The sliding sound of metal on metal is unsettling. It seems to echo through the oddly shaped dungeon, and as Cang slides the lockpick into the lock, he fears the drooling man-things will hear and come investigate. But he’s in luck — if they do hear, they make no show of it. The thin piece of hooked brass reaches the end of the tumblers inside the lock, and Cang holds his breath.
“Need help, Cang?” asks Fassn from somewhere in the darkness.
Cang jerks at the noise, nearly dropping the lockpick.
“Quiet, Fassn,” Shyan says in a firm voice.
Cang steadies his breathing once more and brings the lockpick home. With a careful turn, applying consistent pressure, he feels the lock’s tumblers moving, one by one.
When the last emits a click heard throughout the dungeon, Cang releases his breath. With a tentative yank, the lock slides open. He pushes at the gate and it’s loose. He steps cautiously out of his cell.
“Well,” he says in a low tone. “I am out of here.”
Shyan strains against the iron bars.
“Any luck over there?” Cang calls. They cannot see one another. Light from one mouldering torch flickers somewhere in the dungeon, but there are so many corners that the layout is impossible to discern.
“No,” Shyan mutters, fighting with the bars.
“You could do it at the gate,” Fassn says.
Shyan throws her hands up. “I know that, Fassn.”
“I guess this is harder.”
“Lich want us to come in,” Abia says. “Now, lich not want us to go.”
Shyan sighs, sits on the stone floor. It’s damp. She feels insects run across her hands. “No chance you’ve got a lock pick tucked into your boot, Cang?”
“If I do,” Cang says, removing his boots, “the lich knows about it, too.”
“Then doesn’t that creature seem to know everything damned thing?”
Cang’s boots fall to the floor. The soft noise of leather on stone is unsettling.
A short, sharp intake of breath tells Shyan her guess is right. “Better make it count, Cang,” she says.
The stench is abrasive. Creatures have died within, that much is clear to all. The man-things — who share the sickly scent of the air — shuffle and push the team into the damp darkness.
Their eyes adjust slowly to find walls of wide, expertly-cut brick, tied closely together in a labyrinthine sprawl. The only variation is the odd mouldering torch in a sconce, and the hard black iron bars set throughout the complex.
“Are we to sit in the mildew and rot?” Cang asks. No response, beyond their typical laboured grumbling, comes from the creatures. “I think I rather preferred being the lich.”
Soon the man-things stop at an open cell. Several of them push Fassn inside, and a few of them together manage to get the door shut and secured. Shyan struggles against them as they do so, but their numbers are too many.
When the group arrives at another empty cell, she’s next.
It isn’t long before both Cang and Abia are shunted into separate cells, too. Their work complete, resigned to a signal only they can attend to, the creatures shamble out of the dungeon.
Silence falls, broken only by the odd, intermittent drip of water.
“Old Ajralan,” Fassn says after a while. “I’ve had my fill.”
Cang shakes his head, as though to clear the water logged in his skull. The rain pounds down. “I feel as though I may have been here before,” he says aloud.
“You have. We all have,” Shyan says.
“‘Cept you was running the place,” Fassn adds.
Cang sighs, almost wistfully, despite the obvious dangers on all sides. “Those were the days.”
Ulxurix chuckles contemptuously. “Those days were never yours. You were but a vessel for me. And I must say, I enjoy this form so much more.” Her tattoos glow purple and a moment later she zaps Cang with a tendril of purple energy. He yelps. She laughs again, tickled by his pain.
“Think about that when you’re sitting in your cells, wondering if you can break the bars,” Ulxurix says. She then departs through the front doors of the castle, a nervous Horton holding the door ajar and following quickly behind.
The creatures, their breathing laboured and their movements squelching, urge the shackled gang through the grounds to a banded iron door set into a squat, stone building. One of the things pushes it open with the weight of its figure, its forehead pressed against the bands until the door budges.
A yawning blackness stares back from within.
The gang is marched through the muddy streets by the man-things. Rain pours down but the foul creatures seem not to notice. Their flesh stinks of sewer waste and leaves a slimy sensation, like oozing strands of hair, writ large, upon the gang’s clothes and armour.
There are no townsfolk to be seen at this hour, in these conditions, but Shyan feels sure there are plenty behind their shutters, waddled in the darkness, peering out at the unfortunate strangers caught up by the lich, glad it isn’t they themselves being dragged to the castle.
Nothing about it can be done by those who are, though.
Soon enough, a drooling man-thing stops the carriage it’s driving, and another helps Ulxurix out to the ground. The rain seems to bounce of her, as though it splashes against some intangible shield just a few hairs’ breadths off her skin. She flourishes her arms as the creatures bring her captives near.
“Welcome, friends,” she says with a fiendish grin, “to the castle.”
Cang shakes his head violently. “Never,” he sputters. “Never mind that, friends,” he says woozily. He blinks hard a few times and when he smiles again, his purple fangs are in full force. The empty-eyed creatures shuffle toward Shyan, Fassn, and Abia.
Shyan adopts a defensive pose and gets in front of her friends. “We can help you, Cang. We know you’re in there.”
“Magic circle help,” says Abia.
“Magic circles, feh,” Fassn says. “You need the light of Old Ajralan, may he have his fill.” Pumped up, he raises his voice to the shambling creatures. “May he have his fill of the lot of you!”
“Come on, Horton, you don’t want to let this happen, do you?” says Shyan, drawing her blade.
“Well,” Horton says. “Master lich desires it.”
Shyan points at Cang with her sword. “This is your master lich? This little guy?”
Cang grins malevolently. “Friends,” he says. “I think I’d like to have you all for dinner.”
“Come on, Horton, you’re caught up in all this too?” Shyan says as the groaning intensifies.
The blacksmith looks abashed, and keeps his ruddy face turned from hers. “It’s a job, missus.”
“Quiet, Horton. Do not deign to speak to our guests,” says Cang, luxuriating in his authority. “The rest of our invitees ought to arrive rather soon.”
Their cue delivered, a dozen humanoid creatures spill into the foyer through hidden doors. Shyan, Abia, and Fassn are surrounded by leering things with charcoal skin and empty white eyes.
“My footmen will show you to your chamber. I’m certain you’ll find it to your liking,” says Cang. He smiles, and the light from his teeth flickers briefly. A panic-stricken look comes over Cang’s face for an instant, and he says, “Help!”