Without further instruction, the grumbling man-things lurch to attention, their dried-meat arms reaching for the terrified gang. Fassn is soon entangled, then Abia. Cang, despite his continued uneasiness on his feet, manages to duck and weave the first few clumsy attempts, but soon the sheer numbers are too much and the vile beasts have him in their clutches too. Shyan is last to succumb, struggling mightily with her blade. She lops off an arm or two of her assailants, which fall to the ground with a wet thud and leak a viscous oil.
When their freedom of movement is quite constrained, and Horton sits whimpering in the corner, the man-things fall still, their prey still locked in their grip.
Ulxurix speaks. “Such a shame to have to do this the ugly way,” she says.
“You don’t have to do anything,” Shyan replies.
“Yes! Having sampled my form, you have found it distasteful,” Cang adds. “And are thus free to depart.”
“You may have been distasteful, yes,” says the witch. She languidly points at Abianarin. “But it’s her I want.” She keeps the finger trained on Abia, who can do naught but stare back. Suddenly, Ulxurix claps, her face awash with delight. Her tattoos’ purple hue deepens. “Well, friends, it seems you may well see my castle after all,” she says, signalling Horton to make ready to leave. “Or, at least,” she adds, “the dungeon.”
Cang knocks Abia away from the wriggling, inky antennae. He manages to roll out of the way before they come for him. She comes up hard against a bookshelf, its dusty tomes juddering with the impact. Shyan lunges at Ulxurix, blade bared, but the old woman is fast. Superhumanly so, thinks Shyan.
Ulxurix claps once, a harsh sound. Cang is breathing heavily. “This is no way to visit a friend for dinner,” says Ulxurix. “Here I invite you all, put out my best silverware, but you ruffians can’t help yourselves to tear it apart.”
Shyan snatches a handful of the silverware and throws it piece by piece at the witch. Those that do reach her skin are deflected harmlessly from the glowing tattoos, which seem rather to be metal than ink.
“Horton,” says the witch, gesturing at her guests. “Such barbarism!”
“Yes, sir,” mumbles Horton, before catching himself. “Ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”
“Now Horton,” she replies. “Is this how you would behave in esteemed company?”
He shakes his head dumbly.
“Of course not. We must teach our friends a lesson.”
A smirk crawls over Abia’s face. “You can’t have,” she says, with firm finality.
“Though, really, you shouldn’t take the witch’s, either,” Fassn adds.
Ulxurix smiles, her purple teeth glowing. “And why not?”
Fassn blinks. “It’s impolite?”
“Listen, lich,” Shyan says, her blade aloft. “Why not keep your slender form? Can’t imagine why you’d want Cang, or even Abia. Ulxurix, sure, she’s a weirdo like you. Why not leave us alone? Take Horton’s body, instead.”
Horton’s hand flies to his chest, his face a portrait of alarm.
“No potency in Horton,” says Ulxurix. Her tattoos flare and glow purple, matching the fangs lining her mouth. “Too little potency in this old witch, too.” The tattoos begin peeling away from her skin, lifting off like oily trails that leave her flesh, reaching like antennae. “Abia, yes?” she says. “I think I’ll have yours.”
The tattoo antennae shoot towards her.
Soup slowly drips from Cang’s face. He blinks, his faculties returning. Before him stands Ulxurix, wreathed in cool, glowing flame, standing at the centre of her magic circle.
“Much better,” she says, through a mouthful of purple teeth. “Though perhaps not a good a fit as yours,” she adds, turning to Abia. Abia’s face is set stone, but fear trembles behind her watery eyes.
“At last I am free?” Cang chokes out. Fassn pats his back like a papa trying to get baby to burp.
“I’m afraid you just weren’t doing it for me,” says Ulxurix. “Too short.”
Cang’s brow furrows but he’s yet too weak to leap from his chair. Instead, he murmurs, “Lich.”
Ulxurix claps, her tattoos shimmering. “Very good, Cang. Who says our tenure together was worthless?”
Shyan has readied her blade. “What about the magic circle?”
“Ha,” says Ulxurix bitterly. “A crafty party trick the witch whipped up. Thought it would banish me!” She chuckles merrily, a grotesque contrast to the mood of the room. She claps again. “Now,” she says, looking to Abia. “Your form would indeed suit me best.”
Light and heat explode from the circle as Ulxurix’s flesh passes its bounds. Her screams rise in pitch and intensity while the newly-born inferno rages.
Horrified, Shyan, Fassn, and Abia leap to their feet, but they’re too slow. Shyan darts over to Ulxurix but misses her tackle, sending herself sprawling across the round room as the smell of Ulxurix’s charred flesh fills the space. The groaning man-things appear to take no notice at all, while Cang, at the head of the table, laughs malevolently, his mouth full of purple fangs.
The screaming stops. The light fades down, such that the gang is able to open their eyes. The charnel smell of skin and meat diminishes slowly. The gang squints against the smoke.
Cang has fallen face down in his meal. Fassn rouses him, and he returns to consciousness as a victim from quicksand.
In the magic circle, still glowing weakly, stands Ulxurix. Her tattoos pulse and brim with overflowing power. She turns to her dinner guests and smiles, her mouth full of vibrant purple fangs.
She lets the word drop. The clatter of silverware and the wet mulching of mastication fills the room. The magic circle thrums.
Ulxurix puts down her utensils and looks up, meets Cang’s eyes directly. “You’d better leave that boy,” she says.
Cang pretends offense, but malice rides in his eyes. “He is no mere boy, witch,” he says. “Besides, I rather like him, low to the ground as he is.”
Shyan slams down her fork. “This is sick.”
“Hm?” Fassn says, chewing slowly. Around a mouthful of food, he says, “I think it’s quite good.”
Shyan stands in an instant and draws her blade, levels it at Cang’s throat. His dark creatures react with confusion and irritation, but he remains impassive.
“Go ahead,” he says. “Cut your comrade’s throat. I have far less need of it than you.”
The tip of her blade wavers.
“Not Cang,” says Abia. “Lich.”
Suddenly Ulxurix rises jerkily to her feet, begins stumbling towards the magic circle. The lighthouse fills with her screams.
Cang sits comfortably at the head of the table, his newly regal bearing apropos to his position. Horton tries to sit at his right hand but Cang waves him away with a scowl, so the portly blacksmith sheepishly makes his way to a wall and awaits further instruction, cartoonish pout on his lips. The creatures shuffle aimlessly about the round room, gently bumping into objects and machines.
Shyan, Fassn, and Abia take their seats at the table, and Ulxurix sits at the opposite end from Cang, just beside the magic circle. From the dining table, the gang can feel its energies hum and pulse. Abia, in particular, is distracted by it, and steals the occasional glance in its direction. Nothing about it appears to have changed, though — its wispy tendrils of arcane mist rise placidly through the lighthouse.
At a snap of her tattooed fingers, Ulxurix festoons the table with delicacies. Savoury pies, wines from five regions, crunchies, snackables, fresh vegetables and fruit. The guests politely applaud at the display of magic.
Then, an uneasy silence falls upon the room.
After a few moments, Shyan says, “So…”