliminary shake. She steps back, sizes them up, then sets her feet and takes hold of two of the bars. She begins to pull.
Abia holds a length of her robes outstretched to keep the rain from pouring into Shyan’s face as she struggles with the bars.
Shyan’s blood boils as she strains. The creak of metal slowly giving is soon swallowed by another burst of thunder and lightning.
One of the bars begins to crack.
“Okay, the circle is drawn. Now bring your friend to it.” Shyan and Abia share a look while Fassn walks into the circle.
Ulxurix grabs him by his burlap poncho with remarkable strength. He feels the magic particles popping in the circle, wants to feel them burst upon his skin. “Come on, let me, witch,” he says.
“No,” she replies. “This circle is for your little friend.”
“But he’s sick from that fang,” Shyan says.
“Aye, sicker by the day,” says the witch. She holds Shyan’s gaze. “The lich will eat him up, minute by minute. Your little friend is still in there, I daresay, but it’ll be hard to get him out.”
“Get him out?”
“Your tall friend, here, she’s strong. It should’ve been her. Her, we could have dealt with.” Ulxurix looks at Abia and sighs. “Well, we almost got there,” she says, trailing off. A moment later, she claps, the sorrow drained from her expression. “Well, time to go,” and she ushers them out the door.
Ulxurix has cleared out a bunch of her dentistry equipment from the centre of the room. Tools, books, objects arcane and mundane clutter the perimeter, making way for a sacred circle drawn within.
“I suppose your little friend enjoyed his souvenir,” Ulxurix says over her shoulder.
“Yeah,” is all Shyan can say. She gives a look to Abia, who remains stone-faced. “Look, can you help us, or not?”
Ulxurix whirls around, her tattoos alight with pulsing anger. “Have I not helped you enough? Did not I mend your friend’s mouth?”
Fassn grins and chomps happily at the air.
“Well, yeah, but this is bigger than that,” Shyan says. “Sorry Fassn.”
“Cang lich,” Abia says sadly.
Ulxurix falls silent, hangs her head. After a beat, she looks back to Abia, her eyes edged with tears. “It was supposed to be you.”
Fassn’s eyes light up. “I’m havin’ that,” he says, reaching for the fang.
Shyan bats his hand away. “You’ll just touch anything, won’t you?”
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” Fassn says. “I was going to taste it.”
“Lich fang,” Abia says, her eyes locked on the violet object. “Very old.”
“Worth anything?” Cang asks.
“To lich,” she replies.
“First you’d have to find a buyer,” Shyan says. “Wonder what the blacksmith was doing with this thing.”
“Maybe he’s a lich,” says Fassn.
She shrugs. “Nice of Ulxurix to give you that book. She must have known what we’d find.”
“Perhaps it is her that is the lich,” Cang says.
“No,” says a voice from the doorway, its tones rich and sophisticated, languid and deep. “I am.”
The lock hangs, inert, as the colour fades from the runes. Abia breathes heavily, spent. She sits cross-legged on the floor and lets the book fall closed in her lap.
“Will you demonstrate for me how to do this?” Cang asks.
Shyan prods at the lock with the end of her spear. With dextrous movements, she knocks the strange-coloured metal aside and it thunks to the floor. “Thank you, Abia,” she says.
“Well, what’s in it, what’s in it?” Fassn asks. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, clacking his teeth together.
“Keep quiet,” Shyan murmurs, her attention on the lockbox. She uses the spear to trip the box’s latch and presses the lid open.
Within, a fang glows with an unearthly purple light.
The runes’ language is choppy and consonant-heavy. Abia strains with the pressure of slowly decoding the ancient glyphs and replicating their phonemes with her lips.
The smithy seems to darken at the edges as the words are intoned. Each member of the gang feels shadows closing in at their peripherals, hears the crackling of reality’s fabric — all save Abia, whose task takes all her focus.
She holds aloft the book, now searing with heat, in one hand, and with the other, she cuts magical paths in the air. Each chopping movement punctuates her rhythmic chanting, and causes the creeping darkness to expand.
Abia comes to a crescendo, rides the energies at its crest, then promptly shuts the book. The smithy whooshes back to normal, and her companions look around uneasily to find the gloom just outside their perception — but it is gone. Abia inspects her hand, and finds thin, swirling lines reaching down the fingers and palm where she held the book. Her stomach turns when she realizes they’re just like those of Ulxurix.
Just then, the runed lock pops open.
The book in Abia’s bag grows hotter. She withdraws it from the canvas, and the warmth feels pleasant in her hand, for the most part; still, there is some part of herself, deep within, that speaks up against the book — warns her to be rid of it. The feeling is like a bitter aftertaste to something sweet.
“And she gave this to you, why, again?” Shyan asks.
Abia shrugs. The runes on the leather cover twist and swirl like Ulxurix’s tattoos. Abia carefully opens the book to somewhere in the middle, doing her best not to crack the tome’s ancient spine. The room’s air pressure seems to increase alongside with the humidity, and soon, the gang sweats in their gear.
“This had better be good,” says Cang, rubbing his hands together. He’s hunched by the lockbox, ready to get inside.
Fassn says, “The witch wants us to kill the guy, though, not rob him.”
“These are both crimes,” Cang says, as a sort of consolation.
Fassn makes a ritual gesture and says, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill.”
Abia speaks the sounds of the runes.